Anza Trail Map

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

Written by Krystal Ayala

As we pause and take a break from our daily lives—school, work, family―it seems virtually impossible to fathom that our communities did not exist once. The trademark Victorian homes lined up in a row, and the Golden Gate Bridge that make San Francisco our home would not have existed when we looked out at the landscape.
It is no secret that the U.S is a melting pot―a country built by immigrants—so it is no surprise that our very own beloved San Francisco was first discovered in the late 18th century by Spanish settlers. Most of the first settlers to arrive to the Bay Area did so as a part of Spanish exploration initiatives with the goal of expanding the realms of the Spanish empire. Like the histories of so many other countries, however, the development of our communities is a set of much more complex relationships than “divide and conquer." The establishment of San Francisco has a multifarious history that transgresses the borders of two neighboring countries, and intersects more lives and stories than we can barely comprehend.

The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, managed by the National Park Service, was established by Congress in 1990 to commemorate a 1,200 mile portion of the route used by some of the first settlers to arrive to the Bay Area. The trail traces the route of the 1775-1776 Anza expedition in the U.S. from Nogales, Arizona to San Francisco.

The expedition that came to establish San Francisco began with the recruitment of volunteers in Northern Mexico, Sonora and Culiacán in September of 1775 by Juan Bautista de Anza. Most of the volunteers were lower class families willing to give up their lives in Mexico in search of land and wealth, sometimes not guaranteed by the Spanish expedition leaders. With little to carry except food and clothing, the colonists gathered their families, cattle, and horses, then set off on a more than 1,600 mile trip led by Juan Bautista de Anza, accompanied by Franciscan priest Pedro Font and Lieutenant Moraga. Thirty families of 240 people total, mostly children, departed on October 23, 1775 from the Tubac Presidio in Arizona.

The group encountered harsh conditions crossing the Sonoran desert from Arizona to Southern California, experiencing some of the worst circumstances during their trip, including powerful gusts of winds and extreme temperatures. After crossing what seemed like an eternal path of ruthless weather, desert mountains, and with the gracious help of natives (Pima and Chumash, who provided them with food, shelter; and A Quechan who helped the colonizers cross the Colorado River), the caravan arrived at the already inhabited San Gabriel. After a few days of rest, they then travelled over seventy miles before reaching the coast of California. On the road ahead there was no longer a dry and arid desert ecosystem, but beautiful ocean cliffs, vast green hills, and fertile lands covered with flowers and vegetation. The colonists travelled past San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey before ultimately making it to San Francisco Bay. Upon reaching a bluff that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, Anza selected the area as the official site for the new colony. Fast forward over 200 years, and the site that Anza declared in 1776 has now been transformed from sand dunes and a small Presidio into the iconic city we all know and love, San Francisco.

As students, workers, and residents of San Francisco, the history of the establishment of our city is an important account to remember, particularly because it highlights the weaving of two international communities as integral and key components in the development of our home, something that perhaps we have been too quick to forget.

In order to maintain the stories of those who embarked on this brave expedition, The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and California Historical Society have partnered up to develop a project that spreads the knowledge of the history of the Anza Trail to youth in Mexico and San Francisco. The Anza trail serves as the geographical link that connects two communities, and through the use of a pen-pal program, both organizations promote a sense of awareness and social consciousness to youth, as well as fostering relationships with another community, as the first settlers did when they travelled to unknown lands.

For more information on the Anza Trail, visit

To learn more about California history and gallery hours, visit the California Historical Society,