Santa Fe Trail On the High Plains


Megan Sprague and Gayla R. Corley
Dr. James S. Aber, Instructor

Table of Contents
Introduction Methodology
Description of Study Region Stratigraphy and Geology
Effects of the Trail Conclusions
Photo Gallery References

Point of Rocks and Middle Spring are on the north side of the Cimarron River located 0.9 miles (1.4 km) apart. The red starred line is the approximate route of the Santa Fe Trail. Viewed from 12755 feet (3888 m) above the earth. Taken from Google earth


Point of Rocks, a landmark, and Middle Spring, a source of water, are located along the Santa Fe Trail, an international trade route between the United States and Mexico, in Morton County. Figure 1 is a map of Morton County from the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS, 2009). The trail was established in 1821, by William Becknell, after Mexico received its independence from Sprain (Hill, 1992). Becknell's successful trading venture with a mule pack train to Santa Fe started a trade route lasting for 59 years on trail fraught with difficult terrain, bad weather, little water, renegade Indians, and other hardships. The railroad's arrival in Santa Fe in 1880 ended commercial trade over the old Santa Fe Trail.

Fig. 1 A geological map of Morton County. Taken from Kansas Geological Survey

Return to top of page.


Point of Rocks and Middle Spring are located in the Cimarron National Grasslands and were easily accessed by roads for direct observation and photography. Aerial photographs were taken of the area using a helium blimp and a digital Canon S70 and the digital Canon Elph cameras. The photographer taking photographs on the ground used a digital Canon SX40HS. An online search for information was conducted including the Kansas Geological Survey website and literature was researched. Hand specimens of rocks were collected for further examination and photographing.

Return to top of page.

Description of Study Region

Point of Rocks and Middle Springs are located in the High Plains Physiographic region of Western Kansas in Morton County. It is the largest physiographic region in Kansas and covers the western third of the state (Aber, 2009). Figure 2 is an illustration of the High Plains Region.

Fig. 2 The High Plains Region of Western Kansas. Taken from Kansas Geological Survey

The continental United States is divided into three ecosystem domains: 1) dry domain, 2) humid temperate domain, and 3) humid tropical domain. Each of these domains are further divided into divisions and provinces (United states Department of Agriculture, USDA). The High Plains lie within the dry domain and are characterized by the annual loss of water exceeding the total amount of precipitation. This domain is further divided into the temperate steppe division and then divided into provinces. Morton County is located in the Great Plains-Palouse Steppe Province. Climate, temperature and precipitation determine ecosystems.

The western High Plains lies within the rain shadow of the Rocky Moutains (Aber). Rain shadows are dry regions created by barriers like mountain ranges. The Rocky Mountains are the barrier creating the rain shadow over the High Plains; Figure 3 illustrates the development of rain shadows.

Fig. 3 How a rain shadow developes. Taken from Wikimedia Commons

As water evaporates from the oceans the prevailing winds carry the moist air inland to the windward side of the mountain ranges, it rises and begins cooling causing condensation of the water vapor creating cloud formation. Precipitation falls on the windward side of the mountain where there is lush vegetation and surface water or snow. When the wind reaches the leeward side of the mountain it moves down slope and warms, drying out and reducing the possibility of precipitation. This rain shadow creates a dry climate with less precipitation. The climate in Morton County is semi-arid. Farming and ranching are managed according to the amount of precipitation received annually. Due to the dry climate farmers and ranchers water livestock and irrigate crops using water from the Ogallala Aquifer.

During the 1930's Morton and Stevens Counties were in the center of the Dust Bowl (USDA). Due to poor farming practices and the severe dry weather land erosion by the wind was significant. The severly eroded land was planted to grass by the USDA and placed under the management of the Forestry Service. The Cimarron National Grasslands in Morton and Stevens Counties now covers 108,175 acres (43,777 ha) and continue to be managed by the Forestry Service for livestock grazing and recreational purposes today.

The Cimarron River lies below Point of Rocks. It meanders (Figure 4) through its floodplain and is dry most of the year unless it is exceptionally wet year and then flooding may occur. A hole of water was noted at one location on the river. Note the many trees (Figure 4) on the river now and travelers on the trail stated they could not find wood at this site (Hill).

Fig. 4 Aerial photo of Cimarron River meandering through the floodplain. Photo taken by J.S. Aber and ES546 students using the blimp.

In Table 1 average annual weather statistics at Elkhart, Morton County seat, are compared with the state of Kansas and the continental United States (

Table 1. Weather Statistics
Average AnnualElkhartKansas United States
Precipitation17.8 inches (451.9 mm)32.4 inches (832.7 mm) 38.7 inches (982.2 mm)
Snowfall21.3 inches (539.8 mm)15.4 inches (391.7 mm) 23.3 inches (591.1 mm)
Wind Speed14 mph (22.6 km/hr)19.3 mph (31.1 km/hr) 17 mph (27.3 km/h)
Humidity71.9%79.3% 77.5%
Temperature54.8°F (12.7℃)54.7°F (12.6℃) 54.5°F (12.5℃)

Comparison of average annual weather at Elkhart, Kansas, with the state of Kansas and the continental United States. Taken from

The western side of the High Plains is dominated by short grasses and the eastern side by mixed grasses. The short grasses cover the uncultivated plains in Morton County. Some of the grass species present are: buffalo grass (BuchloŽ dactyloides), side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), little false bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and yellow Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). Forbs are abundant in the Cimarron National Grasslands and provide food for animals and birds. Some of the forbs present include: prairie bundle-flower (Desmanthus illinoensis), tumbleweed (Amaranthus albus), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), and perennial ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya).

Wildlife is abundant in the High Plains Region of Morton County and would have been present for travelers for food on the Santa Fe Trail. White tail deer (Odocoileus virgininus), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), elk (Cervus canadensis) and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) are present today in hunting populations. The bison (Bison bison) are not present today since their populations were decimated during the later 1800's by overhunting and the hide and bone trade. These animals would have been hunted for food on the trail. Other wildlife present for food included the cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), and scaled quail (Callipepia squamata).

Other birds were commonly seen traveling on the trail. Some of the species native to the area included the American kestrels (Falco sparverius), western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta), red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), chipping sparrows (Spizella passerine), and the ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis).

Dangers were everywhere crossing the prairies and snake bite was no exception. The poisonous snakes present were the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) and the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). Other snakes include the garter snakes (Thamnophis radis), and western hognose snakes (Heterodon nasicus). Other reptiles including spade foot toads (Scaphiopus holbrookii), plains leopard frogs (Rana blairi), ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornate), and Texas horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum) could be found.

On the dry route of the trail at Middle Spring and along the Cimarron River diaries of the traders mentioned no wood was present for their fires (Hill). The trees and underbrush were controlled by prairie fires set naturally by lightening or by the Indians. Travelers used buffalo chips to build their fires for cooking and warmth. Today there are trees and scrub brush around the springs and in the Cimarron River bed. Some trees and other woody foliage found along the Cimarron River include the eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), peach-leaf willow (Salix amygdaloides), russian-olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), five-stamen tamarisk (Tamarix chinensis), western poison-ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii), wing-leaf soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), and the rubber-rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa).

Return to top of page.

Stratigraphy and Geology

As elsewhere in the High Plains the strata of the area surrounding Point of Rocks and Middle Spring is relatively young. The strata are Quaternary in age and are windblown deposits of loess with dune sands and alluvial deposits near streams (KGS, 2010). However at Point of Rocks there is a distinctly different feature. The bluff of Point of Rocks is capped by the Ogallala Formation of Neogene origin (KGS, 2005). The red strata below the Ogallala Formation are special in Kansas. Over the years it has been called Permian in age because of its similarities to the red beds further east in Kansas and even Triassic in age because of its similariities to the Dockum Group in Texas (KGS, 1963). It is now believed to be Jurassic in origin and as such it is one of the few places in Kansas where this age of rocks are visible, with Point of Rocks being the most impressive. This site is an example of a disconformity in which a substantial amount of time is missing, at least 122 million years (KGS, 2013). It is believed these layers were eroded after the uplift of the Rocky Mountains which also elevated the High Plains (KGS, 1942). Figure 5 is a map illustrating the Cenozoic and Mesozoic stratigraphy of the Point of Rocks area.

Fig. 5 Geology map of Point of Rocks.
Taken from Kansas Geological Survey

Fig. 6 Legend for Point of Rocks geology map.
Taken from Kansas Geological Survey

The Ogallala Formation is made up of conglomerates and unconsolidated materials. There are areas called "mortar beds" where sands and gravels are cemented together by calcium carbonates (KGS, 1963). The source of these sediments is the erosion of the Rocky Mountains to the west. They were deposited in Kansas by eastward flowing streams. The Ogallala Formation contains the Ogallala aquifer which extends through eight states (United States Geological Survey (USGS), 2013. A map showsThey are Quaternary in age the High Plains aquifer which includes the Ogallala in Figure 7. There are parts of several Quaternary and Neogene Age geological units in the High Plains aquifer. The Ogallala Formation is the largest geologial unit in Kansas and Nebraska, Figure 8. Where the geologic units of the aquifer are saturated Quaternary dune sands and the Miocene Ogallala Formation give the best water yields in wells, Figure 9.

Fig. 7 The High Plains Aquifer, which the Ogallala aquifer is a part,
is located in eight states. Taken from United States Geological Survey

Fig. 8 The High Plains aquifer mapped in Kansas and Nebraska illustrating geological
units in the aquifer. Taken from United States Geological Survey

Fig. 9 Geological units of Quaternary and Neogene (Tertiary) Age showing
the units of the High Plains aquifer. Taken from United States Geological Survey

There are two major geomorphic processes currently acting on Point of Rocks: fluvial and eolian. The fluvial processes of the Cimarron Riiver and its nearby tributaries have eroded a large bluff face and a moderate sized flood plain at its foot. The streams deposited alluvial sediments and sand in the flood plain. Presently the Cimarron River continues to erode the base of Point of Rocks. The stream laid sediments from west of Morton County are marked in the map of Figure 10 by an X on the Cimarron River. Wind laid soil, called loess, covers much of Kansas and from southwest Kansas to central Kansas eolian sand unes are found. Loess covers the High Plains of Morton County and sand dunes are present in the souther side of the county. Figure 11 is a map illustrating the extent of loess and sand duness spread across the state.

Fig. 10 Fluvial deposits in streams flowing east and southeastern directions. The Cimarron River
is marked with and X. Taken from United States Geological Survey

Fig. 11 Eolian deposits of loess and sand across Kansas. Taken from United States Geological Survey

Springs were an important source of potable water for the traders and their livestock on the Santa Fe Trail. Many water sources were saline, alkali, or muddy and undesirable for humans or animals. Middle Spring was important on the dry branch of the trail in drought conditions when the river would be dry. Using Point of Rocks as a landmark the travelers were able to tell how close they were to a reliable source of water at the springs, Figure 12 illustrates the proxximity of the Middle Springs to the landmark.

Fig. 12 Midddle Spring is in the northwestern corner of section seven marked with the red X
and Point of Rocks can be identified by the black X. Taken from the Kansas Geological Survey.

The source of springs and seeps is groundwater. They form when the water table is higher than the land surface and water is forced out of the ground by water pressure, Figure 13 (National Park Service (NPS). As long as the water table stays at the same level or higher and does not drop below where the spring occurs there will be water flowing or seeping from it. In the case of Middle Spring it is in a low lying area where the Ogallala aquifer was forced to the surface at the base of the Ogallala Formation. Today many springs and seeps from the Ogallala aquifer are dry due to the water table level dropping from heavy use of the water for human consumption and irrigation for farming.

Fig. 13 A spring or seep is created when pressure forces ground water to the surface at ground levels
lower than the water table. Taken from the National Park Service.

Return to top of page.

Effects of the Trail

Point of Rocks and Middle Springs are on the "dry" branch of the Santa Fe Trail which follows along the Cimarron River (Kansas Historical Society). This branch of the of the trail while shorter and faster was riskier because of the lack of water sources and the Indians. The Cimarron River does not always contain visible water and the traders relied on springs whenever possible. The bluff at Point of Rocks is the highest feature in the area for several miles and being about a mile from the water source of Middle Spring it was a welcome sight for those on the trail (Brown, 1988). After camping near Middle Spring the traders would then pass below the bluff face above the river to avoid the surrounding rough terrain, Figure 14.

Fig. 14 Map from W.E. Brown illustrating route of the trail below Point of Rocks. Taken from W.E. Brown.

The vast numbers of these traders have left their mark on the land. Their heavily laden wagons and the oxen pulling them carved wide and deep ruts in the soil they traveled over. These wagon trains destroyed the grass and exposed the soils to wind and water erosion. If the ruts became too muddy or too deep they moved over to avoid the eroded trail. The oxen and mules needed grass for grazing and overgrazing occurred exposing the soil to more erosion by the wind and rain. The overgrazing not only increased erosion, but also placed more stress on livestock when insufficient forage was available. Crossing streams was difficult in times of high water and very dangerous. Crossings were moved up or downstream many times to find better crossings. Crossing streams increased the erosion of stream banks. Indians were an ever present danger and the traders would drive in lines of four or five wagons abreast allowing for the wagons to circle more quickly for protection as the oxen teams were slower than horse or mule teams.

Sickness and death on the trail was not uncommon. Doctors were usually only available at military outposts and some towns toward eastern Kansas. Besides fighting Indians, dangers for the traders included lack of water, particularly on the dry branch of the trail, snake bite, accidents with livestock, and the extreme heat and cold crossing the prairie.

Forts were built along the trail by the military to protect travelers on the trail from Indians and some settlers began moving westward. With the increased demand for meat for the military, travelers on the trail and settlers the buffalo herds and other game animals were heavily hunted. Buffalo were killed in large numbers and in some cases only the hides and some meat were taken, which angered the Indians and they became more hostile.

Evidence of the trail still exists today at Point of Rocks with ruts and swales. Trail signs remain here because it is located in the Cimarron National Grasslands as it is not cultivated for growing crops. The Daughters of the American Revolution have also placed trail markers along the old Santa Fe Trail from its beginning in Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There is a marker on the trail at Point of Rocks below the mortar bed. Also a notch is visible here where the trail wore and eroded soil and rocks away.

Return to top of page.


Point of Rocks and Middle Spring are unique areas in Kansas. Its large Jurassic facade and mortar beds were a welcome sight to weary travelers in search of water. Here nearly two centuries after its establishment the old trail is still visible today. The area has changed over time with the growth of trees and the planting of grass to prevent more soil erosion, such as during the Dust Bowl. It will continue to be an important site in Kansas history for a long time and the unique geology of the area invites further study.

Return to top of page.

Photo Gallery

Prairie near Point of Rocks looks today much like it did when traders were traveling the Santa Fe Trail.

Click on the small pictures for enlarged photographs.

Point of Rocks, a Santa Fe Trail
landmark, northwest of present day
Elkhart, KS

Daughters of the Revolution Santa Fe
Trail marker at Point of Rocks on the
old trail.

White mortar beds on Point of Rocks.

Red Jurassic sandstone on hillside.

Chipping sparrow sitting in dead
brush at base of bluff.

The Santa Fe Trail below Point of Rocks.
Note the notch where it dips toward
the river. This was referred to as the
"gun sight."

Middle Spring now grows trees and
the water flow has diminished.

Tumble weeds.

Cimarron River in October, 2013.

Sage brush is abundant around
Point of Rocks.

Hairy grama grass.

Five-stamen tamarisk (salt cedar)
along the Cimarron River.

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia
and Yucca plants (Yucca

are commonly seen.

Deer tracks on old trail.

Blimp over Point of Rocks.

Aerial photo looking downstream.
Middle Spring on the left and
Cimarron River on the right. Photo
taken by J.S. Aber and ES546
students using the blimp.

Aerial photo of mortar beds west
of Point of Rocks with the Santa
Fe Trail on the left side
of the mortar beds. Photo taken
by J.S. Aber and ES 546 students
using the blimp.

Aerial photo of camera crew on top of
Point of Rocks, in middle by blue
tarp. Photo taken by J.S. Aber and
ES 546 students using the blimp.

Return to top of page.


Return to top of page.

All photographs are by Gayla R. Corley unless stated otherwise.

This webpage was created to meet the requirements of ES 546 Field Geomorphology at Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, and is the property of the authors. For more information contact the authors: Gayla R. Corley or Megan Sprague.

Created November 2013, for the Earth Science Department, at Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas.