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Connecting the Dots: The Anza Trail in Sonora

A sign in Spanish along a street marking the Anza trail

We crossed the US / Mexico border in Nogales on foot, receiving warm welcomes from our enthusiastic hosts. They included representatives from the State of Sonora Government Tourism Office and a local Sonoran tour operator. Friendly greetings in English and Spanish were followed by big smiles from everyone when we spotted the large wayfinding sign marking the historic route of the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition.

This was the first of many signs we would see marking the Ruta Histórica of the 1775-1776 Anza Expedition and the newly designed Ruta Turística that follows the Río Sonora to historic sites related to Juan Bautista de Anza’s life and influence. We came to Mexico at the request of the Sonoran government to experience the route and to witness the new signage and interpretive waysides that connect the 1,210-mile long section of designated trail in the United States to its historical point of origin ­– San Miguel de Horcasitas – near the Sonoran capital of Hermosillo. This is the latest of many efforts by impassioned parties on both side of the border to establish an international historic trail partnership that will increase tourism, goodwill, and bring awareness to an important event that helped shape American and Mexican history.

Four riders on horseback in front of a white church
Horsemen on their way to Magdalena as part of the pilgrimage for the feast of St. Francis

The route we followed in the late September heat from Nogales toward Horcasitas is a path humans have traveled for centuries. The criollos, mestizos, indigenous, Spanish and Afro-Latino members of the 1775 expedition walked the same ground that ancient peoples before them used for trade, migration, and travel. From our vehicle, we watched peregrinos in day-glo vests, walking along the busy highway mile after mile. Each autumn, they walk for days, even weeks, from their homes to pay respects to Saint Francis in the church in Magdalena. Vaqueros rode the highway shoulder making the same trek. “No son de Hollywood. Son de verdad”, we were told.

A colorful sign spelling IMURIS in front of a civic statue in a desert landscape
One of the Anza Ruta Histórica wayfinding signs accompanies the colorful city sign of Ímuris, Sonora.

Oak and agave transitioned to saguaro and organ pipe cactus as we descended into the San Miguel River Valley, the river the Anza expedition followed north in 1775. We followed the Anza route markers to plazas and roadside ramadas in Ímuris, Santa Ana, and Horcasitas where interpretive waysides tell the story of the expedition through the journal entries of Lt. Colonel Anza and Father Pedro Font. We were delighted to see the waysides placed in prominent locations, often sharing space with town plazas or near the iconic and colorful city signs of Mexico.

An 18th century church with a bell tower stands in a wide plaza
Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Arizpe, Sonora. Note the Anza route wayfinding sign and interpretive panel in bottom left.

The following morning, we wound through the foothills of the Sierra Madre, following the Río Sonora through the towns where Anza recruited members of the expedition: Ures, Baviácora, Aconchi, Huepac, Banámichi. These are pueblos with Ópata names, a language and culture that has all but disappeared, and a reminder of the deep changes the Spanish arrival initiated. This is the Ruta Turística, tracing the river through dramatic scenery and connecting the stories of the Anza expedition to the life and death of the expedition leader.

In Arizpe we stood in front of the bones of Anza, or rather, what was once thought to be Anza’s remains, in the church of Arizpe. We walked through the plaza where every plaque and mural seem to reference Anza and his life. A pride of Anza is apparent from our Sonoran guides: “Anza es hijo de Sonora. Es sonorense”. Perhaps not surprisingly, our countries have similar yet distinct perceptions and interpretations of the Anza expedition and of Anza himself. In the United States, and especially in California and Arizona, we speak of opportunity, immigration, diversity, and the settlement of California. In Mexico, and especially in Sonora, we hear about pride, continuity, heritage, and the history of la frontera.

A carved stone with the name of Juan Bautista de Anza
A carved stone bearing the name of Juan Bautista de Anza (Ansa) in the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Arizpe, Sonora.

The importance of preserving an historic trail can transcend the obvious. The Anza route through Sonora is a place to reflect upon the expedition and the movement of people, but it is also serves as a point of departure for conversations about the environment, revolution, cuisine, cultural change over time, and Linda Ronstadt --- yes, even Linda Ronstadt. The Anza Trail continues to connect us to the stories packed into the ground by the feet, hooves, and tires of all who have passed.

The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, a unit of the National Park Service, is a 1200-mile trail that passes through 19 different counties in Arizona and California entering the USA in Nogales, AZ and ending in San Francisco, CA. For more information, visit the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail website. See more images of the Sonora trip and other Anza related sites in Mexico here.

A small group of people posing for a photo in front of cacti and a statue
Along the Ruta Historica of the Anza expedition near Imuris, Sonora (NPS staff, Sonoran government officials, travel writers, and partners).

Last updated: November 21, 2019