After departing Oklahoma, we returned to the plains of eastern Colorado for the final night of our whirlwind road trip. Our home for the night was at the KOA in the town of La Junta. Junta, by the way, is pronounced ‘hun-tuh’… which is honestly less ridiculous than we were expecting. Colorado is really good at taking the Spanish names for places and completely mispronouncing them (see: Limon and Buena Vista, pronounced ‘lye-mun’ and ‘byoo-nuh vis-tuh’ respectively).
La Junta is located in southeastern Colorado on the Arkansas River. It sits at what used to be the junction – or junta – of the Santa Fe Trail and an old pioneer road. The Santa Fe Trail was a main trading route in the mid-to-late 1800s that connected Missouri to Santa Fe which was, at the time, located in the Republic of Texas, area claimed by Mexico. The Arkansas River was the border between the US and Mexican territories.
Although it resembled military fortifications, Bent’s Old Fort was in fact a trading post. Brothers Charles and William Bent and their business partner Ceran St. Vrain built the fort a few miles outside La Junta in 1833, choosing this particular place because, in addition to its location along the Santa Fe Trail, it was fairly centrally-located between the fur trappers of the Rocky Mountains and the homeland and hunting grounds of multiple Native American tribes. It quickly became a key location for trading and the main stop on the Santa Fe Trail for travelers in need of rest, repairs, and replenishment.
About 60 people lived full-time at the fort, but at times the population temporarily swelled to as many as 200 as travelers and traders spent a few nights at the fort on their way through. Multiple languages – including English, Spanish, French, and the individual languages of the Native American tribes – were spoken at the fort. It was somewhat of an anomaly at this point in history; a location where people of many different backgrounds interacted and mingled peacefully. William Bent’s marriage to a Cheyenne named Owl Woman was in part responsible for establishment and maintenance of this peaceful coexistence.
(That being said, the fort was built on land stolen from the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Jicarilla Apache, Ute, Osage, and Kiowa tribes (source) and was a main vehicle for the introduction of new technologies, forever altering their ways of life. As the fort drew more and more settlers, it also accelerated the takeover of native lands by the US.)
Charles Bent died in 1847 and St. Vrain attempted to sell the fort to the US Army. In 1849, the fort burned to the ground; it’s unknown how the fire started, though one theory is that it was actually set by William Bent. Fortunately, a man named Lieutenant James Abert had temporarily lived at the fort in 1846, during which time he extensively measured, surveyed, and painted images of it. These watercolors and blueprints are the reason the National Park Service was able to build an exact replica of the fort in the 1970s upon establishment of Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. It was opened to the public in 1976.
Both guided and self-guided tours of the fort are available. Due to the pandemic, only self-guided tours were occurring when we visited. We began by watching the 20 minute video on the history of the fort, and then walked around the fort on our own with a pamphlet explaining the history and uses of each room of this two-story adobe and wood structure.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: located along CO highway 194 about 8 miles (13 km) east of La Junta
- Fees and passes: $3 per person; interagency passes NOT accepted
- Hours: the park is NOT open 24/7; check the website before visiting to ensure you will arrive during open hours. They also host a few special events during the year, which cost slightly more and will provide a very different fort experience
- Hiking: it’s about a 5-10 minute walk on a flat paved path out to the fort; an optional additional 1.5 mile (2.4 km) dirt trail winds through the trees and along the river between the fort and the parking lot
- Where to stay: there are no accommodations in the NHS, however both camping and lodging are available in La Junta
- Other: much of the fort is open air, so be prepared for the weather of the day… sun gear, rain gear, a jacket, waterbottle, etc.