A Meandering Trek Along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

A lonesome white gate opens to Charlie’s Ruts on a low hillside with soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The Point of Rocks promontory here has been partially excavated to make way for a highway leading out of town, and the Caches Site (where one early expedition was caught in a blizzard and buried their goods to retrieve later) is marked with a white stone beside that highway, tricky to locate. These vivid and sobering landmarks for Santa Fe Trail travelers seem like sidenotes to Dodge City’s apparently sexier images of gunslinging, hard-drinking, wild living—and dying—in the Old West. Atop the broken Point of Rocks, laser-cut metal silhouettes of cowboys on horseback race after outlaws, dominating the high horizon, larger than life. I decide it’s time to get out of Dodge.

Out on Highway 50, I find Charlie’s Ruts. The metal mailbox contains a simple notebook as a homey guest register. A lonesome white gate opens to a low hillside and the soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. When Charlie Bentrup acquired this land in the early 1900s, he recognized the trail ruts as historically significant. His son Paul, born in 1917, became the steward of “Charlie’s Ruts” until his own death in 2003.

I wonder who is manning the mailbox now. Just like at Jack’s Ruts, I can almost feel the straining of men and oxen to get those wagons up the hill, as if I’m along for the trip, pushing from behind—as if I’ve sunk my meager life savings into the freight we’re hauling, and have got to get it to Santa Fe no matter what it takes.

Looking more like a military post than a mercantile exchange, Bent’s Old Fort in southern Colorado warehoused and shipped goods from across most of the Rocky Mountain area to the rest of the United States, ending at the Mississippi. Courtesy of NPS

Just 60 miles west, I pull in for gas at Cimarron, Kansas. I’m back to the end point of the Cimarron Cutoff, the risky road I initially traveled west to east. Tomorrow, I will instead follow the difficult Mountain Route. I’m only 142 miles from Fort Larned, eight days by wagon. But I have definitely crossed into frontier territory, where your life might have depended upon knowing whom to trust.

Day 7 | Fortifications

It’s a long, lonely drive, two hours to cross from the emptiness of western Kansas into the somehow even greater barrenness of eastern Colorado. The only green here traces the edges of the river, as the Arkansas leads me through this arid sagebrush landscape to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. In 1831, brothers Charles and William Bent built their trading post as an adobe stockade, with walls 15-feet-high and four-feet-thick, on the sandy soil above the river. William sold goods to Santa Fe Trail travelers and negotiated with local Native American tribes like the Arapahoe and Cheyenne, while Charles guided wagon parties southwest over Raton Pass into Taos and Santa Fe, eventually becoming the first governor of New Mexico Territory.

Highway 350 is my only guide today as I enter the dump zone, the region east of the Front Range where rain storms building behind the mountains finally boil over, their cool air colliding with warm air over the hot prairie, generating massive thunderheads.

Fort Union was the largest military post in the region, a travel hub and supply center for the Santa Fe Trail and other regional forts.

In an instant, the daylight fades. Rain suddenly pounds the windshield so hard that my wipers cannot keep up, and I am forced to pull over. Hail quickly follows, pummeling my car. Bent’s Fort would have been a godsend, the only shelter for hundreds of miles. I imagine being out in this onslaught, trying to shield horses or oxen from the deadly force of the ice raining down.

Twenty minutes later, the storm has eased. Despite breathtaking views of Colorado’s snow-capped ranges, this Mountain Route was no scenic tour for trail travelers. They would have labored toward Fisher’s Peak. Reaching Trinidad, I drive I-25 alongside the distinctive triple-stairstep landmark, soaring past the tractor-trailer rigs slowly struggling up Raton Pass with their heavy loads.

Once on the other side, Colorado’s heavily forested, tight canyon road now immediately opens into New Mexico’s broad vistas. Highway 64, the road to Taos, takes me to the other Cimarron on the Santa Fe Trail: Cimarron, New Mexico, once a Mountain Route stage stop. Here, historic sites include the Aztec Grist Mill, built in 1864 to grind grain for residents of the town, for a nearby Indian reservation, and to feed travelers passing on the trail.

Native Americans called Black soldiers stationed at Fort Union “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term of respect for their adversaries’ fighting spirit.

Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail were driven primarily by oxen. Unlike the Oregon and California trails, the Santa Fe Trail was primarily a two-way commercial trading route rather than a one-way emigrant trail.

Back on I-25, I soon reach Fort Union National Monument. Built of stout brick and adobe, it became the largest military post in the region, a travel hub and supply center for the Santa Fe Trail and other regional forts.

Several units of Black soldiers were stationed here, having joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Enduring constant racism, they were tasked with subduing hostile Indian forces who threatened the fort or the trail. Native Americans called them “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term of respect for their adversaries’ fighting spirit and physical resemblance to the powerful and much-revered bison. The only Fort Union troops ever awarded the Medal of Honor were six members of the 9th Cavalry—the Buffalo Soldiers—for their actions during intense fighting against Apache warriors. The irony of Black soldiers, fresh from the horrors of slavery, being honored for the subjugation of the Indigenous people who had honored them.

The main unit of the Pecos National Historical Park preserves the ruins of Pecos Pueblo, known historically as Cicuye (sometimes spelled Ciquique), the “village of 500 warriors.” Courtesy of NPS

A tinny recording of a bugle call plays over a pole-mounted speaker out by the flag. It’s hard for me to listen to, but this is part of the fraught history of New Mexico—and the nation. Truth is grist for the mill that feeds us all. Ours is a hard story to reconcile, a difficult climb but necessary, like the final stretch of trail into hills you cannot avoid as you travel toward Santa Fe.

Day 8 | End Of The Trail…And The Beginning

The Pecos River, at last. It flows down Pecos Canyon through the hills above Santa Fe, passing close to Pecos National Historical Park, the site of the ruins of Pecos Pueblo. During the years of the Santa Fe Trail, regular travelers would have witnessed the pueblo’s decline from a busy communal dwelling to a sparsely populated structure, falling into disuse and then ruin as the final few residents left to join distant relatives at the Jemez Pueblo to the southwest.

This pueblo’s time had come and gone, and the people found another way to live. Likewise, the Santa Fe Trail came and went. Created by linking older Native American trade and hunting routes, the Santa Fe Trail’s own end came from a similar new beginning: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with a spur that dropped south, first to Raton, and then to Santa Fe.

I follow the trail signs into the city, parking my car on Alameda Avenue under the cottonwood trees where the Santa Fe River trickles quietly beneath their leafy branches. Slowly, I stroll the narrow streets past the old adobe shops, low and thick-walled, and hung with colorful blankets and chile ristras, at last entering the central plaza built in 1610. It’s filled with music and flowers, and the bustling commerce of Santa Fe’s rich and deeply complicated history.

The goal of the Santa Fe Trail was to allow trade between cultures. In many places, our path is divided, split. Maybe, beyond mere goods and money, we can trade stories, gain personal understanding, with appreciation of the difficult journeys we have all undertaken. Maybe we can make a new beginning and learn to find our way, as we walk toward each other from both ends of the trail.