Earth Notes - Old Spanish Trail

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: The Old Spanish Trail Stewardship Program

In the first half of the 19th century, the Old Spanish Trail traversed the Southwest as it linked two far-flung Mexican outposts: Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Mule trains transported surplus blankets and other woolen goods west, where they were traded for horses and mules.

The trail had several branches, all of which required crossing both the Colorado River and the Mohave Desert. Because of those challenges, caravans could make the trip only during the winter, when the river was low and the desert not too hot.

The trail was designated part of the National Historic Trail system by Congress in 2002. Now the Bureau of Land Management is pioneering a volunteer stewardship program aimed at preserving and better understanding the part of the trail that crosses far northern Arizona.

In partnership with the BLM's Arizona Strip District, the Old Spanish Trail Association has trained 45 mostly local volunteers to ground-truth trail corridors, which are not always depicted accurately on existing maps.

The volunteers work side-by-side with archaeologists, becoming landscape detectives who can spot subtle evidence of trail runs and historic camps. They document existing conditions with photos and sketches. They also learn to identify cultural features such as historic campsites, muleshoes, and old bottles or cans.

The program links a high-tech present to a distant past. Collectively, the information gathered will identify trail segments where that past can still be felt places that will provide tomorrow's visitors with the flavor of one of the West's most storied old trails.

Learn more about the Old Spanish Trail, including how to become a volunteer.

-Diane Hope