The Old Spanish Trail

Portions of what became known as The Old Spanish Trail were in existence well prior to the eighteenth century when early Spanish explorers began poking around in that part of New Spain that is now the American Southwest. Native Americans used these trails to interact one with another from the Pacific all the way into the heart of New Spain. It is improbable that any one individual made the entire trip, but certainly trade linked across the entire span of geography. In 1765, Spanish explorer Juan Maria de Rivera traveled parts of the trail in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. The next year, Franciscan fathers Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Dominguez followed trail segments from Santa Fe all the way to Nevada. In 1805, Manuel Mestas and in 1813, the Arze-Garcia party utilized trail segments previously traveled by Father Escalante. It is thought that it was either Mestas or Arze-Garcia that discovered the Colorado River crossing near Moab. During the 1820s, a succession of fur traders, including Kit Carson, Antoine Robidoux, Ceran St. Vrain, Etienne Provost and Ewing Young, used trail segments in Colorado and Utah. In 1826 and again in 1827, Jedediah Smith traveled trail segments through Utah, Nevada and on into California.

Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo is credited with being the first person to successfully stitch various trail segments together and succeed in leading a trading party from Santa Fe to California and return in the winter of 1829-1830. A critical contribution to Armijo's success was made by teenage Rafael Rivera who discovered the trail segment that led into Las Vegas, Nevada. Immediately subsequent to the opening of the trail, an important trade sprang up between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Woolen textiles moved west and horses and mules moved east. Weather and the availability of water restricted most travel to the winter months. The rugged nature of the terrain required the use of pack mules to transport merchandise and consequently the availability of feed along the way was a significant consideration. In addition to legitimate trade, the route was also used by horse thieves and slave traders. Indians living in the various areas through which the trail passed were not always friendly. It was a dangerous trip for a variety of different reasons.

The main line of the Old Spanish Trail runs northwest from Santa Fe, through southwestern Colorado passing Mancos, into Utah near Moab, where the Colorado River was crossed by ferry. From there the trail headed northwest to Green River where it crossed the Green River. After crossing the Green River, the trail negotiated the San Rafael Swell and entered the Great Basin via Salina Canyon. From there, the trail followed parts of the Sevier, Santa Clara, Virgin, and Muddy Rivers before transiting a 55 mile waterless stretch which led to the springs at Las Vegas, Nevada. After Las Vegas, the trail led into the Mojave Desert where travelers were dependent on some intermittent springs before following and then crossing the Mojave River. The next landmark was Cajon Pass through the San Bernardino Mountains. After that, the trail passed along the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and ended at the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Although there are numerous variations in trail segments, the main trail (Northern Route) is generally regarded to be about 2,700 miles long.

Captain John Fremont, in the report of his explorations of 1844 (guided by Kit Carson), is the first known American official to describe the entire trail system that stretched from New Mexico to California as "The Old Spanish Trail." The people who used the trail just referred to it as the trail between Santa Fe and California, By the time Fremont's report was published in 1848, the trail was largely abandoned in favor of other routes that wagons could use. The Mexican War had changed the political landscape and the arrival of Mormans in Utah in 1847 as well as the discovery of gold in California in 1848 had spurred immigration. While most legitimate trade shifted to new routes that were wagon-friendly, illicit use of the trail by horse thieves and slave traders continued for sometime. Some Mormans used the western portion of the trail to immigrate to California and a few businessmen continued to use eastern portions of the trail to trade with Morman settlers in Utah. By 1853, however, the trail was little used for any commercial purpose.

In 2002, Congress designated The Old Spanish Trail as National Historic Trail.