Gunslingers, cattle rustlers, and Apache warriors made New Mexico a colorful, if violent, place in the 19th century, and relics of that frontier lifestyle are still visible everywhere. History buffs can visit old forts, count bullet holes in saloon ceilings, and trace the fortunes of prospectors in ghost-town graveyards. Though the major cities have their share of history, this route takes you away from the modern centers and into emptier quarters on the east side of the state. It can be expanded with a stop in Santa Fe or a more leisurely pace up to Las Vegas (Highway 3, which connects I-40 to I-25, for instance, is exceptionally pretty, if a bit out of the way).
Arrive in Albuquerque. Take in the western sunset at the base of the Sandia Peak Tramway, in the foothills, then come back to the center of the city for dinner at the appropriately named and Western-themed The Frontier restaurant. Bed down at the Los Poblanos Inn, amid horse farms in the North Valley.
Head southeast to Mountainair and the rustic-bizarre Shaffer Hotel; you’ll also pass the Salinas Pueblo Missions. By mid-afternoon, you should be in Lincoln, where Billy the Kid earned his greatest notoriety. Tour the buildings here, then settle in for the evening at the Wortley Hotel.
After breakfast, you’re headed north to Fort Sumner to see Billy the Kid’s grave and a memorial to Navajo internment in the 1860s. Take an afternoon dip in the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa to fortify yourself for the last leg of the drive, to Las Vegas, where you’ll stay and dine at the wonderfully restored Plaza Hotel.
Tour the Meadow City’s historic buildings in the morning, with lunch at Abraham’s Tiendita, then head for sprawling Fort Union National Monument in the afternoon—the slanting sun should highlight the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail off to one side. Return to Las Vegas for the evening.
I-25 north takes you to Raton, where you turn east to Capulin Volcano National Monument, which affords a grand view over the plains. Loop back via Folsom (site of numerous train robberies) and the awesome, empty expanse of Johnson Mesa. Have a late lunch in Raton at Boomers BBQ, or farther down the road at the ultimate Western roadhouse, Colfax Tavern. Then cruise down the road to Cimarron, where you’ll spend the night in the spooky St. James Hotel.
Depending on your interests, hang out in Cimarron in the morning until the Old Mill Museum opens, or make a beeline through dramatic Cimarron Canyon to Eagle Nest and on to Taos. The long way around the Enchanted Circle yields the best views and takes you past abandoned Elizabethtown, site of the state’s first gold rush. In Taos, the Wild West is alive and well at the Sagebrush Inn—a must for drinks, after you’ve had a decadent dinner at Antonio’s or Lambert’s. The Historic Taos Inn or Hotel La Fonda de Taos both wear their years well.
Drive south back to Albuquerque via the low road and, if you have the time, the Turquoise Trail—you can have lunch at San Marcos Café, then stop in Cerrillos, which has been used as a Western film set. If you don’t have to meet a flight out, plan on stopping in Madrid too, for burger or a beer at the Mine Shaft Tavern.