Route and the Trail

 

Santa Fe Trail Tracks

The Santa Fe Trail Tracks wagon rut viewing area is located between Cimarron and Dodge City, Kansas, on US 50/400.  The turnoff is about 8 miles east of Cimarron, and 10 miles west of downtown Dodge City.  Watch for the big sign on the north side of the road.

For settlers headed west along the Santa Fe Trail, Kansas must have been the easy part of their journey.  None of it was particularly easy, of course.  But at least Kansas offered flat land and few obstacles.

By 1880, the railroads reached Santa Fe, and the old trail was no longer necessary.  Remarkably, even though it's been 130 years since wagons jostled their way through this area, the ruts they left behind in the prairie are still visible... somewhat.

I had a hard time spotting the ruts, for a couple of reasons.  First, it was bitterly cold, and the ever-present prairie wind was cutting through me.  A few minutes in those conditions can make you stop caring about wagon ruts, quite fast.  It also didn't help that the prairie had recently burned, so I couldn't look for changes in the vegetation that often point to the presence of a rut.  Instead, I looked toward the horizon, and watched for lumpy spots that should otherwise have been smooth.

I'm fairly certain some of what I saw was part of the old Santa Fe Trail.  At the very least, I was in the right neighborhood.  Wagons didn't always travel single-file, since having several wagons next to one another helped provide security during an attack.  So, I wasn't looking for just one set of ruts, but several, running side by side.

The viewpoint also points out the site of an old irrigation canal that came to be known as Soule's Ditch.  The canal ran along the right side of the picture above.  It was designed to carry water from the nearby Arkansas River into the somewhat dry farmland nearby.  After several decades of leaks, dam breaks, and damaging flash floods, the project was unofficially renamed "Soule's Folly", and abandoned.

Until 1848, the Arkansas River (just south of US 50) was the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. U.S. troops used the Santa Fe Trail on their way to invade, during the Mexican-American War. 

The town of Cimarron, just west of here, marks the start of the "Cimarron Cut-off".  This southern route on the Santa Fe Trail was more direct, but also dangerous, due to its lack of water.  Pioneers who didn't want to take the risk could follow the "Mountain Route" which ran into Colorado, then south into New Mexico. 

 

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