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The Colorado Santa Fe Trail Scenic & Historic Byway traverses one of the last strongholds of the nomadic Plains Indians and one of the first settlements of early American pioneers, who began homesteading along the Arkansas River in the 1860s. This Colorado Byway follows a 188-mile portion of the original Santa Fe Trail in Southeast Colorado. It was designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as a National Scenic Byway in 1998 and is one of 13 America’s Byways® designated in the State of Colorado.
The Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail enters Colorado just east of the town of Holly and follows the Arkansas River to Bent’s Old Fort, once a trading post and cultural melting pot, now a National Historic Site. From Bent’s Fort the route travels along U.S. Highways 50 and 350 to Trinidad and crosses Raton Pass into New Mexico which is a mountain gap that was used by Native Americans for centuries.
On a clear day, a sharp observer can still discern the wagon-wheel ruts of the Santa Fe Trail wending their way across the prairie. The cultural legacies of this historic trade route, which saw its heaviest use between the 1820s and 1870s, remain just as distinct. Original ruts of the Santa Fe Trail can be found at the entrance to the Holly Cemetery, located just north of U.S. Highway 50 off County Road 35. The ruts are marked just as you enter the cemetery gates.
A noteworthy stop along the route is the John Martin Reservoir State Park, which is the second largest body of water in Colorado. Two rare birds — the piping plover and the interior least tern — can be spotted along the lakeshore in summer. It is also an official stop on the Plover Trail, part of the network of Colorado Birding Trails. The state park also contains a protected area of ruts of the Santa Fe Trail.
Don’t miss the Boggsville Historic Site located in Las Animas. This restored mid-19th-century settlement is remembered as an early Colorado agriculture and trade center and is home to two historic 1860s buildings: the Boggs and Prowers houses.
For another fantastic detour along the byway, follow signs to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. Founded in 1833 by brothers William and Charles Bent and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain, this reconstructed fort was a trading post strategically located between fur trappers in the Rockies, traders on their way to Santa Fe, and Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa Indians who hunted in the area. Today, National Park Service rangers in period attire staff the fort and bring the 1840s to life for visitors.
As you head southwest on U.S. 350 through Comanche National Grassland, look closely and you’ll see this area is full of wildlife. Falcons and hawks search for prey, songbirds flit from the grasses and antelope graze in the meadows. In late summer, the roadside is inundated with sunflowers. And the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the grassland, has developed three interpretive sites that focus on the history of the Santa Fe Trail, which parallels U.S. 350 between La Junta and Trinidad.