In the early 1990s, several Grand Junction residents focused attention on the Northern Branch of the trail and its importance to the region. These Grand Junction trail enthusiasts – led by James Robb, William Chenoweth, Earl Heusser, Jack and Kathryn Nelson, and Carlos Savage had earlier developed a strategy for National Historic Trail designation. The Old Spanish Trail Recognition Act was passed unanimously by Congress in 2002, making the Old Spanish Trail the 15th nationally recognized trail.
As part of this effort, the 7-mile section of the trail near Whitewater leading to Orchard Mesa was designated a public-use trail by Mesa County, the City of Grand Junction, the Bureau of Land Management and the Riverfront Commission.
Two trailheads, one on Coffman Road, the other near 28.5 Road and U.S. Highway 50 which was donated by the City of Grand Junction, were created in 1995-1996. The BLM secured a 20’ wide easement approximately 900 feet long south of Sunlight Drive to assure public access for hikers, bicyclists and equestrian use.
In 2008, due to confusion about the existence of easements and their legal status, the local North Branch Chapter of the Old Spanish Trail Association, working with community groups, began a campaign of public awareness and historic research of the 7-mile section. A task force led by the National Park Service, Rivers – Trails & Conservation Alliance, and including representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Mesa County, the City of Grand Junction, the Grand Junction Riverfront Commission, Orchard Mesa Neighbors in Action, and other groups combined resources to provide scoping and goals for the preservation and enhancement of this area.
A significant result of the task force’s efforts have been the successful surveying and proscription of the 60-foot wide easement of the trail in his area, which was accomplished by Mesa County in early 2011. While this trail had been denoted on government and county records as a “wagon road” as early as 1880, this easement is now proscribed on land titles/deeds.
As efforts continued and granting opportunities arose for improved signage, maintenance, studies, and land acquisition, the need became evident for this section to be officially recognized.
The historic research – some of which would have been very difficult to conduct 20 years ago – has led to more general awareness of the historic value of this area. A case supporting the actual historic recognition of this 7-mile section, based on records from the 1850s (The Colorado Magazine, March 1946, “Colonel Loring’s Expedition Across Colorado in 1858, with Introduction and Notes by LeRoy R. Hafen), as well as county documentation from the 1880s, was presented to the National Park Service for consideration in March of 2011, the area was recognized by the NPS as a Retracement Route in October of that year.