important caravan route of the W United States, extending c.780 mi (1,260 km) from Independence, Mo., SW to Santa Fe, N.Mex. Independence and Westport, Mo., were the chief points where wagons, teams, and supplies were obtained. From there, the trail led 150 mi (241 km) SW to Council Grove, Kans., which was the main wagon train organization point. Crossing the Kansas plains to the Arkansas River, the trail then followed the river to its fork near Dodge City, Kans. The Mountain Division of the trail in the north continued to hug the river W to Bent's Fort (now a national historic site); turning south, it passed over its most rugged part, including the Raton Pass. The Cimarron or Cutoff Division of the trail in the south, a more direct route, crossed the Great Plains from the Arkansas River to Fort Union, N.Mex., where it rejoined the northern route. Although less rugged, the southern route was dry, with poor grass and little wildlife. The Santa Fe National Historic Trail (see National Parks and Monuments (table) follows the route of the old trail, with many sites marked or restored.
By the early 19th cent. small trapping parties had reached Santa Fe, then under Spanish rule; but they were forbidden to trade. In Nov., 1821, William Becknell, a trader, returned with news that Mexico was free and Santa Fe welcomed trade. Early in 1822 he left Missouri for Santa Fe with the first party of traders. From then on, annual wagon caravans, usually leaving in early summer, made the 40- to 60-day trip over the trail and returned after a 4- to 5-week stay in Santa Fe. An increasing amount of goods was taken to Santa Fe each year. In 1850 a monthly stage line was started between Independence and Santa Fe over the northern route. In 1880 the Santa Fe RR reached Santa Fe, marking the death of the trail.