On the Santa Fe Trail (Part II)

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Along the Trail

As we approached Bent’s Fort, my son noted that there were two busloads of children touring the site. It is certainly not as “lost” as our trip to Fort Union felt. And as we approached the Fort itself, we recognized it as re-constructed, not at all like the ruins of the Fort in northern New Mexico. But the name, Bent, reminded me that there was still the connection to New Mexico. More than the trail itself. The Bent of this Fort, and Governor Bent in Taos were brothers. The world was small even then.

My son and I drove the Santa Fe Trail from Cimmarron, New Mexico to Independence, Missouri. The ghost towns along the way were flanked by the railroad, and the wide open sky. Not much different than home. We stopped for the old wagon ruts and in Dodge City, Kansas, and then it poured down rain on us for half a day. I’m surprised it wasn’t worse, frankly. The rain and tornadoes can be crazy in the Midwest, and it made me wonder what the women along the trail thought.

My son and I talked about people we know who’ve come to New Mexico from Missouri. And there are quite a lot; we decided the travel route still persists today. It must be in our memories somehow, and we just don’t even realize it. In fact, it is true, travel patterns do persist. We are examples. New Mexicans, from Missouri, traveling back and forth along the Santa Fe Trail more than 120 years after those wagon ruts were dug into the muddy dirt roads across Kansas.

Bent's Fort
Bent’s Fort
Bent's Fort
Bent’s Fort
Santa Fe Trail Ruts
Santa Fe Trail Ruts
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Finding the Santa Fe Trail (Part I)

Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe Trail

Sometimes things that aren’t lost are pretty hard to find. And once you discover them, you realize you’ve simply got to tell everyone you know because the treasure just might disappear forever if other people don’t know about it. This is how we felt about finding Fort Union National Park about thirty miles north of Las Vegas, New Mexico. It is just off I-25, about 90 miles east of Taos.

My son studied New Mexico history, like every student in New Mexico, and for the last couple of months he has been talking to me about different places around the state. Fort Union came up, and together we looked it up on the map. Seemed like a good day adventure. So we headed out of the pass toward Mora, and followed the Santa Fe Trail. The ruts along the road are still visible along the route.

Once we arrived at Fort Union, we got a serious history lesson from my son, but also from the national park itself. The brick chinmeys pierced the landscape while the June wind whipped the prairie grass, and we walked the Santa Fe Trail. Trail travelers generally ventured between 12-24 miles a day (between a 1/2 and full marathon at todays standards). From this major outpost, Santa Fe was still two days travel at least. Beautiful to consider, what it must have been.

More than 3,000 people lived at the Fort in the early 1800’s. There was a major hospital on the grounds that was the best in the region. The hospital had over 126 beds over its life. This Fort was a booming place. And we, along with the one National Park Service Ranger, had it to ourselves.

It takes just a few hours to explore the ruins and trail in this area so we drove into Las Vegas afterwards for lunch at the historic Plaza Hotel.  It is worth the 30 miles drive south to see the plaza.  The Plaza Hotel was built in the 1880’s when the railroad was built.

Fort Union National Park is a beautiful little day trip to explore the southern end of the Santa Fe Trail.  It is definitely worth the stop, taking a break from a long drive along I-25, or as a day trip from Taos, Santa Fe or Albuquerque.

Santa Fe Trail

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Fort Union 9

Fort Union 7

Hidden spots in Bandelier

It has been warming up around here, and it makes me yearn for summer and weekend hikes. This weekend I’ve been daydreaming about places we’ve been and places I’d like to be if it were warm. So my next few posts will be my summer daydreams. Soon enough it will be warm and we’ll be able to venture out for an afternoon hike in shorts and baseball cap, searching a natural treasure along the way.

Bandelier National Monument is about 30,000 acres of beautiful canyonlands and mesa with petrogylphs and dwellings dating back 11,000 years. The main loop trail and visitor center is most certainly worth a visit if you haven’t been there, but we prefer the Tsankawi Trail. It is a bit off the beaten path, and it is one of my favorite spots for a short afternoon adventure.

The Tsankawi Trail is only a couple miles and it is not a difficult hike, but it follows ancient pathways and includes ladders along the trail up the side of ancestral dwelling sites. The petroglyphs and the ancestral pueblo village of Tsankawi are ghostly and beautiful on the mesa above Rio Grande.

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Pottery shards can be spotted along the trail
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Petroglyphs
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More . . .on the last part of the trail you’re surrounded by petroglyphs
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Dwellings
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Looking at over the mesa just as a storm is rolling in
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Chimney
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More pottery shards