The Coronado Trail

The History of the Coronado Trail

Arizona Coronado Trail map (image)

The legend of the Seven Cities of Gold (Cibola) existed long before Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Mapmakers had actually been including their idea of where this area was for several hundred years before the Coronado expedition in 1540. The mystique was enough to excite and challenge explorers to competitively seek out the mystical Seven Cities in the New World.

After Columbus’s voyage in 1492, explorers soon settled in islands around what is now Florida, preparing for their journeys. As it happened, the Mayans and Aztecs of what is now Mexico proved to have great wealth and the Spanish found much to convince them that they were on the right track.

Coronado, funded in part by his family and part by Spain, set out on his journey to claim his riches in 1540 – 1542. It was a journey that would take him into what is now Arizona and New Mexico.

In part, Coronado relied on information from a fellow Spaniard, Fray Marcos, who claimed to have seen for himself the golden cities when he made the trek as far north as the Zuni villages near today’s Arizona-New Mexico border in 1538. With a force of 300 Spaniards and 800 Indians, Coronado traveled northward from Mexico, crossing into Arizona at what is now the town of Lochiel, AZ. It is written he traveled to some ruins in southeast Arizona (no longer in existence), where he turned northward, crossing the Gila River somewhere near Safford, between the modern towns of Duncan and Bylas.

Although we’d like to think Coronado traveled north through Arizona’s White Mountains to what is now Springerville, it may be more likely he followed the road system early native inhabitants of the area had developed, taking him on a parallel, but somewhat easier course to what is now given the name of Coronado Scenic Highway.

It is claimed Coronado’s expedition traveled as far north in Arizona as the town of St Johns, before turning toward their destination of Cibola, or, what is known today as Zuni, New Mexico.

Instead of the great city Fray Marcus had reported, Cibola turned out to be a poor village of not more than 200 inhabitants. As they would be satisfied only with immediate gold and riches, they did not recognize the potential in the fertile valley through which they passed, nor could they see the value deep in the hills—the copper, silver, and gold they so desired. Thus, the expedition was deemed a failure.

Fast forward to 1926, when the US Highway 666 (now Hwy 191), between Springerville and Morenci was completed and designated a National Scenic Byway; one of 30 in the nation. At the dedication, Governor W.P. Hunt referred to the highway as the Coronado Scenic Byway, as it approximated the path taken by Coronado not quite 400 years earlier.