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.
3. Marion Lake
West of Council Grove you’ll enter the Grand River valley, the southern margin of Kansas’s Lake Country. As you motor toward Marion on Rte. 56/77, crossing streams, try to imagine making this trip 150 years ago. In those days travel on the Santa Fe Trail was tough even when the weather was good, but it became downright dangerous when it rained and the rivers rose. A cloudburst a century ago could easily slow a caravan to a crawl as the wheels sank into the mud. Worse, rivers such as the Cottonwood or the Arkansas could be fraught with peril as the waters became swollen torrents. To help control flooding in the 20th century, the dam for Marion Lake was constructed north of Marion. Nestled in the lovely Cottonwood River valley, it is surrounded by a network of hiking trails and its waters offer tempting opportunities for swimmers, boaters, and anglers.
West of Marion the drive eases into the little Mennonite community of Hillsboro. Be sure to visit the Pioneer Adobe House, built by Mennonite settlers in 1876. The home, constructed of adobe bricks, is a fine example of the resourceful use of prairie materials. Attached to the house is a barn filled with displays relating to pioneer life.
4. Maxwell Wildlife Refuge
Some 60 to 75 million bison once roamed the prairies, each bull weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Now only a tiny fraction of that number remains, and about 200 bison wander the 2,200 acres at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge six miles north of Canton on Rte. 86. After touring the preserve, return to Rte. 56 and continue west to McPherson. At Maple Street, a block past Main Street, you can glimpse the town’s venerable limestone courthouse, built in 1894.
5. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
Pulling out of McPherson, Rte. 56 unspools due west, surrounded by farmland and prairie — a flat expanse stretching to the horizon. When you reach Lyons, turn south on Rte. 14 to Sterling. The two-lane highway winds through quiet countryside dotted with occasional clusters of cottonwoods. At Rte. 484, turn west into Quivira National Wildlife Refuge — the first of two Wetlands of International Importance and a 22,000-acre home to white-tailed deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, beavers, badgers, and more than 250 species of birds, including the exceedingly rare whooping crane.
6. Cheyenne Bottoms
About 13 miles beyond the salt marshes at Quivira’s western border, follow Rte. 281 north through Great Bend to Cheyenne Bottoms, sometimes called the Jewel of the Prairie. Here some 41,000 acres of cattails and marshland serve as a major waystation for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl. During the spring and fall migrations, the honks and cries of thousands of Canada geese, gulls, mallards, pintails, wigeons, cranes, and other birds make for lively crescendos. Because these waters are set in an enormous basin bordered by high bluffs of sandstone, limestone, and clay, visitors entering Cheyenne Bottoms can sometimes hear the cacophonous chorus before laying eyes on the birds themselves.
7. Fort Larned National Historic Site
Continuing on Rte. 56 to Larned, the drive sidles west on Rte. 156 to the Santa Fe Trail Center, where exhibits depict the Kansas of a century ago. Farther along, amidst the elms and box elders that dot the grassland, are nine buildings that once comprised the U.S. Army’s Fort Larned, established in 1859 to garrison troops policing the Santa Fe Trail. The stone quarters here served as shelter for, among others, the then up-and-coming Indian fighter, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
8. Dodge City
Dodge City’s checkered reputation has inspired a cluster of highly colorful nicknames, including the Wickedest Little City in America, Buffalo Capital of the World, and Queen of the Cowtowns. The place still evokes images of old-time dance halls and saloons where lawmen Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp tried to keep order. Commerce played a key role as well: in the 1870s, buffalo hides and cattle by the millions passed through the town as drovers pushed herds to Dodge City from as far away as Texas and Montana.
Nine miles west of Dodge City, on the north side of Rte. 50, a vast swath of deep wagon ruts remains as yet another enduring vestige of the great path that once linked east and west, among the few places where such tracks survive. Though the trail survived the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Plains Indians Wars, its ox-drawn wagons were no match for the iron horse: when the first locomotive steamed into Santa Fe in 1880, the earthen highway became little more than a dusty memory.
Length: About 360 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Nearby attractions: Legler Barn Museum, Lenexa. National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, Bonner Springs. Kansas Museum of History, Topeka. Last Chance Store, Council Grove. Mennonite Heritage Museum, Goessel.
Further information: Kansas Travel and Tourism Division, 1000 S.W. Jackson St., Suite 100, Topeka, KS 66612; tel. 800-252-6727, www.travelks.com.
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