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Tribute to Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail system was recently recognized for what so many Coloradans have known all along – that it is a nationally historic trail worthy of federal designation.

As a Westerner who likes a colorful tale as much as any, I have researched the history of this network of trails over the past several years. Widely known as the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route system in the history of America, it is an important part of our national heritage.

This network of trade and travel routes were originally carved over thousands of years by Utes, Paiutes, Comanches and Navajo.



Eventually, the trail linked the outposts of Villa Real de Sante Fe de San Francisco, now known as Santa Fe, and El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles, present-day Los Angeles.

Used in the 19th century primarily by Spanish and Mexican traders and Anglo settlers from Boston and New York, the trail was a crossroads for cultures just as much as it was for goods.



Commodities transported along the trail included fur, mules, horses, sheep and textiles.

The trail played an important and vivid role during the period of Western expansion. Just one example is Kit Carson’s journey back to the East Coast in 1848 to report the discovery of gold in California.

Use of the trail grew dramatically after the 1849 gold rush, when the demand for trade increased along with California’s growing population. With the advent of trains, the need for the trail declined. By the 20th century, the trail had been rendered obsolete.

In recent years, interested private groups, such as the Old Spanish Trail Association, sprang up to recognize the significance of the trail and to preserve it for future generations.

Cooperation within the state included the Colorado division of the Bureau of Land Management’s work with local communities, such as Mesa County and the city of Grand Junction to document and interpret the route. In 1993, Colorado’s State Parks Board in the Department of Natural Resources passed a resolution encouraging federal designation of the northern branch of the Old Spanish Trail, which is located near Grand Junction.

I helped further the progress made at the local and state level in 1995, when I commissioned a study by the Department of the Interior to determine whether the Old Spanish Trail should be designated as a National Historic Trail.

The findings of that study encouraged me to introduce the Old Spanish Trail Recognition Act of 2002, which was enacted into law by President George W. Bush.

Federal designation of Old Spanish Trail is an endeavor 10 years in the making – and one well worth the time.

The new law will help pay tribute to the Western cultures that are thousands of years old and have enriched America, and it will celebrate the many folks who populated the Old West and laid the foundation for how we live today.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell is Colorado’s senior U.S. senator. He is a Republican. He also likes to drive semi-trucks and Harleys.


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