The long distances along the mountains from Las Vegas to Cimarron, or across the plains from Raton to Clayton, are worth the driving time. History is everywhere, from evidence of Coronado's passage during his 16th-century search of CĂ­bola, to the Santa Fe Trail ruts on the prairie made some 300 years later. In Cimarron, you'll see evidence of the holdings of cattle baron Lucien Maxwell, who controlled most of these prairies as his private empire in the latter half of the 19th century. During his era, this was truly the Wild West. Cimarron attracted nearly every gunslinger of the era, from Butch Cassidy to Clay Allison, Black Jack Ketchum to Jesse James. Bullet holes still decorate the ceiling of the St. James Hotel.

Established long before its Nevada namesake, Las Vegas was the largest city in New Mexico at the turn of the 20th century, with a fast-growing, cosmopolitan population. Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp walked its wild streets in the 1880s. A decade later, it was the headquarters of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and early in the 20th century, it was a silent film capital and the site of a world heavyweight boxing match. Today, with a population of approximately 17,000, it is the region's largest city and the proud home of 900 historic properties. Raton (pop. 7,000), on I-25 in the Sangre de Cristo foothills, is the gateway to New Mexico from the north. Clayton (pop. 2,100), Tucumcari (pop. 5,200), and Santa Rosa (pop. 2,500) are all transportation hubs and ranching centers.

Two national monuments are particular points of interest. Fort Union, 24 miles north of Las Vegas, was the largest military installation in the Southwest in the 1860s and 1870s. Capulin Volcano, 33 miles east of Raton, last erupted 60,000 years ago; visitors can now walk inside the crater. Also of note are the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands preserves: 136,000 acres of pure prairie.

Drained by the Pecos and Canadian rivers, northeastern New Mexico is otherwise notable for the number of small lakes that afford opportunities for fishing, hunting, boating, camping, and even scuba diving. Eleven state parks and about a half-dozen designated wildlife areas are within the region. Philmont Scout Ranch, south of Cimarron, is known by Boy Scouts throughout the world.