Santa Fe Trail Scenic & Historic Byway
Interpretive Master Plan

Santa Fe Trail logo concho belt

Overview of the Santa Fe Trail Scenic and Historic Byway

The Santa Fe Trail Scenic and Historic Byway essentially follows the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail swinging through Colorado's southeastern corner. Wagon ruts from the many caravans that followed the trail are evident from the highways that make up the Byway and the early history of Colorado has its roots in this part of the State.

The Santa Fe Trail crossed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico, linking Franklin, (and later Independence,) Missouri by 900 hazardous miles of trail with the bustling central plaza of Santa Fe. Deep ruts are still visible on parts of the trail, attesting to the thousands of wagon trains that traveled the Trail between 1821 and 1880.

For centuries before this highway of commerce became a popular trade route, Indians followed it. Coronado, too, followed it eastward in 1541 as far as Kansas. Many pathfinders and explorers left their marks on the trail in the early 1800s. Zebulon Pike's party, venturing into the territory in 1806, was captured by Spanish soldiers and imprisoned in Mexico City for a year. Upon his release, Pike made assessments of exciting trade opportunities but others who followed were, likewise, imprisoned by Spain for trespass.

After Mexican independence in 1821 these barriers fell. William Becknell, a salt maker from Franklin, Missouri, and five companions led a small pack train toward Santa Fe that same year. They were greeted enthusiastically in Santa Fe ten weeks later and the Santa Fe Trail was born. Mexicans anxious to trade, exchanged silver coins, furs and mules for textiles and other manufactured goods and an active trade was developed. Within a few years of opening of the trade, New Mexican traders were active on the trail. There were international firms, U.S. traders became Mexican citizens and intermarriage was not uncommon.

Caravans averaged about 15 miles a day — nine to ten weeks between Santa Fe and Franklin, Missouri. After the 1830s travelers had two routes from which to choose. At Cimarron, Kansas the Mountain Route split from the traditional Cimarron Route. The Mountain Route followed the Arkansas River through Colorado, swinging south over Raton Pass. The Cimarron Route was more direct but was waterless for 50 - 60 miles between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers and Indian attacks were more frequent than on the Mountain Route.

Although the route was 100 miles longer and the climb over Raton Pass difficult, the fact that the Mountain Route had more water and was less vulnerable to Indian attacks made it a favorite of some travelers. This was especially true after 1833 when Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain built Fort William (later Bent's Fort). The Fort was a center of Indian trade and was the only place where travelers could stop, rest, repair wagons and replenish supplies. Bent's Fort altered the balance of power and trading patterns in the Southwest.

The trail brought both cultural exchange and conflict. Tension rose between the U.S. and Mexico as American interests sought territorial expansion. After two years of fighting, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought peace in 1848 and the United States annexed all of present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California and portions of Colorado and Kansas. The Treaty also meant stagecoach and mail service, soldiers, gold seekers, missionaries and emigrant families. The trail traversed through the homeland and hunting grounds of the Pawnee, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache and Kiowa. As traffic increased, so did the number of interactions—meetings, trade, intermarriage—some were friendly and others not. A complex relationship developed as the cultures merged.

The American Civil War came to New Mexico in 1862 and Confederate forces captured Santa Fe. The Battle of Glorietta Pass was the key to western battle in the Civil War. Colorado volunteers played an important role in that battle. At the close of the Civil War, industrial energies exploded and wagons loaded their goods at railheads. In 1880 the first steam loco­motive pulled into Santa Fe, signaling the passing of the Santa Fe Trail.

The trail still holds allure, however. Markers, monuments, books, National Historic Trail status and this Scenic Byway commemorate, help preserve, interpret and provide for public recreational use along the trail. The trail, its people and its major impact on trade, commerce, cultural exchange and economic growth are memorialized through these actions.

The Byway follows U.S. Highway 50 west from the Colorado-Kansas border to the town of La Junta, where it turns southwest to follow State Highway 350 to Trinidad. Here it continues south to the Colorado-New Mexico border over Raton Pass on Interstate 25.

There are a variety of activities travelers can enjoy along the Byway: bicycling, picnicking, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, boating, and other water-based recreation. The two top industries in the area are agriculture and tourism.

Top

Next Chapter

Return to Table of Contents