Going Places Road Trip
The Santa Fe Trail
Heart of the Hi Lo
Why Go Now
A loop through the spare ranchlands celebrated in Max Evans’s 1961 classic The Hi Lo Country, this trip laces through both routes of the Santa Fe Trail where they entered New Mexico. Evans’s fictional town of Hi Lo was based on Des Moines with a dash of Springer, so start there—two hours north of Santa Fe. The drive to Clayton is long and empty, demonstrating why this land is best suited for cattle ranchers and photographers. Enjoy Clayton’s 1890s Main Street before turning west to cross the Ratón-Clayton Volcanic Field and even hike the rim of Capulín Volcano. Enjoy the Volcano Triangle communities of Des Moines, Capulín, and Folsom before a leisurely drive over majestic Johnson Mesa, down through Yankee Canyon past Sugarite Canyon State Park, following the sun as it sets into the Rocky Mountains at historic Ratón. Following winter’s generous snow, the land is verdant with green grasses this month while the prickly pear cactus is about to blossom with wild splashes of red.
Right This Way
From Springer, follow N.M. 56, which parallels the Santa Fe Trail, to Clayton, tucked close to the state lines of Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Return west along U.S. 64/87 on the Ports-to-Plains Route past Des Moines toward Ratón, but take a side trip on N.M. 325 at Capulín to enjoy Capulín Volcano National Monument and the quaint village of Folsom. Follow N.M. 72 past the Folsom Man Archaeological Site and zigzag up Johnson Mesa, watching for bears, elk, and plentiful other wildlife. Keep the camera ready all the way to Ratón.
Enjoy bucolic Springer on foot. Once the county seat, Springer’s 1879 courthouse bell tower hosted at least one hanging. Now the building houses the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center & Museum; outside, see the huge rock monument to The Ten Commandments. The Brown Hotel & Café (locals call it “The Brown”) serves a hearty breakfast and lunch; it’s also the perfect place to stay on either end of this all-day road trip. For classic home-style New Mexican food, choose Elida’s Café up the street. Or go back in time to order Springer’s best burger with a root beer float at Springer Drug’s old-fashioned soda fountain. If you’re a treasure hunter, don’t miss Jesperson’s Cache & Trucking, an amazing 5000-square-foot emporium crowded with antique appliances, utensils, tools, furniture, clothing, dolls – everything.
Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center & Museum, 516 Maxwell Ave. (575) 483-5554. Tue-Sat 10:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Brown Hotel & Café, 302 Maxwell Ave. (575) 483-2269
Elida’s Café, 801 Railroad Ave. (575) 483-2985
Springer Drug, 825 4th St. (575) 483-2356
Jespersen’s Cache & Trucking, 403 Maxwell Ave. (575) 483-2349
As you drive east to Clayton, N.M. 56 follows the Santa Fe Trail’s Cimarrón Cut-off for the first nine miles: watch for the Scenic Byway sign where the paths joined. The heart of downtown Clayton is just beyond the railroad crossing where the first block of Main Street is filled with historic buildings anchored by the three-story Hotel Eklund, circa 1892, whose walls echo the town’s days as a center of commerce and cattle-shipping. Its saloon and restaurant remain popular with tourists and locals. Across the street explore the sprawling three-level R.W. Isaacs Hardware Co. 86-year-old Bess Isaacs, whose family has owned the store since 1898, will sit you down to share archival photographs and spin tales from the store’s early days; Thursday is her day off. On the same block, sip an espresso while savoring the aroma of roasting coffee beans at Crossroads Coffee; the friendly owners also serve great breakfasts and unique sandwiches in their small dining room. Don’t miss the Herzstein Memorial Museum, a block away: among its fascinating displays are re-creations of a local homemaker’s early 20th-century kitchen and the examination room of Dr. James Winchester, whose local practice began in 1912 and lasted decades. Before leaving Clayton, enjoy great New Mexican fare at the popular Rabbit Ear Café.
Hotel Eklund, 15 Main St. (575) 374-2551. Restaurant. http://hoteleklund.com/
R.W. Isaacs Hardware Co., 22 Main St. (575) 374-9621
Crossroads Coffee, 2 S. Front St. (575) 374-5282. http://crossroadscoffeemill.com/
Herzstein Memorial Museum, 22 S. 2nd. (575) 374-2977. http://herzsteinmuseum.com/
Rabbit Ear Café, 1201 S. 1st St. (575) 374-3277
You can spot the dormant volcano Sierra Grande in the west shortly after you leave Clayton on U.S. 64/87. You’ll pass the Santa Fe Trail crossing from Rabbit Ear Mountain near milepost 408, where the C&S Railroad installed a marker on the right in 1930. Reaching Sierra Grande at Des Moines, stop at truck stop café Sierra Grande Restaurant for its good food and people watching: don’t be surprised if the cowboys at the next table are wearing well-worn spurs. Gaze northeast out the picture windows toward Max Evans’s old ranch 12 miles away past Weatherly Lake. At Capulín Volcano National Monument, drive to the top and hike the one-mile rim trail for breathtaking views of five states. Coast downhill to Folsom, a commercial center until a devastating 1908 flood destroyed the town. Get the story at Folsom Museum and ask about this year’s annual Folsom Man Archaeological Site tour on May 19, the only time the fascinating archaeological site is accessible to the public. N.M. 72 climbs and crosses enchanting Johnson Mesa with its rich tall-grass cattle range and remarkable array of wildlife. Across from a homesteaders’ graveyard is Johnson Mesa Church, built in 1897 and still used in summer; its door is always unlocked for travelers caught by sudden storms. Return to civilization via Yankee Canyon, stopping if you still have time at Sugarite Canyon State Park for its three high-country lakes and sprawling hiking trails, but pulling into Ratón by dark.
Sierra Grande Restaurant, 6 Sierra Grande Rd., Des Moines. (575) 278-2721
Capulín Volcano Natl. Monument, Hwy 325 N. of Capulin. (575) 278-2201. $5/vehicle. http://www.nps.gov/cavo/
Folsom Museum, Hwy 325 at Hwy 456, Folsom. (575) 278-2122. $1.50. Weekends in May or call for appointment; Daily June-Sept. Free tours: Dry Cimarron Valley May 12; Folsom Man Site May 19. http://www.folsommuseum.org/
Sugarite Canyon State Park, Hwy 526 east of Ratón. (575) 445-5607. http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/PRD/Sugarite.htm
At Ratón, cross I-25 to visit the century-old Shuler Theater and El Ratón Movie Theatre, along with the impressive Raton Museum – some highlights of the Raton Downtown Historic District – or jump on the interstate to return 40 miles south to Springer’s Brown Hotel for a restful night’s sleep.
Shuler Theater, 131 N. 2nd St., (575) 445-4746, http://www.shulertheater.com/
El Ratón Movie Theatre, 115 N. 2nd St., (575) 445-7008, http://www.elratontheatre.com/
Ratón Museum, 108 S. 2nd St. (575) 445-8979. http://ratonmuseum.org/
The Santa Fe Trail
The trail split in two from Kansas to Fort Union. The Cimarrón Cutoff was shorter but risked Indian raids and 50-mile stretches without water. It entered New Mexico north of Clayton and Rabbit Ear Mountain before crossing our path along both N.M. 56 and U.S. 64/87. More travelers chose the Mountain Route that came over Ratón Pass to Ratón and Cimarrón before merging to a single trail for the final 94 miles from Fort Union to Santa Fe.