Rounding the Four Corners – November 2013

A Trip to Raton
And the End of the World

By Larry Larason

Most travel literature deals with destinations.  You’ve seen the titles in magazines: “Ten Top Campgrounds in Colorado” or “Best National Parks in the Southwest.”  The destination is all that matters.  We rush around looking only for a place to stop and eat or use the toilet, until we get to an officially designated scenic site, where we take pictures only of what we have seen pictured before.   What lies along the way to designated spots may be very interesting, as well.   I like to plan a trip with certain destinations in mind, but allow for serendipity en route.  I also like to take along a roadside geologic and/or historic guidebook to enhance my appreciation of the drive to the destinations.

Capulin Volcano Gallup Journey

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Six friends set out in mid-September in a Toyota minivan for a trip to Raton to see volcanoes, historic sites, and the end of the world.  We had traveled together before and knew we were simpatico, with similar interests.

Around Gallup the northeastern corner of New Mexico is seldom mentioned as a vacation place, but there is much to see in the area, especially if you include adjacent parts of Colorado.  I hope this description of our trip will convince you that the northeast is well worth a visit.

We took along a geologic guide: High Plains of Northeastern New Mexico; a guide to geology and culture.  Published in 2005 by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, written by William and Sally Muehlberger and L. Greer Price, it has chapters on history and geology as well as road logs for the region.

We spent a leisurely day driving to Raton through Santa Fe, Nambe, Truchas, Eagle Nest, Taos, and Cimarron, on what is called the “High Road.”  We stopped at a couple of art galleries, more to stretch our legs than to actually shop, and arrived in Raton before dark.

On day two we decided to get “the end of the world” out of the way before leaving town.  The site is up on the mesa to the north of Raton.  We drove up 2nd Street and turned left to climb the road, which is paved as far as Goat Hill, where the big sign overlooks the town.  Although eroded by recent rains, the unpaved road beyond was passable.  A small metal sign marks “The Iridium Layer” near a picnic table.  There used to be a nice pictorial sign, but it has been destroyed by vandals; I hope the city replaces it soon.  The iridium layer, of course, is the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods of earth history.  The iridium came from the asteroid that slammed into Yucatan 65 million years ago and caused the end of the world for the dinosaurs.  The explosion threw so much dust into the air that it encircled the globe and fell out over several years, or a decade, leaving a layer of iridium-rich clay.  This clay was first discovered in Italy, but is found wherever rocks were being deposited at that time, for instance, in China and here in New Mexico and Colorado, demonstrating that the event was global in extent.

After some time contemplating the death of 70% of the life on our world, we returned to town and headed east on NM 72.

Our next stop was Sugarite Canyon State Park.  It’s a pleasant place, an old mining area from 1910 until 1941, and once home to 1000 people.  A visitor center in what used to be a post office has a small but nice series of exhibits.  The man-made lake has been Raton’s water supply since 1891.  The name does not refer to a rare mineral, but is believed to be an Anglicization of the Spanish word for chicory, chicarica, although it’s difficult to see how they got from one to the other.

The highway beyond Sugarite Canyon soon begins to climb up the edge of Johnson Mesa.  Near the top there is a pullout where you can look back to where you were and see how high you have gotten.  The mesa top is a broad grassy plain dotted with small volcanoes.  It was homesteaded in the 1890s and hit a peak population in 1900 of just under 500 people, but no one lives there year-round now because of the frigid winter weather.

As we start descending from the mesa we remembered that the guidebook mentioned the limestone here was fossiliferous, so when we saw a tall road cut in white rock, we stopped for a look.  Sure enough, after about half an hour we each returned to the car with small pieces of limestone bearing the imprint of snail and oyster shells, and one possible shark’s tooth.

We stop in Folsom, a town that holds mostly history.  The Goodnight-Loving Trail passed near here, and Folsom was once the largest cattle-shipping center west of Fort Worth, Texas.  There is a pleasant museum in an historic building, where we spent an hour or so, then had a picnic lunch in the small park adjacent to the structure.  The museum sponsors trips to the Folsom Man archaeological site, just a little way north of town, twice a year by reservation only.

Bent's Old Fort Gallup Journey

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site (Photo by ealdgyth)

We’ve been seeing small volcanoes here and there, and lava flows in cliffs, and Sierra Grande, the big one, on the horizon.  There were several phases of volcanism extending from eight million years ago to the youngest only thousands of years ago.  We drove to Capulin Volcano National Monument, which is about 60,000 years old.  This cone is unique in that you can drive to the top and hike the rim of the crater.  From the top you can see parts of four states.

Although we hadn’t planned it, the group decided to continue to Clayton Lake to view the dinosaur tracks that were uncovered when the dam was built.  Then, because the afternoon was getting late, we went into Clayton for dinner.  We found the Eklund Hotel.  It was built in part in 1894 and remodeled in several phases between 1975 and the present.  We enjoyed a good meal there and returned to Raton for the night.

On the next day we took a more leisurely trip to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta, Colorado.  It was an outpost on the Santa Fe Trail, about where the wagon trains turned south.  Built near the Arkansas River by the Bent brothers, William and Charles, with their partner, Ceran St. Vrain, the fort became the fulcrum of America’s western expansion between 1833 and 1849.  The story of the brothers and their two-story adobe fortress is entangled with much of what was happening during that period of western history.  For example, Charles Bent was married to a woman from a prominent Taos family.  He was appointed Provisional Governor of New Mexico in 1846 after the state was annexed by the U. S.  Shortly afterward, he was killed in the Taos Revolt.  William Bent was married to Owl Woman, a Cheyenne, who was killed at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.  The fort has been recreated based on historic records and is a most impressive place to visit.

Great Sand Dunes Gallup Journey

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The next morning we checked out of our motel in Raton and drove to Trinidad, Colorado.  One of our group had picked up a brochure about a scenic route called “The Highway of Legends.”  We were on our way to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but we drove the scenic loop.  A highlight of this route was the aptly named village of Stonewall, where a great slab of Dakota Sandstone was tilted up as The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose.  Today it stands vertically 250 feet tall at the edge of town and is visible in places as you continue along the road.

At Great Sand Dunes you don’t have to stay on the trail – there are no trails – so you are free to wander around in the sand.  An interesting movie in the visitor’s center explains the role of water in recycling sand in the dunes.

Well, that was our trip.  I think you can see there are many things to do on a visit to the northeastern corner of New Mexico.

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