“It opens the lands that have lured the people from the beginning of time.”
— From a 1923 travelogue on the Old Spanish Trail, called the “the highway of the Southern Borderlands”
Traveled by conquistadors and padres, traders and soldiers, and now by transcontinental cyclists and snowbirds in big, honkin’ motor homes, the Old Spanish Trail connects San Diego in California with St. Augustine in Florida along the southern edge of the United States.
In its progress of more than 3,000 miles through a region called the Borderlands, the highway affords some of the most spectacular and varied terrain in North America — searing deserts with wind-swept dunes in California, rugged mountains adorned with saguaro cacti or ponderosa pine, undulating grasslands, cyprus trees towering beside spring-fed rivers in the Texas Hill Country, white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and live oaks draped with Spanish moss amid the swamps and bayous of the Deep South.
Our cross-country bicycle caravan traveled a route that roughly tracked the Old Spanish Trail, from San Diego — through such cities and towns as Phoenix and Las Cruces, El Paso and Van Horn, Fort Stockton and Comfort, Ocean Springs and Mobile, Pensacola and DeFuniak Springs — to St. Augustine.
The progenitor of today’s Interstate 10, the Old Spanish Trail was the most southerly coast-to-coast route developed in the early days of the automobile. It roughly follows what later became U.S. 90 in the east and U.S. 80 in the west.
The Old Spanish Trail was launched in 1915 in Mobile, Ala., as a connector route between New Orleans and Florida and worked on in fits and starts — including an interruption by World War I — until its completion in 1929. With its midway point in San Antonio, Texas, the Old Spanish Trail crosses 67 counties and eight states along the Southern border of the United States.
“Along the Old Spanish Trail are the riches of history, legend, sentiment and natural beauty,” said a description from The Rand McNally Automobile Road Book of 1923. “And throughout the route there are members of the Old Spanish Trail Association who will find pleasure in making your acquaintance.”
They may not have been members of the Old Spanish Trail Association, but plenty of friendly people made our acquaintance as we traveled the Southern Tier route from Sept. 20 to Nov. 21, absorbing some of the history and wondering at the majestic terrain.
Here’s a selection of photographs of sights along the southern edge of America: