7 Old-West Wonders: How The West Was Fun

How The West Was Fun

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7 Old-West Wonders
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Montezuma Castle

Julia Minamata juliaminamata.com
Hovering high up on a hill in the Pecos Wilderness, Montezuma Castle is a breathtaking exercise in scale. The 90,000 square-foot, Queen Anne-style facility began life as a luxury resort in 1886. (Natural hot springs still bubble along the road at its base.) In its heyday, the castle was dubbed “the Western White House” because Teddy Roosevelt often held court there with his Rough Riders—as did a who’s who of generals, politicians, high-on-the-hog outlaws and even an emperor of Japan. With its bulging, Harry Potter-esque tower, it could easily go by “the Hogwarts of the Sangre de Cristos” nowadays. The castle is home to the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, one of 10 elite World Colleges scattered around the globe. The school hosts free, student-led tours of the castle on designated days throughout the year. The campus’ rainbow-filled Dwan Light Sanctuary is also open to the public from time to time with yoga classes, concerts and poetry readings. (Laura Marrich)

Shaffer Hotel And Rancho Bonito

Mountainair, former pinto bean capital of the world, was also home to indefatigable folk artist and general madman Clem "Pop" Shaffer, who built a two-story concrete hotel, decorated it with psychedelic-cartoon Native American imagery and hand-set its garden wall with mythical stone beasts. Pop’s gift was to see the fantastic in ordinary objects. The road to his home, Rancho Bonito, is guarded by a gnarled length of dead tree transformed, with little effort, into a goat-monster; on its grounds is a somber seahorse-dragon that appears not to have been sculpted at all. Ernie Pyle wrote in 1942 that the ranch had hundreds of these animal sculptures. Now there are only a handful among the fanciful stone and wood buildings. Still, a visit at sunset with a gusty rainstorm rolling across the hills will have you seeing goblins and witches out of the corner of your eye. (Kyle Silfer)

The Saint James Hotel

Built along the Santa Fe Trail in 1872, this hotel was frequented by guests like Annie Oakley, Jesse James and Wyatt Earp. There’s an old wing and a new wing: You want the old. From a dining room full of chandeliers and mounted animal heads, to a tiny second-story poker room featuring just a card table and chairs, the hotel has been restored to all its Wild West glory. Red brocade wallpaper and wingback chairs abound. The dark saloon’s ceiling is festooned with bullet holes, allegedly leftover from 1800s shoot-outs. Twenty-six documented killings have left the building haunted with at least five ghosts, authenticated by psychics. One bedroom is perpetually padlocked and boarded up, due to a particularly violent spirit resident. The staff doesn’t mind guests wearing over-the-top vintage costumes for their whole stay, or bringing in coolers of beer to drink upstairs during card games. (Summer Olsson)

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

About as close as you can get to literally “traveling back in time.” The coal-fired and steam-operated Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad hasn’t changed much since its maiden voyage in 1880. (Except, I’m sure, for some modern safety upgrades.) Because of its remote location and altitude—topping out at 10,015 feet, the line climbs through the highest mountain rail pass in the U.S.—the scenery skimming past your window is virtually unchanged, too. Alpine meadows flooded with wildflowers, elegant stands of aspens, deep green conifers and a menagerie of mountain fauna pave the way between Chama, N.M., and its terminus in Antonito, Colo. The 2011 seasons opens May 28 and chugs along through mid-October. (Laura Marrich)

Buckhorn Saloon And Opera House

Perched on the Continental Divide, the ghost town of Pinos Altos comes to life every weekend as Silver City residents and tourists head to this atmospheric 1860s saloon for high-grade steaks and high-octane drinks. The sleepy old buildings of the town’s main drag fairly rattle to pieces as live music blasts into the clear night air. Parking on the pitch-black dirt street also becomes suddenly very scarce. For maximum contrast, visit during the day and return at night to see the Brigadoon-like transformation. (Kyle Silfer)

The Town Of White Oaks

Turn east off of U.S. Highway 54 about 10 miles north of Carrizozo and drive on State Highway 349 for 12 more miles, and you’ll reach the not-quite-but-close ghost town of White Oaks. This is a slice of New Mexico mining history, but what makes it so interesting is the grandeur and the still-evident sophistication of the buildings that remain. This was a genuine New Mexico boomtown, and while it thrived, it was every bit the match for Santa Fe or Albuquerque. (Jerry Ortiz y Pino)

El Rancho De Las Golondrinas

History is alive and well at El Rancho de Las Golondrinas. The “living museum” south of Santa Fe features original and reconstructed buildings from 18 th – and 19 th -century New Mexico, as well as a force of village re-enactors to simulate daily frontier life. Guests of Las Golondrinas partake in the Western playtime by shearing sheep, spinning tales with mountain men and learning outdoor survival skills dating back to Territorial New Mexico. Time travel—no flux capacitor required. (Amy Dalness)

Julia Minamata juliaminamata.com

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