When we arrived in Cimarron we headed straight to the Visitor Centre which is right on Highway 64 (on your left if you come into town from the west) as I’d read that it provided a good free walking tour guide. Unfortunately though it had already closed for the afternoon (in October they were already on their winter timetable). When we checked in at our hotel, however, we found a copy provided in our room (you can also download the walking tour leaflet at the link below if you want to plan ahead). So we donned our waterproofs (it was a drizzly afternoon) and set off for a stroll around the immediate area.
The first place we came to, behind the St James’ Hotel, was the old Plaza, now simply a grassy field with a 1960s replica of the original gazebo in the centre. The gazebo covers an old well, dug in 1871 and used by freighters hauling goods from the Kansas Territory to Fort Union. A branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through Cimarron just by here, and the Plaza was used as an overnight campground for those on the Trail, while the well provided water for their horses and oxen. But in 1880 the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe led to the decline of the Trail, and of Cimarron.
To the left (north side) of the Plaza is the Dold Brothers’ Warehouse, now a private residence (photo 4). It was built in 1848 as a depot to serve stage lines operating on the Santa Fe Trail, and later became first an Indian Trading Post and later a General Store, before being used as the offices of the newly-launched Cimarron News and Press in 1875. Since 1908 it has been the home of one family. Naturally you can’t go in the house, or even approach too closely (you wouldn’t want strangers peering in your windows, would you?) but to the left of it you can visit the Beaubien and Maxwell family graves in a small fenced off spot on the banks of the Cimarron River. These were two prominent local families linked in marriage, although the leaflet doesn’t explain why some of them are buried here rather than in the nearby cemetery.
To the south and west of the Plaza, behind the St James Hotel, are the old National Hotel (1858, now a private residence) and the 1872 Carey Building, which was built to house a hardware store and livery stable, and is also now a private home. But for me the more photogenic buildings were those lying just to the south of the St James, in particular the Barlow, Sanderson & Company Stage Office, which was built in 1870 according to the leaflet, but 1863 according to the sign on its gable, photo 3. This had lots of colourful details as you can see in my first two photos, having apparently been in recent (or current but closed?) use as a gallery. It was built to serve the Stage route between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which operated monthly and carried passengers and baggage for a one-way summer fare of $100 for the three-and-a-half week trip. Hard to imagine travel so slow in these days of fast cars and planes! But the mail and stage route closed in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to Springer, 25 miles to the east. The building was then used as a Wells Fargo Office and later converted into a store in the early 1900s. Its present appearance is still of a store, although as I said it appeared to have been most recently used as a gallery.
At this point the rain defeated us, as it was getting harder to take decent photos without getting the cameras too wet – and besides, the welcoming and historic bar of the St James was calling us loudly. So we decided to continue our walk the next morning, as I do in my next tip.
Having been defeated by the rain the previous afternoon, which made it hard to take photos, we took some time the next morning to do a little more exploration of old Cimarron, still following the helpful Walking Tour leaflet. This time we crossed Highway 21 and checked out the building opposite the Stage Office, known as Schwenk’s Hall. This is another colourful one, great for photos. It was built in 1854 as a brewery, but bought by Henry Schwenk in 1875 and turned into a gambling house and saloon.
We then took a short stroll down the lane opposite the hotel. This took us past the Colfax County Courthouse, which dates back to 1872 when Cimarron became the county seat (taking over that role from already declining Elizabethtown). The town only retained that role for ten years, so this building too has seen a number of uses – drafting office, school, residence and now Masonic Lodge, although interestingly the relatively new sign on its wall (photo 3) would indicate that some trials are still held here.
Carrying on along the lane we came to the old mill, known as the Aztec Grist Mill although it appears to have no real connection with that tribe. It was built in 1860 to provide wheat and corn flour for local residents and soldiers. When, in 1861, 1500 members of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes were moved on to reservation land here, the mill was put into service dispensing blankets, meat, flour, grain and other rations to Indians and local citizens. By 1864 it was producing 44 barrels of flour a day. In 1875 it was the site of a skirmish between Indians and the local Indian Agent, and soon after this the Cimarron agency was closed and the tribes moved onto reservations in north-western New Mexico and Colorado. You can visit the mill to see inside and learn about its workings – but only from May to September, so we were unable to do so.
Further down the lane is the Church of the Immaculate Conception , which was built in 1864 as a gift to the community from Lucien and Luz Maxwell in memory of their deceased children, Julian and Verenisa (the latter is one of those buried near the plaza). It was enlarged in 1909 and a new bell and
bell tower added the following year. We didn’t go into the church however, as by this time the morning was wearing on and we had a long drive planned for that day. It was time to leave Cimarron ...
As you reach the west end of the canyon, you begin a sharp ascent to higher elevations. Eagle's Nest Lake awaits you at the end of your drive.
We had two meals in the restaurant of the St James – dinner and breakfast. The latter was a buffet and wasn’t that great (weak coffee, over-chilled fruit salad, over-cooked eggs – but good crispy bacon and salsa), but dinner was very good, and very reasonably priced. And even if the food had been only ordinary, this is a wonderful setting, full of history.
For dinner we started with a shared appetiser of “Cimarron Toothpicks”, which were battered deep-fried jalapeños pepper strips served with a ranch dressing. These were fine, though nothing special. But my main course was excellent. I had been eating (and enjoying) mainly New Mexican staples such as burritos etc, so decided it was time for a change. I opted for the interesting-sounding “Cimarron Chicken” which was described as “Plump marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection. Topped with a gourmet raspberry sauce, inspired by the Salman Raspberry Ranch in Mora County, then sprinkled with pecans.” This was accompanied by a baked potato (I could also have had mashed potato, fries or sweet potato), mixed vegetables and a helping from the salad bar, which I shared with Chris. The meat was tender, and the sauce worked well, so I was very happy with my choice.
Chris too decided on a break from New Mexican dishes as his favourite food, pizza, was heavily featured on the menu. He chose the Veggie, with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, mozzarella cheese, and jalapenos on request (he requested!). This was a good size and he enjoyed it, but as it had no accompaniment he was glad to share my salad. Our bill, which also included a glass of wine for me and beer for Chris, came to $37 without service.
After dinner we headed to the adjoining bar area, where the sense of history weighs even more heavily. Its ceiling is pockmarked with bullet holes, and the hotel’s information sheet tells of the 26 people killed here during those fights. The bar itself is gorgeous – all dark wood, highly polished and well-mirrored, with a wonderful old cash register as a centre-piece. We got chatting to the barman over our Jack Daniels, and learned that this bar is however not the original, but was imported by the hotel’s owner a few years ago from a nearby town. However the old photos on the wall show that it is very similar to the one that would have witnessed those fights and at which such famous characters as Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill would have drunk – and that was good enough for us!
West of Cimarron the Cimarron Canyon State Park straddles Highway 64. If you are just driving through it offers you a very scenic stretch of road, but do make time to stop at least briefly as the scenery can be better appreciated when you’re not in a moving vehicle – especially if you’re the driver of said vehicle (this is a narrow, winding road).
Several pull-outs gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs with short strolls that in one case brought us to the banks of the Cimarron River that carved this small gorge. It was quite late in a rather damp, dull afternoon, so it was hard to capture the scenery adequately on camera, although the dark clouds gave the canyon a moody atmosphere that suited the landscape well. Steep granite cliffs overhang the tumbling river, adding to the drama of the scene, and in October when we visited the rich colours of the leaves were an additional bonus.
With more time than we had, you could hike or fish here (the trout fishing is said to be especially good), and there are also a couple of campgrounds which get good reviews. If you’re interested in geology then you might like to read more about the canyon on the website of The New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources, as it’s a particularly complex area (or so I gather – I’m no expert!) But for the rest of us, simply to marvel at the rock formations and the mountains that loom above us here is enough.
New Mexico typically charges $5 for day use of its state parks, but we couldn’t see anywhere here to make our payment, and I found out afterwards that some of the short trails off the road are designated for “free access”, so I suspect that if you’re just stopping for a short while (i.e. not camping, fishing or taking a longer hike) there is no need to pay.
One of the things I love most about the US Southwest are the wide open spaces and the huge blue (mostly) skies that arch above them. The landscape to the east of Cimarron epitomises this kind of landscape and was a joy to drive through. When we headed north-east from town on the morning after our stay we drove for miles on Highway 64, rarely passing another car. To some this landscape might appear flat and featureless, but we love it, and we had to stop a couple of times just to take it all in, and to take the inevitable photos. A few wispy clouds added interest to our images, as did the distant mountains to the south and east. If you too love “Big Sky Country”, this north-east corner of New Mexico makes for a great contrast to the rest of the state and is well worth the detour to get here, especially as relatively few other travellers make the effort to do so.
This is my last tip; if you want you can return to my Intro page