Asked Questions

What is the time period of use for the Old Spanish National Historic trail?

The period 1829 to 1848 was defined as the period of historical significance by Congress and the National Park Service. The year 1829 marked the first commercial use of the trail when Mexican trader Antonio Armijo first led a mule caravan from Santa Fe to the San Gabriel Mission (near Los Angeles). This successful commercial venture led to annual mule caravans traversing the trail for the next 20 years.

Much of Armijo’s 1829-30 route was very rugged and dry (four days; no water), so other travelers is subsequent years arched northward so they could avoid the great canyons of the Colorado River, and take advantage of the better water supply and meadow pasturages across central Utah.

The Old Spanish Trail also served as a route for emigrants, with several hundred people traveling to California to change their residence. Usually, they accompanied one of the annual trading caravans. Several traders returned home and persuaded their families to move west to California.  Many of these people became leading citizens and economic innovators in southern and central California.

In 1848, the end of the U.S. Mexican War forever changed the geopolitical landscape. The Mexican territories of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico were ceded to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. There was no longer any need to link Santa Fe with Los Angeles by this difficult mule trail. Wagon-friendly routes were opened across Arizona and from Salt Lake City. Railroad lines and eventually automobiles followed along some of same trail corridors in more recent times.

Learn more about the trail and view maps.

What about the Native American historic use of the trail?

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail utilized an existing network of older Indian trails. The Utes, Pueblos, Jicarilla Apaches, Hopis, Navajos, Paiutes, Mojaves, and Chemehuevis knew these routes long ago.  Various route segments were used for seasonal hunting and gathering movements, and for trade items coming from the Pacific Ocean to the Pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona.

Who named the Old Spanish Trail?

Mexican caravans leaving Santa Fe simply referred to the route as “the trail to California.”  It was American John C. Frémont who in 1844 called first called the route the “Spanish Trail” on his military trip westward to Oregon and parts of California. The next year Congress printed 20,000 copies of Fremont’s report and map. It became an immediate best seller. Fremont first reached the Spanish trail in the Mohave Desert coming down from the Sierra Nevadas and exclaiming the trail was “joyful consolation to us and the animals enjoyed the beaten track like ourselves. Relieved from the rocks and brush, our wild mules started off at rapid rate.”

Were provisions available on the trail?

This trail had neither military support nor food shops. There were no forts or soldiers to provide emergency rations. There were no cavalry units that stood ready to come to the rescue. The traders used techniques of avoidance, diplomacy, collaboration, and payment tribute to the tribal people they encountered on the trail.  Occasionally, they encountered an Indian hunting party that would share some of their food supply.  If the traders’ dried jerky ran out, they had to find wild game or kill a horse or mule for dinner.  When they couldn’t find water, they went without.

Were wagons used on the trail?

This trail wasn’t typical of other western trails. Pack mules (very few donkeys, probably no oxen) served as the “beasts of burden.”  It was mules that carried the heavy loads of woolen goods and many of the people. The deep canyons and rivers, rocky and sandy land, steep hills, and long arid stretches made it quite difficult to use wheeled contraptions.

Mules are sterile hybrids of jack donkeys and horse mares.  Mules cannot reproduce themselves.  Mules were superior to horses being stronger, smarter in self-preservation, and more sure-footed. Mules could also survive on less water and feed.

Was there Indian slave trading on the trail?

Mexican traders did not start what the Utes called the slave trade, but they were swept up in the old tradition of raiding and capturing people of other tribes to diversify the gene pool. Paiute and Apache women and children were probably impacted the most.   Certain Indians offered captive children to the traders in exchange for horses or food. Some families on both ends of the trail were willing to pay for domestic or farm helpers. They usually incorporated the new people into the family and often freed the children after they reached adulthood.

There were many historic trails linked to Santa Fe. Which trails are which?

The Santa Fe Plaza was the hub of three great historic trails:

  • The Old Spanish Trail established in 1829 headed west to the San Gabriel Mission and Los Angeles, California.
  • The Santa Fe Trail established in 1821 headed east to Missouri.
  • The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Route to the Interior Land) established in 1598 was the main supply and immigration route from Mexico City to Santa Fé.  Congress has designated all three as National Historic Trails.

Are there established Old Spanish recreational trails and an Old Spanish Trail Visitor Center?

Not yet. The official federal agency Comprehensive Management Plan for various trail resources is under study and not yet been completed. Recreational use is currently informal.

The OST won’t serve as an end-to-end hiking or horseback trail. Today, private and tribal properties interrupt continuous travel opportunities. Highways, ranging from gravel county roads to paved Interstates now cover over many trail routes. Most visitors will probably drive along an auto tour route, stopping at key public places where they can take walks through territory that still resembles the conditions of the early 1800s, using a little imagination.

Contact the various trail partners along the route corridor to obtain local details regarding trail access and recreational opportunities.

Are there plans to purchase private land holdings along the trail?

No. The historic trail does not impact private land holders but federal agencies are required to consider the impact to the Old Spanish Trail as part of their existing management plans.

What are the qualifications for designating a National Historic Trail?

To qualify for designation as a National Historic Trail (NHT), a trail must meet all three of the following criteria:

  • It must be a trail or route established by historic use and must be historically significant as a result of that use. The route need not currently exist as a discernible trail to qualify, but its location must be sufficiently known to permit evaluation of public recreation and historical interest potential. A designated trail should generally accurately follow the historic route, but may deviate somewhat on occasion of necessity to avoid difficult routing through subsequent development, or to provide some route variation offering a more pleasurable recreational experience. Such deviations shall be so noted on site. Trail segments no longer possible to travel by trail due to subsequent development as motorized transportation routes may be designated and marked onsite as segments which link to the historic trail.
  • It must be of national significance with respect to any of several broad facets of American history, such as trade and commerce, exploration, migration and settlement, or military campaigns. To qualify as nationally significant, historic use of the trail must have had a far-reaching effect on broad patterns of American culture. Trails significant in the history of Native Americans may be included.
  • It must have significant potential for public recreational use or historical interest based on historic interpretation and appreciation. The potential for such use is generally greater along roadless segments developed as historic trails, and at historic sites associated with the trail.

“Spanish Trail” signs and history can be seen from Texas to Florida. Are these “Spanish Trails” connected to the Old Spanish National Historic Trail?

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail as designated by Congress in 2002 is a trade route that linked Santa Fe, New Mexico with Los Angeles, California and was in commercial use during the period 1829-1848. It does not include the other trails that may have been created by the Spanish empire across Texas to Florida for various other exploration, military, settlement, and trade purposes. While these other trails may have became known locally as “Spanish trails” they are not part of the National Historic Trail.

You can check with your state university, state historical society or local library to learn more about local historic trails in your area.