A fun and educational experience on your western road trip is to view old wagon ruts from the boom days of the Overland Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. Searching for old pioneer wagon ruts through the western U.S. and learning of the history about that era can be a fun vacation experience for the entire family.
Even today, reminders of the pioneer emigration westward are still visible in many sections of these historic routes. Some sections of course are today on private land but a good many are preserved in national and state parks throughout the west.
Two popular sites to view pioneer wagon ruts are Lake Guernsey State Park in Wyoming and Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico.
Wyoming’s Lake Guernsey State Park
This site is a must see during your Wyoming vacation. If you’re just traveling through Wyoming, this is one of the finest side trips you can add to your itinerary.
Inside Lake Guernsey State Park is a separate National Historic Landmark named the Oregon Trail Ruts.The best examples of wagon wheel ruts put there by wagon trains, many made by wagons weighing 2,500 pounds, are a few miles to the south of Guernsey in southeastern Wyoming. This area of Wyoming was crossed by the 1841-1869 era Oregon Trail. Today, in several parts of Wyoming, remnants of The Oregon Trail can still be seen. Some of the best examples are the ones located around Guernsey Wyoming.
Guernsey Lake State Park also offers numerous exhibits about the Civilian Conservation Corp and buildings from the era. The buildings were constructed of timbers and hand-forged iron by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. The park which contains the Guernsey Reservoir on the North Platte River was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
The historic Guernsey Lake State Park is located northwest of Guernsey Wyoming about 100 miles north of Cheyenne.
Fort Union National Monument New Mexico
Fort Union National Monument is located between the cities of Raton and Las Vegas New Mexico, a bit closer to Las Vegas and just to the west of Interstate 25. The partial ruins of the adobe structures that were built at this important fort have been saved and restored and are fascinating.
Fort Union was a crucial western fort for several reasons. The fort was located at a point where two segments of the old Santa Fe Trail intersected. The fort was an important supply base for travelers on the trail and also offered a degree of protection. The railroad would not come through the area until 1879 therefore the Santa Fe Trail was a major trade route. Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was literally a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Spain was not warm to the idea of settlers from the east traveling to Santa Fe. In fact they regarded the lands south of the Arkansas River as part of their territory and prohibited trade with the Americans to the east. The Mexican government formed after Spain was ousted from North America in the early 1820’s took the opposite approach and encouraged the trade the Santa Fe Trail made possible.
The historic Buffalo Soldiers also had a presence for years at Fort Union. This included the 9th and 10th cavalry units and the 24th and 25th infantry units.
Fort Union would also be key during the Civil War years when Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to reach and attack it.
The Confederates made a move to the north and occupied Old Town Albuquerque for about thirty-nine days. They made an advance northward to the east of Santa Fe in an effort to cut off Union supplies and forces on the Santa Fe Trail. The result was a battle at Glorieta Pass, just about twenty miles east of Santa Fe along what is now Interstate 25. Union forces from Fort Union and Colorado Volunteers defeated the Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
The wagon ruts at Fort Union can be seen within the National Monument itself and are marked. Ruts are also very visible outside the park between it and Interstate 25.
More Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are found on the links below…
More Sites to Add to Your Trip Planner
Additional trail sections where 1800’s pioneer wagon ruts can be viewed include the 350 acre Rock Creek Station Historical Park. The park is about a 123 mile drive southwest of Omaha Nebraska near the town of Fairbury.
Another good site that takes in the Santa Fe Trail is the Cimarron National Grassland. The Cimarron National Grassland is located in Morton County Kansas with a small part in Stevens County. The grassland includes twenty-three miles of the old Santa Fe Trail and wagon train ruts are clearly visible. The Cimarron National Grassland is located about 112 miles southwest of Dodge City Kansas.
Yet another excellent viewing site is just nine miles west of Dodge City Kansas on Highway 50. Here you can view the wagon ruts from a convenient boardwalk.
(Article copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts from Trips Into History Collection. Remainder of photos and images in the public domain)