Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the difference between the California Trail and the Oregon Trail?
  2. How many miles long is the California Trail?
  3. How long did the journey take?
  4. How many miles would a typical wagon train travel per day?
  5. Why did they leave?
  6. When did they leave?
  7. Why are they called emigrants?
  8. What years did people travel on the California Trail?
  9. Where did they arrive in California?
  10. What does an elephant have to do with the California Trail?
  11. Can you still see the California Trail?

What is the difference between the California and Oregon Trail?
The California and Oregon Trails follow the same route until Idaho, where they diverge, the California Trail heading to California and the Oregon Trail turning north to Oregon.

How many miles is the California Trail?
The length of the Trail depended where emigrants started, finished, and which cutoffs they traveled on. Typically, the Trail was 2000 miles long.

How long did the journey take?
Between 3 and 6 months

How many miles would a typical wagon train travel per day?
Wagons traveled between 10 and 20 miles per day, depending on weather, terrain, and other factors. Some wagon trains did not travel on Sunday while others did.

Why did they leave?
People decided to make the journey West for a variety of reasons. Many left to find new opportunities after an economic depression in the late 1830s. After gold was discovered in California, many went to seek their fortune. Some heard that California had a healthier climate and went to leave diseases back east. Still others came for religious freedom, for an adventure or because they believed Americans should occupy they country coast to coast. This was called manifest destiny.

When did they leave?
Emigrants typically left in mid-April, early May. If they left earlier, there would not be enough grass on the prairie to feed their draft animals. If they left later, snow would have made crossing the Sierra Nevada impossible.

Why are they called emigrants?
An emigrant is a person who leaves their country to move elsewhere. In 1841, the western edge of the American Frontier was along the Missouri River. Land west of this was unorganized Indian Territory or Mexico. So when the emigrants “jumped off”, they were leaving the United States and moving to a new country.

What years did people travel on the California Trail?
The first group to travel overland to California as a wagon train was the Bidwell- Bartleson group in 1841. The trail lost popularity in 1869 with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which made the trip more affordable and quicker.

Where did they arrive in California?
The end of the Trail has been described as taking on a frayed rope appearance. There was not one destination in California; once emigrants crossed over the Sierra Nevada, they dispersed often to the nearest gold strike.

What does an elephant have to do with the California Trail?
“Seeing the Elephant,” is an expression found in the journals of many overland emigrants. It was used to describe the Trail and the West to others. The trail’s landscapes and hardships are so extreme that a person cannot merely describe it, like describing an elephant, they had to see it to believe it. Later, this expression also came to describe the fear of the unknown that many emigrants encountered along the trail. It makes sense that such a huge, strange beast came to symbolize the California Trail: an experience that could not be described with words alone.

Can you still see the California Trail?
Yes! The California Trail is still visible on your Public Lands. For more information on how to visit the California Trail, visit http://emigranttrailswest.org/ for more information.