Old Spanish Trail

Take a beautiful drive into Las Vegas's past
Lisa Taggart

Las Vegas is a forward-looking town― ancient history there is whatever happened five minutes ago. But even in Las Vegas, you can launch into the past by taking a driving tour along one of the 19th century's most important trade routes.

Called by historians "the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack-mule route in America," the Old Spanish Trail was established by 1829 as a link from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Mexican, Spanish, and American traders traveled its 1,120 miles, carrying wool products west and returning east with California livestock. Las Vegas, with its green meadows amid the desert, became a key stopover.

On Las Vegas's history trail, you might even see traces of those early travelers. Steven K. Madsen spent 18 summers walking and driving the entire length of the route with University of Utah professor C. Gregory Crampton. Their book, In Search of the Spanish Trail, laid out portions of the route that had been forgotten. Madsen says he's seen rust-stained rocks marking spots where iron-shod horses and mules stepped more than a century before.

 

Taking the trail from Lost City to Emigrant Pass

It's possible to create your own tour of the Old Spanish Trail: following I-15 and state highways east and west of the city, the 140-mile route will take most of a day, including time for stops.

Start east of Las Vegas at the Lost City Museum in Overton. Though the Old Spanish Trail route is a few miles north of here, the museum's exhibits on Anasazi and Paiute culture offer a glimpse of what the landscape looked like before European settlers arrived.

From the Muddy River, north of Overton, west to Las Vegas (about 50 miles) was one of the toughest, driest stretches of the trail. Travelers could often mark the way by following discarded household goods and the skeletons of livestock. So it was with immense relief that they found Las Vegas's springs. One traveler, Solomon Carvalho, wrote, "If it were not for this 'blessed water,' it would be almost impossible for man to travel across these deserts."

All that's visible of the springs today is a marker at the 180-acre property of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. However, Las Vegas Springs Preserve Foundation is developing a visitor center on this site, scheduled to open in 2005.

Three miles east of the springs, at Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue, you can visit the oldest building in the state, the 1855 Mormon Fort at Las Vegas Ranch, established after Mormon settlers took the Old Spanish Trail west. On Washington Avenue at Twin Lakes Drive, the Nevada State Museum has exhibits on the Spanish Trail and Nevada's natural and cultural history in pretty Lorenzi Park.

 

For gorgeous views of colorful sandstone, take Charleston Boulevard west 17 miles to drive through Red Rock Canyon and then stop at Spring Mountain Ranch on the park's southwest edge. The spot, at the base of the dramatic Wilson Cliffs, was a resting point for a leg of the trail that crossed Cottonwood Valley. It has a picnic area, and visitors can tour the 19th-century buildings.

A bit farther south, stop in the square of the tiny town of Blue Diamond to see Cottonwood Spring, which provided refreshment for thirsty trail travelers.Head west onto State 160 and the route will begin to climb, topping out at the Mountain Springs Summit at 5,502 feet. A white pillar marks the trail's path. To the west is the vast dry Pahrump Valley, with mesas to the north and jagged mountains to the south.

You can turn around here and return: take State 160 east to I-15 north. Or venture on: farther west, State 160 connects to the Old Spanish Trail Highway, which leads west into California and, after 23 miles, up to Emigrant Pass. "Looking out on the landscape there gives you a feeling for that lost time," says Madsen.

If you look carefully near the pass, you can still see wagon ruts― history made manifest in the desert.