The Cimarron River extends 698 miles (1123 km) across New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas. The headwaters flow from Johnson Mesa west of Folsom in northeastern New Mexico. The river enters the Oklahoma Panhandle near Kenton, crosses the southeastern corner of Colorado into Kansas, re-enters the Oklahoma Panhandle, re-enters Kansas, and finally returns to Oklahoma where it joins the Arkansas River at Keystone Reservoir above Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The river's name comes from the early Spanish name, Río de los Carneros Cimarrón, which is usually translated as River of the Wild Sheep. Early American explorers also called it the Red Fork of the Arkansas because of water's red color.
In New Mexico the river is known as the Dry Cimarron River. This is by contrast to a wetter Cimarron River located further west. The Dry Cimarron River is not completely dry but sometimes its water disappears entirely under the sand in the river bed. The Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway follows the river from Folsom to the Oklahoma border. In Oklahoma the river flows along the southern edges of Black Mesa, the highest point in that state. As it first crosses the Kansas border, the river flows through the Cimarron National Grassland.
Historical notes of interest
- One branch of the Santa Fe Trail, known variously as the Cimarron Route, the Cimarron Cutoff, and the Middle Crossing (of the Arkansas River), ran through the Cimarron Desert and then along the Cimarron River.
- In 1831 Commanche Indians killed Jedediah Smith (a famous hunter, trapper, and explorer) on the Santa Fe Trail near the Cimarron River. His body was never recovered.
- In 1834 General Henry Leavenworth established Camp Arbuckle (Fort Arbuckle) at the mouth of the Cimarron River.
- Historic sites along the river include the ruins of Camp Nichols, a stone fort built by Kit Carson in 1865 to protect travelers from raids by Plains Indians on the Cimarron Cutoff. It was located near present day Wheeless, Oklahoma.
- The old Chisholm Trail crossed the river at Red Fork Station near present day Dover, Oklahoma.
- Anshutz, Carrie W. Schmoker; M.W. (Doc) Anshutz. Cimarron Chronicles: Saga of the Open Range. Meade, Kansas: Ohnick Enterprises, 2003. ISBN 0-9746222-0-6
- Dary, David. The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore. New York: Penguin, 2002 (Reissue). ISBN 0-14-200058-2
- Hanners, Laverne; Ed Lord. The Lords of the Valley: Including the Complete Text of Our Unsheltered Lives. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8061-2804-6
- Hoig, Stan. Beyond the Frontier: Exploring the Indian Country. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8061-3052-0
- Schumm, Stanley A. Channel Widening and Flood-Plain Construction along Cimarron River in Southwestern Kansas: Erosion and Sedimentation in a Semiarid Environment. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963. ISBN B0007EFJLY
- Schumm, Stanley A. River Variability and Complexity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-84671-4
- Stovall, John Willis. Geology of the Cimarron River Valley in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Chicago, 1938.
- Woodhouse, S. W. (Eds. John S. Tomer, Michael J. Brodhead). A Naturalist in Indian Territory: The Journals of S.W. Woodhouse, 1849-50 (The American Exploration and Travel Series, Vol 72). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8061-2805-4