Following the Anza Trail from Tumacacori to Borrego Springs Pt 1


16 Must-Visit Parks & Trails, Historic Sites & Side Trips on the Arizona & San Diego Portion of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Compiled by Lisa D. Smith & Nancy J. Reid

With great fanfare, a young, dashing military man rides boldly into town, his entourage following. He speaks loudly with conviction… he is looking for families, not soldiers… He is promising fertile lands and bountiful resources to peasants who are living a hopeless, meager existence. Would you go?

In the early 1700s, while the American colonists fight for their independence from England, the Viceroy of New Spain, (Mexico), fights to secure its own claims on this land they grabbed two hundred years before. Known as Alta California (now Modern California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona, New Mexico, western Colorado and southwestern Wyoming), the Spanish fight to keep the Russian and English forces at bay.

There are sporadic Spanish settlements throughout the Alta California region, but they are mostly posts with military men, no families, no farms, no real settlement or way of saying “this land belongs to us”. Although the Spanish had explored the coastal area of Alta California since the 16th century and considered the entire area part of the Spanish monarchy, they had not yet managed to really settle the region. Sea routes had proven costly and dangerous, land routes meant crossing arid, rugged deserts and possible encounters with hostile indigenous peoples, and New Spain struggled with both the money and people to settle outposts so far away.

Juan Bautista de Anza, from a portrait in oil by Fray Orsi in 1774 - public domain
Juan Bautista de Anza, from a portrait in oil by Fray Orsi in 1774 – public domain


In 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza, a Captain in the Spanish military stepped forward to offer his services in helping to colonize Alta California. His own father had once dreamed of discovering an overland route from Mexico to Alta California, but he was killed in an Apache ambush when Juan was only 3 years old. At 24 years old, Juan already captained the Presidio of Tubac. He knew the importance of really settling Alta California, as well as the challenges to be faced in crossing the region and opening it up for families.

With permission from the Viceroy, Juan paid for, and organized, an exploratory trip taking a small group of soldiers, priests, and translators with him. He was smart enough to chart his way and make friends with the indigenous peoples he met. His success in finding a route was followed by permission for a second expedition that would be comprised of pioneer-spirited families who would cross the rivers and deserts, make their way to Rio San Francisco, and make the San Francisco Bay area their new home–securing Spanish ownership.

Dust kicked up by stomping, impatient horses, children laughing, babies crying, horses snorting and men yelling – the sights and sounds of a breaking camp permeates the hot air as a town-on-the-move begins another day’s journey through the desert. Over two hundred men, women and children, promised a better life, strike out, seemingly fearless of what lies ahead as step-by-step, they traverse unknown territory.

The Anza Trail Road Trip Experience
This year America is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act, and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail is definitely one to put on your ‘must follow’ list!

This 1,200 mile auto and recreation trail commemorates the route followed by the 1775–1776 expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza, connecting history, culture, and outdoor recreation from Nogales, Arizona across southern Arizona and California, to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Arizona portion of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail takes you on an auto tour that leads you through the dramatic and diverse terrain of the Sonoran desert, with historic and scenic stops along the way. The Southern California portion eases into the Colorado Desert of the vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, named in honor of Juan Bautista de Anza. Sans the side trips, it’s about a 550 mile one-way trip from Tumacácori, in Southern Arizona to Borrego Springs in Southern California, which can take about 7-10 days if you plan to spend quality time at the exhibits and sites, take part in area activities that include hiking some of the recreational trail, and exploring the regional towns and cities.

Offering the glimpse of desert wildflowers and blooming cactus, spring is a beautiful time of year to follow the trail. Summer heats up with thrilling electric monsoon storms that provide the riparian areas with water and create lush desert landscapes, and fall features bright blues skies and cooler temperatures. Winter is crisp and sunny with an occasional dusting of snow and views of the snowcapped mountains. For maps and details visit and

Following the Anza Trail Pt 1 (This Page)
Tubac to Tucson Pt 2
Tucson to Casa Grande Pt 3
Gila Bend to Yuma Pt 4
Yuma to Borrego Springs Pt 5 

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