Road trip

Viva Las Vegas

New Mexico's Vegas may not have all the glitter and sequins of Nevada's, but it’s a great place for a lazy weekend.

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Elvis Presley didn't mind spending his "very last dime" trying to have some fun and milk an extra 40 hours out of the day in Las Vegas. At least, that's what I gathered from "Viva Las Vegas," the obligatory theme song for The Taos News day trip to New Mexico's very own Las Vegas.

The city of about 14,000 people and its own brand of history in Northern New Mexico is less than two hours from Taos. The city boosters want you to know that Las Vegas is "damn authentic" and have a billboard on the way into town declaring as much. We tried out a few of the more famed spots and can vouch that they are - true to the advertising - authentic.

While it may not have all the glitter, gambling and sequins of the other Vegas, it's a great place for a lazy weekend. And you don't need Presely's extra hours or cash. Las Vegas has top-notch food, walks and soaks even for people who can steal only a couple of hours away from a holiday meal, family visit or post-basketball game trip back to Taos.

Getting there

Getting to Las Vegas is half the fun and it really could not be simpler.

From Taos, head south toward Ranchos de Taos, take a left onto State Road 518 (heading east) and just keep going until you get to Las Vegas.

The road to Las Vegas goes up and over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains before dropping down into the wide-open plains of eastern New Mexico. It's a well-traveled road and some sections past Mora are even newly paved. When The Taos News took our day trip (Nov. 18), there was no snow to speak of other than the plumes of ice crystals blowing out of snow makers at Sipapu Ski Area.

Driving tours are all about the vistas and this drive doesn't disappoint. Just after the summit are pull-outs with awesome views of of the valley below. Mora, an incredible mountain town halfway between Taos and Las Vegas, is worth its own trip and travel story. But should you need a pit stop, know the area around Mora has two gas stations, two restaurants and two historic water-powered mills.

Nearer to Las Vegas, Hermit's Peak anchors the western view. The peak was named after the Italian spiritual seeker Juan Maria Agostini, whose globetrotting journey would eventually lead him to live in a cave at the mountain.

Storrie Lake, the 100-year-old dammed body of water that is also a state park, is the last major landmark before crossing into Las Vegas.

Fun times

Don't know where you want to get started in Las Vegas? Make your way to the plaza, the ideal place to get oriented to the mishmash of histories and happenings in the San Miguel County seat.

A towering wooden statue, "El Campesino" by sculptor Peter E. Lopez, stands near the gazebo and pays homage to the area's agricultural legacy. The plaza has its more gruesome history, too, as the site of public hangings. And the plaza was front and center for filming of the modern western crime drama, "Longmire." Even though "Longmire" is set in a fictional Wyoming town, Las Vegas was the show's home for its six-season run in much the same way Albuquerque was host for "Breaking Bad."

Full disclosure - our trip to Las Vegas came during a particularly slow time. Film crews weren't running about town and the roughly 4,000 students at Highlands University seemed to mostly be gone for their holiday break. Even still, Las Vegas was worth the quiet stroll down National Avenue and its charmingly retro Christmas decorations.

A walking trail flanks both sides of downtown's Gallina Creek. Though lot of the river walk scenery is the back side of houses and schools, the street art rivals most in this part of the state. Spray painted above a purple elephant, river birds and stylized portraits of powerful women is the phrase, "Money and oil have no value without fresh water." It's a fitting message next to the river.

Let there be no doubt - water was the heart and soul of our recent trip to Las Vegas.

The Montezuma Hot Springs are a funky destination about 15 minutes west of Las Vegas on State Road 65. People park along the shoulder and hop the guard rail to get to the pools of hot water that spring from the slight hillside above Gallina Creek. The water at Montezuma is divinely hot. One pool, the "lobster pot," is said to be at 120 degrees. Judging by the beet-red skin of bathers walking back to their cars, that would seem accurate.

The natural healing springs were once part of the fanciful Montezuma Hotel, which is now the U.S. branch of United World College. The college maintains the area for the public to use. Officials rules and social norms require bathing suits at the hot springs, but it's a bare-bones attraction - muddy paths that connect the pools can suck shoes off of your feet and floating algae is a given. In that way, hot springs aficionados from Taos should feel right at home.

Good eats

No day trip is complete without good snacks and a fabulous meal.

To make it through the day's gallivanting, we fueled up on snacks at the local health-foods store near Highlands, Semilla Natural Foods (510 University Ave.). We grabbed a cold drink and a bag of the house-made trail mix from the store that began in 1971 as Old Town Natural Foods. It has evolved during the decades with its community; the walls and billboards are littered with years worth of flyers and posters for art openings, music shows, protests and community gatherings.

But the real meal of the day came via a flattering recommendation from Taos News editor Staci Matlock. As a longtime reporter for our sister paper, The New Mexican, Matlock has been through Las Vegas more than a few times and knows where the best meal is to be found. She pointed us to none other than the city's most famous restaurant, Charlie's Spic and Span Bakery and Cafe (75 Douglas Ave.).

The restaurant specializes in New Mexican food but has a classic dinner feel, replete with vinyl booths, all-day breakfast and packets of Sysco mayo. Our turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich was everything we could have hoped for - perfectly toasted bread, flavorful meat and fresh avocado. The side of onion rings was not at all greasy, and honestly, that's a feat worth mentioning.

The staff was friendly and quick, though maybe not as quick as the tortilla maker in the back. That piece of stainless steel machinery is a powerhouse that turns out dozens upon dozens of tortillas an hour. While we ate our lunch, families bought the packs of fresh tortillas almost as fast as the machine could make them.

And god bless Charlie's for the cup of Starbucks coffee to get us happily back on the road to Taos.

Ultimately, our one-day tour of Las Vegas left much to be explored - the landmarks of the film industry, the area's "damn authentic" and damningly horrific history, community groups and the university's arts and culture. While we're always looking for the next locale for a travel article, Las Vegas is definitely worth another look.

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