Santa Fe Trail: History and drama from New Mexico to Kansas
story and photography by Kathleen Kemsley
We planned to attend a regional sidecar club rally in September. There was just one drawback, we thought: The rally took place in eastern Kansas. Kansas? What is there to see in Kansas?
Though I had never set foot in the state, I had heard plenty about how flat and tedious the journey is across the Great Plains. And I had watched The Wizard of Oz enough times to cement my conception of Kansas, always appearing in black and white.
A GPS unit could tell me which route would get us to the rally site in Council Bluffs the quickest. A good old-fashioned road map told me something more important: What was along the way. Between our home state of New Mexico and the rally, there existed the remnants of a trail over which was etched the history of western American commerce.
My husband and I picked up the Santa Fe Trail where it branched into two routes. From Interstate 25 in northeast New Mexico, we rode onto Highway 56, aka the Cimarron Cutoff, across some empty country. The Point of Rocks just east of Springer marked the trail’s last (or first, depending on whether you were coming or going) view of the Rocky Mountains.
Undulating plains along the Cimarron Cutoff lay dry and barren, crossed only by a couple of small creeks and a healthy population of snakes. In one segment between Springer and the Oklahoma border, I braked hard four different times to avoid squashing 3-footers stretched across my lane in the afternoon heat.
The first night on the Santa Fe Trail, we camped at Cimarron National Grasslands, 11 miles northeast of Elkhart, Kansas. The campground lay next to the Cimarron River, one of the few permanent water sources along the southern branch of the trail. Trail travelers traditionally stopped here to water their animals and rest before pushing on through the big empty.
The next morning, I walked along remnants of the trail that was first traveled in 1822, under a sky the color of orange sherbet. Sounds filled the dawn: coyotes yipping nearby, a flock of birds startling from a riverside bush. A cottonwood tree stood sentinel by the trail. In my imagination I became one of the intrepid traders who paused beneath this same tree nearly 200 years before.
Unlike the Oregon Trail farther north, tramped by thousands of migrating settlers, the Santa Fe Trail was all about commerce. The city of Santa Fe in the early 1800s functioned as a northern outpost of the republic of Mexico. Merchants running the trail between Santa Fe and Kansas City traded silver, mules and Mexican crafts for American manufactured goods and supplies hauled via the Missouri River. Plains Indians along the way joined the free enterprise fray, trading buffalo robes and beaded clothing for horses. Some conflicts were inevitable, but trail users for the most part cooperated with each other because everyone had something the others wanted.
Two hours northeast of Elkhart, the northern and southern branches of the Santa Fe Trail converge near Dodge City. Thanks to Hollywood, exaggerated stories about the Wild West had transformed Dodge City into a kitschy tourist attraction. We chose not to pay eight bucks to tour a re-created version of the Front Street which burned down in the 1880s. But we did take a few minutes to admire an authentic steam engine sided next to the visitor center and poke around a couple of turn-of-the-century shops selling Western gear and memorabilia.
After lunching on fajitas and beans, I finally got to say the words I’d waited all morning to utter: “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge!” Northeast we continued along the Santa Fe Trail toward civilization.
The famous trail landmark, Pawnee Rock, was our next stop. The tallest natural feature for miles around, the rock marks the halfway point between the Missouri River and Santa Fe. Many early travelers carved their names into the rock face; today, modern graffiti has mostly covered the original signatures. Looking south from the top of the rock, we could see a line of trees marking the bank of the Arkansas River. Beyond, the seemingly endless prairie-turned-farmland plain swam before my eyes, flat as slate, extending forever.
We overnighted 80 miles east of Pawnee Rock at a lake near the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge. Our ride on a dirt road back to the highway the following morning was halted for a few magical minutes while a herd of buffalo passed by. Separated from us only by a cattle guard, they milled around, males sparring half-heartedly, calves chasing after mothers who leisurely grazed on the remnants of long prairie grasses.
The memorized words of Carl Sandburg’s poem, Buffalo Dusk, came to me unbidden: The buffaloes are gone. And those who saw the buffaloes are gone…. A lump formed in my throat, a passing sadness for an era now extinct from the plains.
In the Flint Hills, we rode south of the Santa Fe Trail a few miles to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. From the parking lot, rolling hills overlooked what’s left of a tallgrass prairie that once covered 400,000 square miles of the Great Plains. We stretched our legs walking up a steep driveway to tour a ranch home and a three-story barn built of hand-cut limestone in 1881.
A curving scenic road led through the Flint Hills to Council Grove, where buildings 150 years old adorned the town’s main street. The historic Conn Store, dating from the 1850s, provided travelers the last opportunity for “retail therapy” before hitting the dusty trail west. Across the street Hays House, built in 1857, served as a gathering place for meals, church services, court trials, mail distribution and political rallies. Today it is billed as the oldest continuously operated restaurant west of the Mississippi River.
We attended a “Santa Fe Days” celebration held on the grounds of Terwilliger Home, a limestone building on Main Street dating to 1861. Locals in period costume spun wool, sang and sold handmade crafts, evoking 19th-century village life—at least until they emerged from the house carrying hamburgers and cans of pop.
After the rally we detoured north, then picked up the Santa Fe Trail again in Dodge City and followed its northern branch back home. Though longer than the Cimarron Cutoff, the mountain route was preferred by trail travelers because it offered more water sources and less danger of Indian attacks. We liked the fact that it was, as the beer commercial says, a few degrees cooler.
Wagon tracks were visible in several places along the route between Dodge City and the Colorado state line. The Santa Fe Trail followed the bank of the Arkansas River, once the southern border of the United States. The railroad, too, followed the trail route next to the river. Ironically, the materials used to build the railroad were hauled on the Santa Fe Trail; once completed in 1880, the railroad rendered the trail obsolete. But later, when long-haul trucks eclipsed freight trains, the trail route was resurrected and paved.
Just outside of Las Animas, Colorado, we camped another night on the old Santa Fe Trail at a place called Boggstown. Situated on the Purgatoire River not far from Bent’s Old Fort, the little settlement was founded by pioneer Thomas Boggs in 1862. A group of families related by marriage, including Kit and Josefa Carson, built hacienda-style houses in the settlement during the 1860s and 1870s. When the site was acquired by a local historical society in 1985, ruins of more than 20 structures were located. Slowly the homes of these early influential families are being restored.
That night I felt a deep kinship to those who camped before me along the Santa Fe Trail. After nine days on the road, the food in our cooler was spoiling and I felt dirty, mosquito-bitten and sunburned. A full moon rose over Boggsville. Wind blowing through cottonwood branches suggested the long-faded laughter of travelers who met in the village’s central plaza to swap goods and road stories. Two owls chatted back and forth, recalling a simpler, wilder time when people lived beyond the reach of mass communications, and camping was a way of life.
We visited Bent’s Old Fort a few miles upriver from Boggsville the following day. Unlike military forts farther east, this fort’s purpose was for trading. The Bent brothers situated themselves at the hub of Indian country, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Mountain Man routes into the Rockies. They sold stores to the frontiersmen, acquired skins from the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Kiowa tribes, and traded for Mexican goods with the wagons from Santa Fe. Trade flourished at the fort for about 20 years beginning in 1833. During the Mexican War of 1846-’48, it also functioned as a supply point and staging area for the U.S. Army running raids into New Mexico.
Completely destroyed by fire, floods and the sands of time, the fort was abandoned in 1853. The National Park Service excavated and reconstructed the structure in the 1970s using historically accurate drawings and photographs. As we wandered past doorways of more than 20 adobe rooms on two levels, a historian dressed in period clothing fed a campfire by the fort’s door and answered questions about life on the frontier. The smell of burning juniper added to the authenticity of the restoration at this important outpost on the Santa Fe Trail.
The trail turned sharply south past Bent’s Old Fort, leading across the Comanche Grasslands to Raton Pass on the Colorado-New Mexico border. At 7,400 feet, the pass represented the final major obstacle along the way to Santa Fe. Today railroad tracks and Interstate 25 both follow the original trail’s route across the conifer-dotted pass. Nearly 200 years later, it is still the only passage through this section of the Rocky Mountains.
South of Raton, the trail closely followed the interstate all the way into Santa Fe. A die-hard history buff might continue along the interstate, visiting historical sites like Fort Union, an Army outpost, and Glorieta Pass, site of the westernmost battle of the Civil War. Otherwise, more interesting ways for a motorcyclist to reach Santa Fe include the scenic highway through Taos and the mountain route through Mora. Our own journey on the Santa Fe Trail ended where the Pecos River crossed the interstate, as we detoured downstream to the delightful state park at Villanueva.
By that time, immersed in the rich history and drama of the Santa Fe Trail, I could scarcely recall that my original objective had been to get to a sidecar rally in Kansas. The “boring” drive across the Great Plains had proven to be fascinating. Once again, the journey trumped the destination.
For more information about the Santa Fe Trail contact:
Santa Fe National Historic Trail, National Trails System Office, National Park Service, P.O. Box 728, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504; (505) 988-6888; www.nps.gov/safe
Santa Fe Trail Association, Santa Fe Trail Center, RR 3, Larned, Kansas 67550; www.santafetrail.org
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, National Park Service, 35110 Highway 194 East, La Junta, Colorado 81050; (719) 383-5010
Cimarron National Grassland, U.S. Forest Service, 242 Highway 56 East, Box 300, Elkhart, Kansas 67950; (620) 697-4621
[From the November 2006 issue of Rider]