The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, August 20, 2010, Columns

Las Vegas, N.M., mixes a blend of old and new to create a nice little town on the Gallinas River that is surrounded by a scenic landscape and full of unique attractions.

The town was established in 1835 by a land grant from the Mexican government. The old part of town was laid out in Spanish-style around a central plaza on the Santa Fe Trail.

When the railroad arrived in 1880, a new business district was created closer to the depot. The town of 14,565 has preserved a variety of architectural styles and has more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Revitalization has turned the old plaza into a cultural center once again. The plaza is a shaded park where visitors and residents come to walk their dogs, sit on the benches, or play Hacky Sack under the gazebo.

Art galleries, a bookstore, and a drugstore with a soda fountain have moved into the buildings with antique storefronts along National Avenue between the plaza and the river. The plaza is anchored on the northwest corner by the three-story red brick Plaza Hotel. Built in 1882, the hotel was restored in time for its centennial birthday. The rooms are inexpensive and spacious with modern conveniences. Breakfast is included in the price of the room, and the hotel is pet-friendly.

The hotel's dining room offers a decent dinner menu, especially the green chile enchiladas. A block away, El Encanto Restaurant's parking lot fills up with police cars and pickups around mealtime. Across the plaza from the hotel, Plaza Burgers serves a mean green-chile hamburger.

During the golden era of the railroads, the Santa Fe Railway built a resort on the side of a mountain five miles west of the plaza. The Montezuma Castle hotel closed in 1903 after 15 years of red ink. In 1981, the deep pockets of the Armand Hammer Foundation purchased the castle peeking out of the trees for use as the United World College. The once-luxurious hotel is open to the public by guided tours only.

The hot springs that once fed the resort's bathhouse are open to the public. The only indication of the springs location are the cars parked along Highway 65. The three small rock tubs offer water temperatures that vary from hot to very hot. Regular patrols by the campus police keep the secluded area clean and safe.

Also on the UWC campus and open to the public is the Dwan Light Sanctuary. The rock and stucco building has long prisms placed in the skylights that cast rainbows on the white walls. The room is used as a meditation and performance space.

In so many ways, Las Vegas is a unique and special place. Less than an hour east of Santa Fe, it is an area worth exploring.

997th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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