A New Understanding of History on the Old Spanish National Historic Trail

By McKenna Drew

My name is McKenna Drew and I was raised in the beautiful and diverse landscape of Cedar City, Utah in Iron County. This college town is the largest in Iron County. Although Cedar City is just 180 miles north of Las Vegas it sits at approximately 5,800’ in elevation. The cold desert climate merges parts of the stunning red rock found in St. George, Utah with coniferous forests found in Cedar Mountain. I have always felt fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. Growing up,  the majority of our recreational time was spent exploring this incredible landscape.

Cedar City is home to a rich history. Historically, Native American tribes lived in the area, the most well-known tribe being the Southern Paiute. This tribe is a prominent part of the community today. In 1851, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, also settled the surrounding areas in Iron County.

My understanding of the area’s resources and history shapes my relationship to the where I grew up place and the people that once lived there. However, it was not until my present internship with the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, that I learned another important part of the area’s history.

Congress designated the Old Spanish Trail as a National Historic Trail in 2002. From 1829 to 1848, this trail was known by Spanish traders as the most feasible path between Los Angeles, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico for a pack mule trading route. The OSNHT runs through Iron County, Utah.

I graduated from Utah State University with a degree in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. Following graduation, I began internship work at the BLM Utah State office as a Recreational Site Design Intern. I work directly with Rob Sweeten, a Co-Administrator over the Old Spanish Trail. One of the projects I work on is developing recreation and development plans for the counties that the Old Spanish Trail runs through. These plans identify the best place for the recreating public to access the Old Spanish Trail.

This fall, I lead my family out on the Old Spanish Trail to visit the recreation sites near their home in Cedar City. The trip turned into a multi-generational event. Family members included grandparents, an aunt, my parents, two of my sisters, my brother-in-law, and my two year old nephew.


Left to right: Me, my nephew and sister, Hailey Lawrence, Taylor Drew, and Grandma, Sandra Drew.  Looking at Old Spanish Trail Inscriptions

Left to right: Me, my nephew and sister, Hailey Lawrence, Taylor Drew, and Grandma, Sandra Drew.  Looking at Old Spanish Trail Inscriptions

Together we read incredible inscriptions from the Old Spanish Trail travelers and events at the exact site where they happened. As a family, we were able to understand the history of where we grew up and gain an appreciation for those that passed before us, all while enjoying the fresh air.

Although, we ranged in levels of physical activity and knowledge concerning the Old Spanish Trail we all gained a mutual appreciation and love for the history within our area. I later asked my family members what they gained from our experience along the Old Spanish Trail I could better understand the importance of National Historic Trails.

Hiking with Dad

Hiking with Dad

My youngest sister, who is 18, said that what she gained most from this experience was historical information that she did not know before. It made her want to further explore historic trails and public lands. She also valued spending time with her family outside and felt it brought her closer to them.

My oldest sister brought her husband and her two year old son out to explore the Old Spanish Trail. When I asked her what she gained most from the experience she said,

“Exploring the trail gave me a deeper appreciation for the incredible landscape that surrounds me on a daily basis. I’ve always loved history and it was fascinating to watch it come alive right in front of me. I was able to bring my son with me to see the beautiful sites. I want to teach him and have him experience these bits of history, so that he can gain greater appreciation for places, life, and others.”                                                                                  

I asked my grandparents what their favorite part was in exploring the Old Spanish Trail. My grandparents were thrilled that there were finally efforts happening to help remember and celebrate the trail. My Grandma said, “It’s wonderful to have something that highlights a history and knowledge that has been forgotten in this area.”

Out of all the family members who came with us, the most enthusiastic participant was my Dad. My Dad is a history buff who loves studying and exploring historical inscriptions and rock art. The Old Spanish Trail was familiar to him, but as we explored these historical sites, it reignited an excitement and need to explore more history. He said,

"Understanding the history around us is very important. There are so many stories and information that is being lost. As a family, we love to experience our history and we understand that our history is part of us."

Silhouettes in Cedar City

Silhouettes in Cedar City

After this experience, I am inspired and excited to celebrate the 50th Anniversary for the National Trails System Act. After interviewing my family members about what they gained from the Old Spanish Trail, I reflected on my experience as an intern, and what I have learned while I working on and exploring this amazing historic trail.

The first is, history takes on a new meaning and understanding when one has a vicarious experience traveling along the trail and visiting the sites. Second, spending time out on historic trails with others is a great bonding activity that can bring diverse groups together. Last, historic trails are multi-generational there is something that everyone can enjoy and learn from.

McKenna Drew is a Recreation Site Design Intern at the Bureau of Land Management Utah State Office