Centuries before trucks started pulling up to our curbs to deliver items we’ve ordered online, trade routes stretched across the country to get goods from one side to the other. A series of such routes connecting New Mexico and California would become the Old Spanish Trail. Today, you can explore sections of the Old Spanish Trail and get a feel for the character of the landscape these travelers experienced.
In 1821, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was an important trade hub between Europe, the eastern parts of the United States, and Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail began in Franklin, Missouri, and was used to transport goods between the east and New Mexico. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro was used to transport merchandise between Mexico City and Santa Fe. Santa Fe was the crucial connecting point for both trails.
But getting goods west to California was a challenge. Between Los Angeles and Santa Fe were hundreds of miles of mountains, desert, rivers, and unforgiving terrain. There wasn’t yet a route that could be traversed by wagons pulled by oxen, so enterprising people found routes that could be managed by sturdy and surefooted mules carrying the loads upon their backs.
The Beginnings of the Old Spanish Trail
Spurred by Mexican authorities’ interest in economic development and possible settlement of the lands between the Rockies and the Pacific Coast, an expedition led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 blazed a route from Abiquiu, New Mexico, to Mission San Gabriel near Los Angeles, California.
The group was to exchange local manufactures, mostly textiles, for horses and mules. Armijo and his men were knowledgeable of the country west of New Mexico; yet the route was so rugged that it took them almost three months of arduous travel to reach their destination.
Fortunately for historians, Armijo wrote a terse diary where he detailed every place where his group camped for the night. This document, which was submitted to the government in Mexico City after the completion of the trip, offers a great opportunity for trail enthusiasts to rediscover and mark his route.
Later trips to California in the 1830s would follow easier paths, but they still depended exclusively on mules and horses to transport the merchandise. These northern routes were used by some New Mexicans and a few Anglos to immigrate to California, where they established new communities which still stand today.
The federally designated Old Spanish Trail routes were used between 1829 and 1848. After the Mexican American War concluded in 1848 and the territory became the property of the United States, new routes linking New Mexico with California were developed.
Exploring the Old Spanish Trail
The trail, which was described by John C. Fremont as the “longest, most arduous, and crookedest pack mule route in America,” became a National Historic Trail in 2002. It is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and supported by the Old Spanish Trail Association, a group of dedicated volunteers who work to identify sections of the trail, protect, and interpret them.
Portions of the trail are marked and interpreted with signage and some are celebrated with laser-cut metal silhouettes of pack mule trains trudging their way along the trail.
The various routes of the Old Spanish Trail add up to about 2,700 miles through six states: New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and the terminus, California. Armijo’s original route was more than 900 miles long and a later northern route was even longer.
The Armijo Route went by Abiquiu and Aztec, New Mexico, and Teec Nos Pos and Kayenta in Arizona. In southern Colorado, the Northern Route passed through Durango before heading to Utah through Moab and Green River and then turned south.
The North Branch of the trail went further east, heading through Taos, New Mexico, then to San Luis, Gunnison, Fort Uncompahgre — where you can visit a recreated fur trading post at the fort, and Grand Junction, Colorado.
Drive, Walk, or Bike Along the Old Spanish Trail
Today, some highways such as portions of U.S. 160 in Colorado and U.S. 191 in Utah follow these early routes and other sections of the trail remain isolated and difficult to reach. The various groups involved in preserving the trail are continuing to work identifying traces and sites, creating access, and signing and interpreting the Old Spanish Trail.
Across the many miles of the Old Spanish Trail, there are places you can walk and experience the almost pristine landscapes that retain the historic character of the trail. Here are a few places you can explore the trail.
The Trail began in or near Santa Fe in New Mexico. Stand on the historic Santa Fe Plaza to connect with the Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adento.
Armijo and his caravan camped near the Animas River early in their travels to Los Angeles near what is now Aztec Ruins National Monument near Farmington, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the National Park Service website for more information about locations in New Mexico.
In Colorado, Kokopelli’s Trail, a popular mountain biking route in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, parallels or is directly on portions of the Old Spanish Trail. The Colorado Riverfront Trail that follows the river for 22 miles through Fruita, Grand Junction, and Palisade, is also in the vicinity of the trail. The Orchard Mesa Trailhead and Whitewater Trail both follow the nationally designated Old Santa Fe National Historic Trail. Click for more locations to explore in Colorado.
At Arches National Park in Utah, there are informational panels about the Old Spanish Trail in the visitor center, which is on the trail. Parts of the trail here are on the National Register of Historic Places. If you collect stamps for a National Parks Passport, you can get an Old Spanish Trail stamp added to your book there.
Nearby, the Moab Canyon Pathway, a 12.7-mile paved multi-use trail follows the historic route of the Old Spanish Trail. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has many observation points of the trail. Read about more Old Spanish Trail locations in Utah.
In Arizona, the Big Water Visitor Center sits directly on the Old Spanish Trail. Other historic sites along the trail include the Navajo National Monument, Pipe Spring National Monument, and the Powell Museum. Read more on the National Park Service website.
Thanks to the efforts of the Department of the Interior and the Old Spanish Trail Association, there will be more locations of the Old Spanish Trail available to enjoy for recreation and education.