Lonely Planet Writer

The USA's youngest national park

If you've been watching Ken Burns' sprawling documentary on national parks in the US, there's one park you won't find included: the country's youngest. But actually the park, tucked in a remote corner of eastern Colorado, is wise beyond its years, offering visitors a sobering lesson in the West’s difficult history, and discussing issues still relevant in world relations today.

Off a gravel side road, off a two-lane highway, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site became the latest of the 391 national parks and sites in 2007. It tributes a part of western history not commonly known. In November 1864, US cavalry raided a camp of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians, killing over 150 mostly women and children, and setting off a trail of events that led to a terrible decline in US/Indian relations, capped with Little Big Horn in 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.

There’s little to see of the 1864 two-day raid. No artifacts, no re-created campsites. Instead visitors to the park, set on 2400 acres of gently rolling plains (home to leopard frogs, antelope and prairie dogs), are greeted by staff, who cater a program based on time and interest of the some-4000 who drive up every year.

Alden Miller, who works there, told me by phone, “One of the most profound experiences is simply being here. There are moments in the broad open landscape that you can see to the horizon, and it’s perfectly quiet. The site comes alive."

He enjoys seeing visitors’ reactions. “Over and over we hear how relevant this site is to the world today. Tribal folk tell us this, war veterans, everyone.”

The massacre came at a time after the Colorado Territory had discovered gold, was looking to become statehood, and increased tensions between settlers and the plains’ original residents grew. When the butchered remains of one family – who may or may not have been killed by the Arapaho or Cheyenne – were displayed in Denver, it escalated to the military attack.

Miller says some settlers and soldiers condemned it, even refused to partake. One man was Captain Silas Soule, who called those who would shoot women and children “getting on their knees for mercy” as cowards. Shortly afterward, he was murdered in Denver. Miller likes to tell the story and ask visitors what they would do. He added, “We don’t often look at notes of conscience in our past, but it’s equally important,” Miller said.

Most Arapaho and Cheyenne now live far off in communities in Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana, but return every Thanksgiving to stage an over 200-mile relay “Healing Run” from the site to the capitol in Denver, where they speak.

Power of a place: I've not been to Sand Creek yet, but I've felt that quiet power of a place in various places. In western Oklahoma, I saw the bluff at Washita that Custer's men hid behind in 1868 before launching attack on a peace-seeking group, killing Black Kettle, who had survived the Sand Creek attack. And Wounded Knee. And Auschwitz. And the World Trade Center. Some call it "dark tourism" to visit such scenes of tragedy, conflict or death -- I find it a sign of respect, offering far more revelation than one would expect. As Miller told me, "It's not just a single moment of history" when you come.

Next time I'm anywhere near Eads, Colorado, I'll definitely make it to Sand Creek.

--> If you go, there are hotels in nearby Eads (at the intersection of Hwy 96 & 287, closer to Kansas than the mountains), though Lamar (35 miles south) is probably better bases. The site is free to visit 9am to 4pm daily, but closed December though March. Another interesting nearby attraction is Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site.