Take a Trip to the Other Las Vegas in New Mexico

It’s a lot quieter than Nevada’s Las Vegas, but with hot springs, day trips, museums and much more, Las Vegas, New Mexico has a lot to offer visitors

Credit: Tim Haig

Soaking up the other Las Vegas

Ah, peace and quiet – not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Las Vegas. But this is Las Vegas, New Mexico, a small town at the eastern edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the western edge of the Great Plains. Thirty-five years older than its glitzy Nevadan counterpart, Las Vegas was one of the most thriving and dangerous cities of the southwest in the 1800s. These days, it’s rather sleepy and laid-back, and makes the perfect base for a quiet getaway to Northern New Mexico.

Click through for the highlights of Las Vegas, New Mexico, including hot springs, day trips, museums and more.

Credit: Tim Haig

Las Vegas Hot Springs

Without a doubt, the best reason to visit Las Vegas is for the natural hot springs five miles northwest of town. Used by local people for hundreds of years, the springs became an international attraction in the 1880s after a luxury hotel, the Montezuma, was built on the hillside above the springs by the Santa Fe Railway. The hotel and surrounding grounds are now owned by the United World College of the American West, an independent boarding school.

The hot springs are loosely patrolled by the college (open 5 a.m. to midnight, no nude bathing, no alcohol), but still feel like an undiscovered natural wonder by the side of the road. The water is wonderfully hot and mineral-rich – you can smell the sulphur – and there’s nothing better than jumping in early in the morning or late at night when the air is chilly. And with 300 days a year of clear weather, you can gaze up at the starry night sky as you soak.

The pools range in temperature from 100˚ to 112˚F, so you’ll likely find one that is just right. If you visit in summer and it’s scorching hot, jump in the Gallinas Creek afterwards to cool down.

Credit: Jenny Pickerill

Day Trip to Taos

After a morning soak in the Las Vegas hot springs, hop in the car for a drive through the Carson National Forest to Taos (State Route 518, 1 hour and 45 minutes).

For lunch, try the excellent blue corn enchiladas at Lambert’s of Taos (near the Plaza; economical prices at lunch). Chat with Taoseños (a.k.a. the locals) over coffee at World Cup Cafe, browse Logan Wannamaker Pottery for an ash-fired Japanese coffee mug, and wander through the numerous galleries along Paseo del Pueblo Norte and Kit Carson Rd.

Stop in at Kit Carson’s Home and Museum before getting back in the car and heading a little farther north up Paseo del Pueblo to the turnoff for the Taos Pueblo. Considered to be the longest continually-inhabited community in the United States, some of the structures are over 1000 years old. If you are a fan of earth houses and traditional culture, this is not to be missed. I visited during a snowstorm, and wandering the Pueblo’s quiet paths smelling piñon smoke put me in a dream-like state. Afterwards, stop in at Cid’s Food Market for picnic items before heading back to Las Vegas.

Credit: Tim Haig

Las Vegas Historic Plaza

Grab a book or buy a Moleskin journal at Tome on the Range, and sit in the plaza park with a coffee from the Traveler’s Cafe. A lot of blood was shed in Las Vegas in the 19th century – so much, in fact, that locals issued a warning in the Las Vegas Optic to robbers, murderers and criminals to either leave town, conform to the law or face hanging (April 8, 1880).

Today the plaza is the tranquil heart of Old Las Vegas, graced by a wooden statue of Our Lady of Sorrows and dominated by the Historic Plaza Hotel. There are some souvenir shops on the plaza, an old drugstore on the corner and some nice antique shops on Bridge Street. For good food in town, try El Fidel Restaurant (gluten-free options, grass-fed beef and lamb, local art for sale), or for coffee and breakfast, visit Charlie’s Spic and Span Bakery.

Credit: Tim Haig

City of Las Vegas Museum

This charming, interactive museum is free and well worth a stop to get a visceral feel of what life was like in Las Vegas during the wild days of the Frontier. Permanent exhibitions include La Casita (the little house), with rooms from 1865, 1880 and 1935 demonstrating the changes in furnishings and technology from the days of horse and buggy through the arrival of the railroad and beyond; the Duncan Opera House (in Las Vegas’s heyday, there were four opera houses); and Rolling Along the Santa Fe Trail. The staff are friendly and you’ll likely have the place to yourself.

Credit: Tim Haig

Montezuma Castle

The Montezuma was built as a luxury hotel in the 1880s (two of the previous hotels burned down) by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway on the hillside above the Las Vegas hot springs. The hotel was a wellness destination for visitors from all over the U.S. in the late 1800s – “America’s great resort for health, pleasure and rest,” according to an 1879 brochure. Theodore Roosevelt and the Emperor of Japan were among the guests. The hot springs baths and clear Northern New Mexico air were thought to be particularly beneficial for healing tuberculosis, rheumatism and “imaginary ailments.”

The hotel closed in 1903, was sold to the YMCA, the Southern Baptist Church, the Catholic Church and finally sat empty and fell into disrepair (serving as the set for the horror movie The Evil in 1978) before becoming part of the site for the United World College. It was fully restored in 2001 and today the Castle functions as a dining hall, residence, offices and classrooms.

Students of the college give public tours certain Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. Check the schedule at uwc-usa.org or call 505.454.4221.

Credit: Terence Faircloth

Day Trip to Santa Fe

Santa Fe is touristy, and for good reason – the entire city is built in a traditional southwestern adobe style, and heritage adobe houses are strictly protected by the city. Throw in some beautiful sunlight, interesting topography, a rich cultural history and the special energetic draw of Northern New Mexico, and you end up with more fine artists and writers per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. Start by visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, then make your way to Canyon Road; park and stroll around the galleries. An absolute must is to have lunch and tea (or, at the very least, a gluten-free scone with Devon cream and lemon curd) at The Teahouse, before heading on to the New Mexico Museum of Art.

If you are planning your trip in August, try to hit Indian Market, a phenomenal week-long Native Art festival and market featuring artists from every tribe in the US. You could also try and snag tickets to the Santa Fe Opera, which performs in the fresh air on a hillside just outside of the city. If you need a quick bite before driving onwards to Albuquerque (45 minutes) or back to Las Vegas (1 hour), stop in at the Zia Diner.

Credit: Harry Lambert

Dwan Light Sanctuary

Set amidst the pines on the campus of the United World College, this beautiful non-denominational prayer/meditation space was built in 1996. The prisms in the ceiling scatter rainbow patterns on the earthen walls and floors, and the acoustics are live and echo-ey. If you have the space to yourself, it’s an inspiring place to sing, dance or chant. There are benches built into the wall, or you can bring a yoga mat or a zafu for extra comfort while meditating. The Sanctuary is open to the public daily from 6 a.m. to midnight, but visits must be scheduled in advance by calling 505.454.4216 or 505.454.4288.