Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway

Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway New mexico

Dry Cimarron River

When we traveled this route last time the “Dry Cimarron” River, actually was flowing with water. Kathy Weiser, September, 2008.

Why Dry Cimarron? 

There are actually two reasons. First, it was the settlers traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, who after experiencing 60 miles without water, gave it the nickname.

The other reason is that the area actually has two Cimarron Rivers very close to each other. The other Cimarron River flows through Cimarron Canyon State Park where it joins the Canadian River. Some locals still refer to the other river as the Wet Cimarron.

This multi-state byway travels through Cimarron County, Oklahoma and Union County, New Mexico, featuring rugged mountain canyons, high plateaus, nature preserves, unusual geological formations, volcanoes and ghost towns. The byway also has several tributaries that venture into Oklahoma and Colorado, as well as various routes in New Mexico.

When the wagon trains of the early settlers came through, the Cimarron River was often dry, with the travelers frequently crossing the riverbed without even realizing they had been there.

The lack of water, coupled with Indian attacks made the trip a hazardous one. Thunderstorms were also a problem when claps of thunder and lightning caused stampedes of horses and cattle, wagon wheels bogged down in the deep mud when streams flooded.

Raton, NM. Photo courtesy New Mexico Film Office.


Raton has several attractions that visitors might want to see including The Santa Fe Trail Willow Springs Forage Station Overlook on the Old Raton Pass off Moulton Avenue which provides a scenic introduction to the geologic wonders ahead. While on historic First Street, visit the Raton Museum, Old Pass Gallery, Depot, Scouting Museum, and National Historic District Walking Tour.


While not part of the Dry Cimarron, you are so close to this old ghost town, that we included it here. Gardiner is the only ghost town in Dillon Canyon that a visitor can see from public property. Take South Fifth Street out of Raton around the golf course to the locked gate, where you can see many ruins of the old mining settlement.

Gardiner, NM

Coal Ovens can be seen in the distance at Gardiner, New Mexico,

James T. Gardiner, a geologist for the Santa Fe Railroad discovered coal in Dillon Canyon in 1881 and by the next year coal mining operations had begun. Naming the town after the geologist, it quickly began to grow. In 1896 a battery of 300 coke ovens were built and in 1897 Gardiner gained its post office.

During the early 1920’s, Gardiner was at its peak with 1,000 residents. Social activities were very popular, the small town supporting a Ladies Club, a Reading Circle, and a sportsmen’s club. But in 1929 the Great Depression started a downhill slide from which the town would never recover. In 1939 the mines closed and most of the people moved away. In 1940 the post office closed but a few families remained during World War II, shipping residual coke breeze to smelters throughout the southwest. However, in 1954, all activity ceased and Gardiner became a ghost town.

One of the banks of ruined coke ovens is the most obvious remnant. The townsite, itself, still has the ruins of an amusement hall, a narrow building that once housed a power converter for the mines, and few home foundations.


Sugarite New Mexico

Old foundations dot the hills in Sugarite Canyon State Park. Coal mining tailings are in the background, Kathy Weiser, September, 2008. Click for prints & products.

To continue your adventure to Sugarite Canyon State Park, take NM 72 in Raton, east across 1-25 for about 5 miles until you reach a junction and turn left on NM Highway 526 traveling north 1.7 miles to Sugarite Canyon State Park. At the park entrance are the remains of the Sugarite Coal Camp, including a couple of old buildings and numerous rock foundations.

Long before this beautiful canyon became a coal camp, it was called home to a number of Native American tribes, including the Comanche, Ute, and Apache who hunted here for centuries

Established in 1912, the coal-mining “company town” was just one of seven towns in the Raton area built by the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Railroad. In its heyday, it boasted up to 1,000 residents, a school, a theater, the Blossburg Mercantile Company, the Bell Telephone Company, an opera house, a physician, a justice of the peace and a music teacher.

Miners relied on mules to pull carts laden with coal out from the depths of the Sugarite Mines. In 1941, it was announced the mines would be closed and the population scattered, homes were moved to Raton and Sugarite was left virtually deserted. In 1944, the post office closed its doors forever.

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