South Pass, Wyoming, has been described by the National Parks Service as perhaps the most important landform along the emigrant trails. At The California Trail Interpretive Center, we invite you to learn more about this natural and historical landmark and what made it so essential to early American pioneers.

What Is South Pass?

Today, South Pass lies at an elevation of about 7400 feet off Wyoming Highway 28. Before being discovered by American explorers, it was used by native peoples for over 10,000 years to travel from the Wind River Range over the Oregon Buttes and to the Great Divide Basin. It crosses the Sweetwater River.

A Pioneer Trail Landmark

Thanks to its large width—20 miles—and gradual incline, pioneers used this mountain pass to cross the Rockies with handcarts and wagons. They also used it as a landmark marking the end of the Continental Divide and a marker of the halfway point along the Oregon Trail. They usually started the crossing at Independence Rock and ended at Pacific Springs.

Notable Paths That Made Use Of South Pass

  • California National Historic Trail
  • Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
  • Oregon National Historic Trail
  • The Pony Express
  • The Overland Stage
  • The First Transcontinental Telegraph Line

South Pass History – The 1812 Discovery

In 1812, six members of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, accompanied by Robert Stuart, learned of the South Pass from a Shoshone scout. They were trying to travel from Astoria, Oregon, to St. Louis, Missouri, without crossing paths with Crow warriors known to inhabit territories further north. In his diary, Stuart described this trail as “a handsome low gap.” Stuart’s discovery was reported on in 1813 but was quickly forgotten in the confusion brought by the War of 1812.

Rediscovering The Rocky Mountain Pass – Fur Trappers & Wagon Trains

The pass had to be rediscovered before it was widely used. Jedediah Smith’s party from William Henry Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company stumbled over it in 1824. They were followed in 1832 by Benjamin Bonneville and Joseph R. Walkers’s caravan of 20 wagons, creating a wagon trail for others to follow. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party became the first wagon train to cross South Pass in 1841 as they followed the California Trail.

Scientific Curiosity Sparks More Exploration

John C. Fremont, an explorer who would go on to be one of the first senators for California, led a US Army survey team across the pass in 1842. His and his wife’s reports on what his expeditions found would prove very popular all across the country. In that first expedition, they were able to determine the elevation with only a little error.

“up a very gentle ascent to the SOUTH PASS OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, or the dividing ridge separating the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific. The ascent to the Pass is so gradual, that but for our geographical knowledge… we should not have been conscious that we had ascended to, and were standing upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains-the backbone… of the North American Continent.” – Edwin Bryant, 1846

A Passageway To The West & The California Gold Rush

South Pass California Trail travelers weren’t the last to use this west mountain passageway. Oregon and Mormon Trail pioneers also used the trail to Fort Bridger or Fort Hall. It was often called the “parting of ways” as groups who had traveled together for the last 4 to 4 months split off towards California, Oregon, or Salt Lake City.

From 1867 to 1870, hopeful miners and 49ers traveled through the Rockies towards Sutter Creek and established South Pass City and Atlantic City.

Discover The People & Landmarks Of The Early American West

Learn more about landmarks like the South Pass and the people who traveled it at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV. We bring the American Westward Expansion to life through exhibits, activities, and events for the whole family. We invite you to visit or contact us today to get the latest information on upcoming goings-on at the Interpretive Center.

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