Motorhomers can drive along the same route taken by frontier travelers in the southeastern portion of the state.
By Diane Barnet
Think of Colorado, and snowy ski resorts spring to mind. However, in contrast, the southeast corner of the state is flat, flanked by the front range of the Rocky Mountains. This is the land of the fabled Santa Fe Trail.
Beginning in 1821, the trail carried fur trappers, mountain men, traders, and strings of packhorses back and forth between Missouri and Santa Fe, a town that was then part of Mexico. It was a challenging 900-mile journey. In western Kansas, the trail split in two. Travelers could choose the shorter Cimarron Cutoff to the south or the longer Mountain Branch, which traveled north until it turned south via the rugged Raton Pass to Santa Fe. The Mountain Branch passed through what would become Colorado. The trail’s dramatic views, from plains to mountains, marked a major milestone for travelers. This route was more precipitous, but it had more sources of water and less chance of Indian attacks than when traveling along the Cimarron Cutoff.
In Colorado the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Arkansas River, which marked the boundary with Mexico until the Mexican-American War brought New Mexico into the United States in 1846. Wagon trains, immigrants, and California gold seekers used this section of the trail well into the 1870s. But by 1880 railroads had become the main form of transportation, and the trail fell into disuse.
The historic towns of Lamar, Las Animas, La Junta, and Trinidad lie on the trail’s old Mountain Branch route and are well worth a visit. In fact, as you drive westward, U.S. 50 leads to Lamar and La Junta following the Santa Fe Trail route. From La Junta, still following the trail, U.S. 350 continues southwest to Trinidad, the entry point to Colorado from the Southwest along Interstate 25. This entire route has been designated the Santa Fe Trail Scenic and Historic Byway “” the Mountain Branch.
Although Lamar, population 8,600, was founded in 1886 when a railroad depot was moved from a nearby town, its location places it near many historic sites. The current depot is a restored 1906 building that serves as a working Amtrak station and also houses the Colorado Welcome Center. Stop in for a cup of coffee and visit with volunteers at the welcome center, who can help you with your travel plans.
Lamar’s Big Timbers Museum displays Indian relics, cowboy gear and clothing, and photographs from the 1880s to the 1930s. It’s open daily from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., and is on U.S. 50.
The next town along the route as you travel westward on U.S. 50 is Las Animas. The Kit Carson Museum there tells the story of Christopher “Kit” Carson’s scouting and trading along the Santa Fe Trail and throughout the region. Carson’s amazing facility for languages made his presence invaluable on the frontier. The museum is open daily in the summer from noon to 4:00 p.m. and operates on donations from visitors.
South of Las Animas on U.S. 101 is Boggsville Historic Site, a restored settlement once home to several important pioneer families of the 1860s, including Kit Carson and his wife, Josefa Jaramillo. She was the daughter of an influential Mexican trading family. The town of Boggsville itself was settled in 1862. Its original homes and businesses are now being restored.
La Junta, the Spanish word for “junction,” is a town of 7,500 residents located in the Arkansas River ranching and farming country. Once an important railroad center, it is just six miles from Bent’s Old Fort, which was a vital stop on the Santa Fe Trail.
A sprawling adobe fortification once known as “the castle on the prairies,” Bent’s Old Fort was built in 1833 by Ceran St. Vrain and brothers Charles and William Bent, who formed a trading company that included Fort St. Vrain to the north, Fort Adobe to the south, and company stores in Taos and Santa Fe.
Bent’s Old Fort provided supplies, repairs, and lodging for traders, explorers, adventurers, and Plains Indians and also served as a staging area for the “Army of the West” during the Mexican-American War. The fort was abandoned in 1849.
What we see today is a reconstruction of the original complex. Visitors can easily spend half a day exploring its spacious quarters, workshops, and living history demonstrations. Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is set up now to look as it would have in 1848, when it was a private commercial trading spot. A small fee ($3 for adults; $2 for children ages 6 to 12) is charged for entry. National Parks passes are honored. The fort is open daily.
If you happen to visit in July, consider seeing the Santa Fe Trail Encampment at Bent’s Old Fort. Enthusiasts will portray individuals who were at the fort in 1846 just prior to the war with Mexico: soldiers in the U.S. Army of the West, employees at the fort, merchants from the trail, and area Plains Indians. The encampment takes place July 29, 30, and 31 this year.
Stay in La Junta for even more history. The Koshare Indian Museum not only boasts a renowned collection of Plains and Southwest Indian art and artifacts, it also hosts authentic Indian ceremonial dances presented by a local Boy Scout troop. They call themselves the Koshare Indian Dancers and portray Pueblo Indian-style black-and-white striped characters. During June, July, and December, performances are offered several evenings a week. Admission to the museum is included in a Koshare dance program ticket; for ticket information, call (800) 693-5482 or visit www.koshare.org. Regular admission to the museum only is $4 for adults and $3 for seniors and students.
The Otero Museum complex in La Junta includes a collection of historic buildings: an 1865 coach house, a replica of an 1876 log cabin school, a blacksmith’s shop, and the 1890s Wickham Boarding House, as well as vintage automobiles and early farm equipment. From June 1 to September 30 it is open six days a week between the hours of 1:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
From La Junta, a two-hour drive on U.S. 350 brings you to Trinidad. Truly an “Old West Victorian Town,” Trinidad, population 9,000, perches on the banks of the Purgatory River with a view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The town is situated at an elevation of 6,000 feet, and its air is clear and invigorating.
Settled in the 1860s, Trinidad was a hell-raising town where saloons, gambling dens, and dance halls lined the streets. Main Street was part of the Santa Fe Trail, and Fisher’s Peak, a mesa on the edge of town visible 80 miles away, guided travelers from La Junta to Trinidad.
Ranching flourished around Trinidad, although barbed wire soon put an end to the open range. The discovery of coal also caused the town to prosper. By 1900 dozens of mines in the area produced most of the coal for the largest steel mill west of the Mississippi “” Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation in Pueblo.
You can explore the town’s Corazon de Trinidad (Heart of Trinidad) National Historic District by walking tour or on a free trolley that leaves the Colorado Welcome Center hourly, Monday through Friday, in the summer. The Welcome Center, once a railroad depot, sits next to an Amtrak station now serving modern trains.
Trinidad’s gems include its brick streets and elegant brick and frame houses, some dating from 1845. Its many historic sandstone buildings include the 1879 Columbian Hotel, 1909 City Hall, and 1908 West Theatre and Opera House, as well as the 1889 Temple Aaron, the oldest continuously active synagogue in Colorado.
The Trinidad History Museum encompasses three buildings: the 1870 Baca House, home of a New Mexico patriarch who brought 12 families to settle in Trinidad in the 1860s; the 1882 Bloom Mansion, built by a wealthy banker and cattle rancher; and the Santa Fe Trail Museum, housed in adobe outbuildings once occupied by Baca’s servants. Admission is charged to visit the Santa Fe Trail Museum, which is renowned for displaying one of Kit Carson’s buckskin coats.
Main Street is also home to the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art, named for the renowned illustrator, which also boasts a collection of photographs of Trinidad over the past 150 years. The museum is located in a 1900s department store and boasts the original tin ceiling and wood floors. A small admission fee is charged.
Each year in June (June 10, 11, and 12, 2005), the Santa Fe Trail Days Festival is held in Trinidad. The event includes music, arts and crafts and food booths, a car show, and special presentations at the Trinidad History Museum. But any time of the year is a great time to explore the unspoiled towns and byways of the Santa Fe Trail.
More Trail Info
For more information about the Santa Fe Trail Scenic and Historic Byway “” Mountain Branch, visit the excellent Web site www.santafetrailscenicandhistoricbyway.org, or contact:
Trinidad/Las Animas Development Inc.
136 W. Main St.
Trinidad, CO 81082
Area Tourism Contacts
La Junta Chamber of Commerce
110 Santa Fe Ave.
La Junta, CO 81050
Colorado Welcome Center at Lamar
109 E. Beech St.
Lamar, CO 81052
Colorado Welcome Center at Trinidad
309 Nevada Ave.