With Mexican independence from Spanish rule established in 1821, trade flourished between the eastern part of the United States and the vast western territory. Networks of trails developed as explorers, traders and settlers attempted to find safe passage through the treacherous, dry, and scorching hot interior lands. The Old Spanish Trail developed during this period as westerners sought a way to connect the burgeoning trading post at Santa Fe to the riches of Los Angeles and southern California. First officially established in 1829, the main branch of the trail spanned over 2,700 miles, cutting through the southwestern corner of Colorado, moving north and west through Utah and finally turning south again toward Arizona and lower Nevada, with a terminus in Los Angeles, California.
Today, the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management jointly manage the trail. The hazardous mule trade route stands as a testament to the epic story of the West, the struggles early frontiers-people faced in the transport of goods, and the critical ties between the international economics and cultures of North America’s opposite coasts in the mid-1800s.
The Old Spanish Trail: History and Use
American Indians who lived in modern-day New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah were the first to devise systems of trails in the region for hunting, trade, and travel. As early as the mid-1700’s, Spanish explorers made amicable contact with native tribes and were guided along these paths as European trapping and trading increased in the area. Further Spanish attempts to connect the southern California coast to the growing trade center of Santa Fe failed due to the extreme terrain and weather.
Interest in finding a passage increased, however, after the 1821 establishment of the Santa Fe Trail, which successfully connected the eastern United States with the New Mexico trading hub at Santa Fe. For centuries, Santa Fe had been a booming trading post between the North American interior and New Spain to the south. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, a popular wagon, immigration and trade road, had connected Santa Fe to Mexico City since the late 16th Century. Both the Santa Fe Trail and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro are also featured in this travel itinerary.
A route connecting Los Angeles and Santa Fe was finally established in 1829 when Antonio Armijo, a Mexican merchant and trader, led 60 men and 100 mules across the wide expanse of the Colorado Plateau and forged a route through the Mojave Desert on his way into Southern California. Over the next two decades, Mexican and American traders continued to develop variants of the route that Armijo pioneered, creating the multiple branches that make up the trail today. The trail’s routes allowed for a great amount of cultural interaction and amalgamation as peoples of different backgrounds took interest in the various possibilities the new route provided. Spanish presidios and missions had long been in the area, and the trail between them helped strengthen their influence among native peoples and travelers alike. The trail hosted hardy, adventurous families looking to move westward in search of wealth and fertile farmlands, and also allowed passage for military missions, American Indian guides, and traders, as well as outlaws and raiders looking for vulnerable, weary travelers.
The Old Spanish Trail’s main use, however, was as an extensive trade route between the markets of Los Angeles and Santa Fe. Sheep and high quality woolen goods such as serapes and blankets were traded for a surplus supply of horses and mules raised on California’s ranchos. These valued stock animals commanded premium prices in New Mexico and on the western frontier of the United States. Los Angeles, being a coastal city, also extended the North American markets across the Pacific Ocean, linking the continent’s interior to Asian trade for the first time.
Travel along the trail was not easy, however, as the winding path skirted around the Grand Canyon, crossed through the continent’s largest arid sand dunes, and led travelers into the harsh deserts in Death Valley. Mules loaded with goods had to scramble up narrow paths, swim across creeks, and at times drag their handlers across roaring rivers. Despite the long, treacherous journey, the Old Spanish Trail remained an extraordinarily popular trade route until the Mexican-American War in 1848. With the United States’ victory, other wagon-friendly trade routes were developed, and the dangerous mule road was largely abandoned.
The Old Spanish Trail Today
Now, only a few remnant traces of the trail remain where visitors can witness evidence of the route’s important impact on the West. Throughout New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, expanses of packed and eroded ground still mark the road where hundreds of fast trotting mules and their tired muleteers once traversed the high country on their way to California.
Santa Fe retains much of its historic fabric related to its days of major western trade. The Santa Fe Plaza at the center of town was once a teeming hotspot for trade and social interaction as it is today. The plaza is a National Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It features buildings constructed in the Pueblo, Spanish, and Territorial styles that reflect the diverse cultural history of Santa Fe. The Palace of the Governors on the north side of the Plaza is well worth a visit. Built in 1610, it is the oldest continuously occupied governmental building in the United States. Today, the palace is a National Historic Landmark and a museum.
The Old Spanish Trail Association is the main independent partner of the Old Spanish Trail working with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. The association’s website features extensive information regarding trail visitation including interactive maps, locations of interpretive plaques, local points of interest, and the answers to frequently asked questions.
The Old Spanish National Historic Trail spans between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles California. Over its years of use, it followed several different routes through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. Various segments of the trail are accessible via Route 25 in New Mexico, Interstate 70 in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada and Route 5 in California. A comprehensive, interactive visitor map is available through The Old Spanish Trail Association, the official NPS partner. The trail is part of the National Trails System managed by the National Park Service. For more information visit the National Park Service Old Spanish National Historic Trail website or call the National Trails Intermountain Region Office at 505-988-6098.
Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors are both National Historic Landmarks. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration files for the Santa Fe Plaza: Text and Photos; and the Palace of the Governors: Text and Photos. Santa Fe was also a terminus for the Santa Fe Trail and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which are also featured in this travel itinerary.