The Old Spanish Trail was a historic trade route that linked Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California. The trail was established in the early 19th century and was primarily used for the transportation of goods, such as furs, horses, and mules.
The trail began as a network of routes used by Native American tribes, who traded goods such as salt, obsidian, and turquoise. In the late 18th century, Spanish traders began to use these routes to transport goods between Santa Fe and California. These traders were known as the “Comancheros” and were primarily focused on trading with the Ute and Navajo tribes in the area.
The route became known as the Old Spanish Trail in the early 19th century, when American traders began using the trail to transport furs and other goods to California. The trail was difficult to traverse, with harsh deserts, steep mountains, and treacherous canyons, but it was a vital link between the Southwest and the West Coast.
The trail was not a single route, but rather a network of different paths that crossed the desert and mountains of the Southwest. The most popular route followed the Virgin River in Utah, crossed the Colorado River at the mouth of the Virgin River, and then passed through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. Another route followed the Gila River in Arizona and crossed the Sonoran Desert to California.
The Old Spanish Trail played an important role in the development of the American West, as it provided a direct link between the remote and isolated communities of the Southwest and the growing cities of California. The trail was also a source of conflict, as American traders often clashed with Native American tribes over access to resources and trading rights.
In the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold in California brought thousands of settlers to the West Coast, and the Old Spanish Trail became a major thoroughfare for travelers and goods. The trail was also used by the Mormon pioneers, who traveled to California in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
In the late 19th century, the construction of railroads and highways made the Old Spanish Trail less important as a trade route. However, the trail remained an important part of the cultural history of the American Southwest, and efforts were made to preserve the trail and its landmarks.
Today, several sections of the Old Spanish Trail have been designated as National Historic Trails by the National Park Service, including sections in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and California. These trails allow visitors to experience the beauty and history of the Old Spanish Trail and to appreciate the legacy of the traders, Native Americans, and settlers who traveled its rugged terrain.
Old Spanish Trail Routes
All routes came together at Fork of Roads, east of present-day Barstow in the Mojave desert, and then crossed Cajon Pass between the San Gabriel and San Bernadino Mountains to Coastal California. After negotiating the pass, traders had an easy two to three days travel to the San Gabriel Mission and beyond to Los Angeles.
The first complete trip across the trail began in Abiquiú, northwest of Santa Fe. The Armijo party followed well-known trails northwest to the San Juan River, then nearly due west to the Virgin River. They used the Crossing of the Fathers, cut into rock canyon wall some 75 years earlier by the Domínguez-Escalante party. Armijo’s caravan went down the Muddy River and across
the Mojave Desert to the Amargosa and Mojave Rivers, through Cajon Pass and down to Mission San Gabriel.
The Armijo and Northern Route diverge from each other on the east bound trail near the town of Tecopa, California.
Main Northern Route
First blazed by William Wolfskill and George C. Yount in 1831, this route veered northwest from Abiquiú through Southern Colorado and central Utah. It avoided the rugged canyons of the Colorado River that the Armijo party had encountered and took advantage of the better water and pasture resources across central Utah before returning to the Colorado River and Armijo’s route not far from Las Vegas.
This route followed well-known trapper and trade routes north through the Rio Grande gorge to Taos and into southern Colorado. It then went west through Cochetopa Pass, largely open during the winter when other passes were snowed in and up the Gunnison River valley, rejoining the Northern Route near present-day Green River, Utah.
The Mojave Road is a 188-mile crossing of the Mojave Desert long used by area Indians and by Spanish explorers and missionaries, it was first traveled by Jedediah Smith, an American trapper, in 1826.
Old Spanish Trail Locations