Santa Fe Trail
Baldwin City, Kansas

J.S. and S.W. Aber
Gayla Corley


The Santa Fe Trail extended across the Great Plains from the Missouri River to the city and trading center of Santa Fe. The trail opened in the early 1820s and continued in regular operation for more than half a century until the 1870s. Today U.S. highway 56 follows much of the original trail route from Kansas City, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a distance of more than 750 miles (1200 km). Along the trail, original ruts are preserved in many places. When in use, these ruts became muddy at times and eroded into deep tracks; often multiple sets of ruts are preserved side by side. Such is the case near Baldwin City in Douglas County, northeastern Kansas.

Ground views of Santa Fe Trail ruts, which appear as
swales that contain distinctive vegetation and wet spots.

The historical trail site is located next to U.S. highway 56 about three miles east of Baldwin City, and the ruts are situated in the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve. This land was sold to Douglas County in 1967 by Russell Hays to maintain the ruts in a tallgrass prairie setting. The site is also known for the pre-Civil War battle battle of Black Jack that took place nearby on June 2, 1856.

Historical monuments regarding the
Santa Fe Trail and Black Jack Park.

We visited the site in early April before trees had leafed out and when the tallgrasses were still dormant. Weather was quite unstable with heavy morning fog, low clouds and little wind. Just as we arrived in early afternoon, the clouds cleared and wind came up from the east ~10 mph, just sufficient to lift our large rokkuku with the Canon S70 and Elph camera rigs. Less than two hours later, as we were packing up, clouds closed in again and light rain began to fall. We had to return the next day for some additional ground photos in the sun.

We discovered multiple ruts cutting across the hillside; some deep and long, others shallow and short. The main rut extends across the entire site from the southeastern side to the northwestern corner. This rut is mowed, so it's easy to follow. Some shorter ruts run parallel to this main rut, and other ruts angle off farther to the sides. Toward the southeastern end, a stone monument stands near the main rut.

KAP overviews
Wide-angle overview of trail ruts in the prairie preserve. View from northwestern corner looking toward the southeast; conspicuous ruts are lettered from north to south; N-S county road on right side. The central ruts are closely spaced and parallel. The outer ruts diverge to the sides. The mowed strip follows the main, central rut. Kite flyers are standing between ruts b and c.
Looking toward the east along U.S. highway 56. Agricultural land use surrounds the trail site, which is just out of view to the right. The parking circle at lower right includes the historical markers and provides access to the prairie preserve (see title image above).
View westward along U.S. highway 56. The Santa Fe Trail extended diagonally from lower left to upper right across this scene, but no trace is visible in the agricultural fields today.

KAP close views
Low-height, oblique shot of kite flyers standing on the ridge between ruts b and c near the center of the trail site.
Oblique view looking toward the southeastern side of the trail site. The beginning of rut f can be seen branching from the central ruts. Asterisk (*) indicates position of the sandstone monument (see below).
Vertical shot of the main, central rut (c) and three closely spaced, parallel ruts. Note person in upper right corner and camera cases on ridge between ruts b and c.
Low-height vertical view of ruts b, c and d near the center of the site. A foot path crosses from lower center to upper left. Note two people in the main rut (c).
Vertical view over the northwestern side of the trail site showing the central ruts (b, c, d, e) and the diverging rut (f).

Stone monument
Monument of native sandstone erected in the 1960s by Russell Hays. Although vandalized by bullets and paint, some of the original words are still legible refering to the Sibley Survey in 1825.

Related sites

Text and images © J.S. and S.W. Aber

Return to KAP gallery or home.
Last update: April 2011.