Old Spanish Trails

Southern Arizona's Spanish Heritage

Long before there was an OK Corral in which to have a shootout, before there were trains on rails or stagecoach trails, before Geronimo clashed with the cavalry, the Spanish were in Arizona. They came in search of gold and souls to save and stayed for 200 years. This early Spanish history has long been overshadowed by the Hollywood version of Arizona history, but in the southern part of the state, especially along the Santa Cruz River between Tucson and Nogales, there are quite a few remnants of settlements that Spain built here in the desert.

An exploration of Arizona's Spanish trails should begin in Tucson, which was founded in 1776 and became the largest of the region's Spanish settlements. In El Presidio Historic District, which surrounds the Tucson Museum of Art, you'll find some of the city's oldest homes, including the Romero House and La Casa Cordova. This neighborhood was the site of the original Tucson presidio (military garrison), though none of the original fort remains. Not far away are the Samaniego House (now a restaurant) and the Sosa-Carillo-Fremont House, which was built in the 1850s. South of the sprawling Tucson Convention Center complex, you'll find the Barrio Historico neighborhood, which is lined with traditional Sonoran style row houses that are often built around inner courtyards.


However, the most lasting symbol of Tucson's Spanish past lies to the south of town on the San Xavier Indian Reservation. Mission San Xavier del Bac, known as the "White Dove of the Desert," is considered the most beautiful of the Southwest's Spanish mission churches and in the past few years underwent an extensive renovation.

To see what an unrestored mission church might look like, drive south less than an hour to Tumacacori National Monument, which preserves the ruins of a mission founded in 1691 by Father Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit missionary who was one of the first Spaniards to explore what is now southern Arizona. A few miles away lies the community of Tubac, which was founded as the region's first presidio and today is filled with gift shops,art galleries and Arizona's first state park. Tubac's biggest claim to fame is as the starting point for an expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775. De Anza led nearly 250 settlers across deserts and mountain ranges on the first overland route to California. When the group finally reached the Pacific Ocean, they founded San Francisco.


    Continuing south from Tubac (spend the night in Tubac) and Tumacacori will bring you to the Mexican border town of Nogales. Though Nogales is little more than a typical border town, a trip across the border provides some interesting shopping opportunities and a chance to see a bit of contemporary Spanish heritage. Don't miss an opportunity to have a meal at La Roca Restaurant, which is partially built into a shallow cave and has a very colonial feel.

    Although the missions and presidios of the Santa Cruz Valley date as far back as the late 17th century, the Spanish were in Arizona some 150 years before Father Kino began founding missions in the region. To learn more about the first Spaniards to explore southern Arizona, head east from Nogales through the picturesque towns of Patagonia, Sonoita, and Elgin. The area between Sonoita and Elgin has become Arizona's winery region with modern day winemakers reviving an activity first brought to Arizona by Spanish missionaries who needed to have wine for communion. Continuing eastward, you come to the retirement community of Sierra Vista, south of which you'll find Coronado National Memorial. This preserve on the edge of the San Pedro River valley is dedicated to Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who, in 1540, led an expedition into Arizona in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, which were supposedly built of gold and jewels. Although Coronado never found the riches he sought, his expedition did explore as far north as the Grand Canyon. However, it was here in the San Pedro valley( World known today for it's exemplary birding) that his expedition first set foot in what is today Arizona.

    The Route:
    Spend a day in Tucson and then head south on I-19 to Tubac, Tumacacori, and Nogales. Spend the night in the Tubac/Amado area. From Nogales, take Highway 82 east through Patagonia and Sonoita and then Highway 90 south to Sierra Vista. From here continue south on Highway 92 to Coronado National Memorial. Spend the night in Hereford. From here, return north to I-10 and drive west to Tucson.