California and the Old Spanish Trail

Traces of the Forgotten

by Scott Schwartz

The author holding a piece of volcanic ash in his hand.

The year was 1776. Santa Fe and southern Utah were merely provinces of Mexico. The land separating the two was so rugged, that a practical route between them was not established until 1829. This was the year that Santa Fe merchant Armando Armijo led an expedition consisting of 60 men and 100 mules, into Utah, along routes that had been established by other traders. These trails were fraught with danger. Besides the hostile climate and terrain, Indian attacks were not unknown in these parts. Nevertheless, Armijo and his men survived the trip and returned to Santa Fe via a route used by two Spanish priests some 50 years before.

Perhaps inspired by his success in reaching Utah from Santa Fe, Armijo figured that he could make a nice living by bringing blankets and other wool products from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. There, he could trade them for horses and mules. The animals could then be brought back to Santa Fe, where they would be sold.

Incorporating bits and pieces of routes used by Jedediah Smith and others, Armijo led another band of traders toward California. Navigating via streams and other landmarks, avoiding Death Valley, and eating some of their mules along the way, Armijo and his group eventually made it to California’s San Gabriel Mission. Once in California, the group traded their wool blankets for horses and mules which were driven back to Santa Fe where they were sold.

Armijo’s success heralded the beginning of a regular trade route between Santa Fe and Los Angles. As a result, Santa Fe would be able to sell its products overseas through the coastal city of Los Angeles.

Traders weren’t the only ones to benefit from the trail; the 1830’s saw wagons and horses carrying settlers migrating to California in order to seek their fortunes. Not surprisingly, the trail also served as a conduit for robbers, who now had a convenient way to “commute” to their intended targets - namely the California ranchos. Worse yet, were the slave traders who transported their Indian captives to points of sale at both ends of the trail.

With this pathos in mind, I set out from my home in San Bernardino. Northbound on I-15, I opened my driver-side window slightly in order to allow the cool February air into my Jeep Cherokee’s cabin.

My route would take me to an area near the Fort Irwin military reservation, north of Barstow. Although the military reservation cuts through a large chunk of the Old Spanish Trail, the section that is open to the public in this area includes a spot where the ruts from the old wagons are still visible.

Two hours after leaving home and roughly 21 miles north east of Barstow, I exited the freeway at Harvard Road. Turning right, I soon came to another paved road, which paralleled some railroad tracks. This being Yermo Road, I turned left here and drove on what had to be one of the roughest paved roads I’ve ever experienced. A little more than 3 miles later, I turned north onto Alvord Mountain Rd. Another paved road, it crosses over the 15 freeway, and becomes a graded dirt road within another 3 miles or so.

Once I was off the pavement, I noticed what appeared to be really large tire tracks in the middle of the road. When I got out of my Jeep to take a closer look, I realized that these “tire tracks” were actually tracks left in the dried mud by the Army’s massive M1 tank!

A tenth of a mile further, I came to a trail marker denoting that I was now driving on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Trail C203. Shortly thereafter, a fork appeared and I veered right onto Trail C183.

I’ve always figured that if I leave my vehicle in two wheel drive until I need four wheel drive, it’ll be too late to shift. And my philosophy was borne out here; the bone-jarring “washboard” surface was only interrupted by patches of really soft sand. I had to keep my momentum up in order to keep from bogging down. This road connects to a power-line road, onto which I turned right.

The scenery here was uninspiring, to say the least. The landscape was barren, and huge electrical transmission towers stood like giant sentinels on either side of the road. Yet, as I looked to the north, I could see the reddish-brown hills that marked the boundaries of Spanish Canyon.

Eagerly, I continued along the power line road until reaching a small cairn on my left. This is where the real exploration began – turning left here brought me on to the Old Spanish Trail!

Reddish rocks of the Alvord Mountains surround Spanish Canyon.

Again, the road was sandy in spots, but my four wheel drive pulled me through. Reddish hills, poking up through the sand, told me that I was entering Spanish Canyon.

Once I was out of my Jeep and standing amidst these ancient rock formations, the sense of history was overwhelming. The generations of travelers who have camped here for nearly two centuries are only part of the story. Some of the rock is sedimentary, and fossils dating back millions of years have been found in the vicinity. The majority of the rock appeared to be volcanic in nature though, with the surrounding Alvord Mountains consisting mainly of igneous and metamorphic rock. I wondered if the traders and emigrants who passed through here marveled at this unearthly landscape.

Hearing the distant rumble of a high-flying airliner, I looked up at the sky. A single contrail marked the airplane’s path; a reminder to me, that, even in this modern era, the nearest human being was several miles away.

Getting back to my Jeep, I drove a little further, coming upon stark evidence of the area’s volcanic past.

The author standing in front of one of the piles of volcanic ash.

Several hills made up of white volcanic ash appeared like fat sentinels near the trail. From inside my Jeep, these hills appeared to be soft and powdery. A closer look, however, revealed that the ash had hardened into chunks of rock, perhaps eons ago.

The author holds a piece of volcanic ash in his hand.

Resisting the temptation to climb all over them, I left the ash hills behind.

As I drove, the canyon began to open up. Barely discernable tire tracks veered off to the left. Ignoring these, I kept going straight.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if I’d made the right choice, I spied a hill with what appeared to be deep ruts, approximately a half a mile in front of me.

Keeping loaded wagons from speeding down this hill must have been quite an adventure.

I drove until I was at the base of the hill. The hill was fairly steep. Deep ruts, which could only have been made by narrow wagon wheels, were etched into the trail.

Ignoring the 4WD trail to the left of the wagon tracks, I began to walk up the hill. The ground was hard, and rocks of various sizes had settled in the ruts, but the ruts were still obvious.

I hiked to the top of the hill. At the top was a dirt road. Across the dirt road was a fence which marked the boundary of the Fort Irwin military reservation.

Spanish Canyon almost swallows the author's SUV.

I turned to look back at the wagon trail. Standing at the top of the hill and looking down, I wondered how difficult it was for the horses and mules to pull heavily laden wagons to the top. Or, how often the wagon trains sped out of control on the way down.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of approaching helicopters.

After the Mexican-American War, use of the trail fell off. Other, less rugged trails had been established by then, and the Old Spanish Trail was largely forgotten. That is, until the early 1920s, when historic interest in the trail was sparked by the publication of several articles and books about the trail and its heyday.

As the sounds of the rotor blades receded into the distance, I got back into my Jeep and began my long journey home.


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