Extending 698 miles across New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas, the Cimarron River’s headwaters flow from Johnson Mesa west of Folsom in northeastern New Mexico. The river enters the Oklahoma Panhandle near Kenton and bends northward through the southeastern corner of Colorado, where it splits into two branches before entering the southwestern corner of Kansas. The riverbed in this area is dry except during spring and early summer or during occasional floods. The north fork enters Morton County flowing through the southeast corner of Stanton County and entering Grant County.
The south fork crosses Morton County and the northwest corner of Stevens and also enters Grant County, where the two branches unite. The combined Cimarron then flows in a southeast direction through Seward County and the extreme southwest corner of Meade County into Oklahoma.
A few miles below the Kansas line the stream makes a turn, flows east about 25 miles, and again re-enters Kansas in Clark County, flowing across the southeast corner and leaving the state from the southwest corner of Comanche County. In Oklahoma, the dry riverbed once again becomes an active stream and empties into the Arkansas River at the Keystone Reservoir above Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The river’s name comes from the early Spanish name, Río de los Carneros Cimarrón, meaning River of the Wild Sheep. Early American explorers also called it the Red Fork of the Arkansas River because of the water’s red color, received from contact with the red clay along its banks. Early mapmakers and explorers often confused the Cimarron River with the Salt Fork Arkansas River. One of the earliest mentions of the Cimarron River was in 1807 by Zebulon Pike, who called it the “Grand Saline” or “Newsewtonga.”
One branch of the Santa Fe Trail, variously called the Cimarron Route, the Cimarron Cutoff, and the Middle Crossing (of the Arkansas River), ran from Dodge City, Kansas to Fort Union, New Mexico, where it rejoined the northern Mountain Branch route to continue on to Santa Fe. Though this route was more direct, crossing the Great Plains was dry, with poor grass, little wildlife, and fraught with Indian attacks. In 1831, Comanche Indians killed Jedediah Smith, the famous hunter, trapper, and explorer on the Santa Fe Trail near the Cimarron River, and his body was never recovered.
There are a number of historic sites along the Cimarron River including Wagon Bed Springs in Grant County; Point of Rocks, a Santa Fe Trail lookout for both Indians and traders in Morton County, and the Cimarron National Grasslands in Morton and Stevens Counties of Kansas, which offers an abundance of prairie flowers, wildlife, and 23 miles of the old Santa Fe Trail.
In Oklahoma, Cold Spring and Autograph Rock can be found north of Boise City; Camp Nichols, an old fort founded by Kit Carson in 1865, once stood along the route northwest of Wheeless, and the river flows along the southern edges of Black Mesa, the highest point in the state.
As the river enters New Mexico, it is known as the Dry Cimarron River, in contrast to a wetter Cimarron River located further west. The Dry Cimarron River is not completely dry but sometimes its water disappears entirely under the sand in the river bed and the road that follows it is designated as the Dry Cimarron National Scenic Byway. It snakes its way past the Capulin Volcano National Monument, to Folsom and Johnson Mesa.