By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail only travels through Arizona and California, but it greatly influenced the early history of these two states. The trail runs from Nogales, Arizona, to San Francisco, California, following the route established by Spanish commander Juan Bautista de Anza back in 1774. After his initial exploratory trip, Anza began enlisting people who were willing to pull up their roots and move into a new land. Nearly 200 men, women, and many children (they made up 50 percent of the traveling party), plus their military escorts and 1,000 head of cattle made their way from Sonora, Mexico, to San Francisco Bay. It was an arduous trip. Today, 230 years later, the journey is not quite so bad. We’ve taken it a number of times over the years.
If you’re a purist, you can drive Interstate 19 approximately 65 miles south of Tucson, Arizona, to the United States/Mexico border in Nogales to begin the journey, but we’ll start our tour at Tumacacori National Historical Park, several miles north of the border.
1. Tumacacori National Historical Park
The Tumacacori mission was established in 1691 by famous Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino. Construction of the current mission was begun around 1802, so it didn’t exist when Anza arrived. But the church leaders who lived there welcomed the Anza group and even gave them a small herd of cattle to provide food on their journey. The 360-acre historical park, which is located approximately 18 miles north of Nogales, contains the ruins of three ancient Spanish missions and is divided into three separate units. All visitor services and park operations are based out of the San Jose de Tumacacori unit. After spending several hours absorbing the mission ruins and its desert surroundings, we rated it as both interesting and well-interpreted. After your visit, return to I-19 heading north.
2. Presidio de San Ignacio de Tubac
This presidio, four miles north of Tumacacori, was founded in 1752 in response to a revolt by the Pima Indians. The 50 cavalrymen garrisoned there were expected to control the Pimas, to protect the frontier from the Apache Indians, and to further explore the Southwest. The ruins of the structures can be viewed through an underground archaeological exhibit at Tubac Presidio State Historical Park. Approximately 10 acres of the original site lie within the state park, and 23 acres are in private ownership. Thirteen acres of the private land are leased by the Center for Spanish Colonial Archeology. It doesn’t take very long to view this site, but it is worth seeing.
3. Mission San Xavier del Bac
This mission, called the “White Dove of the Desert,” is located west of I-19 along the Santa Cruz River. Mission San Xavier del Bac is part of the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation and is still an active parish. The landscape is memorable “” set in a wide desert valley, marked by mountains rising abruptly to nearly 8,000 feet. Established by Father Kino only a year after Tumacacori, it grew so fast that, when the Anza expedition arrived in 1775, the mission had its own resident missionary. Construction of the current church began in 1783. The building itself remains in remarkable condition. The church is built of stone and brick, with a facade heavily adorned with arabesques of varied colors and flanked by two 80-foot towers. The mission interior is frescoed throughout and contains a great number of wooden statues. To the west of the church is the ancient burying ground. We’ve seen all but one of the missions, and Mission San Xavier del Bac is one of our favorites. As you continue north, I-19 ends at Interstate 10; follow I-10 to Tucson. You might want to take a worthwhile side trip to see Saguaro National Monument before heading north on I-10.
4. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Located on State Route 87 east of the town of Coolidge, the Casa Grande ruins were visited by Father Kino in 1694 when friendly Pimas took him to see the complex. The Anza expedition arrived in 1775, at which time Anza and Father Pedro Font (the latter a Franciscan missionary traveling with the expedition) set out to check the accuracy of Father Kino’s descriptions of the site. The Casa Grande, or “Big House,” is said to be one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures in North America. When the first Europeans arrived, all that remained were the ruins of villages, irrigation canals, and some artifacts. This ruin is spectacular, even at a distance. To continue your travels, head for the town of Casa Grande and take Interstate 8 west toward Gila Bend and Yuma.
5. Painted Rocks State Park
Take I-8 west to Gila Bend, and continue on to exit 102. Turn north and follow the signs to Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, a unit of the Bureau of Land Management. The Painted Rocks site is within the historic corridor, and the quantity and quality of rock art make it a “can’t miss.” This ancient archaeological site contains hundreds of symbolic and artistic rock etchings “” petroglyphs “” produced centuries ago by prehistoric people. The rocks also contain inscriptions made by people who passed by during historic times, such as the expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza. Camping and water are available. When you leave the site, resume traveling west on I-8 to Yuma. When you cross the Colorado River, you’ll be in California.
6. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This 600,000-acre park contains two stretches of the actual Anza route and preserves the surrounding lands so that they appear much as they would have to Anza and his colonists when they camped here in December 1775. A short segment of the trail exists in the southeast section of the park. Then in the northwest section, a rough jeep and horseback trail parallels Anza’s route through Coyote Canyon. These two areas provide a rare opportunity to practically stand in the steps of the colonists. You’ll find the trail noted on park maps. Our next stop will be the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel.
7. Mission San Gabriel Arcangel
At 537 W. Mission Drive in San Gabriel lies the fourth of what eventually would be 21 missions in the California chain. San Gabriel was a destination and a resting place for both Anza expeditions. The colonists stayed at the current mission site for approximately six weeks while Anza and Father Font went to San Diego to help calm an Indian rebellion there. Construction of the current mission church and complex was begun in 1792 and completed in 1805. The mission was so prosperous that it earned the nickname “Queen of the Missions.”
8. El Camino Real
The road that linked the missions, pueblos, and presidios in early California was called El Camino Real. Although also known as “The King’s Highway,” the “camino real” was basically a crude road, almost a trail, used mostly by wagons. Modern-day U.S. 101 follows the general route of El Camino Real. At various times, the Anza expedition would have been on that trail.
9. California state beaches
Leaving Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, the colonists followed trails through Indian villages that were established along the California coastline. Along the original Anza route lie San Buenaventura, Emma Wood, El Capitan, Refugio, Gaviota, and Point Sal state beaches. Enjoy swimming and walking the shoreline knowing that you are following in the footsteps of pioneers. (The state parks are also great places to camp.)
10. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra, the original mission was visited by the Anza expedition in March 1776. While they were there, Anza stood as godfather for an Indian boy who was being christened. With the ever-present danger of angry Indians shooting flaming arrows at the mission, it was built with tile roofs, the first used in California. Today the mission stands in the middle of downtown San Luis Obispo at 751 Palm St.
11. Mission San Carlos de Borromeo del Carmelo
This mission was founded in Monterey in 1770, but was moved to Carmel a year later. As the second mission in the California chain, it was the home of Father Serra, founder of the first nine California missions. He is buried in the sanctuary beside the altar. When he received word that the Anza group was near, Father Serra went to Monterey to greet Anza and found him ailing, so the priest brought him back to rest. The mission is located at the south end of Carmel, approximately a half-mile off State Route 1.
12. Golden Gate National Recreation Area/Presidio of San Francisco
The presidio was founded by Anza and his colonists on September 16, 1776, and served as the northernmost permanent outpost of Spain. The site contains a portion of the original commandants’ quarters and subsurface remains from the Spanish/Mexican period. The presidio has been managed by the National Park Service since 1994.
13. Mission San Francisco de Asís
The site of Mission Dolores, as it is commonly known, was chosen by Anza and his scouting party, and construction began on June 27, 1776. (The current mission was completed in 1791 and is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.) Anza then took a small group to explore San Francisco Bay. With this task completed, Anza had successfully opened an overland route of emigration and supply from Sonora, Mexico, to the missions and settlements of Alta (upper) California.