The Santa Fe Trail was one of the main historical routes that traders, settlers and military parties took to the southwestern United States from the population centers of the east, as the United States was expanding from its east-coast roots to become the continent-spanning mega-nation that it is now. The Trail's heyday was the 19th century in the Golden Age of the Old West. In particular, it was part of the route for many of the "49ers" heading for the California Gold Country during the gold rush there starting in 1849.
Today it has all but vanished in some areas, as 21st-century "civilization" encroaches and hides the Trail beneath modern roads and housing. However, the route still exists, and there are plenty of opportunities for the intrepid traveler to follow it by car, bike, and even foot, and get a sense of what the original travelers went through.
Parts of this route are preserved in the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, a unit of the United States National Park System. However, in general, you can't walk, ride or drive on the Trail in these (or most other) areas, because all that remains of the Trail are shallow ruts that are too fragile to survive the boots of hikers, let alone the tires of cars or ORVs. This itinerary is intended to let you parallel the Trail and view it where you can, rather than walk on it.
For a highly amusing, if somewhat risque, account of life on the trail, see the historical novel Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser (1982). The history is quite accurate.
Step number one is to decide exactly how you're going to cover this ground. Although some walk or bicycle the nearly 1000 miles of the Trail, it's more practical to drive from point to point along the route, pausing to sight-see or hike where there is something notable. This guide will presume you're one of the drivers. If you're renting a car to make this trip, it'll be worth checking rates, and decide whether to make a roundtrip. The starting point is out in the boonies, so the nearest car-rental companies are some distance away, and likely to have a significant drop-off charge if you return the vehicle other than where you rented it.
Although the Trail bends significantly southward, temperatures don't change much because the Trail rises as it heads south. Santa Fe is at 7,000 feet, and there are two significant passes to cross. Accordingly, you may find it cooler when you get to the "desert Southwest" than when you left (it'll certainly be less humid). Pack accordingly. The best time to do this trip from a weather standpoint is probably late summer (August to early September), when highs may be around 80-90 °F (27-32 °C) at the start and will get as low as the seventies at the high end.
Most attractions along the Trail don't require advance preparation. However, if you're planning to see Trail-related things at Pecos National Historical Park (see below under "Home stretch"), you may have to make inquiries in advance. Lodging is usually available in larger towns without reservation. Santa Fe is an exception; if you're going to spend any time there, definitely make reservations.
The Santa Fe Trail is considered to originate near the small town of Boonville, Missouri. Boonville is about equidistant between the major airports of St. Louis and Kansas City, and nearby Columbia has an airport with limited commuter service. If you don't insist on complete purity in your trip, it's a good idea to treat Columbia as your starting point, as there's more to do there, along with more services for the traveler. Interstate highway 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City passes near the Boonville and through Columbia.
You can drive this route with no more than one night spent on the road (somewhere in western Kansas, say Dodge City), but it's not recommended. For one thing, you'll have little time to see things along the way; for another, it takes time to get to the Trail's starting point at Boonville, if you're arriving via St. Louis or other major travel hubs, and you won't start the first day as early as you might need to. For sightseeing and getting something out of the experience, it's better to plan on either two or three nights on the road. The suggested legs below presume a three-night journey, with the first and (particularly) fourth days quite short so that you can enjoy the high proportion of interesting sights at the two ends of the Trail. To follow a two-night itinerary, plan to spend the first night in eastern Kansas, then follow the "Mountain Route" below and stay in Trinidad or Raton the second night. The "Cimarron Cutoff" option is less satisfactory as a two-night itinerary, due to the emptiness of southwestern Kansas and far western Oklahoma where you'd spend the second night.
The first leg of this trip takes you from the Trail's starting point to Independence, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City. (It's wise to get the first night's lodging on the west side of the Kansas City area, to shorten the next day, although Independence is on the east side. Be prepared to fight through rush-hour traffic when you're done with your viewing, but it'll be worth the effort to avoid the travel fatigue—although the Trail's original travelers probably wouldn't have much sympathy for you!) This is the section of the Trail that has seen the most 20th-century development, and you may be tempted to simply barrel down I-70 to Independence. However, short sections of the Trail and associated structures are sprinkled through this section, if you take the time to find them.
Start your journey by visiting two sites near 1 Boonville: Katy Trail State Park and Boone's Lick State Historic Site. The Katy Trail is an attraction in its own right, parts of it lying along the Lewis and Clark Trail as a fine bicycle path reaching from St. Charles (a St. Louis suburb) in the east to Clinton in the west. Boone's Lick was a source of salt for settlers in Missouri and westward-bound travelers in the old days, and Boone's Lick Road was the last bit of "civilization" that westbound travelers experienced before setting off on the Trail. The original jumping-off point for the Trail was the town of Franklin, but there's nothing left there but a small commemorative site, the town having been destroyed by flooding and abandoned years ago. You can visit this small area on state road 87 just north of Boonville, but for a more distant, scenic view, follow local roads to Harley Park in Boonville. From here you can look across the Missouri and get a sense of just what lay before the early Trail travelers, at least in terms of distance if not ease of travel.
Between Boonville and Independence, the Trail generally followed the Missouri River, until it crossed the river to head south and away from the Oregon Trail. Your modern route follows local roads to the small towns of Arrow Rock and Marshall, both with visible sections of ruts from the Trail. Huston Tavern in Arrow Rock is now a museum with some Trail artifacts.
Independence to Dodge City
Independence is an interesting small city with a number of historic sites, some of them associated with its most famous citizen, former President Harry S Truman, but others associated with the Santa Fe Trail. Some Trail attractions in town:
- Jackson County Courthouse, modern center of government of the county, incorporates structures dating back to Trail days. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Jackson County Log Courthouse, 107 W. Kansas, was the modern Courthouse's predecessor, although its occupancy of this protected location is a 20th-century change.
- Woodlawn Cemetery on Noland Road is the final resting place of a number of figures important in the history of the Trail.
- The National Frontier Trails Center, 318 W. Pacific Ave., displays memorabilia of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails, with interpretive exhibits. Hours M-Sa 9:30AM-4:30PM, Su 12:30-4:30PM; $5 admission charge (several discounts).
- Many homes around town date to Trail days, most of them noted on the NPS site.
From Independence, continue on to Kansas City (Missouri) via whatever route you find convenient (I-70, US 40, local roads). Kansas City has grown tremendously since Trail days, of course, and while there are a number of Trail points of interest here, they're hard to winkle out from the urban sprawl. Make sure to visit Minor Park, with some of the best-preserved ruts on the entire Trail route; the several historic buildings on Westport Road; and New Santa Fe on the southern edge of Kansas City near the intersection of Holmes and Santa Fe Trail Streets, with an interesting cemetery. Drive on Santa Fe Trail Street for as far as you can tolerate. On the Kansas side, Shawnee Methodist Mission in Fairway was mentioned in the diaries of many early Trail travelers. A museum there preserves some Trail-vintage buildings and artifacts. Seek lodging on the west side of the Kansas City area to shorten the long day ahead.
From the Kansas City area, you have several possible routes, but your objective is the town of Great Bend in the middle of the state. (Following I-70 to state road 156, then turning southwest, is quick, although the Trail generally lay south of this route.) Pause here for lunch before continuing southwest on US 56, which takes you past a number of interesting Trail sites. Pawnee Rock was traditionally considered the midpoint of the Trail and is preserved in a small state park outside the town of the same name—or at least half of it is, much of the eponymous rock having been quarried away by settlers!
Three interesting sites are near the town of Larned southwest of Great Bend. A Trail visitor center west of town (1349 K-156 Hwy, ☏ ) contains a regional-class museum with some outside exhibits; open daily 9AM-5PM (closed Mondays during the off season, and also on major holidays), $4 for adults, $2.50 for students, $1.50 for children 6-11. About 4 miles beyond this site on K-156 is Fort Larned National Historic Site, a unit of the national park system that preserves a major military outpost along the Trail. Fort Larned is not one of the earlier Trail sites, dating only to 1860 when it was established to protect the increasing flow of Trail commerce from Indian raids, but it's particularly well preserved, with some original buildings, and well worth an hour or two; open daily 8:30AM-4:30PM. Finally, although authentic Trail ruts are hard to find in this agricultural area, a short, well-preserved set of ruts is southwest of Fort Larned on "190th Street," really a country road amid the farms. The exceptionally friendly and helpful rangers at Fort Larned can give you a map to this site, which has a short trail (through a prairie-dog town) to a viewing platform from which the ruts can be seen; go late in the daytime for best viewing, as shadows help bring definition to the ruts.
Dodge City is probably the second most famous town on the Santa Fe Trail, after Santa Fe, but visitors expecting an abundance of Trail history may find it somewhat disappointing—not because the history isn't there, but because it's hard to extract from the schlocky, tacky tourist attractions of downtown. However, Trail signposts, exhibits and artifacts are there if you look for them. Some of the sites of interest are:
- Fort Dodge, about 3 miles east of town on Kansas SR 154; most buildings are modern, but many are based on original structures from the fort built to defend the Trail
- Fort Mann and Fort Atkinson, two other forts west of town on US 50; not much remains of either, but there are markers
- Boot Hill Museum in town owns rights to a set of well-preserved Trail ruts, near US 50 a bit further west than the old forts. There is a turnout and parking lot from which the Trail can be viewed.
The next town beyond Dodge on the Trail of any size is Garden City. Just follow US 50 west to the town. The route follows the Arkansas River, which in this area is a shallow, slow stream. There are multiple Trail crossings of the Arkansas, but most are inconspicuous and don't offer much in the way of sightseeing. Check for markers along the road. In Garden City, the Finney County Historical Museum, 403 S. 4th Street, ☏ , has exhibits of regional interest. Open daily 1-5PM (weekdays 10AM-5PM during the summer); free, but small donations suggested.
For some distance beyond Garden City, the Trail lost its identity as a single, universally used track, and split into several sub-routes that went their own way before rejoining east of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The two most important sub-trails were the Mountain Branch leading over Raton Pass along the New Mexico/Colorado state line, and the Cimarron Cutoff crossing the Cimarron River and avoiding the high country to the north.
The Mountain Branch followed the Arkansas River a bit farther, accepting a longer, higher route for the sake of continuing access to water. There are some Trail sites at and near Lamar, Colorado, including Big Timbers Museum[dead link], on the eastern plains of that state; continue following US 50 along the Arkansas. Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta is another historic park preserving an important outpost on the Trail in this area.
The Trail entered what is now New Mexico via Raton Pass, near the town of Raton, NM. Raton and Trinidad, Colorado on the north side of the pass have some Trail sites and artifacts; Trinidad takes pride in the fact that the Trail passed through what is now its (small-town) downtown area. From La Junta, proceed on US 350 south to Trinidad through Comanche National Grassland, with more of a sense of what Trail terrain was like. The Grassland offers a few opportunities for hiking on the actual Trail route, particularly near the Timpas picnic area. Iron Springs (reachable via County Road 9 just south of US 350) was an important Trail landmark and water source. Beyond Trinidad, the route basically followed Interstate 25's current route over the pass, and few Trail ruts or other artifacts are visible until you get to Raton. Take some time, however, to check out sites in downtown Trinidad.
After passing through Raton on I-25, turn west on US 64 for a section of highway that parallels the Trail, sometimes at very short range, for some time. There are occasional Trail crossings (generally not well preserved) on the way to Cimarron, a small town beyond which the Trail heads south toward its reunion with the southerly route. (Note, however, that the obvious markers supported by piles of tires along the north side of the road are not marking the Trail; rather, they're to alert would-be explorers to the presence of a non-historic but potentially dangerous gas pipeline.) St. James Hotel in downtown Cimarron has a long and colorful history dating to Trail days; if it's open, food, drink and lodging there are all atmospheric.
Beyond Cimarron, the Trail follows NM SR 21 for some distance en route to its meeting with the Cimarron Cutoff. The countryside between here and Las Vegas is impressively devoid of services; if you're driving this section, make sure you have fuel in your gas tank. A few road crossings are present, again not well preserved.
This section of the Trail is rather ill-defined, with a number of broadly parallel paths crossing southwestern Kansas and the Panhandle (Red Carpet) region of Oklahoma en route to New Mexico. You can get a sampling of the area by following US 56 directly southwest out of Dodge City, or following the route above to Garden City and then cutting south to 56 via US 83. Cimarron National Grassland is in extreme southwestern Kansas and gives a good sense of what this empty country looked like as the settlers were passing through. Although the Trail through the Grassland is generally open only to viewing rather than traversing, a "companion trail" here affords access to cyclists, horseback riders and hikers.
Continuing on US 56, Autograph Rock, about 10 miles northwest of Boise City, Oklahoma, records the passage of various settlers and travelers. Follow local roads from Boise City. Trail ruts are visible in a few places in northeast New Mexico near Clayton, but most of the Trail in this area passes mainly through country inaccessible due to private ownership and/or lack of roads. An exception is Kiowa National Grassland north of Clayton, which preserves a two-mile section of the Trail completely open to hiking.
Into Las Vegas
These two branches rejoined in present-day Mora County, New Mexico, not far from Fort Union National Monument, yet another unit of the national park system about 20 miles east of Las Vegas (New Mexico) that preserves an important fort along the Trail. Trail ruts are visible (and relatively accessible) at Fort Union. (If you're doing this section after 5PM, you'll have to backtrack from Las Vegas the next day to see things at Fort Union, as the monument closes at 5PM. The route from town back to monument is quick, though, and a backtrack is entirely feasible.) Public highways in this area are few and far between, and if you simply follow Interstate 25 between Springer and Las Vegas, you'll basically parallel the Trail at no great distance.
Las Vegas was on the Trail, and while the town has expanded considerably and obliterated many Trail traces, a number of structures in the downtown area are on the National Register of Historic Places for their Trail associations. You're not far from Santa Fe at this point, and it's entirely feasible to continue directly to the end of the Trail and skip the third night on the road. However, this area is scenic and interesting, so you might think about bedding down here for the night and taking the morning to walk around downtown, before heading on to Santa Fe the next day. This will have the side benefit of providing a little more time for getting used to the altitude; the route from here leads inexorably higher until Glorieta Pass, on the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at an elevation of about 7,500 ft (2,300 m), is reached. Glorieta Pass was enormously important during Trail days, and an important if often overlooked battle of the US Civil War was fought here. The Battle of Glorieta Pass was one of the most important events to happen on or near the Trail, in fact; the Union victory here prevented the Confederacy from interrupting commerce between California and points east, or even capturing California, with enormous strategic consequences.
You can make a beeline for Santa Fe through this area on I-25 without missing much of the Trail, there being few easily accessible ruts or other Trail sites due to construction. However, it's recommended that you digress at the Rowe/Pecos exit on I-25 and turn west on NM 63 toward the small town of Pecos. Pecos National Historical Park is on this road and preserves a number of important historical/archaeological sites in this region, but to visit some of the Trail-oriented ones, you'll have to do some planning. Check the park's web site well ahead of your arrival; as of 2006, there were ranger-led walks once or twice a week that featured Trail sites and sights. The Trail passed directly in front of the access road leading to the visitor center, but no ruts or other artifacts are obvious there. Also on this road, just before the park, is a large complex built around remnants from the Kozlowski ranch and stagecoach stop, which featured in various Trail episodes.
Beyond the park, you can hurry to Santa Fe along I-25, but there are a few things to see on the side roads that may interest you. The town of Pecos is just west of the park, and while the town is of no great interest, a few nearby structures date to Trail days and are preserved. Look in particular for an old adobe building at roadside (literally—it's about 5 feet from the highway, protected by a bumper) about three miles west of the center of town on NM 50. This is the sole surviving structure from Pigeon's Ranch, one of the key sites in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Look but don't touch (it's on private property and is seriously dilapidated), and hope that sporadic efforts to preserve this and surrounding battlefield sites come to something.
NM 50 leads back to I-25, which you follow over Glorieta Pass; no Trail ruts are visible from here to Santa Fe. Leave I-25 at the exit for Old Pecos Trail, which merges with the modern highway called "Old Santa Fe Trail" in south-central Santa Fe. (You can go for slightly greater "authenticity" by continuing on NM 300 leaving the I-25 interchange either at Canocito or at the Eldorado exit, which is called the Old Las Vegas Highway. At the stop light with El Gaucho Way, turn right then turn left at the stop sign. You are now on the Old Santa Fe Trail. Follow the road until you reach central 2 Santa Fe. Pause to enjoy the scenery; you've made it to the end of the Trail, just as the voyagers of the 19th century did. (At least you'll have made it to Trail's end if you survive the crazy drivers and reach the downtown area.)
Except in parts of the Kansas City area, crime isn't much of a problem on this itinerary, and even Kansas City isn't a hotbed of crime compared to other big cities. Your main issues are weather and remoteness. Practically the entire route east of New Mexico lies in "Tornado Alley," and attention to Tornado safety during the spring and summer months is a good idea. Summer on the Trail can be broiling hot; keep extra water in your vehicle. Use sunscreen if you get out of the car, as your chances of being under a cloudless sky are very good. Conversely, if you do the Trail in the winter, be prepared for serious blizzards and ice storms that can make driving on the minor roads, and even on the interstate, a hazardous proposition. Cellular-phone coverage along the route is generally adequate, but during blizzards it may be difficult for help to reach you even if you do make cell-phone contact with emergency services.
One "advantage" (or is it a drawback?) that you have over early Trail travelers is that the chances of dangerous encounters with wildlife are much reduced. You'll see bison (buffalo) in places, particularly if you follow the mountain route, but interactions with them will be nonexistent unless you get out of your car and try to have an interaction (which is emphatically not recommended—they're not just big cows, they have tempers and can do a lot of damage if provoked). Rattlesnakes can be found all along the route; take sensible precautions if you get out and hike (i.e., don't poke around under bushes and in crevices, make a little noise when walking along overgrown trail), but they'll leave you alone if you leave them alone, and paranoia is not indicated. Possibly your biggest "wildlife" concern is with ticks, which are prevalent along the route and can carry disease, so do a quick check of exposed body parts and near clothes seams after you hike. Mosquitoes in this area can be annoying, but are much less so than in wetter areas, and don't carry diseases of any significance here.
Santa Fe is, pretty well by definition, the end of the Trail. It's also a fantastic place to spend a few days luxuriating after your trip, with Taos, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Bandelier National Monument, and other marvels of north central New Mexico nearby.
If you need to return to your starting point and would prefer not to simply retrace your steps, an interesting alternative is to follow a more modern "trail" between Midwest and Southwest, Route 66. Proceed south from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and pick up the old highway there, following the Route 66 itinerary in reverse until you get to or near where you came from. (You can shorten the return trip slightly by going instead to the uninspiring village of Clines Corners about 70 miles east of Albuquerque on old Route 66, but there's absolutely nothing noteworthy there, while Albuquerque has a number of interesting attractions.) If you're in a hurry, you can bolt down I-25; if you have some time, the Turquoise Trail through a number of colorful little villages east of the Interstate is much more interesting.
If this itinerary whets your appetite for exploring historic routes across the western United States, you might consider backtracking to Raton and Trinidad, and then continuing northwest on the Oregon Trail, another of the major routes by which the West was settled. East of Trinidad, the Oregon Trail generally followed the same route as the Santa Fe Trail, at least in one of its incarnations. The westward continuation toward the state of Oregon covers very different territory with striking scenery, but that's a different itinerary.