Going Places Road Trip
Northeastern New Mexico
Three Great Small-Town Museums
Why Go Now
Northeastern New Mexico is gorgeous in July, when many wildflowers make their late arrival. The region is high in both latitude and elevation, and you can drive with the windows down, AC off. Clayton’s a mile high, Ratón is at 7,000 feet, and Johnson Mesa is at 8,500 feet. Enjoy the region’s cool evenings and gazillion stars in the dark night sky. Fill two days exploring three fascinating museums set amid 100 miles of sprawling ranches and ancient volcano fields. The museums, which focus on rich local history, will heighten your interest and deepen your appreciation for the sights along the route. Meet Folsom Man and Black Jack Ketchum, and find some Taos painters far from the beaten path.
Begin in Ratón, 10 miles south of the Colorado border and 92 miles west of Oklahoma, where the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail spills into New Mexico from the steep Ratón Pass. The Rockies almost touch The Ratón Museum downtown. Head east on U.S. 64/87, bisecting the Ratón-Clayton Volcanic Field before crossing the Cimarrón Cutoff of the historic Santa Fe Trail. Detour north at Capulín to enjoy the 18-mile N.M. 325 loop that puts you right back on 64/87 at Des Moines, but not before enjoying Capulín Volcano National Monument and The Folsom Museum. Continue east on 64/87. When you reach Union County’s only stoplight, you’re a block from Clayton’s Herzstein Memorial Museum, which is so big and fascinating that you’ll want to save it for morning. Return to Folsom via N.M. 370 and N.M. 456, including well-kept dirt roads through the Dry Cimarrón Valley and past countless rock and wood ruins from homesteading’s heyday. Or, you can backtrack to Folsom the way you came. From Folsom, take N.M. 72 as it winds up and across Johnson Mesa. A rock church, built by homesteaders in 1897, is still used for summer services; the door is never locked. Watch for elk, bear, and turkeys along the canyons and working cowboys atop the mesa. After passing Sugarite Canyon State Park, N.M. 72 will drop you right back in downtown Ratón.
The Ratón Museum
Open since 1939, Ratón Museum moved into its expansive two-story location six years ago. Host Roger Sanchez has been curator for 14 years and there’s little he can’t tell you. Ask to see New Mexico’s first auto license plate, minted in Ratón in 1913 and now stored in an ornate 1891 safe from a local bank. Displays of pristine Apache baskets and handmade retables, Hispanic religious icons, highlight Ratón’s multi-cultural history. Extensive archival photography portrays the evolution of this town as well as Dawson, Sugarite, and other company coal mining towns that once dotted the landscape surrounding Ratón. Mining, ranching, the railroad, and the Santa Fe Trail all provide rich histories going back to the town’s rough and rowdy frontier days. More surprising are the dozens of valuable paintings by well-known artists from Santa Fe, Taos, and Ratón itself. Taos painters include Joseph Fleck, Bert Phillips, and Dorothy Brett, but Ratón’s own painters make a strong showing, including four oils by Manville Chapman, renowned for his WPA murals painted inside the Shuler Theater just up the street (one of 70 downtown buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places). Ask Roger for a Walking Tour brochure. Heart’s Desire Inn B&B, in an exquisite 1885 Victorian, is just around the block and a great home base for this road trip.
The Folsom Museum
Doherty Mercantile Co. opened in 1896 as a general store for ranches along the Dry Cimarrón River and up to Johnson Mesa. When the building turned into the Folsom Museum in 1966, the volunteers who run this fascinating collection left the store largely intact, including its office, walk-in safe, shelves, scale, and cash register. The rest of the country store is filled with disparate displays of materials donated by area families, including period items such as plows and other ranch hardware, along with grinders, churns, irons and other household items. The area’s unique geological history is represented all the way back to when the region sat beneath a sea, via a prehistoric turtle fossil. Capulín Volcano looms out the front window. The nearby Folsom Man Archaeological Site is illustrated alongside maps of famous trails that traversed this crossroads, including the Goodnight-Loving Trail that was used to drive longhorn cattle from Texas to Denver. Tree-shaded yards host community events all summer long, and local cattle brands are burned into the fence. Find out more at folsomvillage.com, including details on the museum-sponsored Folsom Man Archaeological Site tour, August 17.
Clayton’s Herzstein Memorial Museum
The Herzstein’s two floors of displays can hold you for hours, covering 9,500 square feet of Clayton’s renovated Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1919. Alongside a Conquistador’s spur and hundred-year-old cowboy chaps are unique recreations of a vintage local hair salon, the downtown Herzstein Store for ladies’ clothing and hats, and the examination room of Dr. James Winchester, Clayton’s family doctor from 1907 to 1962. The town’s music, sports, and cultural highlights are illustrated with archival photographs and objects: guitars, footballs, and wedding dresses. Huge collections of antique dolls span two long walls. Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum has his own room: after robbing the train near Folsom, he literally lost his head when hanged just down the street in 1901. Clayton was later at the heart of the Dust Bowl; when Ken Burns made his PBS film The Dust Bowl, he came here and worked with museum director Victoria Baker, who is always on hand for tours and questions. Ask her to show you the WPA exhibit and New Deal-sponsored artwork. Victoria is a cheerleader not only for “the best museum in the 5-state area,” but for daylong history tours that feature dinosaur tracks, arrowheads, cemeteries, old homesteads, and schoolhouses. Her take on the area’s rich history will whet your appetite for the drive back across the volcano fields to Raton.
Need To Know
Heart’s Desire Inn B&B. 301 S. 3rd St., (575) 445-1000. From $98. heartsdesireraton.com
Holiday Inn Express. Ratón’s most popular hotel. 101 Card Ave., (575) 445-1500. From $139. ratonsfinest.com
Pappas’ Sweet Shop Restaurant. Soda fountain. 1201 S. 2nd St. (575) 445-9811. 11:30–1:30 lunch weekdays, 5–8 p.m. dinner daily. Closed Sun.
The Ratón Museum. 108 S. 2nd St. (575) 445-8979. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Free. ratonnm.gov/arts/the-raton-museum
Sands Restaurant. Great Mexican dishes. 350 Clayton Rd. (575) 445-4024. 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily. sandsrestaurantraton.com
Shuler Theater. 60 shows a year, since 1915. 131 N. 2nd St. (575) 445-4746. Open daily. shulertheater.com
Best Western Kokopelli Lodge. Popular hotel. 702 S. 1st St., (575) 374-2589. From $125. bestwestern.com
Crossroads Coffee Mill. Fabulous breakfasts, sandwiches, and espresso. 2 S. Front St., (575) 374-5282. M-F 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat 8-11 a.m. crossroadscoffeemill.com
Herzstein Memorial Museum. 22 S. 2nd at Walnut, (575) 374-2977. Tues.-Sat. 10-5. Free. herzsteinmuseum.com
Hotel Eklund. 19th-century hotel and restaurant. 15 Main St., (575) 374-2551. From $90. hoteleklund.com
Rabbit Ear Café. Popular Mexican and American dishes. 1201 S. 1st St., (575) 374-3277. Tues-Sat 7-3; Sun 8-2.
Wild Horse Grill & Steakhouse. 22 Pine St., (575) 374-8220. Lunch 11-2 daily; dinner 5-9 p.m. except Sunday.
Folsom Man Archaeological Site Tour. August 17, 8 a.m. Free. Folsom Museum. folsomvillage.com
Folsom Museum. Hwy 325 at Hwy 456, (575) 278-2122. $1.50. 10-5 daily through Sept. folsomvillage.com
Along the Way
Capulín Volcano National Monument. N.M. 325 N. of Capulín, (575) 278-2201. $5/vehicle. 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. nps.gov/cavo
Clayton Lake State Park. (575) 374-8808. 13 miles from Clayton, N.M. 370. Dinosaur tracks. claytonnewmexico.net/claytonlake.html
Sierra Grande Restaurant. Truck stop diner with colorful locals. 6 Sierra Grande Rd., Des Moines, (575) 278-2721. 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Sugarite Canyon State Park. (575) 445-5607. Three lakes, fishing, hiking, camping. 8 miles from Ratón, N.M. 72 to N.M. 526. emnrd.state.nm.us/spd/sugaritecanyonstatepark.html