Dark skies and dark tales and some serious Jurassic magic combine to make Clayton an experience unto its own.
Tucked into the northeastern corner of New Mexico, Clayton is not a convenient place to visit, but that’s also part of its charm.
Clayton Lake State Park is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park and has an on-site observatory that not only is the site for star parties, but with a few phone calls can be opened for interested visitors, park manager Joe Blan said.
The observatory boasts an 11-inch, computer-assisted telescope.
“You can identify constellations, and the computer will rotate to them,” Blan said. “On moonless nights, we allow visitors to call the (Clayton) astronomers club. They’ve been coming out real regularly. We have a good relationship, so on a moment’s notice, somebody will come out and open the observatory. They know more about the stars than the rangers.”
The rangers, however, know plenty about the rest of the park, which not only includes the recreational opportunities surrounding Clayton Lake, but also some of the finest dinosaur tracks that can be found anywhere, he said.
“Right now, we’re rated in the top six in the nation for having the best variety of dinosaur tracks,” Blan said. “What’s making us worldly known is there’s two distinct tail drags. Dinosaurs did not use tails expect for balance. But it was so slippery in the mud, they had to use their tail.”
That left a distinctive mark in the ground, similar to a snake slithering through the dirt, he said.
“It leaves a big ‘S’ shape with a footprint alongside,” Blan said. “We’ve had a lot of folks come and research from places like Japan, Australia, England, just to see the tail drags because they’re so unique.”
There are about 500 dinosaur footprints, most dating to about 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, he said.
As for the lake, its levels have been down of late, so only boats that can be carried into the water are permitted. But there’s still plenty of good fishing, with walleyes, bass and trout being the primary lake inhabitants.
Clayton also is on the threshold of the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands, covering 230,000 acres.
While the grasslands are largely road-free, there is access to the historically interesting and geologically intriguing Mills Canyon portion of the Canadian River Valley, said Mike Atkinson, district ranger for the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands.
Named for the entrepreneur Melvin Mills, who tried to create an orchard business along the river bottom, the area is “considered probably one of the main scenic areas in the northeast part of the state,” he said.
There’s a campground on the rim and another on the bottom.
“It’s similar to Palo Duro Canyon (Texas) with the red rock,” Atkinson said. “It does have steep canyon walls. There are cliffs. If you fall off the top, you will be seriously injured, but it’s not like the Grand Canyon.”
The remnants of Mills’ ranch make for an explorer’s haven.
Clayton’s Herzstein Museum is “a hidden gem,” director Victoria Baker said, especially for those who like to feel the hair on the back of their necks slowly rise for no reason.
Originally a church built almost 100 years ago, the building retains the original stained-glass windows, not to mention a few spirits who seem to be of the benign variety.
Members of Ghost Investigations New Mexico say that at the very least, a spirit of a young boy prowls the grounds.
“Several people with psychic powers or feelings have told me this was a church and sometimes people do not feel as if they are ready to leave and they will attach themselves to personal items or even buildings,” Baker said. “So if you think of the items we have in this museum, there could still be energy from these items of the owners. I have had a shoe not only fall off the shelf (but) it was in the middle of the room. A wedding dress fell off a large hook. This is what the Ghost Investigators could not explain.”
There are also displays of items found along the nearby Santa Fe Trail, a Herzstein family history of the state’s Jewish merchants, and the state’s largest 1930s-era Works Progress Administration display, including pottery, wooden furniture, rugs, quilts, ironworks and famous artwork, Baker said.
“We have people that travel here from all over the United States and the world to see the museum,” she said. “The museum is absolutely amazing. People can get up close and really see things.”