Back in the early 80s, when we lived in Arkansas, we usually took a southern route to the Rocky Mountains. After following I-40 through Oklahoma and northern Texas, we would either head northwest, from Amarillo to Raton or, in a few cases, took a more dramatic route.
Leaving the Interstate at Tucumcari, New Mexico, we would follow New Mexico 104, passing or camping at Conchas Lake, on the Canadian River; the latter rises on the east slope of the Sangre de Cristo Range, in north-central New Mexico, and then angles SSE across the High Plains, carving a stark canyon through the Kiowa National Grassland before reaching Conchas Lake (elevation 4200 feet). From the lake, Route 104 heads southwest and then northwest, passing a host of low mesas before reaching a prominent escarpment; climbing 1100 feet (from 5500 feet at its base to 6600 atop the cliffs), the traveler is suddenly treated to a spectacular view of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Range, from its southern end above Santa Fe to its Culebra segment, in southern Colorado.
Most visitors who drive to the Rockies from the central or eastern U.S. follow I-70 or I-80, both of which provide distant glimpses of the Front Range long before the grandeur of the mountains becomes evident. While the southern route through Dalhart, Clayton and Raton is better, cutting through the scenic, volcanic terrain of northeast New Mexico, the route past Conchas Lake and on to Las Vegas, New Mexico, is, by far, the most dramatic. For those who have never seen the Rockies, New Mexico 104 offers the most inspiring introduction.