No improved amenities were found along the trail in the early years. Campsites were carefully selected and needed to provide at least water, grass, and fuel. Draught animals could survive a night without plentiful grass, but neither humans nor animals could survive long without water. Most camping areas were located adjacent to streams or springs. Travelers encountered numerous rivers and streams along the trail. Some were crossed with little trouble, but others with steep banks or muddy bottoms were more difficult to manage and posed major obstacles for travelers. In 1844, author and traveler Josiah Gregg described crossing the Little Arkansas River:
“Although endowed with an imposing name, is only a small creek with a current but five or six yards wide. But, though small, its steep banks and miry bed annoyed us exceedingly in crossing. It is the practice upon the prairies on all such occasions, for several men to go in advance with axes, spades, and mattocks, and, by digging the banks and erecting temporary bridges, to have all in readiness by the time the wagons arrive. A bridge over a quagmire is made in a few minutes, by cross-laying it with the brush (willows are best, but even long grass is often employed as a substitute), and covering it with earth, across which a hundred wagons will often pass in safety.”
Crossings became more dangerous after heavy rains when streams were in flood stage. Sometimes waters remained high for several days causing significant delays. Even when water levels were lower, crossing streams often caused a bottleneck for large caravans as wagons had to wait their turn. Some crossings wore out men and livestock working to move wagons bogged down in mud, and quicksand was a danger that could be encountered on some streams, particularly the Arkansas River. Most of the troublesome crossings were encountered in Kansas.
Many other dangers lurked along the trail. Storms with high winds, heavy rains, and hail caused damage to wagons, drove off livestock, and resulted in injuries. Winter storms with heavy snows and extremely cold temperatures bogged down wagons and killed livestock and travelers. At least two caravans suffered from winter storms. In the winter of 1822-1823 the Baird-Chambers trade caravan, as noted above, was caught in a blizzard on an island in the Arkansas River west of modern-day Dodge City. They were forced to cache their merchandise and continue on to “Touse” [Taos]. They came back in better weather and retrieved their cached goods. In 1841 Don Manuel Alvarez and his small trading party were caught in a blizzard at Cottonwood Creek Crossing. Two men and most of the company’s mules were frozen to death. Livestock stampedes, particularly of oxen, were fairly common because, as Josiah Gregg noted, they tended to be “exceedingly whimsical creatures when surrounded by unfamiliar objects. One will sometimes take a fright at the jingle of his own yoke-irons, or the cough of his mate, and, by a sudden flounce, set the whole herd in a flurry.”
Injuries were also possible from guns and knives handled by the traders and travelers for hunting and protection, though sometimes used in fights against fellow travelers. Rattlesnakes, bees, poison ivy, nettles and briars, and other native fauna and flora could also pose dangers. Because of incidents like the Baird-Chambers expedition, travelers learned which seasons of the year were best suited for travel. During the winter months, Missouri traders purchased goods in the East and had them brought to the trailheads in Independence or Kansas City to be ready for departure in early May.
Leaving in May would ensure adequate grazing on the prairie for the mules and oxen. Eastbound caravans usually left Santa Fe on September 1, arriving in Missouri around October 10th. Caravans could accomplish between ten and 18 miles a day and barring major delays, could reach their destinations within a month and a half. Delays due to rain were common, especially near the eastern part of the trail, as the caravans often had to wait for the water to recede from streams in order to cross.
Various travelers recorded their journeys and provided lists of places along the trail and approximate mileages between them. In later years guidebooks were published for travelers, providing itineraries and tables of distances between campsites. Differences appear in the various listings of trail campsites, even between those recorded only a year or two apart. Some of these differences were due to names of places changing or to increased knowledge over time, while others were due to actual changes in the route of travel. The mileages given on early itineraries were often inaccurate, but accuracy improved in later years with better methods of measurement. Both similarities and differences can be seen in these lists of major stops and distances along the trail between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of the individuals who wrote an itinerary was trader Alphonso Wetmore. In 1828 he maintained a diary while serving as the captain of a Santa Fe-bound caravan that encountered heavy rains and swollen streams. In addition to his Santa Fe Trail writings, he also wrote prolifically about life in the Army and in Missouri. Wetmore’s Santa Fe Trail itinerary, published in 1837 in his Gazetteer of the State of Missouri, lists 67 major places along the Cimarron Route, including stream crossings, springs, water holes, and campgrounds. He estimated the total distance between Independence and Santa Fe as 897 miles.
Josiah Gregg’s total mileage differed from Wetmore’s. In his 1844 Commerce of the Prairies, Gregg provided a table listing major places and distances along the Cimarron Route based on his six trips along the Santa Fe Trail. He estimated the total distance between Independence and Santa Fe along this route as 770 miles and showed 37 major named places on the route. The most notable difference between the Wetmore and Gregg itineraries is the estimate of the total aggregate mileage between the same starting and ending points. Distances between listed places on both Wetmore’s and Gregg’s itineraries varied from two to 40 miles. During the early years of the Santa Fe Trail, traders and travelers settled on a basic route (the Cimarron Route) between Missouri and Santa Fe, as well as learned and established some basic rules of the road. These included which methods of transportation were best suited along the route, the best ways to efficiently organize trade caravans across the Plains, how to protect the cargo and livestock during times of danger, and choosing the most important items that were needed by the traders along the route. William Becknell used horses as pack animals on his first trade trip; Mexican traders used burros and mules, and arrieros (muleteers) were familiar with their use traveling the rugged Camino Real. No mention of the presence of mules in Missouri has been identified prior to 1824; apparently, the first mules came to the state over the Santa Fe Trail. Goods carried on pack animals had to be loaded each morning and unloaded each evening, a time-consuming process even for experienced arrieros. Pack animals had some advantages over wagon travel in that they were better suited to rough terrain and could negotiate steep stream banks. Unlike the packing and unpacking required when using pack animals, wagons offered the added benefit of just one loading.