Six Historically Important California Trails

Before you read this post, I must warn you… it is a bit dry.

I personally find this stuff fascinating, but many people do not. Which stuff? California history. Specifically, the history of six particular California trails. I’m serious. This stuff is not sexy. But I did make some cool graphics and if you read it, you will be smarter. Unless you already knew all of it beforehand. Which would be awesome.

Anyhoo. I present to you: 6 Historically Important California Trails!

1. Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

From Nogales, AZ to San Francisco, CA. An important trail indeed.

One Sentence: The route taken by Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition on his journey to find a land route between Mexico and northern California.

Many Sentences: During the mid 1770’s, Juan Bautista de Anza, Spanish explorer and Captain of the Tubac Presidio, set off on two separate expeditions. The first was a reconnaissance trip that was much smaller and shorter than the second. Anza was only accompanied by about 35 others and made it as far as the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel near present day Los Angeles. While relatively small, this expedition was vitally important as it created the first safe and viable land route to southern California from Mexico.

The second was a colonizing expedition that would take Anza and over 200 holy men, soldiers, and colonists through the previous route he had mapped out and up through California to San Francisco where they established the Presidio of San Francisco and actually founded the city itself. This land route was important to Spain because it wanted to increase its power and population in northern California, but traveling up the coast by sea was dangerous and costly. The Anza trail created an arduous, but much more efficient and safe, route from Mexico to San Francisco. Without it, Spain would not have had anywhere near the influence it eventually gained in California.

I really dig this particular trail. So much so that I have decided to (kinda) follow it! I’m going to go on a weekend Vespa trip with my wife that will take us from Nogales to Casa Grande in Arizona. That’ll cover a good portion of the trail in Arizona. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue on all the way up to San Francisco someday!


2. El Camino Viejo à Los Angeles

Old Los Angeles Trail

There and Back Again… From the Oakland Estuary down to San Pedro…

One Sentence: It’s California’s oldest north-south trail.

Multiple Sentences: Before the 1820s, El Camino Viejo à Los Angeles (The Old Road to Los Angeles) was mainly used as an informal route from northern to southern California (and vice versa, of course) by Spanish carretas, Indians, trappers, and settlers.

By the 1820s, its route had become well worn and widely used. The actual trail/road itself traveled from San Pedro to East Oakland through the vertical length of the San Joaquin Valley. Eventually, it was able to be used as a stagecoach route due to Beale’s Cut at Newhall Pass.

Basically… it was a trail that was very important and was used by many people for many different things. It stopped being used when the state started organizing itself a bit more and finally got around to putting together a plan for a real state highway system in 1896.


3. El Camino Real or The California Mission Trail

El Camino Real Mission Trail

San Francisco Solano to San Diego de Alcalá

One Sentence: Old trail that journeys through all 21 California missions.

Multiple Sentences: From 1769 to 1823, 21 Spanish missions, 4 presidios, and many small pueblos were founded and built up and down the California coast. From San Diego up to San Francisco, these missions were connected by a trail. The trail, commonly called El Camino Real, started out as a lowly footpath but quickly turned into a bustling roadway for those traveling on horses and wagons.

Even though the term “Camino Real” was used for many roads around the world by Spain, the name stuck. It often goes by The King’s Highway and the California Mission Trail, but El Camino Real is its official name.

Those traveling along the route will notice a whole bunch of bells. These bells were initially installed along the trail starting in 1906 by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs at the urging of Ms. Anna Pitcher of Pasadena. Over time, many of the bells were stolen, vandalized, and just not taken care of properly. In the mid 2000s, Caltrans initiated a program to create reproductions of the bells using the original bell molds. Pretty rad!

Here’s Huell Howser taking a look at the making of these bells…

“This is amazing!” – Huell Howser


4. California National Historic Trail

California National Historic Trail

“Go West, young man” – Horace Greeley

One Sentence: Trail to California from the Midwest taken by hundreds of thousands of settlers and gold seekers during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.

Multiple Sentences: First off… the California Trail is not just one trail. Well… kinda. It does start out as one trail (The Oregon Trail!), but it splits off into multiple trails further down the line. Some have described it as the frayed end of a rope. That’s a pretty accurate description. There are a few major routes that had most of the traffic, but there were plenty of small offshoots as well.

So what were people doing on the California Trail? Um… they were going to California. Duh. But why? Most were headed west in search of gold, but there were plenty of people just looking to find a cool new place to live. This was the trail used by the Donner, Stephens-Townsend-Murphy, and Bidwell-Bartleson parties as well as John C. Frémont himself.

In the early 1840s, the trail was used mainly by settlers and farmers looking to start a new life on the west coast. By the late 1840s, after gold was discovered, the trail was inundated with gold-seekers looking to make their fortune. The flow of settlers slowed down a bit after the initial gold rush burst of immigration, but many thousands of east-coasters and mid-westerners have continued to head on over to the best state in the union ever since.

Today, freeways and roads run along the numerous branches of this massive trail system. Its importance in the rapid growth of California can not be overstated.


5. Old Spanish Trail

Old Spanish Trail

“The longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in America.”

One Sentence: Trade route between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles.

Multiple Sentences: Mexican trader, Antonio Armijo, brought the Old Spanish Trail into existence in 1830. He and his 60 men and 100 mules combined multiple, previously trekked trails and trade routes to create an uninterrupted trade route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. It was used primarily for the trade of California horses and mules for New Mexico hand woven Indian goods. Of course, there were plenty of settlers who used it for emigration as well, but the vast majority of those traveling on the route were traders.

The Old Spanish Trail was named by John C. Frémont in the report he wrote after traveling along it. It was named as such because much of the trail had already been charted by the Spanish since the 1600s.

Trading along the trail halted after the War with Mexico ended in 1848 due to the new, less arduous trade routes that opened up. The trail continued to be used by some, but could hardly be considered a proper trade route after 1850.


6. Pacific Crest Trail

Pacific Crest Trail

2,650 miles of west coast beauty!

One Sentence: Really long, really beautiful trail that runs from the Mexican to Canadian borders.

Multiple Sentences: While not quite as important to the history of California as the previous trails, this trail does have some historical importance and is totally rad.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was officially created in 1968 by the National Trails System Act, unofficially created in 1932 by Mr. Clinton C. Clarke, and not officially completed until 1993.

The trail starts at the Mexican border and runs through California, Oregon, and Washington until it hits the Canadian border. In total, it is 2,650 miles long. Its elevation changes from sea level to 13,153 feet! It travels through many state parks as well as the Sierra Nevadas and the Cascades. Most hikers only attempt small portions of the trail, but there are some (thru-hikers) who travel the entire length.


BONUS. California State Scenic Highway System

California State Scenic Highway System

So pretty!

One Sentence: A whole bunch of highways in California that are scenic. (duh.)

Multiple Sentences: The California State Scenic Highways don’t really have anything to do with history and aren’t even trails, but I like them so I am including them as a special bonus just for you.

Basically… throughout the beautiful state of California, there are these roadside signs that have a California poppy on them. When you see this sign, congrats! You are officially on a scenic highway. There really are a lot of them. Caltrans provides a couple great online tools for finding them. I suggest driving on all of them. Yes… all of them. Have fun!


And there you have it!

Also. Once again… donate to the California State Parks Foundation. Please.

Featured image taken by Matthew Lee High. See it on Flickr.

About Adam Willis

I'm just a guy who really likes California. I live in Arizona for now, but will be moving over there as soon as possible. Also. I love you. Smile!

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