Santa Fe Trail Scenic Byway
The Mountain Branch
|Mileage||163 miles (263 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||4 hours, 24 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Spring, Summer, and Fall|
|Roadways||Colorado Highway 101, and US Highways 160, 380, 385, 490, and 50|
|Forest PassesSome of the adventures on this scenic drive require an admission fee that these passes cover. Please read the drive description for more information.||America the Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.||Lamar, CO▼, Las Animas, CO▼, Las Animas Junction, CO▼, La Junta, CO▼, La Junta Gardens, CO▼, La Junta Village, CO▼, Rocky Ford, CO▼, and Trinidad, CO▼|
3.8 average from 8 votes
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Natural areas along this route require an entrance fee used to protect and maintain our most scenic treasures. Save time by purchasing your forest passes before you go.
Few byways tell a more compelling story than this route used by Native American tribes, traders, the military, gold seekers, explorers, and millions of years before — dinosaurs. The entire Santa Fe Trail travels through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, the section in Colorado is known as the Mountain Branch, and that is the section we describe here, traveling from Trinidad to Holly.
Trinidad is the big city around here, offering modern amenities, services, lodging, and restaurants while retaining its past with hundreds of historic buildings. Before beginning the drive we recommend these highlights. Stop at the Colorado Welcome Center (I4) which also features memorials dedicated to the men and women of Las Animas County who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Corazon de Trinidad is a certified Colorado Creative District, boasting over 150 artists working in a wide range of medium and creative expression. Explore galleries, studios, performances, and special events year-round. Don’t miss the A. R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art (M8). Focused on western art, the museum is home to the largest collection of Arthur Roy Mitchell’s iconic paintings of western scenes, as well as paintings by Harvey Thomas Dunn and Harold von Schmidt. Examine a fascinating collection of old west artifacts, Navajo rugs, American Indian pottery, Hispanic religious art and historical photography, along with a series of rotating exhibits. There is an entrance fee. The Trinidad History Museum (M7) recants the story of Trinidad’s early mining and ranching days, and colorful characters including Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, and Mother Jones through exhibits, photographs and artifacts. Included is the Sante Fe Trail Museum, and nearby, the Hough-Baca House and Bloom Mansion. The two-story adobe Hough-Baca House was built in 1870, using Hispanic construction techniques and English design. The Bloom Mansion was built in 1882, and you can tour the parlor, dining room, and beautiful garden. A small entrance fee to visit the two historic homes includes an informative guided tour. A bronze statue of Kit Carson stands at nearby Kit Carson Park. Kids of all ages will love the Louden-Henritze Archaeology Museum (M9) located within the Trinidad State Junior College. The museum exhibits a local 1000-year old petrogylph, dioramas of Trincheran shelters, fossils, rock specimens and more. Take in a production at the Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre (A10), stroll the Purgatoire River Walk, or take the Trolley around town. Recreation at Trinidad Lake State Park (H2) is centered around Trinidad Lake, popular with anglers fishing for rainbow and brown trout, largemouth bass, walleye, crappie and bluegill. Enjoy motorized boating, sailing, canoeing, and kayaking. Ten miles of hiking trails explore unique geology, history, flora and fauna. Among them are an easy ADA accessible trail near the Visitor Center, a 3/4-mile hike to Long’s Canyon Watchable Wildlife Area which has two observation blinds that overlook wetlands, or the 4-mile Reilly Canyon Trail which travels to Cokedale. Practice your skills at the Archery Range. Camp here and watch the sunset over the flat top Fishers Peak.
The byway is well developed for tourism with interpretive signage at roadside stops, and a radio tour that you can listen to on 1590AM or 1610AM, and on 106.9FM in Lamar.
The original stagecoach trail was a vital thoroughfare in the 1800’s. This byway actually parallels the old route, offering many opportunities to get out and experience it up close. The first such stop is Hole in the Rock. Though it no longer holds water, at the time it was deep enough to retain water when other sources were dry. This spot was also a popular campsite.
Iron Spring Historic Area (H5) was another water source, and from 1861-1871, a stagecoach station. Trail ruts are visible just west of the parking lot and a few ruins are nearby.
Timpas Picnic Area (H4) was yet another stagecoach stop and water source. From here, take the 3-mile hike to the Sierra Vista Overlook which traces the original trail. This area was once bustling with restaurants, hotels, dance halls, and shops. Thirty-six granite stones were placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1900’s to mark the actual stagecoach trail. See how many you find throughout this drive.
Encompassing more than 440,000-acres, Comanche National Grasslands fascinates with a varied terrain of shortgrass prairies, rugged canyons and pinion-juniper forests, home to pronghorn, burrowing owls, badgers, and roadrunners. It’s hard to imagine that 150 million years ago, this area was a vast lake and dinosaurs roamed along its shoreline. At Picketwire Canyon (H8), observe the largest dinosaur tracksite in North America boasting over 1,500 Brontosaurus and Allosaurus footprints. If you have your own four-wheel drive or high clearance vehicle, you can register for an 8-hour guided tour to Dinosaur Tracks hosted by the National Forest Service. It’s the only motorized access into the canyons, and you will be rewarded with a fascinating peek into the paleontology, history, and geology of the canyons. Tours are offered Saturdays and some Sundays in May, June, September and October. Advance reservations highly recommended. You can also hike, bike, or horseback ride to Dinosaur Tracks, but keep in mind that the roundtrip is 11.3 miles. Beginning at the Withers Canyon Trailhead (H9), leave early in the morning as summer temperatures can reach over 100 degrees. Carry ample water and the 10 essentials. Though relatively flat, due to the distance and heat this is considered a moderate to strenuous hike. Along the way, you’ll see the ruins of an old Mexican mission and settlement, Native American rock art, and if you continue past the dinosaur tracks, an early 19th century ranch. Note hiking to the ranch adds another 7 miles to the roundtrip. Please enjoy and take photographs — but do not touch or damage the sites.
The byway is dotted with ranches, farms, and markets bursting with a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables that thrive in the hot summers and fertile soil. Pick up some goodies and stop at Vogel Canyon (H7) where you’ll find covered picnic tables with charcoal grills. There are a few hiking trails that explore the pinion pine forest and shortgrass prairie, as well as the remnants of homesteads, and Native American rock art. Some of the petrogyphs have already been damaged. Please do not touch or add to markings so they may be enjoyed for generations to come. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes hiding in the tall grass or in the crevices of rock outcroppings. Popular with horseback riders, there is hitching rails and horse trailer parking.
La Junta means a junction where roads diverge to mountain passes or vast plains, and here literally all roads lead in and out of La Junta like stagecoach spokes. Sitting along the Arkansas River, La Junta offers outdoor recreation, hotels, camping, restaurants, and services. On the second Saturday in September enjoy Early Settler’s Day, which celebrates the early pioneers with a parade, live music, food, arts and crafts booths, a fishing derby, and more. Located on the campus of Otero Junior College is the Koshare Indian Museum and Trading Post (M5). The museum features the largest collection of Ernesto Zepeda paintings and the second largest collection of Joseph Imhof artwork. Sprawled across three levels, discover basketry, pottery, weapons, jewelry, sculptures, and textiles. The beautifully-designed Kiva features the largest self-supported log roof in the world, constructed using 620 logs weighing over 40 tons. A gift shop sells Native American art. There is a small entrance fee. Closed Tuesday and Thursday, check hours before heading out. At the Otero Museum Complex (M6), learn the story of La Junta through an incredibly vast collection of artifacts from pioneer life, railroad-related items, farm and ranching equipment, clothing, WWII memorabilia, a telegraph office, and photos. Other buildings include the Sciumbato Grocery Store which is stocked as it might have been in the 1920’s, a gas station with gasoline pumps and a vintage 1927 Star touring car, Implement Shed and Blacksmith Shop, H. L. and Louise Boyd Coach House containing the original Concord Stage Coach 106, a replica of the Otero’s first log cabin school originally built in 1876, and the Wickham Boarding House. Volunteers offer guided tours. Hours are limited so please check ahead. Admission is free, donations appreciated.
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site (A2) was an important fur trading post for plains Indians and trappers, and offered hotel rooms, food, and services. The fort was a hub for news and a community gathering place. Originally built in 1833-34 by brothers Charles and William Bent, and Ceran St. Vrain, the adobe fort is now reconstructed and visiting is a fun and fascinating educational experience. Living history presentations feature costumed-interpreters demonstrating how work was done in the kitchen, trade room, and blacksmith shop. Take the easy 1.5-mile Bent’s Old Fort Hiking Trail which loops along the Arkansas River with interpretive signage and the chance to observe spiny softshell turtles, desert cottontail, great horned owls and black-tailed prairie dogs. Don’t miss special events such as Frontier Skills Day, Kid’s Quarters with hands on activities, or immerse yourself on a Fur Trade Encampment, a 5 day, 3 night living history event. There is an entrance fee or use your America the Beautiful Pass. There is a small extra charge for elaborately-planned special event days.
If you’re in the area the first weekend in November, don’t miss the Arkansas Valley Balloon Festival in nearby Rocky Ford. The colorful balloons are a sight to see. Rocky Ford is an important agricultural area known for cantaloupes and watermelons which are available at roadside stands and markets. Mid-August is host to the Arkansas Valley Fair. There’s something for everyone at the oldest continuous fair in Colorado founded in 1878, offering carnival rides, races, a rodeo, mutton bustin, a flower show, vegetable growing competitions, needlework and carving exhibits, Koshare Indian dancers, live music, a car show, and so much more!
The John W. Rawlings Heritage Center and Museum (A7) is easy to find, located at the corner of the only stoplight in Las Animas. Discover Native American and pioneer artifacts, and exhibits about explorer and American frontiersman Kit Carson. Open Tuesday — Saturday, check hours. There is a small admission fee.
Boggsville (A6) was the first non-military settlement in Southeastern Colorado active from the 1860s into the early 1870s. Today, walk along a self-guided trail and discover two restored adobe houses. The 110-acre property features beautiful scenery, wildlife and bird-watching. Hours are limited, check before heading out.
Established in 1867, Fort Lyon (A5) was used by the military until 1889 and later became a sanitarium for people with tuberculosis, including Kit Carson who died in the surgeon’s quarters. The surgeon’s quarters were moved and renamed the Kit Carson Chapel which is open to the public. Currently, Fort Lyon is a hospital.
John Martin Reservoir State Park (H3) features the largest body of water in southeast Colorado, making it a popular destination for swimming, boating, water-skiing, and fishing for walleye, bass, wiper, crappie, perch, and catfish. A hot spot for bird-watching, observe resident and migratory species such as the federally-protected piping plover and least tern which nest here in spring and summer, and bald eagles in winter. Take the 4.5 mile Red Shin Trail which explores the high desert prairie and its flora and fauna. Biking, geocaching and camping round out the amenities. The remote location makes for stellar star gazing. There is a day use fee for all Colorado State Parks.
Bent’s New Fort (A8) was built in 1853. Only the frameworks remain with interpretive exhibits.
In Lamar, the Big Timbers Museum (M1) features Western and Native American artifacts, a 10-star First National Confederate Flag, a WWI poster collection, antique wagons, cars, trucks, and so much more. In mid-February, don’t miss the High Plains Snow Goose Festival, that celebrates the thousands of snow geese that stop here on their annual migration.
In Granada, Camp Amache National Historic Landmark (A4) preserves the history of more than 7,000 Japanese, most of them American citizens, that were interned here between 1942-1945 after Executive Order 9066. You can drive through the site and listen to narrated podcasts along your tour. Visit the Amache Museum (M3) downtown first which explores and examines this solemn period of history. Observe the personal belongings of internees, maps, letters, camp newsletters, film presentation, and more.
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (H6) is a moving memorial where Cheyenne and Arapaho families were brutally murdered by US military in 1864. Interpretive signage and knowledgeable park rangers share a wealth of information. Though there is not much to “see”, this site examines an important piece of American history. Situated in a remote area, the 8-mile maintained gravel road can be tough on RV’s or trailers. Have water and a full tank of gas.
The drive continues to Holly, on the border with Kansas. Primarily a ranching and farming town, you’ll find basic services. The second weekend in June is the Holly Bluegrass Festival at Gateway Park.