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The Old Spanish National Historic Trail links Santa Fe and Los Angeles across six states and 2,700 miles. It traverses red rock mesas, passes below snow-capped peaks, and fords untamed rivers, avoiding the immense depths of the Grand Canyon and skirting the continent’s harshest deserts.
The trail takes its name from the Spanish colonies in northern New Mexico and southern California that were linked by this rugged route. The Spanish outpost of Santa Fe, New Mexico was founded in the early 1600s and the pueblo of Los Angeles, California was founded in 1781. But it was not until 1829 when Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo led 60 men and 100 pack mules northward on the trails blazed by native peoples that a suitable land passage between these colonies was established. Armijo’s mules carried woolen goods for trade in California. On the return trip, Armijo backtracked along the route Spanish padres Dominguez and Escalante recorded as they returned to Santa Fe from southern Utah more than 50 years earlier. He and his men drove mules, horses, and donkeys obtained in California for trade in New Mexico. Some of the several Old Spanish Trail trade routes were eventually replaced by wagon roads, and many portions of the routes remain today in state highway transportation networks.
The Old Spanish Trail was designated by Congress as a National Historic Trail in December 2002. By memorandum from the Secretary of the Interior, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail is jointly administered by the BLM and the National Park Service, working in partnership with other federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as private landowners who manage or own lands along the trail route.
The Old Spanish Trail is a historical trade route which connected the northern New Mexico settlements near or in Santa Fe, New Mexico with that of Los Angeles, California and southern California. Approximately 1,200 mi (1,900 km) long, it ran through areas of high mountains, arid deserts, and deep canyons. It is considered one of the most arduous of all trade routes ever established in the United States. Explored, in part, by Spanish explorers as early as the late 1500s, the Trail saw extensive use by pack trains from about 1830 until the mid-1850s.
The name of the trail comes from the publication of John C. Frémont’s Report of his 1844 journey for the U.S. Topographical Corps. guided by Kit Carson from California to New Mexico. The name acknowledges the fact that parts of the trail had been known to the Spanish since the sixteenth century. Frémont’s report named a trail that had already been in use for about 15 years. The trail is significant to New Mexico history, because it established an arduous but usable trade route with California.
The Armijo Route of the Old Spanish Trail, established by Antonio Armijo in 1829, ran northwest and west of Santa Fe to the Four Corners area, passed north of the Carrizo Mountains to present day Kayenta. The trail then ran to Marsh Pass and on to the Colorado River where travelers forded at the Crossing of the Fathers above present day Glen Canyon Dam. Continuing west to Pipe Spring and on to present day St. George, Utah, the route then followed the Virgin River to the Colorado River before turning west to the Pahrump Valley and Tecopa and then south to the Mojave River. The river was followed to a point near Cajon Pass over the San Bernardino Mountains. If parts of the Mojave River were dry, travelers could sometimes find water by digging in the old river bed. Descending Cajon Pass to reach the coastal plains, the trail turned west along the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains to where the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and El Pueblo de Los Ángeles in California were located.
The Main Route (also referred to as the Central Route or the Northern Route) of the Old Spanish Trail avoided the more difficult canyon country traversed by the Armijo Route. First traveled in 1830 by a party led by William Wolfskill and George Yount, this route ran northwest from Santa Fe through southwestern Colorado, past the San Juan Mountains, Mancos, and Dove Creek, entering Utah near present day Monticello. The trail then proceeded north through difficult terrain to Spanish Valley near today’s Moab, Utah, where a ferry crossed the deep and wide Colorado River and then turned northwest to a ferry crossing on the similarly sized and dangerous Green River near present day Green River, Utah. The route then passed through (or around) the San Rafael Swell, the northernmost reach of the Trail. Entering the Great Basin in Utah via Salina Creek Canyon, the trail turned southwest following the Sevier River, Santa Clara River and Virgin River before ascending the Mormon Plateau and hitting the Muddy River in present-day Nevada. From there, it was a 55 miles (89 km) waterless trip crossing southern Nevada to the springs at Las Vegas, Nevada. From Las Vegas, the trail went across the Mojave desert from Mountain, Resting, Salt Springs, and Bitter Spring (which were sometimes dry), each about a day’s travel apart across the Mojave Desert until it reached the only intermittently dependable Mojave River and joined the Armijo Route.
The North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail was established by traders and trappers using Indian and Spanish colonial routes. It ran from Santa Fe north to Taos and on north into the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Caravans then headed west to today’s Saguache, crossing over the Continental Divide at Cochetopa Pass, and then through present day Gunnison and Montrose to the Uncompahgre Valley. The trail then followed the Gunnison River to today’s Grand Junction, where the Colorado River was forded, and then on west to join the Main Route just east of the Green River. The North Branch later became an interest of explorers seeking viable routes for a transcontinental railroad along the 38th parallel. In 1853 alone, three separate expeditions explored the North Branch over Cochetopa Pass. These groups were led, in order, by Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Captain John Williams Gunnison, and John C. Frémont.
Use of the Old Spanish Trail between 1829 and 1848 resulted in numerous variations as travelers adopted or blazed easier paths. But regardless of the route taken, the Old Spanish Trail crossed several mountain ranges, passed through dry sections with limited grass and sometimes limited water, crossed two deserts, and was often littered with the bones of horses that had died of thirst. The western portions of the Old Spanish Trail could only be used semi-reliably in winter when rains or snows deposited water in the desert. In summer, there was often no water and the oppressive heat could kill. A single round trip per year was about all that was feasible. After 1848, parts of the trail were used for winter access to California when other trails were closed by snow.
See Also: National Trail map of Old Spanish Trail
- Trail Measurement: 1,200 Miles
- Compass Latitude: 355326N
- Compass Longitude: 1160545W
- Numeric Latitude: 35.8905227
- Numeric Longitude: -116.0958546
- Elevation in Meters: 705
- Elevation in Feet: 2313
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