Santa Fe Trail
Glimpse the pioneer experience of nineteenth century America along this national and historic byway.
- Length: 480 miles (772 kilometers)
- Elevation: 5.050 feet (1,768 meters) to 7,834 feet (2,389 meters)
By Michael Pitel
Mention the Santa Fe Trail and watch a history enthusiast get misty-eyed as the mind conjures up an image of a caravan of freight wagons, the rumble of wheels, the shouts of bullwhackers, the snaps of the whip, and bellows of yoked oxen, all headed west across an endless, rolling, grassy prairie.
After all these years, the 900-mile (1,448-kilometer) long trail across five states still stirs the emotions. The Santa Fe Trail evokes the pioneer spirit.
When William Becknell left Franklin, Mo, in September, 1821, he and his men headed west. Near present-day Las Vegas, New Mexico, the six men ran into a companydiv of Spanish dragoon whose commander urged them to take their trade goods to Santa Fe. American traders, once forbidden in isolationist Spain's colony, were welcome. Only weeks earlier, impoverished Mexico had won its independence and was eager to trade with the U.S.
Becknell arrived in Santa Fe in November, sold his wares at once, and hurried back to Missouri, his pack animals laden with silver coins. Returning to Santa Fe with a small caravan of wagons in 1822, he realized a 2,000 percent profit. Word quickly spread back East, and the Santa Fe Trail and a new era of prosperity were born.
The trail, one of the most famous in American history, brought ever-increasing supplies of scarce goods west, as well as a new people, a new language, and new skills and customs. Many New Mexicans, seeing profits for local goods at distant East coast markets, bankrolled eastbound caravans.
When the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846, U.S. troops marched west and declared New Mexico a U.S. Territory. As trail trade increased in the 1850s, the U.S. built forts along the trail to protect traffic. In 1866, trail traffic peaked at 5,000 freight wagons.
In 1879, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived in New Mexico, the trail passed into history.
Today travelers young and old can still visit remnants of the Santa Fe Trail amid the cattle ranches of northeast New Mexico and along the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway.
Cimarron Route, Clayton to Springer
From the city of Clayton, drive 22 miles (35 km) northeast (the last 18 miles or 29 km on State Road 406) to one of the most remarkable places on the entire trail, remote McNees Crossing. A half-mile (0.8 k) walk east into Bill Mock's cattle ranch are a white historical marker and a cutdown in the west embankment of Corrumpa Creek to a rock ledge where the trail wagons crossed. This crossing is where Pawnee Indians killed young Missouri traders Robert McNees and Daniel Munro, who had ridden ahead of an eastbound caravan of wagons, in 1828. The marker, erected in 1921, commemorates the first observance of an Independence Day celebration in New Mexico there in 1831.
Eleven miles (18 km) southwest of McNees, via State Road 406 and a gravel county road, walk a three-mile (five km) segment of the trail in a portion of Kiowa National Grassland.
A second trail campsite, unmarked Turkey Creek Camp, is about four miles (six km) north of Clayton Lake State Park. Return to Clayton via State Road 370; note Rabbit Ear Mountain, a distinctive trail landmark, just to the east. Turn onto U.S. Highway 64/87 and go 27 miles (43 km) northwest to the hamlet of Grenville. En route, note another trail landmark, 700-foot (214 km) high Mount Dora on the north. At Grenville, turn south and go 21 miles (34 km) on State Road 453; it quickly skirts the base of what was then Round Mound, a landmark trail travelers often scaled for a panorama of the countryside. Round Mound is today Mount Clayton.
Turn west on U.S. Highway 56 and go 30 miles (48 km); turn north onto gravel County Road 52 to Faye Gaines's cattle ranch, 10 miles (16 km) north. After six miles (10 km) or so, a broad dip in the fence line delineates where the 120-foot (37m) wide trail crosses; shortly afterward, turn east and go two miles (three km). Beneath the narrow, rock-studded mesa known as Point of Rocks is another remarkable trail campsite.
Long popular among buffalo-hunting Indians because of its spring (note several teepee rings), Point of Rocks was a dangerous place (note piles of stones marking 10 unidentified gravesites). Parties of Indians sometimes ambushed approaching trail caravans, including the White family, which was killed near there in 1849.
Return to U.S. Highway 56; turn west and go 26 miles (41 km) to the town of Springer for lunch. Afterward, tour the town's Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center & Museum. End the day at the 1878 Mills' Mansion which will house the Colfax County War/Mills' Canyon Museum when renovation is complete.
Mountain Route, Raton & Cimarron to Springer
From the trail city of Trinidad, Colo., take Interstate 25 south and begin the 14-mile (23 km) ascent of 7,834-foot (2,389 meter) high Raton Pass. The trail climbed the north slope to the summit before the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad were laid there in 1879. From 1866 until the arrival of the railroad, Richard L. "Uncle Dick" Wootton operated a prosperous toll road up the canyon. The trail descended the south slope via Railroad Canyon into the city of Raton. The first cattle drive on the Goodnight-Loving Trail also used the pass and Wootton's toll road in 1866.
From Raton, where you can amble among several preserved historic buildings lining First Street, including the Raton Museum, the Wells Fargo Building and the restored Shuler Theater, built in 1915. Head southwest 41 miles (66 kilometers), via I-25 and U.S. Highway 64, to the town of Cimarron.
Accessing U.S. Highway 64, look north. Among the trees along the nearby Canadian River are the ruins of the Clifton House, a trail stop famed for its food and lodging in 1866-79. Distinctive Red River Peak, another trail landmark, is behind it.
Nine miles (14 km) southwest, the trail splits. The earlier trail crosses U.S. Highway 64 and the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, bound for the hamlet of Rayado. The later trail, bound for Cimarron, parallels the north side of the highway, bound for the town of Cimarron, 24 miles (39 km) southwest.
Step back in time in Old Cimarron, on State Road 21 less than a mile (one km) south of U.S., Highway 64.
Park at the St. James Hotel, built in 1872-80. Built by French entrepreneur Henri Lambert, a former field cook for U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and a White House chef for President Abraham Lincoln, the two-story adobe property began as Cimarron's best saloon, built in 1872. Several men were shot and killed there, the violence evident in the 26 bullet holes in the bar's pressed tin ceiling, now the hotel's elegant dining room.
Among the hotel's many notable guests it was the first lodging facility in northeast New Mexico with hot and cold running water were several legendary Western figures like Lambert's friend William "Buffalo Bill" Cody (who recruited the nearby Ute Indians for his Wild West Shows); renowned Western artist Frederic Remington (who sketched among the nearby hills); and popular Western novelist Zane Grey (who soaked up the locale for his 1929 novel "Fighting Caravans").
After lunch at the hotel, embark on a walking tour of Old Cimarron's tiny plaza and well (where trail caravans once stopped); the adjacent site of land baron Lucien Maxwell's palatial adobe home (1864-85); the former Dahl Brothers Trading Post & Warehouse (circa 1848); the former National Hotel (circa 1854); Swink's Gambling Hall (1854); and the Meagers & Sanderson Stagecoach Line Office (pre-1870). Three blocks west of the St. James is Maxwell's Aztec Mill (1864-70).
Drive four miles (six kilometers) south to a tour of Tulsa, Oklahoma, oil baron Waite Phillips's Spanish Mediterranean mansion, the Villa Philmonte. Built in 1927, Phillips's summer home is the headquarters of Philmont Scout Ranch, his 127,215-acre gift to the Boy Scouts in 1938 and 1941. About 20,000 Scouts flock to the ranch every summer. "The very rich are different from you and me," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1926 short story "The Rich Boy". That's evident during the mansion tour in the Phillipses' separate showers, where his shower, with its seven huge nozzles and a thermostat in the regulating handle, is like a personalized car wash.
Afterward, tour the Ernest Thompson Seton Memorial Museum & Library, a mile (two km) south of the mansion.
Then drive six miles (10 kilometers) south to the trail hamlet of Rayado; less than a mile (two km) south of the museum-library, on the north side of the hill where State Road 21 climbs onto, note the adjacent trail scars.
Settled by Maxwell and pal Kit Carson in 1848, the trail campsite of Rayado became a military post once Maxwell moved to Cimarron, and a stagecoach stop. Note the tiny Capilla de Santo Nino (Chapel of the Holy Child), directly across the road from Maxwell's former adobe home. A quarter-mile (0.4 km) south, tour the fortresslike adobe Kit Carson Museum.
Afterward, return to supper and an overnight in Cimarron. Or, after the Old Cimarron tour (and bypassing tours of Villa Philmonte, the Seton Museum & Library, and Rayado's Kit Carson Museum), drive 23 miles east (37 km) east to the town of Springer and visit the Old Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center & Museum.
Continuation of Trail, Springer to Las Vegas
Head south on Interstate 25; after 25 miles (40 km) or so, to the trail landmark of Wagon Mound. The narrow, 500-foot (152 km) high mesa resembles the silhouette of a Santa Fe-bound, ox-drawn wagon. Wagon Mound was a trail campsite, too. Well-trained eyes will detect trail scars on adjacent ranch lands south of town and at ravine fords for the next 21 miles (34 km).
Outside the hamlet of Watrous, turn northwest eight miles (13 km) up State Road 161 to Fort Union National Monument. Note the scarring left by trail caravans on the adjacent hillside; a half-mile south (0.8 kilometer) is the onetime trail and stagecoach stop of Tiptonville, founded circa 1850.
The adobe ruins of the original fort (1851-63), a mile south of the second (1862) and third (1863-91) forts in the national monument, are visible across the broad valley. A combination supply depot (it furnished all the forts in Arizona and New Mexico Territories) and military fort, Fort Union opened in 1851. Its troops not only guarded trail traffic. They also helped thwart a force of Texas Confederates at the pivotal March, 1862, Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass, 16 miles (26 km) southeast of Santa Fe. The fort closed in 1891. Trail ruts still encircle the second and third forts, and can be seen for several miles across the surrounding Fort Union Ranch.
In Watrous, note the former fortresslike home and mercantile of trail merchant Samuel B. Watrous (built in 1849); it's a private residence on the Doolittle Ranch.
If time permits, visit three 1850s flour mills in the distant Mora Valley, 23 to 29 miles (37-47 km) away. They once provided flour to Fort Union. Take State Road 161 northwest. Right after crossing the Sapello River, the byway passes the Sapello Stagecoach Station (also known as Gregg's Tavern, circa 1860) and trail scarring on the hillside (both to the south), and crosses an especially deep, 80-foot (24 m) wide swale a little farther west. After winding through the picturesque village of Golondrinas (whose centerpiece is the adobe San Acacio de las Golondrinas Church, built in 1862), reach the village of Buena Vista, 21 miles (34 km) northwest of Watrous. Turn north on State Road 518 to the hamlet of La Cueva, and the villages of Mora and Cleveland. Returning to Buena Vista, drive south on State Road 518 for 22 miles (36 km) to the Victorian city of Las Vegas, settled in 1835.
Otherwise, after visiting Fort Union and Watrous, go south 19 miles (31 km) south on Interstate 25 to the Victorian city of Las Vegas, settled in 1835.
Settled in 1835, Las Vegas consists of Old Town and New Town. Uptown is Old Town, where some Spanish merchants prospered from trail commerce. Adobe and Victorian buildings surround its tree-lined, green grass plaza. Catching the eye are the red bricks of the fully restored and operational Plaza Hotel, built in 1882. Beneath its 36 rooms are a restaurant and saloon. Across Bridge Street, which spans the Gallinas River, is Downtown, where railroad-era New Town's hundreds of Victorian buildings lie. Nearby are neighborhoods of tree-lined streets and hundreds of elegant Victorian homes.
Spend two nights in Las Vegas, once the biggest, wealthiest, and most influential city in New Mexico.
Walking tours take travelers through Las Vegas's nine historic districts and some of the 918 homes and buildings on the National Register. Be sure to see the territorial exhibits in the City of Las Vegas Museum. Its Rough Rider Collection commemorates Teddy Roosevelt's 1898 Spanish-American War regiment, whose soldiers came mostly from New Mexico.
The Piedra Lumbre campsite, where Capitan Don Pedro Ignacio Gallego and his 400 dragoons ran into the William Becknell party in October, 1821, is adjacent Kearny's Gap (and a wealth of deep trail ruts), three miles (five km) south.
Farther south, via Interstate 25, awaits the onetime trail village of Tecolote, settled in 1824. It's 12 miles (19 km) away. Overlooking its tiny plaza is the restored adobe church of Nuestra Senora de los Delores ("Our Lady of Sorrows"), built in 1840.
The Pecos River crossings at the trail villages of San Jose Del Vado (settled in 1803), and San Miguel Del Vado (settled circa 1794) are 15 miles (24 km) beyond Tecolote. The south and west sides of the quiet plaza in tiny San Jose are vestiges of the original quadrangular village, which was settled in 1803. Downriver in San Miguel, the whitewashed adobe church adjacent its plaza was built in 1805. Next to its front steps is the tower bell, which was cast in Ohio and freighted across the trail.
Farther west await the massive adobe ruins of two 17th Century Spanish missions in beautiful Pecos National Historical Park. They're 45 miles (72 km) west of Las Vegas. The ancient Indian village adjacent the ruins was nearly deserted when trail caravans began to encamp beneath it. The ruins were a trail landmark. Six miles of trail ruts wend among the Ponderosa pines within the national park, which for nearly 50 years was the Forked Lightning Ranch of the late Oscar-winning actress Greer Garson.
Byway elevations range from 5,050 feet (1,768 meters) to 7,622 feet (2,325 meters). Gas, food, and lodging abound in Clayton, Raton, Cimarron, and Las Vegas; Springer has gas, food, and limited lodging.