For eastbound travelers, La Junta (pop. 7,077), a busy railroad town on the banks of the Arkansas River, is where we begin tracing the historic Santa Fe Trail. The name La Junta, which means “the junction,” is apt, since the town has long been a key crossroads, first on the Santa Fe Trail and now as the main Amtrak stop south of Denver. The town’s excellent Koshare Indian Museum (115 W. 18th St., 719/384-4411, daily, $5) is housed in a giant kiva-shaped structure on the campus of Otero Junior College, on the south side of town. It’s a local tradition for Boy Scouts to don Native American regalia and perform interpretive dances on-site (Sat. June-July, $12).
La Junta also offers gas stations, a good range of places to eat (Mexican restaurants are a particular strength), a two-screen movie theater, and an ancient-looking barber shop. Sleep cheap at the clean and friendly Midtown Motel (215 E. 3rd St., 719/384-7741, $50-75).
La Junta also marks the spot where the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail finally cuts away to the south, following what’s now US-350 through the Comanche National Grassland and continuing over Raton Pass into New Mexico and on to Santa Fe. Eastbound travelers are in luck, as we follow this historic route all the way to the other side of Kansas City.