Untold thousands of iron-rimmed wagon wheels rolled along the Santa Fe Trail in the 19th century, traversing a seemingly endless prairie. Today travelers on Rte. 56, which skirts a segment of the trail, can explore this historic route while savoring the silence of the open range.
1. Santa Fe Trail
In the mid-19th century, the Santa Fe Trail linked Independence, Missouri, with New Mexican trading partners far to the southwest. For about six decades, wagons laden with wares lumbered the 900 miles between Independence and Santa Fe, slowed only now and then by outbreaks of war. In 1866, the peak year for traffic on the trail, some 5,000 wagons rumbled along the popular and well-worn route, now a National Historic Trail. This scenic drive traces a portion of the Trail — from the outskirts of Kansas City west across most of Kansas to Dodge City. The drive begins in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, where streets are lined with stately Victorian homes. Here visitors can stroll through the restored Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm, once a frontier transportation stop. Nearby, at the Prairie Center, wildflowers shimmer in summer amid a billowing blanket of tall green grasses. In Edgerton, southwest of Olathe, the restored one-room Lanesfield School recalls a now-bygone era, and a half-mile-long nature trail weaves through the prairie.
From Rte. 56 between Edgerton and Baldwin City, turn south at the Black Jack historical marker to reach the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve. Here you’ll find indelible reminders of the droves of freight wagons that once rolled westward: deep ruts etched into the ground, still evident a century after the last wagons passed over these plains.
2. Council Grove
The 75 miles separating Baldwin City and Council Grove belie the Kansas reputation for flatness. In this part of the state, Rte. 56 sails across rolling farmland and into the more rugged, open grassland of the Flint Hills.
Council Grove played a major role in the growth of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1825 Osage chiefs and negotiators for the U.S. government signed a treaty here that granted whites safe passage through Indian lands. The oak tree beneath which the two groups met survived until a violent windstorm toppled it in 1958, but the city has preserved its stump as a historic shrine.