The Old Spanish Trail: A Tour of the American West 24

For 300 years, a trade route known as the 'Old Spanish Trail' ran across the American southwest for 1200 miles, linking New Mexico to California and the Pacific Ocean and traversing the deserts, canyons, mountains and river rapids of modern day Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. Native Americans in the southwest had used the route for thousands of years and by the mid nineteenth century, the trail had seen Spanish explorers, Mexican traders, gold miners, fur trappers, and American pioneers and entrepreneurs pass along it. The name 'Old Spanish Trail' first appeared when US Army officer John C. Frémont coined the phrase during a westward expedition in 1844 and the route is now officially recognised as one of the USA's fifteen national historic trails. Over the centuries, dozens of individual alternative routes were added to the trail and this is the story of how my best friend and I blazed our own trail along the American Southwest's legendary Old Spanish route, from Sante Fe, New Mexico to Santa Barbara in California.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jul 8 2012

After flying into Albuquerque from Dallas and the taking a shuttle to Santa Fe, we arrived in New Mexico's capital having never heard of the Old Spanish Trail. With its unique fusion of Native Pueblo, Spanish, Mexican and frontier-era American culture and architecture, Santa Fe occupies such a unique position in comparison to other U.S. cities and for two fans with an almost comical and cliched love of classic western movies, New Mexico's capital and the oldest state capital in the continental U.S. is nothing short of intoxicating. Image Credit: Sporst (Flickr) Image Date: 05/02/2012

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jul 9 2012

Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors is one of the oldest buildings in the United States. Located on Palace Avenue, built from the same orange-sand coloured organic material known as adobe, which means 'mud brick' in Spanish and characterises the Old West architecture of much of New Mexico, the Palace of the Governors acted as the seat of government for the state for over three hundred years. From the Spanish colonial days beginning in 1610, when the city was the capital of the province of Nuevo México, through to being the heart of the Mexican province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México until finally becoming the capital of the newly won U.S. territory in the region in 1848, the Palace has been central to everyday life in Santa Fe. After browsing the jade, gold and turquoise handicrafts on sale from Puebloan vendors and jewelers outside the palace, this was the first time we encountered the story of the Old Spanish Trail as a guide revealed the origin of the multicoloured shields hanging from the adobe perimeter roof of the palace displaying the family names of the original Spanish settlers who arrived in Santa Fe during its time as part of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. Image Credit: SD Dirk (Flickr) Image Date: 09/04/2010

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jul 10 2012

Complimenting the Palace of the Governers as one of America's oldest buildings, Santa Fe's San Miguel Mission is the oldest church in the United States. Located at the corner of East De Vargas Street and the Old Santa Fe Trail, the church was built at some point between 1610 and 1626 and its original adobe walls are still largely intact despite the building's tumultuous history. In 1680, San Miguel Mission was damaged when the native Pueblo people revolted against their Spanish colonisers. The Spanish rebuilt the church in in 1710 after their reconquest and the original wooden statue of Saint Michael which was installed in 1789 can still be seen today. In an alleyway behind San Miguel Mission, another small adobe structure can be found with an accompanying sign hailing it as the 'Oldest House in the U.S'. Image Date: 09/11/2009

Taos Pueblo, New Mexcico

Jul 14 2012

Appetites whetted and eager to explore more of the story of the Old Spanish Trail and New Mexico during the frontier days, we headed ninety minutes north from Santa Fe to the breathtaking native American commune of Taos Pueblo. Archaeologists believe that the original structure of Taos Pueblo dates as far back as the ninth century, when it was founded by the ancestors of Puebloan people who still occupy the complex today. The Spanish, led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, were the first Europeans to come across Taos Pueblo in the sixteenth century, mistaking it for a legendary city of gold and the original Spanish reports document how the site's adobe structures were made from earth, water and straw in exactly the same way as can be seen today, albeit with bright blue painted doors. Image Credit: Elisa.rolle (Wikimedia) Image Date: 10/16/2012

Taos Pueblo, New Mexcico

Jul 15 2012

What makes Taos Pueblo such a remarkable and humbling place to visit is that the roughly 150 permanently living inside the complex still adhere largely to the native Puebloan way of life. Taos Publo still has its own tribal governor and Puebloan warchief who are appointed by a council of fifty tribal elders and, despite the modern furniture found in many of the complex's houses, electricity, modern plumbing and running water are forbidden. All over Taos Pueblo, elements of native Pueblo life are on show and each of the adobe houses is usually spread out over two rooms, one as living quarters and the other for sleeping and the timber which supports the individual storeys is brought down from the surrounding mountain forests. Outside many of Taos Pueblo's houses are traditional adobe brick ovens known as 'Orno' and bunches of chili peppers and corn are left to air-dry, hanging from wooden poles and rafters. Image Date: 01/14/1996

Taos Pueblo, New Mexcico

Jul 16 2012

Despite the vast majority of Taos Pueblo's population being Roman Catholic, ancient Puebloan religious ceremonies, rites and rituals are still practised and the complex features a traditional native American religious space known as a 'Kiva' alongside its Catholic church. Taos Pueblo also has its own packed cultural calendar which showcases the mixing of Roman Catholic and traditional Puebloan faiths. These include the Spanish-influenced festivals of the Santa Cruz Feast in May, June's San Antonio Feast and July's Santiago Feast. In addition to Taos Pueblo's Catholic festivals, the traditional Pueblo Turtle, Buffalo and Corn Dances also take place during the year and a particular cultural highlight is the annual 'Pow Wow' festival; a summer event held on the second weekend of July and which lasts for two full days. Descended from a traditional Puebloan war dance and with its name literally meaning 'Gathering of Spiritual Leaders', the Pow Wow festival celebrates indigenous culture, art and beliefs. Image Date: 05/28/2011

Windom Peak, Colorado

Jul 20 2012

From Santa Fe we headed back to Albuquerque and flew up to Denver to rejoin the Old Spanish Trail-proper in Colorado by exploring the towns of Durango and Silverton. Just under thirty miles northeast of Durango on our first full day in Colorado, we had our first taste of how staggeringly beautiful America's southwest can be at San Juan's National Forest. At near 14,100 feet high, Windom Peak is the highest summit of the Colorado Rockies and on a clear day, travellers could be mistaken for thinking that they are starting at an oil painting as they survey the alpine lakes of the San Juan River Basin below. Image Date: 09/05/2011

Silverton, Colorado

Jul 21 2012

Linked to Durango by a railroad since 1882, but also accessible by road today, the old mining town of Silverton embodies the spirit of the Old Spanish Trail. The first expedition to the area was lead by Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who left Santa Fe on July 29, 1776, and they continued on into modern day Utah and Arizona before returning to Santa Fe in early 1777. Thereafter, their route became part of the Old Spanish Trail to California and Anglo-American prospectors began pouring into Silverton from 1860 onward, when Charles Baker discovered placer gold in the surrounding hills and shortly afterward both silver and gold were found at Hurricane Peak, on Brown Mountain, just north of town. Mining operations ceased in the early 1990s and with the pink, blue and orange buildings which still line the main street, today's Silverton resembles a kind of rainbow-coloured gold rush boom town. Image Date: 10/17/2014

Silverton, Colorado

Jul 22 2012

Silverton and its surrounding area are part of the San Juan Mountain Range and this region of southwestern Colorado was one of the mainstays of the Old Spanish Trail in its early days as explorers, geologists and miners blazed the trail in search of gold and silver. The San Juan Mountains around Silverton abound with legends and stories of lost Spanish hordes of gold and silver and treasure caches stashed away in hidden mines which have become part of the area's mythology, including one particular tale of a skeleton found decked out in a full set of steel Spanish conquistador armour in an abandoned eighteenth century silver mine. Dozens of abandoned gold and silver mines can still be found clustered in the hills around Silverton today and reports confirm there are still gold and silver veins in and around the nearby Hanson, La Juanta and Hurricane Peaks. Image Credit: Mark Goebel (Flickr) Image Date: 05/27/2007

Mesa Verde, Colorado

Jul 24 2012

Having based ourselves in Durango for a couple of nights after exploring Silverton, we followed in the footsteps of Dominguez and Escalante's expedition along the Old Spanish Trail in the late eighteenth century by heading thirty six miles west to Mesa Verde National Park. Dominguez and Escalante arrived on this section of the Old Spanish Trail on August 10, 1776, and they camped in the foothills of the nearby La Plata Mountains. Mesa Verde is home to a set of Puebloan cliff dwellings which are also some of the best preserved native American settlements on the entire continent and with a staggering 4,300 individual, the site is the largest and most extensive archaeological site in the U.S. Image Date: 04/26/2006

Mesa Verde, Colorado

Jul 25 2012

Mesa Verde literally means 'Green Table' in Spanish and at some point around 1190, the Puebloans who had lived on top of the cliff mesa for roughly 600 years began to construct a new set of dwellings in the overhanging cliffs below. The inhabitants continued to farm and hunt on the grassy plain of the mesa above, but by the end of the twelfth century there were living in the alcoves carved into the cliffs and some of the villages housed up to 150 individual rooms as well as additional storage rooms and religious spaces. Similar to the stories of other pre-Columbian American settlements all over the continent, by the 1270s a series of droughts had forced the population of Mesa Verde to migrate towards present day New Mexico and Arizona and the cliff mesa dwellings were suddenly abandoned. Image Date: 10/20/2009

Mesa Verde, Colorado

Jul 26 2012

The most extensive, and arguably most famous, structure at Mesa Verde is the Cliff Palace. Built during the height of the Puebloan cliff carving development at Mesa Verde in roughly 1190, the Cliff Palace features over 150 individual rooms and over twenty 'Kiva' circular ritual spaces, all of which are carved from sandstone and supported by wooden beams. Modern archaeologists believe that Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace was one of the site's main social and political hubs as well as being a centre for Puebloan ceremonies and rituals. Ingenuously, the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde was designed in such a way that the buildings were kept permanently shaded from the intense desert heat during the summer months. In winter, when the sun is at a lower trajectory and due its positioning in the cliff mesa, the Cliff Palace was kept warm as well as allowing for air-drying of the corn, beans and other crops which were farmed from the plains above. Dominguez and Escalante never made it to the Puebloan stone villages when they blazed the Old Spanish Trail, and having beaten them to Mesa Verde's prize we headed back to Denver to get ready for the next phase of the journey. Image Date: 04/07/2009

Rainbow Vista, Valley of Fire, Nevada

Jul 30 2012

Before we flew from Denver to Las Vegas, we made a pact not to blow our travel budget on the blackjack tables and roulette wheels of Sin City's casinos and so on day one of our time Nevada, we made a beeline for the Valley of Fire State Park. Located 58 miles northeast of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert, the Valley of Fire is Nevada's oldest state park and is spread over a total area of 42,000 acres. The famous and almost moon-like landscape of the Valley of Fire's Rainbow Vista is peppered with ridges, canyons and domes which were naturally formed by multiple layers of different coloured sand piling on top of each other over a period of 150 million years, which also means that dinosaurs would have walked through Rainbow Vista when they ruled the earth. Image Date: 04/23/2010

Fire Cave, Valley of Fire, Nevada

Jul 31 2012

The area of the Mojave Desert in this part of Nevada was added to the Old Spanish Trail route in 1829 during the region's time as part of Mexico. Explorer Antonio Armijo was the first non-Native American to pass through the area at a time when the modern casino capital of Las Vegas was nothing more than an oasis providing fresh spring water for passing travellers. Fifteen years later, John C. Frémont's expedition along the Old Spanish Trail also passed through the Valley of Fire and stopped at the freshwater oasis of Las Vegas Springs during the journey westward. Today, the Valley of Fire is famous as one of the most striking natural areas in the American Southwest and among its natural highlights is Fire Cave, also known as Windstone Arch. Showcasing the unique red-orange 'Aztec Sandstone' which can be seen all over the Valley of Fire, Fire Cave is a kind of miniature wind tunnel formed by the elements eroding away at the rock base of a cliff to leave a hollow cavity inside which is also pockmarked with naturally eroded air holes. Image Date: 07/19/2015

Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire, Nevada

Aug 1 2012

Thousands of years before Spanish, Mexican and American explorers passed through the region on the old trail route, the area now known as the Valley of Fire was part of the ancestral hunting and farming grounds of an ancient Pueblo people known as the Anasazi. In the western area of the Valley of Fire, an example of ancient Anasazi rock art in the form of petroglyphs carved into the face of an 'Aztec Sandstone' slab known as 'Atlatl Rock' depicts how the Anasazi used a weapon, known as an Atlatl, to enhance the range and velocity of a launched spear during hunting expeditions. Image Date: 12/08/2013

Bishop, California

Aug 5 2012

From Las Vegas we hired a car and drove along Routes 95 and 168 to the town of Bishop in far-eastern California's Owens Valley, in the shadow of the mesmerizing Sierra Nevada mountain range. On day one in California, we trekked around Bishop to get our bearings and everywhere you go in town, the looming spectre of the majestic Sierras is always visible in a similar way to what pioneers along the trails used to experience on their way west, with the mountains always having to be negotiated at some point during the journey. Whether it was during the frontier days, including the Old Spanish Trail, or during the gold rush, any pilgrims, pioneers or traders approaching California from the east would have had to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Image Credit: Tom Hilton (Flickr) Image Date: 03/14/2008

Paiute-Shoshone Petroglyphs, Bishop, California

Aug 6 2012

John C. Frémont's expedition along the Old Spanish Trail took him and his followers through the Owens Valley in 1845 and he even named it after one of his guides, Richard Owens. Northwest from Bishop in the Volcanic Tablelands, along the Casa Diablo Road, the Owens Valley is home to some of the most unique and elaborately carved petroglyphs anywhere in the American southwest. The Owens Valley's Tablelands are a vast and barren landscape which is thought to have been formed over 700,000 years ago by seismic activity at eastern California's Long Rock caldera, one of the largest on earth. Scattered all over this huge lava plateau are slabs of volcanic rock carved with pertroglyphs left behind by the ancestors of the region's Paiute-Shoshone people some two thousand years ago. One of the most fascinating of the lava slab carvings is known as 'Thirteen Moons' and, with its thirteen spherical objects suspended in a circular formation, the petroglyph is thought to depict the different phases of the ancient Paiute-Shoshone lunar cycle. Image Credit: Gonewiththedogs Image Date: 03/04/2016

Sky Rock, Bishop, California

Aug 7 2012

Some of the volcanic slabs on the Owens Valley Tablelands are positioned upright and others are tilted diagonally. Scholars know very little about the symbols in the rock carvings, but the ancestors of the Paiute-Shoshone are thought to have spoken a strain of Nahuatl, the famous language of the Aztecs, and attempts have been made to cross-reference the two indigenous dialects to decipher the petroglyphs. Arguably the highlight of the volcanic rock carvings is a set of petroglyphs which is as unique as it is mysterious. Unlike any other of the horizontal or vertical volcanic slabs, Sky Rock sits at an angle facing both the heavens and the High Sierras, is etched directly into the face of a stationary rock and is estimated to have been carved over eight thousand years ago. Dozens of outlandish explanations have been offered as to the meaning of the rock carvings have been put forward, some involving alien beings, but another more logical theory, which would also explain Sky Rock's name, is that the elaborate swirling patterns of the petroglyph represent an ancient Paiute shaman being swept up on a whirlwind and guided to heaven by the gods. Image Date: 06/01/2007

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, California

Aug 10 2012

From Bishop and the Owen's Valley, we drove down towards Los Angeles along US-395. What is now the city of San Gabriel in Los Angeles County was once one of the final stops along the Old Spanish Trail as it neared its climax and the site first became part of the route during an expedition lead by Antonio Armijo when he left Santa Fe bound for California in 1829. Mission San Gabriel itself dates back to the time before Antonio Armijo's journey, however, and in 1771 the site was established by friars Pedro Cambon and Angel Somera as the fourth of what would become 21 Spanish Catholic missions across California. Image Date: 08/16/2012

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, California

Aug 11 2012

Today, the site is a fully functioning Roman Catholic mission known as Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and the building's original design, drawn up by Spanish friar Antonio Cruzado who is also said to have planted California's first ever orange and citrus groves in 1804, took inspiration from the Islamic-style, Moorish architecture which was commonly found in the churches, chapels and basilicas of southern Spain. After Armijo's expedition successfully reached Mission San Gabriel, the complex soon became an important trading post along what would soon become the Old Spanish Trail and as a result the mission also become one of the wealthiest in California. Mission San Gabriel is fully open to visits from the public today, including the main Church of St. Gabriel, an adobe museum which was originally built in 1812 and used to store books and holy manuscripts as well as the sites Spanish and Mexican-era cemetery where Antonio Cruzado himself, the mission's original architect, is buried. Image Date: 08/16/2012

Santa Barbara, California

Aug 16 2012

After San Gabriel and a few days of partying in Los Angeles, we headed northwest along California's Pacific coast towards Santa Barbara. The Old Spanish Trail officially ended in Los Angeles during the route's heyday, but when you end up in Santa Barbara in August you hear about an event which seems as if it should be just as much as much of part of the history and spirit of the Old Spanish Trail as Santa Fe, the gold and silver mines of Colorado and Utah or even the desert oasis springs of the Mojave Desert. Image Date: 07/06/2013

Old Spanish Days Fiesta, Santa Barbara, California

Aug 17 2012

Every summer Santa Barbara hosts an annual event known as the 'Old Spanish Days Fiesta'. The fiesta usually occurs during the over a period of four days during August as the city celebrates and honours its indigenous Chumash Pueblo, Spanish, Mexican and early American history, identity and heritage which have fused together and given Santa Barbara its vibrant culture. In total, 16 individual fiesta events take place across Santa Barbara during Old Spanish Days and spectators and performers come from as far away as the east coast of the U.S., southern Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Each annual edition of the fiesta sees its own 'El Presidente' or 'La Presidenta' elected by a panel of directors and the first 'Old Spanish Days' was held in 1927. The fiesta kicks off every year with a colourful parade in front of Mission Santa Barbara, one of California's 21 colonial-era missions, as the sun goes down on the first evening of the event and which features song and dance from Flamenco, Spanish and Mexican performers as well as from 'Californios' - people born in California of direct Spanish descent. Image Date: 08/07/2007

Old Spanish Days Fiesta, Santa Barbara, California

Aug 19 2012

As the Old Spanish Days fiesta kicks into gear over the course of the weekend, a number of traditional events and customs take place. On State Street in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, 'El Desfile Histórico' is a reenactment of famous historical scenes from the frontier days performed by the descendants of Spanish pioneers and Mexican explorers which usually takes place on the Friday evening of the fiesta. 'El Mercado de la Guerra', a Mexican market, is open from the opening day of the fiesta through until the penultimate evening. Another highlight, which takes place from the start of the fiesta until its climax, is the cracking of 'Cascarones', rainbow-painted eggs filled with colourful confetti to symbolise Santa Barbara's cultural diversity. Image Date: 08/18/2012

Santa Barbara, California

Aug 20 2012

Santa Barbara's Old County Courthouse is one of the best loved government buildings in the U.S. Built in 1929 in the Spanish colonial style, the courthouse as seen today replaced the old building which was obliterated by an earthquake in 1925. As we stood inside one of the site's courtrooms having come to the end of our journey across the American southwest, we noticed how the history of the Santa Barbara, from the arrival of Spanish oceanic explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno onward, is depicted in fantastically colourful murals on the wall. The courtroom's pictograph murals of the story of Santa Barbara made me reflect on what the Old Spanish Trail means for travellers and about how we had forged our own route on it, in exactly the same way as the trailblazers of centuries gone by. With the old pioneers finding alternative routes along the way, adding more layers and dimensions to the trail as they went, the reality is that there is no singular set-in-stone path along the Old Spanish Trail. The real explorer spirit of the old route is embodied when travellers forge any route they want between the Old West in New Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and what really matters is sampling the spellbinding nature and fascinating culture and stories which the American southwest has to offer. Image Credit: Dan Lindsay (Wikimedia) Image Date: 01/16/2012

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