At the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV, you can learn about the many different routes and paths forged over the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. The California Trail was not just a single path from the eastern United States to California.
Emigrants headed to California’s golden hills and warm beaches along several different passes, trails, and routes that were founded and used by many different travelers and mountain men.
Shared Origins – Oregon & Mormon Trails
Many different trails and paths were used to reach California. The majority of the California Trail follows the same primary route from Missouri as the Oregon and Mormon Trails. This course mainly differs in the ultimate end destination, and how people chose to conquer the intimidating (and sometimes deadly) Sierra Nevada mountains.
So Many Trails Across The Sierras
Sierra Nevada is Spanish for “snowy mountains.” This mountain range spans over 400 miles. It’s also home to the highest mountain peaks in the contiguous 48 states, with Mount Whitney rising more than 14,505 feet above sea level (4,421 meters).
Emigrants chose many different paths through these majestic mountains on their way to their California dreams.
- Lassen Trail (Now Fandango Pass)
- Beckwourth Trail
- Truckee Trail
- Carson Trail
- Henness Pass Road
- Johnson Cutoff
- Big Tree Road
- Sonora Pass Trail
- Nobles Trail
- Nevada City Road
- Auburn Emigrant Road
Navigating The Applegate-Lassen Cutoff
The Lassen Emigrant Trail, also known as the Applegate-Lassen Cutoff, and most recently as the Fandango Pass, was founded by Peter Lassen in 1848. Used primarily in the early years by Forty-Niners in search of gold in the California goldfields, this path passed through the Black Rock desert and other landmarks such as Goose Lake.
The Fandango Pass?
The current name, Fandango Pass, has origins in two different stories. One is that a group of emigrants were so happy to find grass and water that they celebrated with a fandango, a traditional dance of celebration. According to the story, they were killed by Native Americans in the midst of their celebrating.
The other story tells us that Wolverine Rangers, who frequently traveled the pass, found it so bitterly cold that they burned wagons for heat and danced the fandango to keep warm. We may never know the real truth for the name change, but it’s interesting to speculate.
The Founding Of Beckwourth Trail
In the spring of 1850, James Beckwourth founded what would become known as Beckwourth Pass. It took him one year to complete the trail, and in the summer of 1851, he led a wagon train through it for the first time, arrived in Marysville.
The cutoff for this trail began near what is now Reno, NV, and made its way west. Beckwourth eventually built a ranch in a small valley west of the pass and a trading post. The route runs along Grizzly Creek and past Buck’s Lake and the Feather River before proceeding into Marysville.
Traveling The Truckee Trail
Today, Interstate 80 runs partially along the pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains that was once known as the Truckee Trail, the Donner Pass, and Stephens Pass. Elisha Stephens forged this route through the mountains in 1844 with the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party. It was among the earliest trails to be used by overland travelers.
He followed the Truckee River, named after Chief Truckee, and his party finally arrived in California after many hardships. The ill-fated Donner party took the same route, but delays in their travels led them to a different fate when they were snowbound in the mountains for months before rescue arrived.
The Henness Pass Road
The Donner-Reed party’s tragedy caused future emigrants to avoid the treacherous path Stephens Pass (Truckee Trail). Instead, many travelers created another route over the mountains – the Henness Pass Road.
Patrick Henness founded the trail sometime around 1849 or 1850. It takes a more northern way, and travelers passed by the North and Middle Yuba Rivers. It was improved over the years to encourage more travelers and was even officially surveyed around 1855.
Henness road had other advantages, including easy trade with Sacramento and San Francisco because of the access to the Yuba Rivers. Like most overland routes, the opening of the railroad was the end of its regular use.
The Pioneering Spirit Of Emigrants
The many overland routes and trails created to traverse the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada mountains are a testament to the pioneering spirit of the emigrants of the past. They didn’t give up in the face of hardships and overwhelming odds. Instead, they carved out new paths and kept going.
Those mountains are daunting, but they were nothing compared to the courage and conviction of the people looking for gold or pursuing new dreams and opportunities in California.
Visit Us In Elko
Plan your visit to the California Trail Center today and learn more about the many routes, passes, and roads used to travel West. The Sierra Nevada mountains are an essential part of trail history, where many famous travelers faced their most significant challenges.
Currently, both individuals and small groups can explore and learn more about the Trail’s importance to American history. Contact us today to find out more about upcoming exhibits and special events as you plan your visit.