There’s a place in New Mexico crisscrossed with the literal and figurative trails, adventures, and stories of the authentic Old West. Like the scars on the faces of the infamous outlaws who earned their notoriety here, these trails are imprinted with a colorful past that is the stuff of legends.
Today, in this still unvarnished land of legend and lore, visitors are forging new adventures down these old trails, creating legends of their own on the very ground where the West began and history was made.
Welcome to Las Vegas, New Mexico.
At one time the Las Vegas, NM, was largest city on the Santa Fe Trail and the first major stop on the journey to the Wild West. Here, where the mountains meet the plains a confluence of cultures, ethnicities and traditions emerged. And in that confluence a mosaic of colorful people made their mark resulting in stories that stir the imagination.
Because Las Vegas and the surrounding landscape has preserved so much authenticity, it doesn’t take much for the modern visitor to let their imagination wander back more than 100 years.To weary travelers on the rutted trail taking refuge in this wild trading post. To the Comanche,Apache and Pueblo Indians hunting in the tall grasses and living a tentative, uneasy truce with the pioneer traders. Or to the notorious outlaws like Paula Angel or Vicente Silva and his Society of Bandits earning their reputation as the cruelest gang in all of the West. Other desperados who frequented the Las Vegas of old were Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. In the streets and hills of Las Vegas, there were a record number of hangings and gun fights . . . testament to the lawlessness of the day.
Land of Desperados
But outlaws weren’t the only Wild West inhabitants of old Las Vegas. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders regiment (the first Volunteer Cavalry Regiment of the Spanish-American War) named Las Vegas their official reunion home. The first reunion was held in 1899 and to celebrate this historical highpoint, a larger than life 2015 Rough Rider Reunion is in the works, bringing that sense of history to the present day. And, connecting with the desire for freedom that drove the original Rough Riders, Las Vegas is now home to an annual Rough Rider Motorcycle Rally welcoming thousands of visitors and their bikes to celebrate the spirit of this special place.
Visit Las Vegas today and you’ll enjoy a unique downtown experience with more than 900 buildings on the National Historic Register including adobe structures, grand Italianate homes, and historic hotels, like the newly renovated Castaneda Hotel and El Fidel Hotel.The traditional Spanish Plaza features the Plaza Hotel where old wood floors and antique facades take you back in time to discover what an overnight stay would have been like over 100 years ago.You may even be greeted by rumored ghosts that wander its historic halls. Bridge Street is anchored at one end by Highlands University and the other by the Plaza and offers visitors newer shops, restaurants, and even art galleries. And if learning more about the passionate past of this destination is your mission,The City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection offers an in-depth peek at the city’s history. So whether a visitor is in the mood for the old West or New Mexico, downtown Las Vegas allows you to explore both paths.
New Mexico Arts and Culture
True to its focus on preserving its heritage and representing its many distinct cultures, Las Vegas has been designated a New Mexico Arts & Culture District. Ethnic artists are on view in the shops and galleries in town. Restaurants – often housed in historic buildings — offer up authentic cuisine featuring the renowned New Mexico red and green sauces (you can almost imagine dining next to an infamous outlaw or famed dignitary). The sounds of live local music drift over from the bandstand while for 126 years the famous Fourth of July Fiesta has been attracting visitors from all over the region interested in celebrating independence with the indigenous food, music and dance representative of the Spanish and Mexican cultures that define this town.
History buffs and nature lovers alike will want to wander out from the downtowns to pick up the still-visible wheel ruts of the wagons headed westward on the Santa Fe Trail. Partial ruins of adobe structures near Fort Union National Monument mark where the two branches of the Santa Fe Trail intersected and provide a fascinating glimpse into another place and time.
So Damn Authentic…
In fact, so much about Las Vegas and San Miguel County feels true that it is a favorite location of Hollywood movie makers looking to embody the western spirit. Here you can find the pristine rugged beauty of the western plains, the eclectic architectural styles reflective of the region’s heritage and a carefully preserved authenticity of character. No wonder classics like Easy Rider,All the Pretty Horses,Wyatt Earp and No Country for Old Men found their visual persona here.
And, as a fascinating contrast to all this unvarnished history, the beautiful United World College glows in the hills, a testament to the power of education, diversity and global connections. Visitors can visit Montezuma’s Castle or even see the Dwan Light Sanctuary showcasing light prisms in the apses and ceiling, creating beautiful rainbows. Surrounded by serenity and beauty you can’t help but ponder the ironies of a prestigious international high school educating the world’s future leaders in the same hills that once entertained weary travelers looking for refreshment or famous dignitaries hoping for a place to rest for an evening.
Hiking, Biking and Wilderness
Recreational enthusiasts will also enjoy new adventures down old trails . . . sometimes literally! Throughout San Miguel County, in the starkly breathtaking beauty of the surrounding “vegas”, adventurers can hike and bike in the Pecos Wilderness, bird watch at the Las Vegas National Wildlife Preserve; take to the hills on horseback, or fish and play golf. Nearby hot springs offer a way to relax after your days of adventure. And at night, in the clear skies of the open plains, a blanket of stars shines down on the town adding mystery and romance to your adventures. Looking up into all that timeless wonder, you’ll be reminded that these are the same stars that once watched over the pioneers, heroes and outlaws of Las Vegas in its Wild West days.
That’s Las Vegas. The nation’s first wild town. A testament to the character and grit of the unvarnished old West and an embodiment of the spirit, natural beauty and cultural diversity of today’s New Mexico.
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