Juan Bautista de Anza was one of the great pathfinders of the American West, yet his name is unfamiliar to most Americans. In 1775, the Mexican-born Spanish military captain led a group of more than 240 soldiers, civilians, and friars on a treacherous trek across the deserts and mountains of Mexico, Arizona, and California to establish a settlement in “Alta California” — better known today as the San Francisco Bay Area.
Anza’s expedition established the first safe overland route between New Spain (present-day Mexico) and California, and helped lay a new cultural foundation in the American West. In 1990, the federal government commemorated the expedition by establishing the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, portions of which can be explored by car, foot, horse, bicycle, and even train.
The Arizona stretch of the Anza Trail is filled with beautiful scenery, great shopping and dining pit stops, and close-up encounters with some of the oldest structures in the state. It’s the perfect three-day road trip for history buffs and modern-day explorers.
Tubac or Bust
Start your trip in the historic village of Tubac, located 45 miles south of Tucson, just off Interstate 19. Established in 1752 as a Spanish military fort, Tubac was the first European settlement in Arizona. On the morning of Oct. 23, 1775, Anza and his group assembled here, gathering more than 1,000 head of cattle, horses, and mules to take with them on their journey to Alta California.
Take a self-guided tour of the fascinating Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, which preserves and commemorates more than 2,000 years of Arizona history. Visitors can explore the underground remains of Tubac’s original Spanish presidio, tour one of the oldest schoolhouses in the territory, and see a display of the first printing press in Arizona. In October, the park hosts a colorful re-enactment of the expedition’s passage through Tubac during the annual Anza Days Celebration.
Plan on spending about three hours at the state park, and then spend the rest of the day exploring dozens of village art galleries and shops selling vibrant Southwestern pottery and crafts. For dinner, enjoy a meal and sip on a specialty margarita at Elvira’s Restaurant, a local favorite for authentic Mexican cuisine. The restaurant’s fanciful interior design features electric blue walls, dramatic lighting, and dozens of glass ornaments strung from the ceiling. Spend the night at the luxurious Tubac Golf Resort & Spa, located on one of southern Arizona’s most historic ranches, just a stone’s throw from the Anza Trail.