As the Trail pushed west into Colorado, caravans used to day after day of level Kansas prairies got their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains ahead. A man-made landmark awaited them as well: Bent’s Fort, a trading post whose towering adobe ramparts and amenities like a billiard table and library must have seemed at first like yet another prairie mirage to trail-worn travelers. A popular stopping place for caravans, it was one of the first large stands of trees travelers encountered after the prairies of Kansas, and would eventually be the site of Bent’s second trading post. As the road to Santa Fe angled southwest, the mountains on the western horizon became the caravans’ constant companions. The Trail edged ever closer to the outliers of the Rockies, and mountains with names like the Sangre de Cristos and Spanish Peaks hinted to travelers that they were edging ever closer to New Mexico Territory. At the southern edge of Colorado, the mountains skirting the western edge of the Trail finally threw themselves squarely across it, forcing the heavily laden Santa Fe freighters to labor up rocky Raton Pass. Once across, the Mountain Route would push south to rejoin the Cimarron Route on the road to Santa Fe.
The Colorado portion of the Mountain Branch begins east of Lamar on the Kansas border. Explore the town’s historic district, and check out the Madonna of the Trail Monument, an homage to the courageous pioneer women of the frontier days. Standing nearly 20 feet tall atop an engraved plinth, this statue is one of 12 identical memorials erected in the 1920s by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The Auto Tour Route traces the original Santa Fe Trail the best it can and is a tranquil drive. U.S. Hwy. 50 from the Kansas border through La Junta and U.S. Hwy. 350 from La Junta to Trinidad follows the route of the “Mountain Branch” of the Santa Fe Trail. The 188 mile Colorado section takes about four hours (one way), and has been designated a national scenic byway.
Head west on the Santa Fe Trail Scenic and Historic Byway to Las Animas. Here you will find the historic Boggsville Settlement built in the 1860s, which includes Kit Carson’s last home. Las Animas is also the place where, on November 15, 1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike first laid eyes on the Rocky Mountain peak that now bears his name—Pike’s Peak, 120 miles to the northwest. Continue on the trail to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. For years, the fort was the only permanent settlement on the trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements.
From Bent’s Fort, you can detour south to the Picketwire Canyonlands along the Purgatoire River in the Comanche National Grassland. Hours can be spent exploring the ancient American Indian rock art, early Spanish settlements, and the largest dinosaur-track in North America.
Continue to La Junta ("the junction"), and take in some of the local culture at the Koshare Indian Museum. Home to an astounding collection of American Indian art as well as a massive kiva that hosts world-famous Koshare Indian Dancers. The Otero Museum is dedicated to documenting the day-to-day life of early La Junta and includes a turn-of-the-century grocery and a primitive log schoolhouse. Faint traces of the old wagon ruts can still be seen just outside of La Junta and along Highway 350 at various locations including Iron Springs. La Junta also marks the spot where the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail finally cuts away to the south, following what’s now U.S. Hwy. 350 through the Comanche National Grassland and continuing over Raton Pass into New Mexico and on to Santa Fe.
The Mountain Branch of the trail traveled through what is today Trinidad and crossed Raton Pass, a mountain gap used by Native Americans for centuries. Trinidad is situated between the shadows of the Spanish Peaks and iconic Fisher's Peak. The roads in and out of the community will take you over passes, through valleys, atop mountain vistas and through historic mountain villages. The Trinidad History Museum covers an entire city block in the historic heart of Trinidad. The complex includes the 1870’s era adobe Baca House, the 1882 Victorian-style Bloom Mansion, the Santa Fe Trail Museum, and the Baca-Bloom Heritage Gardens. The A.R. Mitchell Museum features iconic western scenes of cowboys, horses and cattle that have captured the hearts and minds of pulp western readers from the 1920s to today.