In addition to highlighting notable pioneers and defining events during the westward expansion of America, California Trail history reveals how natural landmarks, like Humboldt Sink, have defined experiences for people at specific points in time. Learn more about this essential yet dreaded Nevada beacon of progress.

  1. Remnants of huts, as well as duck decoys dating back two millennia, have been found in the Sink, suggesting that humans have explored and even lived in the area for a long time.
  2. Today, many migratory birds are known to stop by the nearby Humboldt Salt Marsh, which is why the area is under heavy environmental protection.
  3. The Forty-Mile Desert next to the Sink refers to a stretch of forty miles of trail in which there continue to be extreme desert conditions with no available water.
  4. Travelers usually tried to cross this part of the trail at night, whenever possible.
  5. Many humans and their accompanying animals died in this stretch of the trip, leaving their skeletons behind.
  6. In 1850, almost one thousand graves were counted along the trail passing by the Forty-Mile Desert.

What Is Humboldt Sink?

When the bed of the Humboldt Lake in northwestern Nevada intermittently dries up, the Humboldt Sink forms—and then persists for decades at a time. Humboldt Lake is aptly named as it’s fed by the Humboldt River.

Entrance To The Forty-Mile Desert


But how much of an outlier is the Sink compared to its surroundings? The Humboldt Sink is the “cherry on top” of a very difficult part of the California Trail: the Forty-Mile Desert. During the California Trail’s 1800s heyday, over a quarter of a million emigrants traveling west through the land faced extremely challenging, dry terrain in this area.

Humboldt-SinkPart Of The Mormon Trail & Carson Trail

One of the most popular trails through the area was the Mormon Trail, also known as the Carson Trail. This trail extends from the Humboldt Sink through to the Carson River. Its namesake Kit Carson was the scout guiding mapmaker John C Fremont and his party through the area.

Through modern times, we continue to be grateful to John C Fremont and the expeditions he led throughout the land that is present-day Colorado.

Humboldt-Sink-2The Donner Party & Humboldt Sink

A notable historical incident tied to the Humboldt Sink and surrounding area involves the famous Donner-Reed Party. After loading up their wagon, this group set out from the American Midwest with California as their target destination. They encountered a long chain of mishaps that drove some of their members to cannibalism just to survive.

The rough desert terrain near the Humboldt Sink was extremely damaging to the party, killing many of its animals and causing deep divides among group members.

Learn More About The California Trail

Stop by the California Trail Interpretive Center today to learn more about the people, the events, and the natural landmarks that surrounded the California Trail. Or, contact us to find out more about upcoming events and exhibits, so you can plan your next group trip. We look forward to bring history to life for you.

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