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OST Highlights: Arizona

Between New Mexico and California, the Old Spanish Trail traverses a diverse geography, contrasting long stretches of stark Sonoran desert scenery with slow crawls through each of Arizona’s five largest cities. Despite the predominantly desert landscape, the OST in Arizona boasts an impressive collection of historic highway bridges.

The OST begins in the east on a scenic section of road passing through low volcanic hills with the majestic Chiricahua Mountains looming to the west. Bisbee, a rejuvenated mining town, provides memorable accommodations with its grand old Copper Queen Hotel and the nearby Shady Dell RV Park, offering lodging in a campy collection of restored Airstream and Spartan travel trailers. Both Tucson and Phoenix have plenty of vintage roadside architecture in the form of relic motels, gas stations and gaudy neon signs lining old US 80.

Beyond Phoenix, the OST follows the curve of the Gila River through the Salt River Valley, where irrigation has turned the harsh desert into fields of cotton and deep green alfalfa. Yuma, a sprawling city, doubles in size every winter with snowbirds arriving in search of warmer weather and inexpensive prescription drugs across the border. Unlike the states to the east, Arizona never became an Old Spanish Trail booster. Evidence of the OST name is confined to a decaying motel in Tucson and the ersatz named section of the road east of the same city.

Gadsden Hotel and Grand Theatre, Douglas. Hailed by the Old Spanish Trail Association as “a thoroly modern city,” this border town boasts two landmark buildings along G Avenue, its historic main thoroughfare. The Gadsden Hotel, constructed in 1907, features a grand lobby with a white Italian marble staircase and large marble columns topped with gold leaf capitals. At the mezzanine is a 42-foot-long Tiffany art glass mural depicting a desert scene. Original neon over the hotel’s bar — the Saddle & Spur — lends to the atmosphere. The hotel became the hangout for Hollywood elite during the filming of “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.” Across the street is the Grand Theatre. When opened in 1919, it was claimed to be the “largest movie theatre between Los Angeles and Texas,” and hosted the likes of Ginger Rogers and John Philip Sousa. The theater struggled during the Depression, and finally closed its doors in 1958. In 1980, a group of prominent Douglas citizens purchased the theater for $1.00, and plan to restore it to its former glory.

Marsh Station Road/Cienega Creek Bridge. Leaving Benson, one is forced to take Interstate 8 west. But don’t despair, ahead lies one of the best sections of the Old Spanish Trail/US 80 in Arizona. Exit at Marsh Station Road (Ex. 289) to experience an up-and-down roller coaster ride along a vintage two-lane highway. (Watch out, there are no shoulders.)

The highlight of the road is the spectacular Cienega Creek Bridge. Constructed in 1921, the three-hinged, open-spandrel concrete arch bridge soars above tiny Cienega Creek, and at its south end gives passage to the Southern Pacific Railroad. Stopping on the northwest embankment provides an interesting photo opportunity. Every 20 minutes or so the approaching train appears as if it is going to smash into the bridge. Fortunately, this has never happened, but the bridge did lose its original decorative railing due to safety codes several years ago.

Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge, Yuma. Constructed in 1915 as a joint effort between the Office of Indian Affairs and the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico to promote traffic along the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, the bridge became the only highway span over the Colorado River for 1,200 miles. Because of the often unpredictable behavior of the Colorado River, the bridge was erected without a center pier; instead the builders slid the deck on a barge to meet the embankment on the California side. Briefly during the 1930s, California erected a checkpoint on the west side to prevent jobless Oakies and Arkies from entering the state. The venerable bridge carried transcontinental traffic until 1988, when it was deemed structurally unsound and restricted to foot traffic. More recently it received a $2 million dollar upgrade, and reopened in 2002 to limited one-way traffic. The “Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Yuma” sign was restored and now illuminates with a gentle white light every night at dusk.


Drive the OST is developing narrative travelogs for each state; please see the State Travelogs section for more information.