What Happens in Vegas Stays in….New Mexico?
Las Vegas, New Mexico

Glenn Kaufmann

“Doc Holliday ran a saloon on Center Street where he shot and killed Mike Gordon just about the time that Jesse James and Billy the Kid were meeting across town.”

“They shot Red Dawn here back in the 1980s.”

“Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders held their first reunion here in 1899.”

“Tommy Lee Jones was just in town filming a movie at the Plaza Hotel.”

It’s a testament to the hardscrabble, boom and bust history of Las Vegas New Mexico that these phrases come in that order from the same person - Marcus Gottschalk, a walking compendium of local lore. Clad in a big flat-brimmed western hat and brown leather jacket, Gottschalk is the unofficial town historian and the gatekeeper of local history in this small western town set at a crossroads, where the Plains meet the Rockies.

About an hour northeast of Santa Fe, this unassuming three-exit blip on the map holds the keys to some of the most exciting history of the American West. Tiny Las Vegas New Mexico sits at a key junction in the chain of mountains that separates the Southwest from the Great Plains. The all-important Santa Fe Trail ran through nearby Fort Union and made Las Vegas an important stop for settlers and traders headed further south and west.

With the advent of the railroad, the trail became less and less important while the town of Las Vegas flourished. Then, as rail lines further south directed traffic to Albuquerque, the town of Las Vegas began to fade. Yet, the natural beauty of the town, set in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the fierce loyalty of the local population insured that the town would not die. Because of it’s place in history, and the number of well-preserved historic buildings (more than 900 local structures are listed on the national historic register), Las Vegas has been an escape and an oasis for anyone with a real desire to learn about the American West, live in a true southwest boomtown, or looking for the perfect location for the next western epic.

West is not just a direction, it’s a state of mind and a place of being. It implies freedom and space, a hard won opportunity to live the life of your own choosing, and the chance to do it in a place of uncompromising beauty. In Las Vegas New Mexico this sense of West is evident in the pride of place show by shopkeepers along Bridge St., National Ave and around the town plaza.

The Plaza Hotel is a lovingly restored example of an Old West hotel with a stately dining room that looks out onto the plaza. It’s rumored that a ghost haunts the second floor rooms along the front of the hotel. And a planned expansion will nearly double the hotel’s capacity, add banquet and meeting space, and still preserve the look, feel, and hospitality that has become the gold standard of care at the historic Plaza Hotel.

Because of its proximity to Albuquerque, easy access to I-25, and its ready-made Old West flair, Las Vegas New Mexico has long been a favorite location for Hollywood. In addition to Red Dawn, and Easy Rider, this “Vegas” has played host to the crews of All the Pretty Horses, Fool For Love, Convoy, and more than a dozen other films. The town’s affable nature makes it the perfect place for both the capricious whimsy of film production, and the vagaries of a last minute unplanned adventure.

As the home of New Mexico Highlands University, Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, and one of the few Carnegie Library buildings still in use as an actual library, Las Vegas New Mexico has long been recognized as a unique oasis of culture, history, and natural splendor. As a desert getaway, Las Vegas New Mexico is the thirty-one flavors of itinerary planning. It seems trite to say it, but there is literally something for everybody.

The nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains offer extensive opportunities for hiking, biking, paddling, and horseback riding. And for those with a loftier notion of spending time out in nature, Star Hill Inn offers comfortable cabins with daytime views of the surrounding countryside, and nighttime use of the Inn’s numerous telescopes, including advice and guidance from, Philip and Rae Ann, the Inn’s owners and resident astronomy experts.

While this Las Vegas can be a bit like stepping back in time, the town has a knack for keeping up with the times and seamlessly switching gears. From modern day wi-fi coffee shops, to traditional dancing at a local food festival, visitors are warmly welcomed in “local favorite” watering holes for a drink and a round of singing, where almost anyone can and will pick up the Mariachi guitar and begin to sing.

With a visit to this Las Vegas you’re guaranteed to hit a jackpot that will sooth your soul with much more than quarters.

Copyright Glenn D. Kaufmann, 2006. All Rights Reserved