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The Santa Fe Trail: Hunting Geocaches on a Historic Kansas Route

Jeff HowerMarch 04, 2016
Ruins located at the Pecos National Historical Park just south of Santa Fe date back to the 15th century. Once a major pueblo village with more than 1,100 rooms and the remains of two Spanish missions.

Ruins located at the Pecos National Historical Park just south of Santa Fe date back to the 15th century. Once a major pueblo village with more than 1,100 rooms and the remains of two Spanish missions.

Crossing Kansas can be an enlightening or boring trip depending upon your perspective. For me it was a chance to ride and geocache the Santa Fe Trail from central Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. For those unfamiliar with geocaching, it’s a “hide and seek” game using GPS coordinates to find hidden caches of varying size all over the world. There are millions of these cache locations and millions of people playing the game. At its core it’s a reason to get off the main road and explore places I might have otherwise ridden right past.

A hearty grin after a highly recommended meal at the Las Vegas, New Mexico, El Rialto Restaurant & Lounge.

A hearty grin after a highly recommended meal at the Las Vegas, New Mexico, El Rialto Restaurant & Lounge.

The Santa Fe Trail begins just north of the Missouri River and Interstate 70 in Missouri at Franklin, where William Becknell and his party started out for Santa Fe in 1821. Floods wiped out the town in 1826-27. Picking out a few trail markers along the way to the west leads me to the National Frontier Trails Museum located in the Kansas City metro area. It depicts the life and hardships travelers had to endure along the 900-mile trail.

It doesn’t take long to get out of the rolling hills near the Missouri River and into the much flatter undulating Flint Hills of Kansas. Here a stop is required at the Palmyra Well. This 1857 hand-dug well is 2.5 feet in diameter and 57 feet deep and was a major stopping point along the trail. Entering the next waypoint/cache site into my GPS leads us from paved road to gravel and then dirt and even muddy roads as we weave our way through the Kansas countryside. When the road worsens we decide to skip the next couple of caches and backtrack to McPherson, Kansas, where we set up our tents for the night.
While tearing down camp early the next morning, we watched as clouds and lightning headed our way from the west. As soon as we hit the road light showers began, so we stayed on State Route 56 rather than detour onto muddy roads to search for the next couple of caches.

After stopping at several sites where wagon ruts are still visible, we came upon Pawnee Rock, which sticks up like a sore thumb in the surrounding flatness.

Fort Union was an important commercial center as well as a strategic military post (1851-91) with the best hospital within 500 miles.

Fort Union was an important commercial center as well as a strategic military post (1851-91) with the best hospital within 500 miles.

Native Americans used this outcrop to spot herds of buffalo and, for the Santa Fe travelers, it marked the halfway point. To the west of Pawnee Rock, near Larned, is the Santa Fe Trail Center Museum, which has a lot of Santa Fe Trail historical information. Then it was on to the Wild-West town of Dodge City, where Fort Mann was constructed in 1847 to protect the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. A little west of Dodge City we arrived at the proverbial fork in the road at Cimarron Crossing. Here you have to decide whether to stay on the north side of the Arkansas River and take the northerly path to Raton, New Mexico, or do as we did and cross the river to take the southerly route to Fort Union.

We briefly cut across the panhandle of Oklahoma to Boise City and followed one of our camping travel rituals, which is to stop at a grocery store and pick up food and drinks for supper. My traveling companions were getting bored with all my cache-hunting stops along the way, so I split off from the group and headed west down a little traveled narrow road through the one-ranch town of Moses, while they took Route 56 to Clayton, New Mexico, where we would meet and camp for the night.

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

As usual, we were all up early and packed up to hit the road. The caches were getting farther apart and much farther off the more direct route to Santa Fe, so we just took the easy path and headed down Interstate 25 and skipped some of the more out-of-the-way caches. An important source of water for trail travelers was located at Wagon Mound. I had really been looking forward to the next stop at Fort Union, which I had visited before. At its largest, the fort had 1,660 troops in 1861.

A little farther down the road in Las Vegas, New Mexico, I grabbed another quick cache before lunchtime. A nice lady out in front of El Rialto Restaurant & Lounge said they had the best tacos in the world, but then it was her restaurant. Turns out she was right. I’m a burrito kind of guy and mine was without a doubt the best I’ve ever had.

Our first night camping along the Santa Fe Trail. Threatening skies tell the story for the next few days of riding in and out of the spring storms crossing the plains of Kansas.

Our first night camping along the Santa Fe Trail. Threatening skies tell the story for the next few days of riding in and out of the spring storms crossing the plains of Kansas.

Stuffed to the gills, with perfect riding weather and the scenery changing from flat plains to tree-covered mountains, we made our way to San Miguel del Vado, where the SFT travelers crossed the Pecos River. The next conquest was the Pecos National Historical Park. The ruins of the village have more than 1,100 rooms and two Spanish missions and are easily overlooked by those sticking to traveling on I-25. The Pueblo was in decline when the first Santa Fe travelers arrived, and by 1838 most of the residents had moved on.

At last we pulled into Santa Fe, where I grabbed one last cache, making a total of 58 found out of an available 73. This was a great ride and a good caching trail, which we celebrated that evening in the mountains near Los Alamos at a primitive camping spot, much like the SFT pioneers might have done in the early 1800s, but surrounded by our bikes instead of wagons.

Known as the Castle of the Plains, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site features a reconstructed 1840s adobe fur trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travelers, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes came together on peaceful terms for trade.

Known as the Castle of the Plains, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site features a reconstructed 1840s adobe fur trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travelers, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes came together on peaceful terms for trade.

Fort Dodge is about 2.5 miles east of Dodge City on Kansas Route 400. The post was founded in 1865 to help protect a long section of the Santa Fe Trail. The fort site had been previously used as a campsite by trail travelers because the wet and dry routes rejoined at this point.

Fort Dodge is about 2.5 miles east of Dodge City on Kansas Route 400. The post was founded in 1865 to help protect a long section of the Santa Fe Trail. The fort site had been previously used as a campsite by trail travelers because the wet and dry routes rejoined at this point.

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