What landmarks did the pioneers see as they traveled the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, UT? Learn more about the forts, the landscapes, the resting, and the camping points that acted as a helpmeet or a stumbling block for this group of religious freedom seekers. At the California Trail Interpretive Center, we work to bring history to life – including stories of the groups that struggled and strove to settle the west.
Brigham Young’s Optimistic Plan
After the death of their leader Joseph Smith, in the summer of 1844, about 14,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints traveled from Illinois to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young. He expected the journey to take between 4 to 6 weeks.
The actual trek west took more than three months and included a wide variety of hurdles for each company of travelers, whether they walked, rode on covered wagons, or carried the bare essentials on handcarts.
- Nauvoo, Illinois – The former headquarters of the LDS church and starting point of the Mormon Trail.
Iowa – A Trek From River To River
In Iowa, the emigrant trail west extended from crossing points on the Missouri River to outposts on the Mississippi River. This portion of the trail was traveled from 1846 until the extension of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s.
- Sugar Creek – the staging area and first Mississippi river crossing point for westward travels across Iowa.
- Richardson’s Point – a wooded area and site of some of the first human and cattle deaths of the “Camp of Israel” pioneers due to cold weather, wet clothes, and roads too muddy to travel.
- Chariton River Crossing – here they started using a military-style traveling order – groups of 100, each with a captain.
- Locust Creek – famous Mormon Trail hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” is composed by William Clayton.
- Garden Grove – the first Latter-day Saint semi-permanent settlement on the trail. Established to supply food and water to the parties to come.
- Grand Encampment – the first LDS emigrant companies camped at Mosquito Queek on June 13, 1846. The Mormon Battalion departed from this location to fight in the Mexican–American War.
- Kanesville – a settlement and outfitting point on the Missouri River.
Wintering In Nebraska
Instead of crossing Nebraska quickly, LDS pioneers ended up having to stay and build encampments to make it through the winter. This state was the home of many tragic sites as well as incredibly welcome landmarks for travelers heading west.
- Winter Quarters – a settlement for the winter along both sides of the Missouri River. Scurvy, consumption, chills, and fever resulted in 359 deaths between September 1846 and May 1848.
- Platte River – the Great Platte River Road was a heavily traveled path along the Platte making available feed scarce and the chances of disease deadly.
- Loup Fork – an early and very difficult Platte River crossing point.
- Fort Kearny – named after Stephen Watts Kearny, an important resting point, way station, and resupply area for travelers west.
- Ash Hollow – a major spring-fed stopover for emigrants traveling the Mormon, Oregon, and California Trails.
- Chimney Rock – one of the most significant landmarks on the Mormon Trail, sketched or described in many historical diaries from this time.
- Scotts Bluff – named from Hiram Scott of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Former gravesite of Latter-Day Saint cholera victim, Rebecca Winters.
Forts & Devils In Wyoming
In the state of Wyoming, Latter-Day Saints were able to earn money for the road to come through multiple commercial ferry points. Members of the Martin Handcart Company and Willie Handcart Company both faced deathly exposure to the same blizzard, one in Red Butte and the other in Rocky Ridge before rescue teams could come to their aid along this stretch of the trail.
- Fort Laramie – an important resting and restocking outpost.
- Mormon Ferry – Latter-day Saints ran a commercial ferry at this last crossing point of the Platte River for those traveling along the Mormon Trail. Site of the freezing Martin Handcart Company river fording that resulted in their exposure and eventually, their deaths.
- Red Butte – one of the most tragic sites of pioneers traveling the Mormon Trail. Fifty-six members of the Martin Handcart Company died after extended exposure to the snow.
- Sweetwater River – the Mormon Tail crossed this river nine times between Independence Rock and South Pass.
- Independence Rock – a highly anticipated landmark of progress, where emigrants often
- Devil’s Gate – the location of a small fort where the rescued Martin Handcart Company left unnecessary items in order to make more room for weaker members to ride. Nineteen men camped here over the winter to protect the property left behind.
- Martin’s Cove – a campsite of the beleaguered Martin Handcart Company, where a blizzard kept them trapped for 5 days.
- Rocky Ridge – a 5 mile, 18-hour snowy bypass of the Sweetwater River and campsite of the Willie Handcart Company. They became halted by the same blizzard just as they were running out of food and supplies.
- Rock Creek – site of 13 Willie Handcart Company emigrants deaths after the trek up Rocky Ridge.
- South Pass – marked the reaching of the Continental Divide and the end of the crossing of the Rockies.
- Green River – another Latter-Day Saint operated a commercial ferry, Lombard Ferry, was located here.
- Ft. Bridger – founded by mountain man Jim Bridger. Where the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail separated into three different paths. Purchased by the LDS Church in 1857.
- The Needles – a welcome rock formation, marking arrival to the Utah–Wyoming border where Brigham Young may have come down with Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The Last Push, In The Footstep Of The Donner Party
As the Latter Day Saints overcame both the last canyon crossings and highest elevations of their westward crossing, they decide to follow in the footsteps of the Donner-Reed party through Emigrant Canyon. Their Utah journey ended in success thanks to the decisions to send advanced parties to hack their way through and stick close to the Valley floor.
- Echo Canyon – deep, narrow, and one of the last canyon crossings along the trail.
- Big Mountain – the highest point on the Mormon Trail.
- Emigration Canyon – this crossing was originally attempted by the Donner-Reed Wagon party, ending in a 3-month trek and tragedy. The Latter-Day Saint’s cut the path down to just four hours by staying close to the valley floor.
- Salt Lake Valley – the final settling point and end of the Mormon Trail for LDS pioneers.
Trails & Trials – Explore More In Elko, NV
A look through the diaries and other recorded stories of Latter Saints pioneers uncovers many distinctive points of both trouble and relief along the Mormon Trail west to Salt Lake City. We invite you to visit us at the California Trail Center in Elko, NV, to experience exhibits and encampment that bring these landmarks to life for family history groups, school classes, and geography enthusiasts alike. Contact us today to learn more about current events and available accommodations for your party or group.