Sights and sounds from Sugarite Canyon State Park in northeast New Mexico. (Video by Seth Boster)

RATON, N.M. • Alan Montoya was never coming back to this small town. After high school, he chased the dream of many.

“People wanna see what else is out there,” he says. “Our town is one of those where, you know, it’s really easy to get stuck in.”

Montoya fled for California. He returned earlier this year to care for his father.

Something more has kept him around.

“I always miss the mountains out here,” Montoya says, admiring them now as he casts another line in trout-stocked Lake Maloya.

The lake is at the heart of Sugarite Canyon State Park, a bowl-shaped mosaic framed by oak- and pine-covered slopes and crested by ancient, volcanic cliffs. This is the 3,600-acre spread gracing the Colorado-New Mexico line, a vertical expanse widely unbeknownst to drivers of the pass between Trinidad and Raton.

“Northeastern New Mexico’s best-kept secret,” goes the description in a park map outlining 20 miles of lonely trail.

“Even on the holidays, you might only run into a few folks,” says Patricia Walsh, the regional interpretive ranger based at Sugarite (pronounced sugar-eet).

One might come for the hiking, mountain biking or rock climbing on Little Horse Mesa, the park’s high point near 8,350 feet. One might draw for bow hunting; big elk and deer make the canyon home. Along lake shores, a bear might be spotted nibbling berries from the bush. Among other wildlife are some 200 birds tallied and 95 butterflies.

112921-ot-sugarite-dg 04

LEFT: Alan Montoya fishes at Lake Maloya at Sugarite Canyon State Park.

The summer green is “like the British Isles,” says ranger Kelly Ricks. The night sky, she says, is also mesmerizing, well worth a campout.

“A lot of people who drive by all the time finally stop in and say, ‘I had no idea this was here,’” Ricks says.

Montoya is the only one around this day. He likes it that way, the solitude. But another part of him wishes more were around. He wishes it for the betterment of Raton.

“Parts of town are just dying, because there’s not much opportunity, not much going on,” he says.

He and other locals see hope across the border in another state park.

Just as Trinidad saw Fishers Peak State Park as a future economic generator upon its establishment in 2019, so did the neighboring town similarly left reeling from the coal collapse. While Coloradans closely follow the development of their second-largest state park at 19,200 acres, so do the people of Raton. People like Montoya, who eyes the horizon for the foothills of that iconic, chimney-like peak. They seamlessly roll beyond Sugarite.

“We’re hoping (Fishers Peak) really opens up the place, like it does Trinidad,” Montoya says. “I think it’ll slowly introduce people to our area.”

What they’ll find is a place with an equal abundance of nature and history.

In the first few decades of the 1900s, Sugarite Canyon was a thriving coal camp, home to 1,000 miners and their families who came penniless from around the world. Crumbled ruins remain from the life that was: the clubhouse, the grocery store, the doctor’s office and the school, where Mrs. Malcolm found the surroundings to be a perfect outdoor classroom.

Raton’s city manager, Scott Berry, is one still around with generational ties to Sugarite. His mother was born there.

“A lot of us here have that coal mining history or connection with the railroad,” Berry says. “Those are industries that don’t exist anymore.”

The Sugarite settlement ended in the 1940s, as propane gas and diesel became preferred over coal. Other operations closed one by one over the years, the last in 2004.

People left houses that would go abandoned; still today several appear on the verge of collapse, boarded up and scarred by fire. Two elementary schools have closed this century. Commercial buildings downtown also sit empty.

Raton’s population today hovers around 6,000, about 2,000 down from the ‘80s. In contrast, in recent years the population of the local jail has seen increases. Poverty, addiction and crime rose through the cracks of a broken economy.

“We have to come up with something else,” Berry says. “We have to reinvent that local economy.”

That’s been his mission. He worked as an engineer in other states — “just enough to go out and see a little bit,” he says — before starting as city manager in 2014, emboldened to revive his town.

Where the municipal budget hasn’t allowed for it, he’s applied for grants to fix up the main street. He’s overseen regulations aimed at holding absent property owners financially accountable for upkeep. The historic theater glows again. That’s part of a larger mission to foster the arts and attract film production; the industry seeks New Mexico for its strong tax credits. Berry wants to see an empty elementary school transformed into a studio.

As for other empty buildings? “Investors wanna go where there’s positive momentum,” Berry says.

That’s where the outdoors can help, he says. Capitalizing on that figures prominently in the economic development strategy town leaders finalized this year.

Sugarite Canyon is front and center. “A really strong asset,” Berry says. One he’d like to see expanded.

The dream of Fishers Peak as a public venue is about as old as a bigger dream to see it blended with the state park on the peak’s backside. Onlookers see such a combination as boasting national park-like appeal.

Bartlett Mesa Ranch is seen as a way to accomplish that — a private swath of woods and grasslands between the two preserves. The ranch’s 2,200-plus deeded acres came up for sale last year. Raton representatives crafted a resolution supporting an acquisition in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land — the two nonprofits that led the Fishers Peak purchase — alongside New Mexico State Parks.

The state agency did not return a request for comment for this article. Other players are tight-lipped about a possible deal.

All are “working to see if there’s a realistic and meaningful access connection between the two (parks) that will make it a cross-border destination,” says Matt Moorhead with The Nature Conservancy. “That expands the conservation footprint as well as brings all those benefits to the two communities.”

Bartlett Mesa Ranch came off the market earlier this year (an initial, promotional brochure listed it for $2.75 million). Denver-based broker Greg Walker did not say if the property was still for sale.

“I think the best use is exactly how everybody else feels: It would be a nice addition to Sugarite Canyon,” he says. “But it takes money. And the state of New Mexico is not funded like Colorado.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is not involving itself at the moment, says spokesman Bill Vogrin. “We’re just watching what happens on the New Mexico side, and all we’re doing is planning our park.”

As part of that planning, public surveys yielded support for merging Fishers Peak and Sugarite Canyon. Count Montoya as one of those supporters.

While fishing here at the lake, he ponders his future in his hometown. “I don’t know if I wanna stick around or get out again,” he says.

But again, he says, he’d miss the mountains.

He’s eyeing his next hike now from Sugarite Canyon. Bobblers Knob on the Colorado side. “I’m thinking two, three hours,” he says.

But he’s known to venture on — to see what else is out there.

Load comments