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.

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