Della Orton’s dream: NPF project spurs Santa Fe Trail’s Rock Creek Crossing

by Joanne VanCoevern, Manager, Santa Fe Trail Association

Above from left: SFTA President Larry Justice, landowner Della Orton, and NTIR Superintendent Aaron Mahr during the Rock Creek Crossing Trail dedication June 8, 2019. Photo Credit: Joanne VanCoevern

In 2015, Della Orton, owner of property located along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail (SFNHT) corridor and the Rock Creek Crossing, alerted the Santa Fe Trail Association (SFTA) of her desire to open up her private property to allow the creation of a place where the public could enjoy the prairie that she loves so much. Orton wanted children and families to be able to hike and explore the prairie in its natural environment and learn about the significant history of the area, including the history of the SFNHT. After several years and many meetings, the SFTA received an opportunity to help make her dream a reality.  

In February 2018, the National Park Foundation (NPF), an official nonprofit partner to the National Park Service (NPS), issued a call for projects to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act, signed by President Johnson in 1968, which led to the creation of the SFNHT in 1987. The SFTA, with support from the NPS National Trails Intermountain Region (NTIR) office in Santa Fe, applied and was notified in April 2018 that the Orton property was one of 20 nationwide projects to receive funding.

The SFTA submitted a project proposal with a budget of $54,200. The funding received provided for four key components to making this area accessible to the public and included: creating a parking lot; moving and building new fence; creating a natural surface pedestrian trail; and creating wayside exhibits to tell the story of the area and the SFNHT.

SFTA was notified that it could also apply for an additional pilot project being developed by the NPF in partnership with the NPS known as a Love Your Park (LYP) pilot project. The LYP network was created to strengthen the national parks community, enhance national parks, and improve the visitor experience. LYP projects connect park partners and park enthusiasts across the country to coordinate opportunities to increase volunteerism and financial support to national parks and trails. The network created will provide members with the tools, materials, resources, shared learnings, data collection, and funding to create and expand innovative volunteer programs and foster meaningful connections across sectors.

The additional funding from the LYP project provided SFTA with the opportunity to apply for a key component that was missing from the initial request: promotion of the Rock Creek Trail.  Working with the Heart of the Flint Hills Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, the Morris County Historical Society, and the Kaw Mission State Historic Site, a unique project was developed to promote the SFNHT and the Rock Creek Trail on Della Orton’s property.  SFTA was awarded an additional $5,000 to develop the Traveling Trail Troupe featuring a cast of characters from the historic Santa Fe Trail. The Traveling Trail Troupe can appear along the Rock Creek Trail, on the city streets of Council Grove, KS, or as part of a special program. They can take the message of the Santa Fe Trail to other venues, or wherever they want to go.

The Rock Creek Crossing along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail is located six miles east of Council Grove, KS, on Hwy. 56, and about a half mile north on S. 200 Road. The pedestrian trail is open dawn to dusk as weather permits. There is a parking lot for off-road parking. There are no restroom facilities.
Photo Credit: Joanne VanCoevern.

On June 8, 2019, the SFTA and the Heart of the Flint Hills Chapter hosted the first event at the Rock Creek Crossing Trail site. Larry Justice, SFTA President, welcomed the attendees and served as master of ceremonies. Providing brief comments about the project and the importance that partnerships with private landowners such as Orton play to administering national trails was Aaron Mahr, NTIR Superintendent. Joanne VanCoevern, SFTA Manager, provided a history of the project, as well as the funding provided by the NPF. Larry Short, SFTA Project Manager and Vice President, acknowledged all those involved with the project. Orton thanked all who attended and expressed her vision for opening her property to allow others to share the ability to experience the prairie and the Santa Fe Trail. Orton’s family has signed a memorandum of understanding with SFTA and NPS to grant public access on her property.   

Following the unveiling of the Traveling Trail Troupe and the Cast of Characters from the Santa Fe Trail and the seven wayside exhibits that provide information about the site, attendees were invited to enjoy the trail and the prairie and visit the exhibits.  

Project Criteria

Those who applied for the National Park Foundation’s 50th anniversary of trails projects had to fit specific criteria, including having to: 

  • Take place in 2018 to align with the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act;
  • Align with the Department of the Interior Secretarial priorities related to creating a conservation and stewardship legacy and working with local communities;
  • Contribute to sustainable relationships;
  • Have a developed budget that was between $25,000-$100,000;
  • Provide sustainable access or improved access to trails;
  • Have a significant relevance to a national trail;
  • Develop new partnerships; 
  • Have a volunteer component.

Unless otherwise indicated, all material in Pathways Across America is public domain. All views expressed herein are perspectives of individuals working on behalf of the National Trails System and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Federal agencies.