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visitors talking with living history trader
Park visitors talk with a living history trader who has set up camp outside the fort walls. (NPS photo)

NPS employee dressed as living history explorer
National Park Service employee John Carson, great-grandson of trapper and scout Kit Carson, is following in his ancestor's footsteps by working at the fort. (NPS photo)

oxen pulling wagon
Exercising the oxen. The fort maintains a menagerie similar to what would have been found in the 1840s including Spanish barb horses, mules, chickens and peacocks. (NPS photo) homepage photo: A Santa Fe Trail freight wagon sits in front of Bent's Old Fort. Wagons like this brought trade goods to the fort then freighted furs back to the markets in Missouri. (NPS Photo)

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Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
La Junta, Colorado

As you approach the gate, you smell a cottonwood campfire. Entering the plaza, you hear the clang of blacksmith’s hammer on anvil. You are greeted by a guide in 19th-century garb muddied with adobe. Welcome to 1846! Welcome to Bent’s Old Fort!

Here is preserved the site and story of a famous trading post. The fort was one of the significant centers of the fur trade on the Santa Fe Trail. Most of the fort's business was carried on with the tribes of the Plains including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa. Built by Bent, St. Vrain & Company in 1833, the post was the center of a prosperous trading empire for 16 years. Strategically located, the fort paved the way for U.S. expansion and became an agent of change that shaped the future of the West. Today, Bent’s Old Fort is reborn: faithfully reconstructed by the National Park Service in 1975-76 on the site of the original post.

Rangers in period clothing tell the important story of this crossroads of culture. Here, the people of the United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico became linked through trade during the 1830s and 1840s. Come back in time to explore those connections.

Located eight miles east of the city of La Junta along Colorado Highway 194 in southeastern Colorado, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is open to visitors all year long. The site features a picnic area, a 1.5 mile hiking loop along the Arkansas River, and, of course, the fort itself. The post features 38 rooms inside the 20-foot-high, 2-foot-thick adobe walls. With its bastions and gun ports, it does fit the contemporary description of a “castle.”

Unlike most museums, Bent’s Fort is alive. Its rooms are used by living history staff and volunteers on a daily or seasonal basis. The blacksmith hammers in his shop. Cooks toil in the kitchen. Trappers, traders and a fort doctor occupy other rooms. Visitors are welcome to wander through the rooms and become part of the historical scene.

A good way to start your visit is to watch the 20-minute orientation film. You can tour the fort on your own using an award-winning self-guiding booklet or join a ranger for a guided tour. Upon completing your tour, head to the trade goods and bookstore operated by Western National Parks Association to pick up a reproduction trade item or a great book to take home with you.

This is a special year for the park as it celebrates its 50th anniversary with re-enactments and programs from leading historians on June 4 -5, 2010. The event will commemorate the site’s rise from ruins to reconstruction to one of the premiere living history sites in the country. From stagecoach rides, to a trapper’s camp, to a movie retrospective, the celebration will have something for everyone.

The 50th anniversary celebration will end in the fort plaza with a grand fandango, a cross-cultural party to remember the links that brought success to Bent’s Fort in the past and will carry the park successfully into the future.

So come, experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the past at “the Castle on the Plains.”

By Rick Wallner, Chief of Interpretation, Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site