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Otis, Richard, Jim

Old Spanish Trail Ride  Richard Waller


We were clipping and sawing and thrashing our way through the dense muddy mesquite thickets of the Amargosa River gorge on a hot windless desert day, wondering if we would make it through. 
What brought us to this day and place?  Two years ago I
decided to honor the users of the Old Spanish Trail a caravan route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles CA, by riding it on horses and mules from Los Angeles to Santa Fe. This is the story of the first half of our trip, to Central Utah. We will assemble in Parowan, Utah in August 2015 to complete the second half of the ride. This ride is designed also to promote the Backcountry Horsemen of America, Backcountry Horsemen of California and the Backcountry Horsemen of California, Los Padres Unit, with nearly 400 members here on the Central Coast, and their mission to promote and
protect equestrian access to public land.
Several weeks before our Amargosa River Gorge adventure, we had assembled our team at Hesperia Lake Horse Camp, in Hesperia, California.  BCHC members, Jim Clark of Ojai, Otis Calef of Santa Barbara, Kathleen Phelps and myself from Arroyo Grande, and our  film team, husband and wife Ned Clark and Benedicte Schoyen, plus our invaluable shuttle driver and general aide de camp, Rod Thompson, also of Ojai.
Early the next morning we loaded our animals into the drop off trailer, Jim’s 6 horse/mule stock trailer and drove I15 south to Glen Helen Regional Park, the start of our old Spanish Trail Ride. We had considered starting at the original terminus of the trail at Pueblo De Los Angeles in downtown Los Angeles,  however, the prospect of riding 50 miles of Los Angeles area streets and roads dissuaded us.
Rod stopped the crew cab GMC with the stock trailer on the side of the road across from the rodeo grounds at Glen Helen Park. We  offloaded the animals, the three mules: Jim’s; Echo and Hallelujah, Otis’s; Pretty Boy Floyd, my mustang, Robinson Jeffers and Kathleen’s Arab, Izzy. We mounted up and rode off to the Cajon River wash, Jim ponying one of his two mules. I am sure, everyone, like me, wondered what the next month and 600 miles would bring us.
We rode the  wash, then up onto old Route 66, eventually across several sets of  railroad tracks to the Pacific Crest Trail. Then east along the PCT to to the tunnel under I15 which comes out at the base of Crowder Canyon. The PCT climbs through this canyon,  it was also used as part of the Old Spanish Trail (OST) by the traders from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, which made it historically accurate for us to ride. We did have to stop at the McDonald’s next to the PCT, we went through the “ride through” That confused the staff, so we tied up and went inside. Back on the trail we ascended the canyon into a very strange badlands country then tops out on a ridge above Summit Valley which put us at the top of the watershed of the Mojave River.

A little over a week later we were at the sink at the end of the Mojave River near Baker, California riding through Zzyzx, (yes, that is the spelling!) having been perhaps the first horsemen to ride the length of the river in over one hundred fifty years. There were some sections of private land, military land, and riparian jungle we didn't ride, but,  we rode nearly the entire length of the river. From Baker the route took us north through vast desolate Silurian Valley for several days. My horse, Jeffers suffered a stone bruise in an extremely rocky area of the valley, I was forced to ride Echo the mule most of the remainder of the trip. Echo is a great mule, I could have read a book, or slept, he had no surprises. We made it to the  Amargosa River gorge, in rock climber’s terms, the crux pitch of the route. The first part of the gorge is a lovely ride in a  desert canyon. Then came the jungle, the mesquite and cottonwood jungle with deep bogs on a very hot day. We, as I started the story with, clipped and sawed our way through the jungle. Working the mules and the horses through our cuts, and across the bogs, eventually coming up onto a very nice  trail, the roadbed of the old Tonopah and Tidewater  Railroad which once ran through the canyon, which we were ever so happy to see!
A few miles of easy riding for couple of miles below the China Garden Date Ranch and their very welcome ice cold date shakes. Our pickup trailer and film crew were not there, where they were supposed to meet us. They had driven in several hours before, but we learned later, were told by an “experienced” desert hiker that there was no way through the gorge, even for a hiker, and that we would have to turn back.  Our crew returned to our Dumont Dunes camp expecting us to have to come back.   Borrowing the phone from the ranch as there was no cell service in the canyon, Jim called his cousin Rod and we were back on track, he returned, we loaded our muddy animals and drove to Resting Spring Ranch a lovely oasis in the desert.
The spring here was used by the traders on the Old Spanish Trail. We spent a rest day there, drove to Tecopa and gratefully soaked in the Inyo County free hot springs. Allen Hardt, the ranch manager was a wealth of information on the trail. When we rode out, he guided us via his ATV through the sandy hills east of the ranch to an overlook where he pointed out the trail and his cairns. He had built rock cairns over the years which were works of art marking the alignment of the OST which he had carefully scouted out. Thanks to him we had a pleasant ride through the desert to Emigrant Pass. One wonders just how many Emigrant Passes there are in the West.
The trace of the old westbound mule caravan track is obvious. We were able to follow it and ride up right up the one hundred and sixty six year old plus,   tread to the summit of the pass then down the far side, perhaps the first riders all in all those  years to use this track. We set camp out in the broad desert valley that night, a brilliant carpet of stars above us. The next morning we continued on across the vast emptiness, Kathleen picked up cell service and learned from her husband back home, that their dog was very ill, she decided to return home to help care for it.  Jim, Otis, Rod and myself continued, reaching Las Vegas and onward following the trail, we rode the 50 mile waterless jornada between Las Vegas and the Muddy River, down California Wash for two days from its western rim on down to the Muddy River. We rode across the flat tableland of Mormon Mesa east of the Muddy then a precipitous drop on a steep trail into Halfway wash running  to the Virgin River, up the river to Mesquite, Arizona, where Rod left us and Eddie  Gibson another friend of Jim’s joined us for the rest of the trip. We headed north over Utah Hill, leaving the Mojave Desert at Utah hill in Utah. The Mojave Desert is delineated by Joshua trees. We had seen our first Joshua trees in Summit Valley on our first day, over 300 miles away. Here we saw our last Joshua trees about where the first Mormon pioneers saw their first, naming them after the prophet Joshua due to the tree’s upraised branches, which to them resembled the prophets arms.
Freddy Dunn, BCHA  Treasurer, had made arrangements with Kent and Trudy Thurgood  of the Backcountry Horsemen of Utah to stay at their ranch in Central, Utah, this proved to be a wonderful experience. He  and Trudy were very hospitable, they  told us great stories of the area and its history. Greatest of all he had arranged with private landowners for us to ride  Magotsu Canyon through which the OST ran. We were lucky enough to get to ride behind locked gates on old ranches dating from the early settlement days of the 1850’s. A bit unlucky in that was a bitter day, riding into the teeth of a icy north wind. A far cry from our hot sweltering rides across the Mojave Desert.
The Thurgoods allowed us to stay in their bunkhouse during the only rainy/snowy weather we encountered on our ride, we were and are very thankful and grateful to them.  One evening Kent barbecued elk burgers for us, from an elk he had recently taken. On another evening we took them to a small steakhouse in the enchanting mountain hamlet of Pine Valley.
After saying our goodbyes to them, we traversed Mountain Meadows which is about 5 miles long and a mile wide with good water. It was used by the traders to recover their stock after the long dry desert stretches both east and  west. We then we rode Holt Canyon, down to the Escalante Desert, where curiously enough the local brand inspector examined our papers. What made it curious is that his name was Klayton Holt, a direct descendant of the family the canyon was named for over 150 years ago. Our final segment of trail was across the flat expanse of the Escalante Desert. Three days of riding, ending at Parowan Gap with its world class petroglyphs.  We camped our final night at Parowan Rodeo Grounds, in Parowan, Utah. Which will be our first night’s camp on the second leg, Parowan to Santa Fe, New Mexico, next August 9.

Bremerton pages 108-113
After leaving the Little Salt Lake we traveled over or near the Wah-Satch Mountains for several days meeting with few adventures worthy of note until we reached the mountain snows, which even in the month of June, we found several feet in depth. Some of our mules who had never seen snow before, having been reared among the sunny Plains of California–showed great uneasiness upon first approaching it; they Woodstock, try the depth of the drift with their hooves, and hesitate until fairly spurred into it by their riders. Upon the mountain tops we sometimes in can't upon snow heaps many feet in depth and while best situated my mode of protecting myself from the cold during the night was as follows. Made a small excavation in the side of some draft least exposed to the wind, and then wrapping myself closely in my solitary blanket, I spread my saddle cloths beneath me, and rolled myself into the hole, where I managed to sleep pretty comfortably, even amid the snows of the Wah-Satch Mountains.
In the same section of country week encamped one evening upon a beautiful little Lake situated in the Hollow among the mountains, but at so great and elevation, in summer surrounded by snow and partially covered in ice (Fish lake) there we were once again visited by the Eutaw Indians, who as usual behaved in a very friendly manner. Our provisions have now become so scanty that it was necessary to add to our stock by purchasing what we could from the Indians. From the party who here visited us, we managed to obtain a portion of a Rocky Mountain Sheep or  “big–horn", as it is often called;–and, upon Kit’s asking for a fish, one of the Indians departed, but in a few minutes return with a fine trout, which we bought for a couple of charges of powder. Our bargain had hardly been placed upon the fire when we discovered that the fish had been killed by an arrow– wound in the back. While we were wondering at this novel mode of taking trout, two of our men came into camp with as many fish as they could carry, and told us that they had caught as many more, but left them up on the banks of the lake. It seemed that in wandering about, they had discovered a little stream, a tributary to the lake, but quite shallow; this stream they represented as swarming with fish, so that they had gone in and killed them with sticks. To our hungry people this was more than good news; and that evening was devoted to the composition of a chowder, which was literally fish ”au naturel”.
Our supper ended, was unanimously decided that we should move our camp next day no further than the stream, where we contemplated spending the day in fishing. With this pleasant expectation I've betook myself to bed, where I was soon lulled to sleep by a low, monotonous strain which one of our Indian guest amused himself by singing.
By sunrise next morning we were not only settled in our new camp, but up to our knees in the icy water in pursuit of its frightened tenants. If finish keep chronicles, I fancy that those in the waters of Trout Lake will not soon forgets us; for such a slaughter of the finny tribe I have rarely seen. For my own part, with an old bayonet fastened to a stick, I caught five dozen–and a twinge of rheumatism which reminds me of the circumstance even now.
With our former experiences of scanty rations and hard travel, it will scarcely be thought surprising that after a day’s rest and our famous feast of chowder, we should feel as if we could have faced only a whole legion of Diggers, but the ”Old Boy" himself (always supposing that the “Evil One" could haunt so cold the region as the Wah-Satch Mountains). Our course was now for the most part upward; sometimes crossing snowy ridges with the icy winds made us fairly crouch in our saddles and then descending into valleys where the pine-forest afforded the grateful shelter from the sun.  
While traversing one of these gorges, we came suddenly upon seven human skeletons, six of which, bleached by the elements, scattered here and there, where the bones had been dragged by hungry wolves along a space of some yards in extent; the seventh, which, from it's less accessible position, being sheltered by rocks, and, in part, by a falling tree, had remained undisturbed by beast of prey, seemed extended where it's owner died. Upon a further examination of the ground, we concluded that these mournful relics where the remains of some unfortunate party of whites or Mexicans who had been cut off by the Indians. The skeleton which lay alone appeared, from the arrowheads and bullets yet market a tree which you guarded it, to have belonged to an individual of the party who had fought from this shelter until overcome by superior numbers.
These surmises afterword approved but too true, as we learned, from a band of friendly Eutaws, who reports it that the bones which we have discovered were those of the party of Americans from Arkansas who had been surprised by hostile Indians while resting at noon, and instantly killed, with the exception of one of their number, who snatched up his rifle, retreated to the nearest cover and they're battled with all the energy of despair, killing two of the savages before being dispatched by the arrows of his assailants. It was a sad sight for us to gaze upon these moldering fragments. None of us could say at that moment what their fate might be ours–to die amid the wilderness far from friends and home, with the wolf to howl over us, on the wild mountain breezes to chant our requiem, as they roared through the sombre branches of the pines. How many sad hearts may have yearned and how many bright eyes filled with tears of the sufferers from “hope deferred” who were yet looking for the brothers and husbands whose fate we had been the first to learn!

A Life Wild and Perilous, Robert M. Utley Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Page 71, As a beaver grew scarce on the Rio Grande and the headwaters of the Pecos River and the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, the Taos trappers looked to the northwest to the Rio Verde, that farther up River, Ashley’s men called the Siskadee. The men of Taos pioneered no new trails. Dominguez and Escalante had been followed by Spanish trading expeditions that opened a commerce with the Utes who sold captives seized from other tribes as slaves for New Mexican households. By Provost’s  time, Taosenos held a crude knowledge of the San Juan, Colorado, and Green rivers and their surrounding mountains. The eastern half of what would become the ‘Old Spanish Trail” the road the priests of 1776 sought to connect New Mexico and California, had taken on rough form. Provost and his comrades, therefore, explored little unknown country, but they were the first to harvest its beaver wealth.

Page 113, 114, The men detached by Ewing Young near the head of the Verde River reached Taos in spring of 1830. They told William Wolfskill that his partner had gone on to California and in truth intended to trap the San Joaquin Valley. At once Wolfskill laid plans to join Young in this enterprise. Then "Josť Guillermo Wolfskill "  applied for a trapping license which Gov. Manuel Armijo promptly granted.
In September 1830 while Ewing Young socialized with this newfound Mexican friends in California, Wolfskill organized still another California bound expedition. Assisting him was the veteran George Yount who knew the land to the west as well as any man. Some 20 men composed the party including Zachariah Ham who had captained an Ashley party on the Green and Bear Rivers in 1825.
Wolfskill and Yount resolved to find a better way to California. The Gila River was difficult and plagued by Apaches. The route probably followed by Ewing Young, Richard Campbell, and George Yount himself, linking the Virgin River with Zuni Pueblo, involved desert canyons and high rocky plateaus. Probably at Yount’s urging, Wolfskill aimed still farther north. Although they had not likely heard of fathers Dominquez and Escalante, they unknowingly embarked on the course that would complete what the Padres had begun.
Wolfskill and Yount led their men northwest to the Uinta basin along essentially the same course followed by Dominguez and Escalante and other early Taos trappers; the Chama, San Juan, and the Delores rivers, across the Grand and finally to the Green. Surmounting the Wasatch range, they fell on the Sevier River. Hear the friars had turned back in 1776, but here,

 Jedediah Smith had pushed on in 1826 and 1827. With variations the Wolfskill party trailed Smith to California by the Virgin, the Colorado come and the Mojave to the San Bernardino Valley.
Wolfskill and Yount blazed no new trails. Their significance lay in joining several old trails into a new trail that connected Santa Fe with Los Angeles it was a long trail, nor was it much easier than the others. But for the next two decades thanks to the publicity resulting from the Wolfskill journey the old Spanish Trail formed a commercial thorough fare between New Mexico and California.
Wolfskill and his men reached Los Angeles in February 1831, too late for a fall beaver hunt, too early for the spring beaver hunt. They failed to connect with Ewing Young who had already left for home. The trappers scattered to go their separate ways. Wolf skill and Yount decided to try their hand at hunting sea otter a venture that turned out badly. Even so California appeals to both and for both of the future held important contributions to California history.

Pg 199, quote when cooked all night, a mule head is a delicacy” observed


Page 217– 218 Exemplifying this class William Wolfskill and George Yount . Taos trappers, in 1830 they opened the old Spanish Trail, which Eve all into a major trading thoroughfare linking Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Both liked what they saw and stayed.
Already a Mexican citizen, quote Don Guillermo" Wolfskill planted himself in the center of the little pueblo of Los Angeles and, launching a dazzling career as a cultivator of grapes, quickly became a leading citizen of the province. Joined by his brother John in 1838, Wolfskill expanded his holdings in 1841 Don Guillermo married into a prominent Mexican family and began siring a large family to carry on his agricultural enterprises. In the same year, he and John turned their ambitions north to San Francisco Bay. Aided by Jacob Leese, a former mountain man who had married the governor's daughter, gained a grant of 18,000 acres on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley under John's oversight his ranch sprouted grains, vegetables, and grapes and pastured cattle and horses by the thousand.
Just across the mountains to the west, in the Napa Valley, lay another large ranch pre-cited over by George Yount. After arriving in California, he had parted with Wolfskill and headed north where he soon made close friends with Gen. Mariano Vallejo, commandant of the northern district at Sonoma. Yount’s mountain skills, especially in fighting off Indian aggressions from the north, gained their reward in 1836 with the grant of 9,000 acres at the head of the Napa Valley. As legally required he submitted to Mexican citizenship and Catholicism. By the early 1840s, when the Wolfskills became his neighbors, George de la  Concepcion Yount raised grain, vegetables, fruits, and berries, grazed livestock, and operated a sawmill and grist mill. He made his home in a sprawling house of log and Adobe. Nearby stood a blockhouse, evidence of his pledge to Vallejo to hold back the Indians of the north.
Others of the Wolfskill and Yount stamp included George Nidever, Job Francis Dye, and Jacob Lee (also Francis Ziba Branch)

Page 261 regarding Carson 1847. In Santa Fe he saw Josefa briefly, hired another escort and to avoid the Apache infested Gila route set forth on the old Spanish Trail. On the Virgin River he encountered Piutes, the same people who had tormented the Fremont expedition in 1844 and killed one before the others dispursed.

Page 263 Jim Bridger exchanged the role of trapper for trader only gradually and reluctantly. In the winter of 1844 – 45, he led a party of 30 men in a sweep through California, returning in the spring of 1845 by way of the old Spanish Trail as far as Great Salt Lake.

Page 265 – 266 with the onset of spring with 27 men Carson Road out of Los Angeles on May 4, 1848 he took the old Spanish Trail to Taos. As usual, Paiutes proved a menacing nuisance on the Virgin and Sevier Rivers but Carson maneuvered it through their territory without loss. In the Rockies the riders courted disaster crossing the grand river boiling with the spring runoff improvising log raft on the bank, they struggle the push themselves and their possessions across the freezing torrent. The first effort failed the second partly succeeded in the third smashed the raft in midstream with the loss of saddles ammunition and food stocks.

Leroux serve Gunnison for one month come August 20 1853, Long enough to pilot and easily through Cochetopa Pass to the Gunnison River and down into the Grand. From here Gunnison to pick up the old Spanish Trail across the Uinta Basin and the Wasatch.

Errata, Joseph Walker’s name was Rutherford not Reddeford

Links of interest to our trek. More links will be added, check back:



National Park Service Old Spanish Trail

National Park Service Old Spanish Trail plan your visit

National Park Service plan your visit, passport-program

Old Spanish Trail dot Org/

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