WHEN WILLIAM BECKNELL'S MULE train creaked, snorted, and jounced into Santa Fe on November 14, 1821, a metaphoric earthquake shook New Mexico’s dusty soil. For more than two centuries, the Spanish government had barred outsiders from the region. But under the flag of Mexico, new freedoms emerged—among them, open borders that made Becknell’s maiden voyage possible on what became the Santa Fe Trail.

“It changed everything,” says historian Doyle Daves, a Las Vegas, New Mexico, resident who has assessed the trail’s impact for decades. Newfangled hoes, files, saws, and axes became available, along with bolts of fabric and a host of sewing supplies. Farmers quickly sold out of their fresh produce and soon expanded their fields and increased their herds. Laden with silver, gold, furs, and wool, the wagons returned to Franklin, Missouri, 100 miles east of Kansas City, creating a new economic platform for New Mexicans.

“Within 10 or 15 years,” Daves says, “New Mexico was totally integrated into the American commercial system and began to cut ties with Mexico. New Mexicans didn’t necessarily like the Americans, but they did like the economic consequences.”

The 1821–1880 glory days of the trail delivered both the triumphs and the tragedies of manifest destiny—newfound wealth and improvements in education and healthcare, but also lost land rights, two wars, and a brutal push to “subdue” Native peoples.

The Las Vegas Plaza was one stop along the Santa Fe Trail.

All along its two primary routes through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma, the trail’s 200th anniversary has been commemorated this year. The historical time stamp hits its final mark this month in Santa Fe with events that include a sneak peek at a historic trading post and a reenactment of Becknell being greeted by Governor Facundo Melgares at the trail’s end, on the Santa Fe Plaza.

“The way we often describe the trail,” says Carole Wendler, deputy superintendent of the National Park Service’s National Trails Office, in Santa Fe, “is that it’s like a string of pearls. When you think of it around someone’s neck, you don’t see the string; you see the pearls. But the string holds the whole thing together. The trail was like the string, and the pearls are like the sites along the way—Rabbit Ear Mountain, Wagon Mound, the Las Vegas Plaza, and the Santa Fe Plaza.”

Latter-day travelers might have said a prayer at Santa Fe’s St. Francis Cathedral, built in 1869.

A SPARSE RAIN DOTS MY WINDSHIELD AS I begin to retrace the trail starting just north of Ratón on the Colorado state line—the original 909-mile Mountain Route that promised more reliable water but also treacherous high-elevation passes. As I drive south, the mountains and hills soon give way to seas of grass. Alongside I-25, herds of cattle and pronghorn mingle in the fields.

A majority of trail riders chose the shorter Cimarrón Route, which bore gentler terrain but less water and the potential of sometimes violent clashes with Indigenous residents. Those travelers looked for the volcanic ridges of Rabbit Ear Mountain, now private ranch property near today’s Clayton. It told them they had arrived in New Mexico and that campsites with water, grazing grass, and firewood were near.

I pass the village of Wagon Mound, so named because people on the trail thought one butte resembled a covered wagon. When I arrive at Fort Union National Monument, northeast of Las Vegas, a wind has kicked up under a darkened sky—an appropriately moody atmosphere for the military outpost’s eroded buildings. I luck into being the only person to show up for a regular tour called “Walk the Ruts.” Park ranger Greg Baker radios back to the office to have a truck ready for us in case the ominous clouds open up.

We walk along a flagstone sidewalk, pass by the old hospital, jail, storehouses, and barracks, then keep going until we reach the short-grass prairie surrounding the fort. The view mirrors what trail riders would have seen, Baker says, with the exception of a few invasive species. “This valley has been relatively untouched over the last 200 years,” he says.

Becknell had followed existing footpaths made by Indigenous people and the Spanish explorers and settlers who came before him. “People, like rivers, take the path of least resistance,” Baker says.

A replica wagon can be found at Fort Union National Monument.

The fort was built 30 years after his first trip, part of a U.S. plan to support the trail’s commerce and protect riders in what was traditional tribal land. During the next 12 years, it was rebuilt twice more; today’s ruins come from its 1866 version.

The fort saw action during the Civil War. After that, people of Scottish, Irish, and German descent came to New Mexico. Women found opportunities, as did formerly enslaved people. The mix fed a bloody period in the 1870s and ’80s. “All of this in the West was fought and paid for at a very high price,” Baker says. “It’s easy to romanticize, but it gets much darker when you get to the events in between.”

We follow a gravel road until at last we reach the wagon tracks. “Imagine these wagon trains seen from miles and miles away, the clouds of dust,” Baker says. Grass and wildflowers grow in the ruts today, but during the trail’s heyday, he says, “it would have been a road you could easily identify in this valley.”

See reenactors at Fort Union National Monument.

FARTHER DOWN THE TRAIL, THE KOZLOWSKI Trading Post once welcomed travelers with an assurance that their eight-to-ten-week journey was nearing its end. The post later became part of the Forked Lightning Ranch, owned first by rodeo entrepreneur Tex Austin and then by actress Greer Garson.

Pecos National Historical Park took ownership in the 1990s but couldn’t begin renovations on it until about three years ago. Becky Latanich, the park’s chief of interpretation and education, unlocks a door for me while explaining the work still to come.

“This room will have a map overlay on the floor,” she says in the entry. “As you come in, you step onto Pecos. It will show at scale the distance to Missouri.” The post’s rooms will hold exhibit text about goods traded along the trail. “It’s doing that through the story of two children who were connected to the trail,” she says.

As part of the renovation, cutouts made in the stucco walls show the original adobe bricks underneath. The ones that crisscross over one another indicate the post’s original room; bricks that run in a vertical line were part of an addition.

The renovated Kozlowski Trading Post opens this summer at Pecos National Historical Park.

Outside, where NM 63 replaced the original trail, a wall rises into a high arch that holds a bell. “The opening had to be big enough to accommodate a wagon going through,” Latanich says. “We restored it to what it would have been when the trail was active.”

The trading post will open this summer, but early birds can get a sneak peek on November 13. On Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, where the trail officially entered Santa Fe, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art features a special exhibition, Trails, Rails and Highways: How Trade Transformed the Art of Spanish New Mexico, through August. On the Santa Fe Plaza, the New Mexico History Museum’s Telling New Mexico exhibition includes a section detailing how the trail changed the state.

Daves, the historian, loves delving into trail tales, but they’re “also fraught,” he says. “The history that is under the rubric of manifest destiny and its social consequences needs to be understood and rethought.”

Its impact persists, but by 1880 the Santa Fe Trail itself had begun to fall silent. That’s when the first train chugged along a rough approximation of its route from Ratón into Santa Fe. A stone marker near the southeast corner of the Plaza speaks to the trail’s end, as did an 1880 headline in a local newspaper: “The Old Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion.”

Story Sidebar

Marking the Trail

From Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Pecos, Glorieta, and Santa Fe, a variety of events commemorate the Santa Fe Trail’s 200th anniversary this month.

November 12: A daylong series of speakers, including historians Frances Levine and Robert Tórrez, take over the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas. State Historian Rob Martínez performs music during the event’s dinner.

November 13: Events include a visit to a private museum in Glorieta; an 11 a.m.–2 p.m. sneak peek at the Kozlowski Trading Post at Pecos National Historical Park; a free 3 p.m. lecture, “Indians on the Santa Fe Trail,” at the New Mexico Museum of Art; and a buffalo-and-trout dinner at La Fonda on the Plaza, in Santa Fe.

November 14: Horseback reenactors arrive on the Santa Fe Plaza at 10:30 a.m. to act out the 1821 meeting of trailblazer William Becknell and Governor Facundo Melgares.

For a full schedule of events, visit the Santa Fe Trail's 200th Anniversary website.

Walk through the ruins of a Spanish mission church at Pecos National Historical Park.

Repeat History

Learn more about the Santa Fe Trail at these sites.

Fort Union National Monument

Take Fort Union National Monument’s 1.25-mile interpretive trail through the fort and look online for special events. The visitor center is currently closed but is expected to reopen in January, with new exhibits by next summer. nps.gov/foun

Pecos National Historical Park

NM 63 roughly follows the old trail through sections of Pecos National Historical Park, including the Kozlowski Trading Post, which is expected to open this summer with exhibits. nps.gov/peco

Herzstein Memorial Museum

Several museums in the state address the trail, including the Herzstein Memorial Museum, in Clayton, which has a cowboy tour guide. herzsteinmuseum.com

Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands

Hike along a part of the Cimarrón Route at the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands, in northeastern New Mexico. nmmag.us/kiowagrasslands

Download the National Park Service’s NPS App to guide you to other outposts.