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Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail traces the route followed in 1775-1776 by Spanish commander Juan Bautista de Anza II, who led almost 300 colonists on an expedition from Mexico to found a presidio and mission near San Francisco Bay. The trail, which is over 1200 miles long and today can be traveled via an auto tour, commemorates, preserves, and invites visitors to explore elements of the Spanish colonization plan for its northern most territory. Visitors can experience key remains of Spanish colonization: the presidio or fort (military), the mission (religious), and the pueblo or town (civilian). Many of the sites along the trail are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza, a captain on the Spanish frontier stationed at the Tubac Presidio, requested permission from the viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria Bucareli, to prove that a land route from Mexico to Alta (Upper) California was possible. Spain was in need of an overland route to Alta California, because existing sea routes were too dangerous, and the Spanish needed to secure their outposts in this area from Russian and English exploration and colonization. Bucareli granted Anza permission, and with the help of American Indian guides, Anza identified an overland route in 1774. With the success of this first expedition, Anza gained permission to recruit potential settlers for a second colonizing expedition.
By October of 1775, Anza had convinced nearly 300 people to take their chances on a new life. He persuaded people to join him on a colonizing expedition to Alta California by telling them stories of lush resources, plentiful land, and new opportunities. A culturally diverse mix of peoples of American Indian, European, and Afro-Latino ancestry put their trust in Anza and became a part of the expedition. The settlers, their military escorts, and the 1,000 head of livestock included in the expedition traveled to presidios, missions, and through the countryside for about five and a half months until they reached their final destination.
Travelers can explore the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and experience this historic expedition. Commemorating the trailhead of the United States portion of the Anza Trail from Mexico is the Anza Trailhead Room with its exhibit on the expedition, located on the second floor of the 1904 Nogales Courthouse in Nogales, Arizona, where the National Historic Trail begins. Today, Nogales high school students study the trail's and their community's history through the Anza Trail Ambassadors program, coordinated by the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation in partnership with the national Park Service.
Moving north along the trail from Nogales, historic stops include Tumacácori National Historical Park, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, and Mission San Xavier del Bac. On October 17, 1775, as the expedition made its way from Nogales toward the Tubac Presidio, where they planned to make final preparations for their journey, Father Pedro Font held mass for the expedition at the Tumacácori mission. The mission, now preserved in Tumacácori National Historical Park, also contributed a small herd of cattle to the expedition.
Over the next few days, the expedition members prepared for their journey at the Tubac Presidio. Here, the group gathered over 1,000 head of cattle, horses and mules to transport food supplies and tools, to provide food on the journey, and to help establish new herds once the expedition members settled at their new home in Alta California. By October 23, 1775, the Anza Expedition began the journey from Tubac Presidio. Visitors can explore the remains of the presidio and sometimes catch a re-enactment of the expedition’s passage through Tubac at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park.
About 45 miles north of Tubac is the Mission San Xavier del Bac. On the night the group departed the Tubac Presidio, the expedition experienced the only death en route when Maria Ignacia Manuela Pinuelas Feliz died from complications from childbirth. The expedition stopped at Mission San Xavier del Bac to bury her, mourn her death, and to celebrate three marriages of the expedition’s members. Visitors can see the over 200 year old mission church that was started here in 1783.
Continuing north and northwest, the expedition passed through the areas that are now Saguaro National Park and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. At Saguaro National Park, visitors can experience the desert much as it was at the time of the expedition. The wild vegetation, including cacti, ocotillo, creosote, ponderosa pine, oak, and Douglas fir, provided the raw materials used by the local American Indians and the Anza expedition. Traveling north from the vicinity of Saguaro National Park, the Anza expedition camped about five miles from the Casa Grande ruins. On October 31, 1775, Father Font and Anza took a side trip to visit this 14th century Puebloan ruin and to check the accuracy of previously recorded descriptions and measurements of the site.
Continuing on their journey, the Anza expedition safely crossed the Colorado River with the help of Palma, their American Indian guide, and his Yuma tribe. Yuma Crossing State Historic Park preserves the site of this crossing. After safely fording the river, the expedition continued north into what is now California. Once in California, the expedition moved northwest through what is today the 600,000 acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. After crossing the desert, the expedition traveled up Coyote Canyon and made camp along Coyote Creek from December 20 to 22, 1775. With water provided by the creek and a little pasturage close by, the expedition’s animals recovered and the settlers could recuperate. The campsites within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are marked with the California Historic Landmark plaques.
Rested and ready to go, the expedition moved on from the desert northwest toward the Pacific coastline. En route to the Monterey area, the expedition passed by Franciscan missions and by the presidio in what is today known as El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. Some soldiers of the original garrison were members of the expedition. On January 4, 1776, the expedition reached the Spanish empire in Alta California at the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. This mission is still a working parish with a museum and gardens. By March 2, 1776, the expedition reached Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, where the travelers rested for a day before continuing north to Mission San Antonia de Padua. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is now restored and has a museum. Mission San Antonia de Padua is a working parish and informational exhibits can be found on the grounds of Fort Hunger Liggett nearby.
Six months after leaving the Tubac Presidio, the expedition reached the Monterey Presidio on March 10, 1776, where the group rested. The Royal Presidio Chapel, where Anza delivered the expedition travelers, is a National Historic Landmark that has been in continuous service since 1794. The mission is open for tours. As the travelers rested and became familiar with the Monterey area, Anza set off to determine the location of the new San Francisco presidio and mission. By March 28, 1776, he decided on the area that would best suit the new presidio and mission; and by June the settlers moved from Monterey to San Francisco.
These settlers built the beginnings of the Presidio of San Francisco and the Mission de San Francisco de Asis. The site of the Presidio of San Francisco site is now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Visitors can explore Fort Point; the site of the original presidio around Pershing Square; a remnant of the presidio comandante’s house; many trails; and a visitor’s center. Nearby, the Mission de San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Dolores, is the oldest intact building in San Francisco and stands as a lasting testament to the legacy of Anza’s expedition.
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail covers over 1200 miles of rich and diverse history. The historic sites, stops, and views are plentiful - travel it today to discover and explore an important chapter in American history.