Road trips are a uniquely American tradition. With a country that stretches for thousands of miles we are drawn to explore. In 2018 I headed out on a solo, cross-country trek from Milwaukee, WI to Tucson, AZ. I decided to follow the historic, Old Santa Fe Trail from Independence, MO to Santa Fe, NM. Along the way I discovered fascinating things about American history, the struggles of small town USA, cowboys, pioneers, indigenous peoples. I learned something about the depth of my own curiosity and my capacity for endurance. Of course there was food and beer! This post will just hit some highlights while I distill everything into more articles to come.
Let’s Go Learn Things on the Old Santa Fe Trail…
Santa Fe Trail
I had quite the adventure following the Old Santa Fe Trail. Thank goodness I didn’t have to do it in a covered wagon. However, this would be a great RV road trip.
Why follow the Santa Fe Trail?
When contemplating a journey across the country, most travelers consider the heartland a type of wasteland. I wanted to highlight some history and destinations along the way. I could have done Route 66, but I felt that had been overdone. So I went further back into U.S. history and discovered the Santa Fe Trail. My travel style is to find hidden gems and I found plenty.
A brief history
The Santa Fe Trail was a trade route between the United States and Mexico, running from 1821 to 1871. In contrast to the other pioneer trails; Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail was predominately traversed by traders and merchants. A few pioneering families would hook up with the wagon trains heading to the southwest but mostly it was businessmen. The route ran from Independence, MO (a suburb of modern Kansas City today) to Santa Fe New Mexico. During the early years of the trail, Santa Fe was still the northern capital of the newly founded Mexico.
Planes, trains and automobiles…Not really!
I actually found boats, wagons and trains. The boats plied the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, dropping passengers off near Kansas City. Then wagons pulled by oxen and mules and stagecoaches pulled by horses headed south and west across Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Eventually, these wagons were replaced by trains. As these travelers crossed the landscape boomtowns sprouted up to support and exploit the traffic.
Each of these modes of transportation had their heyday. Today as you cross the country you can see the historical impact each left on the countryside. You can also see the almost “ghost towns” that were left behind when new transportation bypassed the old trails stops.
A place to lay your weary head.
Of course most of the Santa Fe Trail travelers slept under the stars with their wagons, but the wealthy few might have found a stagecoach stop. As time passed there were forts, hotels, and eventually train depots with Harvey House hospitality. The settler homesteads varied from sod buildings to sprawling ranches
Campsites and Forts
Stagecoach Stops and Hotels
Sod houses and Ranches
Depots and Harvey Houses
I met amazing people; cowboys, indians, muleteers and Harvey girls.
Museums and Historic Sites
There are museums and historic sites spread all across the Santa Fe Trail. Some are specific to the trail, many are focused on the railroad and some are National Parks. The entire Santa Fe Trail is part of the National Parks Services. It is marked by auto tour/scenic byway signs across Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. This is not your fastest freeway route, but if you have time and interest, why not take the backroads?
Certainly I had to eat, drink and sleep as I traveled across the country. That meant I discovered some great food, drinking establishments, a casino not in Las Vegas and a Las Vegas without a casino.
Drinking along the Old Santa Fe Trail
I bet you didn’t know you could find so much on the Old Santa Fe Trail. Of course the end of the trail was Santa Fe. This town maintains the bustling cultural mix it was almost 200 hundred years ago.
After all that, Santa Fe was not even my final destination. I went another 8 hours to my new home Tucson, Arizona. Arizona is a state packed with road trip opportunities. Tucson is a special gem in this land of vast desert basins, majestic mountain ranges and wild and woolly history.
It also appears to be the land of RVs. Snowbirds, traveling families and “location independent” wanderers take to the roads in RVs large and small. This is one of the adventures I hope to participate in once I am an official desert dweller. If you have toyed around with the idea of an RV experience, check out the new RVshare.com. They are like VRBO or AirBnB for RVs. I love this concept. I have not used them yet but can’t wait to try it. I can pick one up right here in Tucson. Tucson RV rental.