Bent’s Old Fort

Bent's Old Fort   Bent’s Old Fort

In the past  year I’ve visited Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site twice. The place fascinates me. This “living history” site is a reconstructed adobe fort near La Junta, Colorado. Originally it was an important post on the Santa Fe Trail. Even though it is surrounded by high adobe walls and boasts two impressive towers it was a fur-trading post, not a military post. The military frequently passed through but were not actually stationed there.

Entering the fort, you pass through an outer door, a covered passageway, and an inner door before arriving in the central plaza. Within was essentially a small town, complete with carpenter shop, blacksmith, gunsmith, billiard room, dining room, trading room and accommodations for those who lived there as well as anyone else passing through. A variety of cultures and languages mingled at the fort. The hospitality and refinement shown visitors became legendary.

Bent's Old Fort quarters    Bent's Old Fort Dining Room

Since it is reconstructed (as opposed to restored), period-costumed interpreters conduct activities throughout the fort as they would have in the 1830’s and 1840’s. They do repair work and build tools and necessities in the blacksmith shop and carpenter shop, etc. As a result, you feel as if you truly have stepped back in time.

Bent's Old Fort Carpenter Shop  Carpenter Shop

Bent's Old Fort Blacksmith Shop  Blacksmith Shop

Bent’s Old Fort was built and operated by the firm of Bent, St. Vrain & Co. Completed in 1834, its primary function was as a trading post dealing with the nearby tribes. Friendly tribes freely wandered throughout the fort but if there was some concern about intentions, the inner door could be closed and the trading could be conducted through a window opening from the covered passageway into the trading room.

Bent's Old Fort Trading Room  Bent's Old Fort Trade Goods

Trading Room

After the prices for beaver pelts plummeted, the buffalo robe trade took on increased importance. In the center of the plaza stands a buffalo robe press which was used to compress the hides into neat bales that could more easily be transported. Thousands of these robes were shipped east from Bent’s Old Fort.

Old Bent's Fort Hide Press   Press   Bent's Old Fort Peacocks   Resident Peacocks

Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain established a vast trading domain and wielded considerable influence with the various factions. Located near the north bank of the Arkansas River, the fort was on the border with Mexico as, at that time, the Arkansas formed the boundary. The balance established changed however in 1846 with the U.S. declaration of war on Mexico and ensuing invasion. Charles Bent was named territorial governor but was killed a few months later in the Taos Revolt. The Revolt was promptly put down and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain continued in business for a time but, following a cholera outbreak in 1849, the fort was abandoned and burned. There remains the question of who burned the fort – perhaps it was William Bent himself?

Fortunately for us, one of the visitors to the fort in 1845 was a young topographical engineer, Lt. James W. Abert, who did many watercolor sketches and made painstaking measurements of the fort’s rooms and walls. From archeological work and the use of Abert’s drawings it was possible to reconstruct the fort as it had been.

There are a number of books relating to Bent’s Old Fort. Two of my favorites are accounts by visitors to the fort in the 1840’s:
Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin by Susan Magoffin
Wah-to-Yah and the Taos Trail by Lewis Garrard

For more information:




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Death Valley National Park

Death Valley from Dante's view5 Death Valley from Dante’s View
The name “Death Valley” does not evoke pleasant thoughts. However, we were quite surprised when we visited in January. Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America. I do have to say that there is no way you would get me there in the summer as last year (2013) the temperature rose to 134°F. However, in the winter, it’s really fascinating and very comfortable temperature-wise.
We first ventured into Death Valley from the south. Quickly apparent was Death Valley’s tremendous geologic diversity. It’s completely chaotic and, as Tom said, “This place has more going on geologically than anyplace we’ve been other than maybe the Grand Canyon.” The mountains continually displayed different colors and different types of rock.

Death Valley4 Black Mountains
At Badwater a sign announced the elevation at 282 feet below sea level and another sign, so far up the mountain you could barely see it, represented sea level. The small Badwater pool reflects the mountains behind it and is the only water anywhere near. The salt basin stretches out over the valley.

Badwater sign Badwater Basin Badwater basin salt
For our first full day in the park, we started with a visit to Dante’s View. In the Black Mountains at 5.476 feet above the valley floor, it affords the most panoramic view of Death Valley. From Dante’s view the morning light playing on the salt in the valley below was gorgeous.

Death Valley from Dante''s view 3 Death Valley from Dante’s View
The one-way, 2.7 mile, dirt Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road winds through the badlands near Zabrinskie Point. The dark-colored material capping the ridges in this erosional landscape is lava from an ancient eruption.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon Zabriskie Point

        Twenty Mule Team Canyon                                       Zabrinskie Point
Although many prospectors came to Death Valley to look for gold, silver, and other precious metals, these were nearly all failures. An exception was the mining of borax, “the white gold of the desert.” It was mined profitably from the 1880’s to 1927. The Harmony Borax Works gave us the immortal 20-mule teams and although the teams only ran for six years, 1883-1889, they became an enduring symbol of the Old West. This was primarily due to a successful advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap and the long-running Death Valley Days radio (1930-1945) and television (1952-1970) programs. The 20-mule-team (actually two horses and eighteen mules) hauled two wagons and a 1200-gallon water tank out of the valley to the railhead at Mojave 165 miles to the southwest. The wagons were among the largest ever pulled by draft animals, designed to carry 10 U.S. tons of borax ore at a time. It was a grueling ten day trip with stops along the way to refill water tanks and supplies for both men and mules.

Harmony Borax 20 Mule Team wagons

            Harmony Borax Works Ruins                        20-Mule Team Wagons
In 1927 Pacific Coast Borax Company discontinued mining but retained their land and water rights, and built Furnace Creek Inn, a high-end resort. Beginning in 1933, tourist accommodations were also provided at Furnace Creek Ranch. We stayed in a cabin at the Ranch. The Ranch offered a variety of accommodations, restaurants, golf course, activities, a post office and the Borax Museum.
As we hiked and explored we were constantly on the lookout for some of the desert wildlife but alas, all we saw were two ravens and a lizard. We went to Salt Creek in search of a place for lunch and the pupfish. This stream of salty water is the only home to a rare pupfish, Cyprinodon salinus. which is a species that can inhabit desert water, both fresh and salt. We didn’t find any pupfish but we did find a place to eat our lunch.
Exploring more of the park, the conglomeration of features and formations continued to amaze us. The Devil’s Golf Course is a layer of salt three to five feet thick covered with jagged pinnacles of salt.

Devil's Golf Course3 Devil's Golf Course 2

                                                            Devil’s Golf Course

At Artist’s Palette, iron minerals colored the rocks green and pink and orange. Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile wide and 600 feet deep. The dark layers at the top are ash and cinders from the most recent eruption (sometime in the last thousand years).The sunsets were brilliant and the stars at night were incredibly bright.

Artist's Palette Artist's Palette2

                                                               Artist’s Palette
We moved on to Stovepipe Wells, which is the site of a historic well that was an important water source in this arid environment. The facilities here are a bit more minimal than at Furnace Creek but quite satisfactory. The Mesquite Sand Dunes are in constant flux near here covering fourteen square miles and up to 100 feet tall. In this area, Mosaic Canyon provides a nice hike. The narrow canyon has marble on one side and conglomerate on the other – chaos reigns again.

Scotty's Castle2 Scotty’s Castle
A trip to Death Valley would not be complete without a visit to Death Valley Ranch, more commonly known as Scotty’s Castle. Scotty’s Castle is the result of the unlikely friendship between a millionaire with a love for his own vision of the “wild west” and the money to create a castle in Death Valley, and a con artist who was a wonderful storyteller and thus provided “local color” for the Johnsons and their guests. We toured the “castle” and found it extremely interesting. Scotty (Walter Scott) and Albert Johnson formed a bond which lasted their lifetimes. They both seemed to want to keep the public interested and guessing. Begun in 1922, construction on the castle was never completed as it was halted in 1931 after the stock market crash of 1929. The ironwork details for the door hinges, lights, etc., the monogrammed dinnerware, and elaborate furnishings are indicative of the care and planning involved in this massive undertaking. During the tour, guests are treated to the sounds of the 1,121 pipe Welte theater organ in the upper music room. With an advanced electrical generating system and solar water heating, it was state of the art for the time period. Death Valley Ranch was deeded to a foundation by Johnson and purchased by the National Park Service in 1970.

Death Valley Ranch - Scotty's Castle Great Hall Scotty's Castle

        Death Valley Ranch Courtyard                                Great Hall
In 1933 Death Valley became a part of the national park system as a National Monument. It was designated a national park in 1994 and is the largest national park in the lower 48, and well worth a visit.

For information on visiting see:

Death Valley National Park

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Boggsville Historic Site, Colorado

Boggsville now lies off the beaten path and is uninhabited but, founded in 1862, it was important as the first non-fortified settlement in southeastern Colorado. My daughter and I stumbled onto Boggsville as we were headed west on Highway 50 through Las Animas. We spotted a small sign that said “Boggsville Historic District” and, on a whim, decided to check it out. So a quick left turn and a couple of miles led us to this interesting piece of history. The Boggs and Prowers houses have been restored and are operated by the Pioneer Historical Society of Bent County and the site is open to the public. We visited in March so none of the buildings were open but we wandered the grounds, picked up a brochure and read the descriptive signs.

In 1840, Thomas Boggs, son of then Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs and great-grandson of Daniel Boone, came to what would eventually become Colorado Territory to work with the Bent Brothers at Bent’s Old Fort along the Arkansas River. At that time, the Arkansas River was the boundary between the United States and Mexico. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Mexico ceded to the United States Upper California and New Mexico (present-day Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada and Colorado), relinquished all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of the United States. The United States agreed to honor existing property rights in the transferred territories. This was important to Boggsville as it was on a 2,040 acre parcel belonging to Rumalda Luna Bent Boggs (part of the four million acre Las Animas Land Grant by the Mexican government in 1843) that Thomas and Rumalda Boggs and a small group of families settled  about 1862.
Prowers' House, Boggsville2  Boggs House

Near the Purgatoire River, this site provided good grazing land, which was significant in this high and dry country. In 1866, Boggs began construction of an adobe home that blended Territorial architectural style with Spanish colonial. In 1867 John W. Prowers and his family settled in Boggsville and built an adobe two-story home. Boggs raised sheep and Prowers raised cattle. That year they were also joined by John Hough’s family and the famous frontiersman Kit Carson and his family. This was to be Carson’s final home as both he and his wife died in 1868 and were originally buried in Boggsville, although later moved to Taos.

Carson original grave, Boggsville  Original Carson gravesite

In Boggsville, Hispanics, Anglo-Americans and Native Americans co-existed with each other and the environment and thrived. The women of Boggsville were of different cultures but held recognized social positions of their own and were obviously powers in their own right and formed strong bonds with each other. Rumalda Jaramillo Boggs and Josefa Jaramillo Carson were from upper class New Mexican families and Amache Ochinee Prowers was the daughter of the prominent Cheyenne chief Lone Bear. Each of these women had claim to land which made the settlement possible.

Boggsville was a major site on the Santa Fe Trail and served as a center of trade, agriculture, education and culture. It was a vibrant center for a time but, when the railroad bypassed it, its fate as a town was sealed.

Prowers' House, Boggsville  Boggsville

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Joshua Tree National Park

January is a great time to visit some national parks. The weather is pleasant and, in general, the visitor numbers are down. Some parks are actually much better in the winter as summer temperatures can soar unbearably.

Cap Rock  Joshua Tree at Cap Rock

We recently visited Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. Much of Joshua Tree is in the transition zone between the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. The eastern half of the park, below 3000 feet above sea level, lies within the Colorado Desert. Extremely dry and sun-baked, creosote is the predominant vegetation with patches of jumping cholla cactus. The short loop trail through the Cholla Cactus Garden is self-guided with an informational brochure. Even though they are often called teddy bear cholla, jumping cholla are anything but cuddly. They are called “jumping” because of their tendency to snag anything close by. The strange shapes, flowers and buds are fascinating but you do want to keep your distance.

Cholla garden  Cholla Cactus Garden

In the western half of the park, at elevations above 3000 feet, the scenery changes. Here you find large boulder stacks, pinyon pines, junipers, and the namesake “Joshua trees,” which are not actually trees at all but rather a species of yucca. On the Barker Dam loop hike, we found ourselves in a veritable Joshua tree forest. Considering the slow growth of about an inch a year, you have to appreciate the fact that some of these trees grow to over forty feet tall.

Joshua Tree group   Joshua Tree group

The jumbles and piles of monzogranite boulders found here make rock climbing a popular activity in this portion of the park. Skull Rock is one of the more bizarre shapes.

Skull Rock  Skull Rock

There are a number of short nature trails as well as longer hiking trails throughout the park, as well as innumerable scenic photo opportunities. If you want to do the Keys Ranch tour you do need to make a reservation ahead of time. It’s one of those places that used to be open to the general public but is now only by ranger-guided tour and on a limited basis. We spent two half-days in Joshua Tree, did several short hikes and explored in general.  We would have liked to have seen Keys Ranch but maybe that’s for next time.

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National Parks Traveler

I’m happy to report that my story on Gates of the Arctic National Park has been published in the National Parks Traveler. The Traveler is an independent voice for covering the parks and that coverage ranges from experiences in the parks to news items affecting the parks. Visit

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La Posada Hotel

In the center of northern Arizona, we passed through Winslow and made a brief stop at La Posada Hotel.

La Posada       La Posada Hotel

American architect Mary E.J. Colter (1869-1958) is most famous for her buildings at the Grand Canyon but she considered La Posada her masterpiece. She began designing her buildings by creating a fantasy about their history. Designed and furnished as if it were the proud estate of a wealthy Spanish landowner, in reality La Posada was built as one of the great Harvey hotels of the Santa Fe Railway.

Opened in 1930, La Posada remained open for just 27 years. After it was closed to the public, furnishings were auctioned off and the building gutted and turned into offices for the Santa Fe Railway. By the mid-90’s it was in peril of being demolished. Fortunately, through the work of many people and organizations, it is now restored as a magnificent hotel and living museum. La Posada makes you want to settle in and imagine yourself the wealthy don or dona of a great southwestern estate.  Ahhh – fantasy certainly has its place.

La Posada Gate Detail



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Aztec Ruins National Monument

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