The Old Spanish Trail (OST) was an overland trade route between Santa Fe, NM and the Spanish missions in the Los Angeles area of southern California between 1829 and 1848. Mexican traders, packing woolen rugs and blankets from New Mexico to exchange for coveted California mules and horses, used several variations of this trail over 20 years, until Mexico lost this vast area to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848.

A little known fact about this National Historic Trail is that the initial route from Abiquiu, NM to the San Gabriel Mission traversed along the present day Utah-Arizona border from the Crossing of the Fathers on the Colorado River through the Saint George area. However, after that first trip in 1829, it was abandoned in favor of a longer, but more amenable, route via present day Durango, Colorado, and the Utah towns of Moab, Green River, Castledale, Salina and Cedar City through Saint George.

Antonio Armijo, a young man whose father had helped pioneer the Santa Fe Trail from Franklin, MO to Santa Fe, was given the task of finding a suitable overland route to California by command from his superiors in Mexico City. A similar trip assigned to the Franciscan Fathers Escalante and Dominquez in 1776 was aborted in western Utah, resulting in their classic struggle across the Arizona Strip to the Crossing of the Fathers and on to Santa Fe.

Armijo left Santa Fe late in 1829 and reached the exact crossing of the Colorado River used by the Fathers on their return trip to Santa Fe 43 years before. He had a hundred head of pack mules and 60 men on horses and mules with him.

With very little, if any, instruction, without any navigational devices, and perhaps only a cursory map by Miera of Escalante and Dominquez’s route from the Colorado River to Santa Fe, he and his companions made the 1800-mile trip without any documented problems.

With navigational and topography challenges along the way, it took Armijo’s party 12 weeks to get to California. He and a third of his original party returned the same way early in 1830 in six weeks.

Armijo kept an extremely abbreviated diary with cryptic notations of his camp sites along the way. Unlike Dominquez’s diary, there is very little in the way of decipherable description of his exact route and camp sites through the Arizona Strip. Therefore, much of the route is still to be researched, debated and decided upon.

The majority of this research over the past three years has been conducted by the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA). Members of the Red Pueblo Chapter of Kanab and the Armijo Chapter of Page have been doing field work, archival document research, and interviews with long time residents of the area, who have insight into passageways through this area before there were any real roads in most places.

Funding for this work was provided by grant monies from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) via the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners organization. With their generosity, OSTA was able to utilize GPS units and a camera to document the field studies.

Although these investigations are ongoing, some preliminary conclusions on Armijo’s route over the 150 mile stretch through the Arizona Strip have been made that will likely change what has been previously drawn on BLM and OST maps.

A known route location, just to the west of the Cockscomb along Hwy 89 at the old Pahreah townsite turnoff, was the site of the unveiling of a commemorative plague by the BLM’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument staff, along with OSTA members, on June 6.

The very informative and artistic plaque was designed by Mary Dewitz, BLM Intepretive Specialist. The substantial iron frame was constructed by Scott Dunn’s crew at Waterman Welding in Kanab. It is the first OST demarcation of Armijo’s route in either Utah or Arizona.

As Armijo’s route is further delineated, additional markers will be placed in areas identifying this historic passageway for the public’s education and contemplation. It is hoped people will gain an appreciation of the significance of this very early journey through uncharted lands by these intrepid men.