Monday, February 27, 2006

Following the Old Spanish Trail in Nevada

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are common along this stretch of the trip.

Interstate 15 is the modern day ancestor of a very old route. From California northward into Utah it parallels a stretch of the Old Spanish Trail known back in the caravan days as the Journada del Muerto or "journey of death". This description was due to the lack of water, extremely rough terrain and unfriendly native tribes. Today you can cruise northward from Las Vegas, on this exact same route at 75 miles per hour, crossing an uncrowded 90 miles of spectacular Mojave Desert which merges into canyon country at the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona. The original Spanish Trail avoided the gorge altogether by routing west of it through the Beaver Dam Mountains and then using the upper drainages of the Santa Clara River in Utah to finally lead it on into the Great Basin and points north and east.

The entire Spanish Trail ran between Santa Fe and Los Angeles over a circuitous 1,200 mile northward-looping course traversing six modern day states. Traveled by traders, trappers, horse dealers, Indians and slavers, the trail was most actively used from 1829 to 1848 when it was the main corridor through the Southwest. After 1848 Mormon pioneers developed the western portion of the trail for wagon travel between Salt Lake City and southern California. Las Vegas was eventually settled as a way station and supply point on this vitally important route as were the towns of San Bernardino, Saint George and Cedar City.

The following passage from the 1940 WPA Guide to Nevada still describes this section of the trip accurately, capturing the essence and beauty of the harsh yet beautiful desert landscape:

"The highway crosses the extreme southern tip of Nevada, where some ranching areas lie hidden behind starkly eroded foothills, and beyond stretches of rolling desert. Weird, beautiful formations of the kind characteristic of the Grand Canyon country are seen throughout. The highway follows the Virgin River for ten miles, crosses the Muddy River just west of Glendale, and continues through awe-inspiring terrain. High, rugged mountains are visible on both sides above a valley floor with vegetation including cacti, joshua trees, and Spanish bayonet. The route roughly follows the old Spanish Trail, which in this section became part of the Mormon Road to Southern California."

Rutted remnant of the Spanish Trail on Mormon Mesa, near Mesquite.

1846 map of the Spanish Trail

The modern day Journada del Muerto crosses Dry Lake Valley.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Up on Mormon Mesa

As soon as you pass the exit for Glendale and Moapa (#90), heading north on Interstate 15, you immediately begin a steep ascent to the top of Mormon Mesa.

Climbing Mormon Mesa from the south.

For the next 25 miles the highway crosses a large flat topped mesa, some 1000 feet above the surrounding valley bottoms of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers located to the south and east. The landscape is classic Mojave desert country with dense stands of Joshua trees, scattered creosote bush and spiny cholla cactus. The critters who inhabit this harsh terrain range from the deadly Mojave Green rattlesnake and the Gila monster to coyotes, road runners and the endangered desert tortoise. Ravens are probably the most commonly observed animals along this stretch of highway, where they can often be seen picking at road-kill and the edible trash thrown from passing vehicles.

Mojave Green rattlesnake, the most poisonous snake in North America.

Rising abruptly from this level plain, to the west, are the Mormon Mountains, an extremely rugged and steep range which is also a designated wilderness area. From the interstate you can't help but notice this tall imposing uplifted block of limestone with high cliffs located just below the ridge line.

The Mormon Mountains as seen from I-15

One of the only things written about this obscure range is found in the Sierra Club guide book Hiking the Great Basin:

"At least 163,00 acres here are roadless, a huge knot of untouched ridges and valleys. The range is full of cliffs, some of them over 800 feet high. The area is also known for its caves; some are rich in stalactites and other curious formations. Maps show ruins scattered widely in the valleys; these are mescal pits, large circular holes in which Paiute Indians baked agave.

Pictographs near an agve pit in the Mormon Mountains.

The Mormon Mountains are critical bighorn sheep habitat. For the sake of the sheep a sizable area has been closed to oil and gas exploration. Wild horses and burros, competing here with the sheep are slated for removal. Rattlesnakes of several species are also common."

It has also been said by local cowpokes and hunters that this extremely dry range does not contain enough water to make a cup of coffee with. Immense and isolated, these mountains are still very wild and mostly unknown to the rest the world whizzing by at 75 miles per hour.

Descent of Mormon Mesa into Mesquite Valley.