AZTEC — Next summer, those walking from downtown Aztec to Aztec Ruins National Monument can trace mule tracks that traversed the Old Spanish Trail about 200 years ago.

Thanks to a nearly $100,000 grant from the National Park Service's Connecting Trails to Parks program, Aztec Ruins will offer more than just enhanced pedestrian access to the Great Kiva.

The money will be spent to retrace the Old Spanish Trail, a route used by Spanish merchants in the early 1800s to transport goods by pack mule from New Mexico to California.

"We'll do the best we can to retrace the route, which is a very difficult task," said Lauren Blacik, an Aztec Ruins park ranger. "We'd like for visitors, when they walk along the pedestrian trail next year ... (to) also learn about the story of the Old Spanish Trail."

A section of the Aztec Ruins National Monument is pictured on April 20, 2012.
A section of the Aztec Ruins National Monument is pictured on April 20, 2012. (The Daily Times file photo)

But locating the precise route may prove difficult.

"There's really nothing left, but we know from writings that they came through Aztec," Blacik said. "Ideally, we'd like to find it, but a mule trail from the 1830s may mean it will be an interpretation."

Aztec Ruins Superintendent Larry Turk will work with the Old Spanish Trail Association and National Parks Service to find the route.

Surviving diaries document Spanish merchants traveling with pack mules along the route to sell New Mexican goods like serapes, quilts and blankets.

LeRoy Hafen's book "Old Spanish Trail" calls the merchant route "the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule trail in the history of America." According to Hafen, in 1829, a Spanish merchant named Antonio Armijo led a pack of 100 animals through present-day Aztec on the what is considered to be the first documented round trip between the Four Corners and San Bernardino, Calif.

"We have always known that the Armijo route went through Aztec or near Aztec Ruins, and the idea evolved to connect to it with the North Main Trail Project," said Attila Bality, the outdoor recreation manager for the National Park Service in New Mexico. "The Armijo was undertaken only one time, which makes it unique. If we can help the visitor better understand the cultural and historical significance of the trail's story, that would be ideal."

Part of the grant money will go toward a retracing study with the Old Spanish Trail Association. Signs and interpretive, educational information would ideally be situated along the trail that leads from the north end of North Main Avenue, across the Animas River and into the south end of the park, Bality said.

The Aztec Ruins was one of only four parks in the country that received the trails funding this year, Bality said.

"As we were thinking about the design of the North Main Trail design, we were already thinking of the Old Spanish trail along the way," he said. "The trail should be a gateway concept leading people back in time from downtown to the Ruins with a promenade -- maybe the paving surface could feature basket or weaving designs that might echo what the Spanish merchants carried."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.