The Cimarron Route, also known as the Cimarron Cutoff, and Cimarron Crossing, was the most favored route in the earliest days of the Santa Fe Trail, even though the path was known for its scarcity of water. This route was shorter by about 100 miles, reduced the traveling time by ten days, and was more suited to wagon travel.
When entering New Mexico along the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail, one of the first elevations seen by early traders was Rabbit Ears – a mountain and butte that are remnants of ancient volcanoes. The larger one to the west is Rabbit Ear Mountain, and the smaller one to the east is Rabbit Ear Butte. The geographic feature is named for a Cheyenne Chief named Orejos de Conjeo (Rabbit Ears), who died in a battle with Spanish colonists in 1717 and is said to be buried at the top of the mountain that bears his name. According to tradition, the chief’s name was derived from ears damaged by frostbite at some point in his life.
In 1717 the Comanche held several Spanish prisoners when an expedition of about 500 soldiers was sent from Santa Fe to get them released. Under the command of Don Juan de Padilla, Carlos Fernandez, and Padro Pino, the determined expedition carried firearms, machetes, lances, and bows and arrows. Learning that the Comanche were camped at Rabbit Ears, they charged the camp at daylight killing hundreds and taking 700 prisoners. The battle was later described as one of the bloodiest slaughters of Indians in western history. In the end, the captives were liberated, and the Comanche never again went on the warpath against the Spaniards.
The old Santa Fe Trail passed both to the north and south of the landmark, with travelers still having about 200 miles to journey before reaching Santa Fe.
Rabbit Ears was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1963. It is located five miles northwest of Clayton, New Mexico via NM 370 on private land.
Continuing to use Rabbit Ears as a navigation point, Santa Fe travelers headed from Oklahoma into present-day New Mexico to McNees Crossing, a rock crossing over the North Canadian River, called Corrumpa Creek the locals. This rock crossing was named for a young scout of an eastbound caravan, Robert McNees, who, along with Daniel Munro, was killed there in the autumn of 1828 by Indians. The two young men, who were eastbound traders, rode ahead of their caravan to scout the trail and look for water. Indians attacked the two while they rested at this spot, killing McNees instantly and mortally wounding Monroe. The crossing was also used as a campground, and a group of traders headed by Josiah Gregg celebrated the Fourth of July there in 1831, the first such celebration in present-day New Mexico. The site retains much of its original appearance. It is located on private land, but access is unrestricted. Also, a National Historic Landmark, the site is located 3.5 miles west of the Oklahoma state line, then 1.5 miles south on New Mexico Highway 406.
Turkey Creek Camp
The next stop along the old trail was Turkey Creek Camp, located about seven miles north of Rabbit Ears Mountain. Though the crossing of Turkey Creek was difficult, the site had water, a nearby supply of wood, and good grazing land, making it a better campsite for Santa Fe Trail travelers than McNees Crossing. Several landmarks could be viewed from here, including Rabbit Ears, Mt. Dora, Round Mound (Mount Clayton), and Sierra Grande. George Sibley, Santa Fe Trail surveyor, said of it: “The only relief for the eye, or solace for the mind, came from such prominent landmarks as the jagged Rabbit Ears and the nearby Round Mound that rose from the tedious expanse.” Though these landmarks alerted travelers that their ordeal was coming to an end, there were still miles to go.
Rabbit Ears Creek Camp
Located on private land about six miles north of Mount Dora, New Mexico, this was considered an excellent campground, with spring water, grass, wood, and game for food. Many wagon trains reportedly rested at this site for a couple of days. Wagon ruts can still be seen in the area.
South of Rabbit Ears Creek Camp was yet another landmark for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, although it was not as significant as Round Mound. It is located north of US Highway 64/87, between Clayton and Mount Dora, New Mexico.
The major steering point after Santa Fe Trail travelers left the Turkey Creek camp, the trail passed to the north of Round Mound, and travelers often commented on it. An illustration in Josiah Gregg’s 1844 Commerce of the Prairies shows a wagon train as seen from the mound. Today this site is known as Mount Clayton. It is located about four miles south of US Highway 64/87 and New Mexico Highway 120 at Grenville, New Mexico.
Another extinct volcano, Sierra Grande, like Mount Dora, was a lesser landmark along this portion of the Santa Fe Trail.
Point of Rocks
With Rabbit Ears and Round Mound to their backs, wagon masters then focused on navigating toward Point of Rocks. The outcropping of rocks and a mesa provided a spring for water and plentiful game. Tipi rings and trail ruts are still visible in the area. Using the Point of Rocks as the westward guide, wagon trains soon came to the Rock Crossing of the Canadian River. Located in Jicarilla Apache country, it was near here that the party of Santa Fe merchant J.W. White was attacked in 1849. Kit Carson was a member of the military party organized to rescue White’s wife and daughter. The site, located on private, unrestricted land, protects the grave of Isaac Allen, who died in 1848, and 11 unmarked graves.
Point of Rocks is located about 20 miles east of Springer along US Hwy 56 to C-52, turn left (N) for 8 mi to the Cimarron Cutoff, turn right (NE) and drive 2 miles to the site.
Rock Crossing of Canadian River
From Point of Rocks, many Cimarron Route caravans moved southwest, crossing the Canadian River before proceeding to Wagon Mound and Las Vegas. Because of its many deep canyons, the Canadian River had one favorable rocky crossing point that saved much time for anyone traveling in the area. The crossing has a natural stone floor for a short distance only. Upstream is sandy and hard to cross, while downstream, a deep, rocky canyon makes it impossible to cross. This spot was considered the real entry into Mexico, and Mexican troops were sometimes sent this far to escort traders back to Santa Fe. It was also the site of several Indian raids on the caravans. Wagon ruts are still visible leading to and from this crossing. The crossing is located on private property two miles south of US Highway 56 in Colfax County, New Mexico.
Santa Clara Spring
Near Wagon Mound was Santa Clara Spring, an important rest stop and a favorite spot for Indian attacks, including the Wagon Mound Massacre. The cemetery here holds the remains of freighter Charles Fraker. He was of German and Cherokee ancestry and married María de Luz, the daughter of Manuel LeFevre, a French-Canadian trapper living in Taos in the 1820s. LeFevre’s other daughter, Dolores, married Uncle Dick Wootton of Raton Pass fame. Santa Clara Spring is on private land about two miles northwest of the town of Wagon Mound. At the head of a small canyon, this spring was used by Santa Fe Trail travelers and still serves as the water source for the town of Wagon Mound.
The main trail then continued to one of the most prominent trail landmarks — Wagon Mound, a volcanic outcropping of lava. The shape of the mound is said to resemble a Conestoga wagon being pulled by oxen. Wagon Mound meant they were roughly 100 miles from Santa Fe to people in wagon trains coming from Missouri. When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad came through in 1881, this was a natural place to build a town, which continues to thrive today and is also called Wagon Mound.
The Pilot Knobs are 2 miles west of Wagon Mound in Mora County, New Mexico. They were used as a landmark for wagon trains, but they were not as important a landmark as the more visible Wagon Mound immediately to the east.
From here, the trail continued to Watrous, where it joined with the Mountain Route to make its way to Santa Fe.