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It's generally unflattering to refer to a place as a "pass-through" region, but northeastern New Mexico is historically—and to a certain extent presently—just that: Visitors have traditionally explored the area en route from one point or another, first in wagons and then trains along the Old Santa Fe Trail's two routes, and for the past century in automobiles, often following the original roads used by traders and ranchers. These days you can visit the area's most prominent communities, Las Vegas, Cimarron, and Raton, as a day trip from Santa Fe or elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley.
Set aside a couple of hours to stroll around the Old Town Plaza and Bridge Street in Las Vegas. After you've walked the town, drive north on Interstate 25 to Raton and visit the Raton Museum and Historic First Street. You can then return west by taking U.S. 64 to Cimarron, exploring the heart of yesteryear's Wild West. To give yourself a little more time, spend the night in the allegedly haunted St. James Hotel, or back down in Las Vegas at the Plaza Hotel. It's especially pretty if you return via NM 518 toward the High Road between Santa Fe and Taos. From Cimarron, continue west on U.S. 64, stopping off to fish or walk along the Cimarron River in Cimarron Canyon, and then head south on NM 434 at Angel Fire, stopping off for a visit to Victory Ranch or Salman Ranch in Mora. From Las Vegas, just take NM 518 northwest toward Mora.
With more time, you could retrace either, or even both, of the original Santa Fe Trail routes—Interstate 25 aligns roughly with the original trail, and the shortcut, known as the Cimarron Route, passes through Clayton and rejoins the original trail near Springer. Begin in Las Vegas, where you can stay at the Plaza Hotel. Detour for an hour or two to Fort Union National Monument. Back at Interstate 25, continue north to Raton. On Day 3 head east on NM 72 over starkly captivating Johnson Mesa and visit Capulin Volcano National Monument to view four states from the rim of the volcano. You can stay at the Eklund Hotel Dining Room & Saloon. The following day drive west on U.S. 56 toward Springer, a good place to have lunch and browse in the antiques shops Downtown. With or without the Clayton detour, continue west to Cimarron (via U.S. 64 from Capulin, or NM 58 from Springer).