Santa Fe Railroad and Santa Fe

Santa Fe New Mexico, “The City Different“, can claim many unique attributes. For one thing Santa Fe’s 7,000 foot elevation makes it the highest state capitol in the United States. Santa Fe can also lay claim to being the oldest city in the U.S. being founded by the Spaniard Conquistadors in 1610.

cross of the martyrs in santa fe

Cross of the Martyrs, Santa Fe New Mexico

The Spaniards remained in control of this region up until the Mexican’s rebelled in the 1820’s, with the exception of the period of the Pueblo Revolt beginning in 1680 that expelled the Spaniards from the territory for some twelve years.

The Cross of the Martyrs pictured at left is in memory of those lost during the Pueblo Revolt.

Santa Fe New Mexico

Santa Fe evolved from being a rather sleepy southwest trading center to a modern day tourist destination of international acclaim. The way in which this occurred is a very interesting story. It’s a story that interweaves the opening of the west with the expansion of the transcontinental railroads. The Santa Fe Railroad, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe, promoted both Santa Fe and the southwest culture.

Santa Fe’s prominence in the earlier part of the 1800’s was the fact that it was the final destination of the famed and important Santa Fe Trail. The trail that ran from Missouri through the Great Plains then into mountainous New Mexico was the first real commercial trade route between the U.S. and Mexican ruled New Mexico.

Trading on the Santa Fe Trail

palace of the governors

Palace of the Governors off Santa Fe Plaza

There was a great deal of trade going on between American’s and New Mexican’s prior to the breakout of the Mexican-American War. This was how northern New Mexicans received supplies that they couldn’t get elsewhere. It was a much easier trade route than having to rely on supplies from the very distant Mexico City government.

The United States Takes Control

The United States took control of New Mexico during the 1846 Mexican-American War and named it a U.S. Territory after the war,s end. General Kearney’s troops took over Santa Fe and New Mexico without firing a shot and the tale is that Kearney stayed in the inn which was then at the very site of today’s La Fonda Hotel on the plaza. The hotel was renamed the United States Hotel.

The territory’s capitol was Santa Fe and this new Union territory was vast in size. Essentially it comprised all of present day New Mexico and Arizona. The principle trade route to the new Union territory remained the Santa Fe Trail.

In Comes the Santa Fe Railroad

new mexico rail runner

New Mexico Rail Runner Train

In the coming years the railroad would be the engine of growth, not only for the New Mexico Territory but for the entire western U.S. in general.

Because of the railroad’s place in economic expansion, railroads had a tremendous amount of power and influence. What better industry was there to not only transport people to the west but also to urge them to make the journey. The railroad also offered the first “comfortable” way to travel west. There were stagecoaches long before the transcontinental railroad but people traveling long distances by stagecoach did it out of necessity rather than by choice. If you read any pieces about the rigors of long distance stage travel you’ll understand what I mean. Stagecoach travel was not only less comfortable than by rail but the stagecoach was more susceptible to highwaymen (bandits).

The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was in a position to promote the beautiful southwest. The geologic formations in the American southwest are truly unique as are the cultural characteristics of a town like Santa Fe.

santa fe steam locomotive

Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Steam Locomotive

While Santa Fe did not lie directly on the AT&SF rail main line, and is connected to it by an 18 mile spur line, the railroad’s namesake town was the most publicized AT&SF destination by far.

The AT&SF of course was integral in the promotion of the Grand Canyon with not only it’s link from Williams Arizona via the Grand Canyon Railroad but also it’s building of the El Tovar Hotel at the Canyon’s south rim. The El Tovar was managed by Fred Harvey who had a very successful association with the railroad.

Fred Harvey has often been credited with helping to civilize the west. Interestingly enough, the southwest including Santa Fe had originally been advertised back east for it’s health benefits. Prior to it’s emphasis on Native American art and culture, the area was thought to be quite beneficial for tuberculosis patients (called consumption during the era). This was the subject of AT&SF’s first promotion of Santa Fe. The dry mild weather and the high elevations were considered to be a relief, if not a remedy, for consumptive sufferers. Both Santa Fe and Albuquerque and much of the southwest were destinations for people afflicted with the malady.

Promoting Santa Fe the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Way

The powerful and inventive combination of the AT&SF and Fred Harvey worked magic in the promotion of Santa Fe. While the Santa Fe railroad had it’s line into New Mexico decades before, the turning point for it’s promotion of Santa Fe began in 1925 when it purchased the La Fonda Hotel.

la fonda hotel in santa fe new mexico

Present day La Fonda Hotel, Santa Fe NM

The La Fonda was unique, being situated at the very end of the famed Santa Fe Trail and also immediately adjacent to the Santa Fe plaza. The site had been operated as an inn for many decades under various names and ownership. At one point in the early 1900’s it had been destroyed by fire and then rebuilt by local investors. The hotel’s expansion and promotion however took off when the railroad bought the hotel in 1925.

At that time rooms were added and the Fred Harvey Company applied it’s expertise of quality hospitality. Nobody did more than Fred Harvey to standardize the quality of westward travel. Harvey’s expertise had it’s roots when he traveled extensively as a railroad freight agent and had the experience of sampling the less than terrific dining fare along the rail lines. He saw a great need for better quality and filled it. His association with the AT&SF gave him the resources to make his ideas a reality. He put his ideas to work all along the railroad’s line and eventually far beyond with his many Harvey House Hotels.

The Santa Fe Railroad, AT&SF, can rightfully be credited with making Santa Fe the tourist mecca that it is today. It was the railroad’s access to the town which spurred the arrival of artists. Many credit the railroad for the initial building of Santa Fe’s art community.

Old Santa Fe Railroad Depot, Santa Fe NMThe railroad went as far as commissioning several artists to put the regions natural beauty on canvas and these paintings adorned the AT&SF stations all along the line.

Brochures and news articles were disseminated by the AT&SF advertising department to great effect. This was powerful advertising for Santa Fe and it worked. The railroad drew on the areas natural attributes of a multicultural society. Native American, Spanish and Mexican cultures all combined to promote Santa Fe as “The City Different“.

The railroad and Fred Harvey also operated “Indian detour” as a motorcar tour of both Santa Fe and the surrounding pueblos. The “Indian detour” guides were selectively chosen and were quite knowledgeable. Evening lectures by “Indian detour” guides at the La Fonda were customary. Many of Santa Fe’s early tourists had only read about the region through eastern newspaper accounts and now the AT & SF Railroad and Fred Harvey offered a comfortable and highly interesting way to travel there and see the sights first hand. The railroad tapped into the curiosity of easterners.

Four additional articles we’ve published that you’ll find interesting include.

Southwest Chief

The Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive

Post Office Rail Car

Barrio de Analco and America’s Oldest House

Fiesta Santa Fe

amtrak southwest chief

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief stopping in Lamy NM, the nearest Santa Fe stop.

The railroad didn’t stop with the “Indian detour” motorcar tours. They also became involved in promoting cultural events themselves. One of these, and arguably the largest, was the “Fiesta“.

The Fiesta was first held in 1712 and was meant to commemorate the 1692 peaceful resettlement of the area by the Spaniard De Vargas. The year 1692 was when De Vargas led his Spaniards back to Santa Fe twelve years after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

After 1712 the Fiesta was held only every so often and eventually disappeared all together. Fast forward and the Fiesta was revived in 1919 by the efforts of Edgar L. Hewett, the Director of the Museum of New Mexico. The power of AT&SF marketing promoted the revival of Fiesta to the traveling public and the event remains today Santa Fe’s most popular.

Out of the three cultural segments making up Santa Fe, the railroad placed major emphasis on the Native American aspect. The southwest’s and particularly Santa Fe’s pueblo residing Native American’s were the main subject matter of AT&SF advertising. Native American’s sold their unique artistic jewelry in the lobby of the railroad’s La Fonda Hotel. The railroad turned pueblo Indian artistry into a profitable commercial venture.

It was said that prior to the railroad bringing in willing buyers, many Indians lacked the necessary tools to create their crafts. The sales to the AT&SF transported tourists helped the Indians buy the tools they needed to produce more authentic pieces. The market for authentic Native American crafts is still very evident today when you see genuine Native American items being sold in many stores on the plaza and daily in front of the Palace of the Governors on the north side of the plaza.

canyon road in santa fe

Santa Fe’s famous Canyon Road art galleries

The Lasting Effect of the AT&SF

Santa Fe through all the years has sustained it’s position as a highly popular tourist destination in large part from the early promotion efforts of the AT&SF Railroad. The railroad laid down a lasting foundation.

Many of the descriptions of Santa Fe in early railroad advertising brochures made it into books authored by Zane Grey and Charles Lummis, two well known writers of the American southwest. Santa Fe’s historical authenticity continues to draw tourists by the thousands. While people today travel to Santa Fe by automobile, airplane and certainly still by rail (Amtrak’s Southwest Chief), the modern perception of Santa Fe can be traced directly back to the AT&SF Railroad’s promotional campaigns of the early 1900’s.

(Photos from author’s private collection)

Vintage Camera

Similar to all technology, the camera kept evolving and improving with years. Trips Into History visited several exhibits of vintage cameras that we found quite interesting.

Cameras have a history beginning with the direct positive made in the camera on a silver copper plate. This was called a daguerreotype. This was the first commercial photographic process. Today of course we have the highly advanced digital process.

vintage studio camera

Late 1800s studio camera

Many different cameras and processes were introduced through the decades and we wanted to present just a few of them. Below are several vintage and classic cameras we found particularly interesting.

The Blair Stereo Weno

The Blair Tourograph Company was founded in Connecticut in 1878 by an immigrant from Nova Scotia. The tourograph camera was based on the wet plate system. The collodion process (wet plate)  produced a negative image on glass. The developing of this process usually had to be done within fifteen minutes which meant that it wasn’t great for field work photography unless you carried a portable dark room along. The reason the process had to be done so quickly was that the wet plate still needed to be wet. If the plate dried you were out of luck. It’s advantages were it’s excellent photographic detail. It’s disadvantages were the time constraints mentioned above plus some trouble with chemical staining.

blair stereo weno camera

Blair Stereo Weno

The Blair Tourograph Company like several other early camera companies were bought out by Eastman Kodak. In the case of Blair’s this occurred in 1899. The first of the Blair Stereo Weno cameras came on the market in 1901 after Eastman had acquired the company. Although the company was owned by Eastman Kodak, the Blair cameras still carried the Blair name for several years.

The stereo camera like the one shown above is a stereo camera because it has two lenses. The spacing between the two lens is about the same as with a human’s two eyes. Some stereo cameras were built with more than two lenses. Because the camera essentially operates similar to a human’s vision, it’s able to capture three-dimensional images. The camera lenses folded up into a case which made it very easy to carry.

1934 kodak brownie junior camera

Brownie Junior

1934 Eastman Kodak Brownie Junior

George Eastman introduced the  first simple camera to the public in 1888. Eastman’s original camera came preloaded with a 100-exposure roll of flexible film. After finishing the roll, the camera’s owner mailed the camera back to the factory to have the prints made.

Over the next century Kodak cameras made taking pictures affordable and simple. The Kodak cameras were low cost and put a good camera into the hands of non-professionals.

The first Brownie camera was introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1900. The camera itself cost one dollar. It was manufactured in a black leatherette covered box.

The film included with the camera price was six exposure. When you purchased more film the cost was only 15 cents per roll. Eastman produced many different cameras through the 1900’s and many varieties of film. The camera shown in this article is the 1934 Brownie Junior.

The Kodak Brownie models had a long run and more than anything they introduced the public to low cost photography. The Brownie was meant for taking snapshots. It was immensely popular. The Kodak Brownie cameras were simple to use. The Kodak slogan was…”You Press the Button, We do the rest“.

1951 rolleiflex camera

1951 Rolleiflex

1951 Rolleiflex Twin Lens

The Rolleiflex twin lens is a high end camera. Their first camera was introduced in 1929 as the first medium format film roll camera. The camera shown here is a vintage 1951 Rolleiflex Automat 6X6 K4A twin lens reflex camera made by Franke & Heidecke of Germany. It’s a very popular collector’s camera. The Rolleiflex camera was noted for bright accurate reflex viewing and smooth focusing. The reflex camera uses both a reflected image from the camera’s lens and a viewfinder image. In the twin lens camera, one lens is used for actually taking the picture while the other lens is used for the viewfinder.

You will also enjoy our Trips Into History article on the Norden Bombsight that was crucial during World War Two.

See Vintage Cameras

There are a number of interesting museums around the United States that exhibit vintage and classic cameras. You may want to add some of these to your next road trip planner. Many vintage and classic cameras are in private collections and when you have an opportunity to visit a public camera museum it can be a rare adventure.

The Camera Heritage Museum– Located in Staunton Virginia, this museum houses a unique collection of antique cameras dating from the 19th century to modern times.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History– Located in Washington D.C., the museum collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts of American history. Here you’ll find some of the first Kodak cameras manufactured by George Eastman.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Center– Located in Oklahoma City Oklahoma, this very large museum shows everything cowboy and western. Included in the museum is a frontier exhibit with a photographers shop of the era. There you will also find a good collection of classic and vintage cameras.

UCR/ California Museum of Photography– This museum is part of the University of California Riverside “Artsblock.” Located in downtown Riverside California,  ARTSblock is composed of the California Museum of Photography, the Sweeney Art Gallery, and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. A large collection of classic and vintage cameras are on display.

(Photos from author’s collection)




Western Horse Saddle

During our Trips Into History travels we have come across several sites that display a large collection of the western horse saddle. To be sure, there are many varieties of saddles and we wanted to share a few of these with you and list some of the venues you may want to add to your next road trip planner.

Spanish Origins

bronco buster

Bronco Buster

As many people are aware, the horse was introduced into North America by the early southwest Spanish explorers. The first significant Spanish expedition was that of Coronado in 1540. Coronado brought with him cattle and the vaquero, the Spanish cowboy. With the vaquero came the first Spanish saddles seen in America. They were the cattle handlers and horse trainers in Spanish culture.

The western saddle was designed to be comfortable, or as comfortable as possible, since it was used by the American cowboy who spent many hours on them. It was an essential cowboy tool for riding the range.

McClellan Saddle

Named after the American army officer, George B. McClellan, the McClellan Saddle was used extensively by the U.S. military beginning in 1859. The McClellan saddle was standard issue by the US War Department in 1859 for the U.S. Cavalry for the entire history of the horse cavalry into the 1940’s. During that time there were several different models of the McClellan Saddle, beginning with the M1859 and ending with the M1929.

mcclellan saddle

M1859 McClellan Saddle

George McClellan came up with his saddle design after spending time in Europe during the mid 1850’s. His tour of Europe was to learn the latest developments in field cavalry equipment. The McClellan saddle design is a direct result from that European trip. The saddle McClellan designed is very similar to the Spanish tree saddle which was originally a saddle used in Mexico from that countries Spanish heritage. McClellan;s saddle was relatively inexpensive, was light weight and offered excellent support for the rider. These attributes were welcomed by the U.S. War Department.

Roping Saddle

The Roping Saddle is a version of the Western Saddle. As the name implies, the Roping Saddle is designed as a ranch work saddle. You could also say it is a Cowboy Saddle. The typical roping saddle has a deep seat and strong tree and horn.

western roping saddle

1940s Roping Saddle

The horn is typically stronger to secure the rope and a strong tree is especially important roping stability. A saddle tree is the base on which the rest of the saddle is constructed. It’s similar to a chassis on an automobile. The saddle tree size determines the overall size of the saddle and how the saddle fits on the horses back. The saddle tree is made from wood or a synthetic material and is covered by leather.

Western Show Saddle

The show saddle is very much as the name implies. The show saddle is made for looking good. It’s a decorative saddle. It’s a western saddle you would see in parades, during horse shows and at special events. Where the roping saddle is a work saddle and is built as such, the show saddle is constructed to be a pleasing to the eye.

show saddle

Show Saddle

These decorative saddles are for the horse show arena and their design and construction usually mirror current fashion trends more than any of the other western saddle varieties. Because of this, styles come in and out of fashion.

A typical show saddle will have silver and deep tooling. The horn may be shorter so as not to interfere with the reins. A show saddle might have large medallions and corner plates. The saddle would have tooled skirts and the lacing on the leather might be another decorative attribute. Sewn trim on the show saddle’s edge adds another element of decorative design.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History articles about Cattle Drives and Cowboys and the Rodeo Cowgirls.

Texas and Oklahoma Museums and Venues Exhibiting Western Saddle Collections

rodeo hall of fame in oklahoma city

Rodeo Hall of Fame exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum– Located in Oklahoma City, this large museum has excellent exhibits of saddles and everything cowboy. Included are several trophy saddles and a indoor rodeo exhibit.

Fort Reno Oklahoma– Located about twenty miles west of Oklahoma City, Fort Reno’s Visitors Center features saddles, photos and artifacts. Fort Reno operated from 1876 to 1949. Fort Reno also has a lot of information on the buffalo soldiers who occupied the fort during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Fort Stockton– Old Fort Stockton is located on the east side of present day Fort Stockton Texas. The fort museum which is located in an old barracks building has an excellent collection of saddles, cavalry equipment and firearms plus exhibits of army uniforms from the mid to late 1800’s. Fort Stockton is located in southwest Texas along Interstate 10 between San Antonio and El Paso.

Limon Museum and Railroad Park– Located in Limon Colorado, this museum has a Saddle Boxcar exhibit.The 1890 Western saddle Boxcar brings back the era when every town had a saddle maker and the saddle was an important part of cowboy life. Many of the displayed saddles had belonged to well known area ranchers. Limon is located about a 90 mile drive southeast of Denver Colorado.

(Photos from author’s private collection. Bronco Buster photo from the public domain)


Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts / Fort Union

Some of the most fascinating adobe ruins from the days of the old Santa Fe Trail can be found in northeastern New Mexico at the site of the former Fort Union, one of the most important and largest military outposts along the old Santa Fe Trail.

fort union new mexico

Fort Union Jail

Historic Fort Union

Fort Union played a major role during the old western trail days as well as during the American Civil War and for years after while New Mexico Territory was being settled. The spread out military post combined three sub-installations. The Ordinance Depot, the Quartermaster depot and the post.

The army occupied Fort Union until 1889. Many of the old frontier forts were closed down about that time with the ending of the Indian Wars all throughout the west. Fort Union today comprises about 100 acres of adobe ruins. Detailed maps are available for a self guided walking tour with markers detailing what each set of ruins represent. I think that the fact that Fort Union was not rebuilt like many of the other surviving western fort historic sites make a trip their much more unique. Also, because the National Park Service has researched and detailed the adobe ruins so extensively, the visitor is able to fully understand what he or she is observing. Again, it probably is the most unique old western fort site you can visit.

fort union ruins

Ft Union Hospital ruins

Fort Union National Monument

Today, Fort Union is a National Monument administered by the National Park Service. If your next southwestern road trip takes you along Interstate 25 between Colorado and New Mexico, this is a site you will want to visit.

The location is about 95 miles south of Raton New Mexico, 240 miles south of Colorado Springs Colorado and 95 miles north of Santa Fe. Take the Watrous exit 366 and drive west eight miles on NM Hwy 161. The adobe walled ruins have been stabilized which is absolutely necessary with all old genuine adobe. The job they have done with it is remarkable. Genuine adobe is usually a mixture of straw and mud and because of this it will deteriorate completely if not stabilized. The new adobe structures you see today in the southwest are actually not true adobe. At least not true adobe compared to what was constructed in the 19th century.

A Key Fort at an Important Crossroads

Fort Union was established in 1851 and remained in service until it’s closing in 1889. This span of years represented three distinct historical eras. The 1850’s were a time during the first decade of U.S. occupation of New Mexico Territory after the end of the Mexican American War.

adobe ruins at fort union new mexico

Fort Union adobe building ruins


The fort’s objectives were to guard the all important Santa Fe Trail trade route from Indian attack. The Cimarron Cut Off on the Santa Fe Trail runs northeast from the fort into Kansas and was roamed by the Comanches. The fort is also located near where the Cimarron Cut Off intersected with the Mountain Route of the trail which came down from the north in Colorado. Today, the old Santa Fe Trail Mountain Route which was used more heavily than the Cimarron was the approximated route of the old Atchison and Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The railroad came through in 1878-79 and is today the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Fort Union was also the home of the Ninth Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers for five years from 1876 to 1881. Regiments of black soldiers actually served in many western forts on the Plains and in the southwest including several in Texas such as Fort Concho. The Buffalo Soldiers continued to protect the trail and saw a good deal of action but when the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad came through the area in 1878 and 1879, the Santa Fe Trail started to diminish in importance. The trail continued to be used but the focal point became the railroad.

santa fe trail wagon ruts

Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts

Santa Fe Trail Wagon Train Ruts

Old Santa Fe Trail wagon train ruts are clearly visible in and around Fort Union. The Mountain Route of the trail ran directly to Ft Union from the north. Maps show that the Cimarron trail route intersected about six miles southeast of the fort.

Being located at that junction meant that Fort Union also operated as a supply depot. Many of the wagon trains over the Santa Fe Trail were actually freight caravans. Some of the trail remnants are deep and other sections are barely visible, but they are visible. When you visit Ft Union, the staff will give you a Santa Fe Trail map that shows exactly where the wagon train ruts are located where they pass directly through the old fort. On your walking tour of the adobe ruins you’ll see the wagon trail marked with signs. One thing to remember is that the wagon trains traveled perhaps three abreast at times so the trail widens and narrows in various sections. Some sections are clearly visible and others take a bit more close inspection to be seen. The length of the trail remnants that remain are truly amazing considering the amount of years that have passed.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting are The Frontier Soldier’s Life and the Army’s Mountain Howitzer.

A Decisive Civil War Battle

Ft Union New Mexico actually played a key role during the American Civil War. The southwest was invaded by Confederate forces comprised mostly of Texas volunteers. The infiltration into New Mexico Territory was mostly in the southern section of what is today the states of New Mexico and Arizona.

fort union wagon ruts

Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts outside Fort Union, NM

At one point an advance was made to the north. Albuquerque itself was occupied by the Confederates for a short time. Another Confederate advance led by General Henry Sibley was made northeastward toward the Santa Fe Trail just east of Santa Fe and very near Pecos New Mexico.

The job of the troops at Fort Union was to protect the Santa Fe Trail. During the years of the Civil War, this western trail had to be protected from both the Indians and the Confederates. As a result of General Sibley’s advance into northern New Mexico Territory, a force of Union regulars along with Colorado volunteers met the advancing Confederates at the famous Battle of Glorieta Pass. The battle was ultimately won by the Union forces and the Confederate defeat there signaled the end of their advancement northward.

I highly recommend a stop at the Fort Union National Monument for anyone traveling the section of Interstate 25 south of the Colorado border. While the fort is in a remote area of the state, the fact that it’s only eight miles off the Interstate makes it very accessible The National Monument provides a terrific display of old adobe architecture at a very historic site. Viewing the artifacts in the visitor center museum, the twenty minute video and the walking tour of the ruins really gives you a fine glimpse at what exactly took place during the days of the mid 1800’s while the army oversaw the safety of the Santa Fe Trail.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)



Natural Bridge Caverns

You see the signs on the Texas Interstates advertising Natural Bridge Caverns. Actually I’ve seen them for years and never explored there until recently. I will have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I should have visited there sooner. It was an amazing visit. After driving to San Antonio and snapping pictures of the now urbanized Alamo I made a short trip north to Natural Bridge Caverns.

The Caverns in the Texas Hill Country

natural bridge cavernsThe caverns are located in the beautiful Texas hill country about 15 miles north of San Antonio. By their very nature the caverns are underground and when you drive to the main building you really don’t have any idea where the caverns are. The tours are led by a well informed guide. What you end up doing is walking on a passageway that takes you 180 feet below the surface. That’s almost 18 floors underground. Passageways have railings and the walk is not difficult at all. The photo of stalagmites above are courtesy of the National Park Service.

What you will see are huge caverns or you could call them underground rooms that in some cases are up to 300 feet long and ceilings of perhaps 40 to 50 feet. They are filled with stalagmites and stalagtites that are of all sizes and colors. Many are back lit which gives them a dramatic effect.

If you have never toured a cavern before, you will truly be amazed that something as large and beautiful could be 180 feet below the Texas hill country. When you visit these caverns you really feel that you’re seeing one of the unique wonders of the world. People have been mining for years. Digging deep holes in the earth is nothing new. When you look inside a man made coal mine you might not be at awe. The same applies to a gold or silver mine.

texas caverns

Natural Bridge Caverns entrance, Courtesy James Sumner Creative Commons 3.0

When you see the natural beauty of colorful underground caverns with their stalagmites and stalactites you realize that there’s a whole beautiful world beneath the often hectic surface of 21st century civilization.

The environment underground remains constant. Temperatures stay at about 70 degrees during all seasons.

Humans for centuries upon centuries have used caverns for protection against the bitter cold of winter. Underground caverns have and are still being used for storage by governments. Caves and caverns are a product of geologic processes that involve rainwater, chemicals and acids. Rainwater seeps through faults and cracks in the rock and over millions of years they can form underwater rivers and or lakes. Many of the largest caves are formed in limestone. There are primary caves which mean they were formed at the same time as the rocks were. Lava caves were formed by lava flows and there are sea caves which are found along the world’s coasts. There are also fracture caves and glacier caves.

plutos anteroom at natural bridge caverns

Plutos Anteroom, Courtesy James Sumner, Creative Commons 3.0

As you can see there are many geologic processes that result in underground caverns. It’s absolutely amazing what our earth’s elements and geology can create.

Pictures are allowed at Natural Bridge Caverns giving you a great photo op. The tour I was on lasted about 80-90 minutes and it was well worth it. I would recommend a visit there anytime you might be in the San Antonio or AustinTexas area. It makes a fun family weekend trip and it’s quite educational and historic as well. With fuel prices what they are, I think most people want to keep their vacations within a budget. I believe Natural Bridge Caverns fits any vacation budget fairly well.

Also, see our Trips Into History articles on The Alamo in San Antonio and a Tour of the Pioneer Museum in the Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg.

Other Caverns to Explore in the Western U.S.

If your road trip takes you into southern New Mexico be sure to add Carlsbad Caverns to your trip planner. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located just twenty miles southwest of Carlsbad New Mexico. This National Park has two historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places—the Cavern Historic District and the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District.

oregon caves

Formation at Oregon Caves, courtesy of the NPS

In Arizona you’ll want to check out Kartchner Caverns State Park. This “live” cave, discovered in 1974, features a wide variety of unique minerals and formations. Events and cave tours are offered year round. The guided tour lasts about 1 1/2 hours. Kartchner Caverns is located nine miles south of Benson Arizona on Highway 90.

In California there is California Cavern State Historic Landmark which has had visitors since 1850. This makes this cavern very special. The cave was discovered by a Captain Joseph Taylor. Taylor was target practicing and noticed a breeze that appeared to emanate from the rocks. When he investigated just where this breeze was coming from he discovered a cave entrance. He named this cave Mammoth Cave. He shortly thereafter opened the cave for public viewing. The cave’s early visitors included people such as John Muir and Mark Twain. California Cavern State Historic Landmark is located at 9565 Cave City Road, Mountain Ranch, CA. Mountain Ranch is located about 80 miles southeast of Sacramento California in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A visit to this site is a great companion trip while visiting the California gold country.

In Oregon check out Oregon Caves National Monument. This cavern is located deep inside the Siskiyou Mountains. The site is located just north of the California / Oregon border in Cave Junction Oregon. This is about a 147 mile drive due west of Klamath Falls Oregon toward the Pacific coast. It’s an excellent stop to add to your trip planner while traveling along the scenic Pacific coast on US Hwy 101.

(Unless otherwise noted, photos are in the public domain. Creative Commons 3.0)