How the California Trail Center became part of our California Trail story

This article produced in partnership with TravelNevada

Exploring the California Trail Interpretive Center

Last summer, when the dawn was just a whisper of light over the hills and the rest of San Francisco was still asleep, my buddy, Nick, and I strapped mountain bikes onto the back of the car and started the long drive to Yellowstone. The morning hush and the emptiness of the road made me feel like I was entering some other world. Even the familiar signs looked different in this early light, and I noticed some I’d never seen before, little triangles that said “California Trail Auto Tour.

I asked Nick if he thought it was a bike path and he shook his head. “Covered wagon stuff. Remember Oregon Trail? There was another one to California that went right through here. That’s where the Gold Rush came through.” The Nevada landscape was dry, dusty, and it seemed like even the plants’ thorns had thorns. I couldn’t believe it.

“Someone walked across this?”

“Whole families, man. A couple thousand miles.”

Eight hours and one whole audiobook in, it was my turn to switch into the drivers’ seat and I needed to stretch my legs. Nick pointed to a sign for some kind of roadside history thing, the California Trail Interpretive Center, saying there were some hiking trails there, and I might get some answers about that mysterious auto tour.

We pulled into a pretty full parking lot, with minivans, RVs, and even some other cars with bikes on the back. One of them had California plates and “YELLOWSTONE OR BUST” etched in the dirt on the back window. They looked like women’s bikes. I remember elbowing the perpetually single Nick in the ribs. “Maybe you’ll make a friend.”

Getting involved

The building was an awesome eco-friendly design, and when the lady at the front desk told us entrance was free, I bought a rubber band gun at the gift shop—totally because I wanted to support the Center, and not because I wanted to shoot Nick with rubber bands, because that would be immature.

I was kind of expecting it to be more geared toward kids, since there were so many families and so many hands-on activities, but even though there was a kids’ activity booklet (ok, fine, I filled it out and I’m a proud Junior Explorer now—you can look it up on Facebook), the exhibits themselves were well-written and thoughtful. It made me feel personally connected to history, to both the emigrants and the natives who had been making their homes in the desert for so many years.

As a passionate conservationist, I appreciated the emphasis on the environmental changes the mass emigration caused. I could tell that it was put together by someone who wanted to tell the whole story, no agenda. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so touched by an historical exhibit.

I tore Nick away from the palatial Lincoln log structure he was building (with oversight and direction provided by passing eight-year-olds), and we went outside to check out the wagons and stuff we’d seen from the road.

History in the making

And that was where he bumped into her, literally. He was backing up, trying to get the perfect picture of the juxtaposition between the covered wagons and the nearby Shoshone buildings, their cool, leafy structures newly re-greened with aromatic sage. I should maybe have been looking out for him instead of climbing around on the wagons, but by the time I saw the collision coming, it was too late. My best friend stumbled right into his future wife and nearly knocked her over. He never got the photo, but he doesn’t need any help remembering.

And the rest is, you know, history. Jen was there with her two friends in that Yellowstone-bound car we’d seen on the way in. The five of us walked the trails, reading signs and snapping pictures of the Humboldt River unspooling silver in the valley below us—a shimmering desert grassland where 200 years ago maybe someone else had bumped into his future wife, watering her oxen. Or whatever.

While I ducked into the gift shop to buy a postcard for my girlfriend, Sarah, Nick made plans for us to join Jen’s group in Yellowstone. I was glad to be driving the rest of the way, since between his love-struck ramblings and the auto tour guidebook the Trail Center people had given us, my buddy was way too distracted for the road.

So this year it’s a double date, plus one tiny fifth wheel: me, Sarah, Nick, Jen, and a ring that Nick entrusted to me for safekeeping “since you never lose your keys and I do.” Sarah loves history, so I’m really stoked to show her the Trail Center. I know there’s a whole bunch of stuff I probably missed, anyway. I checked their events calendar, and there’s a Dutch oven cooking lesson the day we’re going; I’m going to pick up some sweet campfire biscuit skills while Nick calms his nerves. Then Sarah and I will get our cameras ready for what may not be the first California Trail proposal, but will certainly be the one for our history books.

Good job, buddy.

Jeez, there must be something in my eye. Is it dusty in here or what?

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