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Learn about local history with a trip to Old Spanish Trail Park

Unique among local recreation sites, the Old Spanish Trail Park focuses upon the early history of the Las Vegas Valley when it was a major stop along the historic overland route connecting settlements in Spanish New Mexico and California. The 2,700-mile Old Spanish Trail received deserved recognition with its 2002 listing as a National Historic Trail.

Dedicated in November, this new Clark County park preserves the pathway of the old trail as it headed from the Las Vegas Springs toward the creeks and springs along the base of the Red Rock cliffs. The trail through the Las Vegas area began in 1829 when young Rafael Rivera became separated from an expedition led by New Mexico merchant Antonio Armijo. Rivera followed Las Vegas Wash up from the Colorado River to a mesa were he could see water and vegetation. Named Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows,” the spot became a key campsite with water and pasture for livestock on Armijo’s overland trail.

Subdivisions surrounded the Old Spanish Trail Park, located on a 10-acre parcel at Cimarron Road and Tara Avenue, south of Sahara Avenue and west of Buffalo Drive. Beautifully landscaped with native vegetation and open grassy areas, the new park has plenty to offer. Visitors find walking trails with informational signs, shaded picnic sites, good parking, water and restrooms. A Western-themed playground evokes a campsite where statues of resting horses invite children to climb up and sit astride. Old-fashioned lights with antiqued finish illuminate trails and the playground after dark. Attention to detail in this park adds to its appeal.

The new park exists because of the dedicated efforts of several local history experts, park planners and cooperating federal and county agencies. In February 2001, local residents Marvin “Nick” Saines and Gary Beckman discovered the site with the Old Spanish Trail cutting across 10 acres as they reviewed aerial photos for an environmental site assessment of nearby property.

Owned by the BLM and leased to the Clark County School District for a future school site, the old trail soon would be lost. Plans to preserve it as a park emerged, eventually involving many interested individuals and agencies. A swap of land saved the site as a park and put the school site on another parcel, but not before a misdirected bulldozer obliterated the actual trail. Park visitors today walk a pathway carefully reconstructed from photos and maps.

Saines, Nevada director of the Colorado-based Old Spanish Trail Association, led a team that included geologists, archaeologists, historians, parks and recreation specialists and others. Their teamwork resulted in the autumn 2008 dedication of the new facility.

With time over the winter to become established, landscaping provides visitors with a show of wildflowers and blooming desert willow trees. The park will only become more attractive as the native plants grow larger and fill in. Actually, the historical trail site is far more appealing today than in yesteryear when it was a plain expanse of bleak Mojave landscape covered spottily with creosote bushes The occasional mule driver in those days might have seen it enlivened with wildflowers every decade or so following good winter rains.

Walking the park’s trails and stopping to absorb the information on interpretative signs provides a refresher course on area history. Signs along the Old Spanish Trail explain its importance in settling the Southwest, pointing out some of the colorful historical figures who used it, such as Mexican and American merchants, Spanish slave traders, outlaw horse thieves, military adventurers, frontiersmen, mountain men, immigrants, miners and ranchers. The railroad builders and highway engineers who came later roughly paralleled the old trail.

Other signs mention the native people who lived and farmed here for centuries, the Mormon builders of the Old Mormon Fort and the early ranchers whose livestock and gardens helped feed those following the trail. Learn more with visits to the Springs Preserve, the Old Mormon Fort and the Clark County Museum. A few parts of the old trail still exist. Watch for them on the way to Valley of Fire State Park and along Highway 160 into Mountain Springs Pass.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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