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The historic Bradshaw Trail

Story by Assistant Policy Director Linda Castro

*Featured image by Maricela Rosales*

The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument holds about 52 miles of the Bradshaw Trail, a historic route that connects southern California and Arizona.

A more direct route to better opportunities


For centuries, native people traveled between the deserts in what is now Arizona and California to the Pacific coast. An important trail that connected these lands was a route that extended west from the Colorado River region, past the Mule Mountains, and through an area now known as the Chuckwalla Bench, and then east to the Dos Palmas Springs and beyond. This trail was used primarily by the Cahuilla, Halchidhoma, and Maricopa Peoples (after the Malpais and San Dieguito cultures vanished).


In the early 1800s, American explorers in search of minerals and other desirable resources, became interested in finding a new route between California and Arizona, notwithstanding the authority of the Republic of Mexico over these lands. Interest grew even stronger after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, and again with the discovery of gold near the east bank of the Colorado River in Arizona in 1862.


When gold was first discovered near La Paz, Arizona, there was only a long and expensive roundabout way to get there, so a man named William David Bradshaw and eight friends sought to find a more direct overland route.

The story behind “Chuckwalla”


Bradshaw’s group likely traveled from Los Angeles to the end of the stagecoach line which was located in San Bernardino at that time, then, through the San Gorgonio Pass and into the Salton Sink (the current location of the Salton Sea). Bradshaw would likely have failed to cross the Colorado Desert in this region, had it not been for the help of a Cahuilla leader and a member of the Maricopa Tribe, who drew a map for Bradshaw so that he could follow a route that went from spring to spring between the Salton Sink and the Colorado River. One of those springs is presently called Chuckwalla Spring. Some historians believe that the name “Chuckwalla” came from the Cahuilla word (“chu qual”) for the lizard we now call Chuckwalla.


The arrival to La Paz


Using the map drawn for Bradshaw, Bradshaw’s scouting party officially arrived at La Paz in June 1862. The portion of the route between the Salton Sink and the Colorado River soon after became known as “Bradshaw’s Route”. Bradshaw spent two years here operating a ferry that crossed the Colorado River, working and acting as a guide for parties heading to the mines.


Bradshaw died in 1864, only about two and a half years after he led his monumental scouting expedition. While there are some interesting theories surrounding his death, it’s not known how Bradshaw met his demise.


Many different stage lines ran on Bradshaw’s route from September 1862 until about 1878, including the Wells Fargo Express. Over those years, thousands of prospectors traveled on the Bradshaw Trail to the mining towns that had sprung up in the La Paz area.


As stage usage slowed in 1876, and gold-bearing ore became less and less, La Paz and other towns in the area became ghost towns. The stage stops on the route were abandoned and most have now since crumbled and are no longer visible, especially as the dirt road has been graded numerous times. Although newspapers had referred to it as “the Bradshaw Route” since 1864, the route was not officially named until the Riverside County Board of Supervisors named the road “The Bradshaw Trail” on June 25, 1974. The BLM designated the surviving part of the route in California as a National Back Country Byway in 1992.


About 52 miles of the Bradshaw Trail lie within the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument, mostly along its southern boundary across the Chuckwalla Bench. Of the original 180-mile route, about 70 miles can still be traveled today.


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