The Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail was by many standards safer. It offered more dependable water sources, better grazing, and less chance of attack, but the trek over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was a daunting task until "Uncle Dick" Wootton blasted, cleared and bridged a road over Raton Pass in 1865. Today, downtown Raton is a National Register Historic District with a walking tour guide available at the New Mexico Visitor Center, 100 Clayton Road. The Santa Fe Trail Overlook (Goat Hill) offers a sweeping vista of the Trail and Raton Pass. Raton is also the gateway to numerous nearby attractions: Sugarite Canyon State Park, Capulin Volcano National Monument, the NRA Whittington Center, and the historic Town of Cimarron to name a few. Visit the Santa Fe Trail Byway exhibit in the heart of downtown Cimarron and pick up information on the attractions such as the St. James Hotel, The Aztec Mill Museum, Philmont Scout Ranch, Villa Philmonte, and the Kit Carson Museum at Rayado.
The Santa Fe Trail passed north of Clayton and reports indicate caravans passed both north and south of the Rabbit Ear Mountains, the first landmark after the endless landscape of the high plains. There are a couple of Trail sites of interest in the area. Head east from Clayton to New Mexico Hwy. 406 and go north 12 miles to County Road AO55. Proceed west 3 miles and north 1 mile to the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Site on the Kiowa National Grassland. Here you'll find interpretive markers and a short walking trail to a section of trail ruts. Return to Hwy. 406 and proceed north another 6 miles to the marker for McNees Crossing. Here, in August 1828, a young trader named Robert McNees was ambushed and buried while en route eastbound on the Trail.
The Rabbit Ear Mountains, northwest of Clayton, were the first encountered landmarks, followed by Round Mound, Point of Rocks, and Wagon Mound. Round Mound, about 4 miles south of the intersection of US Hwy. 64/87 and NM Hwy. 120 was popular for the spectacular views from its summit. The Herzstein Memorial Museum in nearby Clayton has information on Santa Fe Trail sites and other points of interest in the area.
For westbound travelers on the Cimarron Route, the Point of Rocks offered the first view of the distant Rocky Mountains. With good water nearby, the site was a popular camping spot and had long been used by Plains Indians and ciboleros, Mexican buffalo hunters. Today, the site is located on the Point of Rocks Ranch, which is privately owned. Point of Rocks is recognized as a National Historic District.
Named for Frank Springer, attorney for the Dutch East Indies Company, successors to the Maxwell Land Grant, the town of Springer post-dated the heyday of the Santa Fe Trail but served as an important trade and shipping point for a number of years following the arrival of the railroad. Built in 1882, the Old Colfax County Courthouse is now a Santa Fe Trail Museum with both Trail and local artifacts and exhibits. Nearby are the Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway and Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge. Farther west is access to the Enchanted Circle, an 85-mile Scenic Byway connecting the resort communities of Taos, Red River, Eagle Nest, and Angel Fire.
One of the most recognizable and welcome landmarks for travelers on the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail was the large butte dubbed the Wagon Mound for its resemblance to a Conestoga wagon. Native American and early Spanish explorers knew and used the landmark and the nearby Ojo de Santa Clara, Santa Clara Spring, which offered a year-round water supply. Numerous trail ruts can be found in the vicinity of the butte but the lands are private property so visitors are urged to seek permission before exploring on their own.
Originally known as La Junta, or "the junction," for its location at the confluence of the Mora and Sapello rivers, Watrous was also the junction for the Mountain and Cimarron Routes of the Santa Fe Trail. From this point westward travelers followed a single route into Santa Fe. The Samuel B. Watrous Store, and nearby Tiptonville and Barclay's Fort, offered produce and other merchandise to travelers.
Eight miles to the northwest, located in Mora County, are the ruins of Fort Union. Founded primarily to protect the Trail, it became the largest military installation in the Southwest during the Trail's heyday and home to the Fort Union Quartermaster Depot, which supplied other military posts throughout the region. The National Monument offers tours of the adobe fort and arsenal as well as exhibits and information at the Visitor Center. Operating hours are 8 AM to 6 PM from Memorial Day through Labor Day and 8 AM through 4 PM the rest of the year.
From Fort Union via NM 161, a visit to the heart of the Mora Valley is well worth taking. Today Mora is a small town, but in the 1800’s it was prosperous and the Mora Valley was known as the “bread basket” of the West. Fort Union’s demand for supplies of all types drove the Mora economy and one of the results was the building of a dozen or so mills in the area for grinding wheat to be sold for flour to Fort Union. The St. Vrain Mill in Mora is one of the few remaining mills of that era. It was built in 1864 by Ceran St. Vrain, a prominent trapper/trader, Santa Fe Trail wagon master, and entrepreneur. The mill operated until 1922. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. The St. Vrain mill is located on Highway 434 just a few hundred yards north of the intersection of Highways 518 and 434 near Mora. It is currently undergoing phases of restoration.
The "Meadow City" grew from an 1835 Land Grant to become the premier city in the Southwest, at least for a time. The town thrived as a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail, a hub for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, and a trade center for several large commercial firms. Its importance waned in the early 20th century. Today, Las Vegas boasts of more than 900 registered historic structures. The Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center at 116 Bridge Street, just east of the historic Plaza, features Trail, as well as local history. The City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection on Grand Avenue has a wealth of information on local topics and features artifacts and archives on Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The 19th century Train Depot on Railroad Avenue serves as the City of Las Vegas Visitor Center with a full range of local and regional information.
It could be said that the Santa Fe Trail was born here when, on November 13, 1821, the soldiers of Captain Pedro Ignacio Gallego came upon the trading party of William Becknell and welcomed them to the new Republic of Mexico marking the first legal commerce between Mexico and the United States. In 1846, the Army of the West under General Stephen Watts Kearny passed through here on its westward trek to claim the territory for the United States. For weary travelers on the Trail, the Gap signaled the final mountainous leg of the journey into Santa Fe.
The first European residents here were a small garrison of Spanish soldiers sent to guard the frontier but with the issuance of the San Miguel del Vado Land Grant in 1794, families moved to the area. Construction of the church began in 1806 and was completed by 1811. The Santa Fe Trail crossed the Pecos River here, and for a time the site was a port of entry where Missouri merchants had first contact with Mexican customs officials. The success of the San Miguel del Vado settlement encouraged others to move farther onto the plains and to the issuance of the Las Vegas Grant in 1835. The San Miguel del Vado church remains active today.
By the time the Pilgrims landed in 1620, New Mexico had been part of the Spanish Empire in the New World for 80 years, and Santa Fe had been its capital since 1610. Start your visit on the Plaza where you'll find the Palace of the Governors, the 17th century seat of the Spanish and later Mexican governments. Under its ancient portal you'll find Native American artists selling jewelry and other handcrafted items. Around the corner to the west is the New Mexico History Museum. One block east of the Plaza is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Built in the Romanesque Revival style, it dates to 1869. The First church on this site was built in 1626 but was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Traveler information is available at the Visitor Center in the Lamy Building located on Old Santa Fe Trail across from the State Capitol. Also on Old Santa Fe Trail is Museum Hill, home tot eh Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.
Your trip on the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway departs via Old Santa Fe Trail and generally follows secondary and frontage roads. As you head east watch for Pecos National Historical Park. You can tour the ancient ruins of Pecos Pueblo, and learn about the Battle of Glorieta and its role in the Civil War, and see the Forked Lightning Ranch.