If you’ve never visited us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, you might be asking yourself, “What is the California Trail?” Many people have heard of the Oregon Trail, but the California Trail also spanned across the western United States and brought travelers face-to-face with their destinies – some ending in good fortune, and others ending in tragedy.

Dreaming of a Better Life

So, where is the California Trail? And where did the California Trail start? Open from 1841 to 1869, the California Trail brought emigrants from many locations in the East. Starting points varied, but most began somewhere along the Missouri River and ran parallel with the Oregon Trail, heading west. Eventually, the California Trail split off from the Oregon Trail and headed south to the numerous paths and “shortcuts” over the Sierra Nevada mountains and into California. One such cutoff led to the tragic events of the infamous Donner party.

How Long Was The California Trail?

There is no exact way to tell how long the California Trail was because each starting point was different. Historians place it close to 2,000 miles. Dangers such as disease, skirmishes with Native Americans awaited those who were brave enough to take the long journey.

The Search for Gold

Between the discovery of gold in 1848 and 1850, an estimated 75,000 people traveled the California Trail in search of their fortunes. Those numbers eclipsed all the previous years combined! However, word quickly spread about the difficulty of navigating the trail and eventually, the numbers dwindled. When the transcontinental railroad opened in 1869, the trail fell out of use completely.

Something for Everyone

Who were the people who traveled the California Trail? In the beginning, most of the emigrants were farmers, hoping to improve their families fortunes in the fertile soil of the western United States. But the discovery of gold would lead to a flood of western migration. Some of these travelers included:

  • Fur trappers – these mountain men had been in the hills for years, and some served as guides
  • Farmers – stories had spread about the fertile land of California
  • Prospectors – the gold rush had many Americans dreaming of prospecting their fortunes
  • Merchants – these wise businessmen and women saw opportunities in the growing communities of the West
  • Families – whether looking for land or a fresh start, many families with young children traveled the trail

Visit Today

Curious about other California Trail facts? Join us at the California Trail Interpretive Center and discover the stories, tall tales, and legends surrounding the legendary trail. Sit in a pioneer wagon, learn about the culture of the Native American tribes along the trail, or discover why the trail was frequently called “The Elephant.” If you need help to plan your visit or want to bring a group, contact us by phone or email; we would be delighted to assist you.

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