I have gold miner ancestors, and there is a good chance that my fourth great grandfather Roe was a part of the California Gold Rush. So for years I have wanted to follow the California Trail. This is another group of posts for my “Following Old Trails” series.
Between 1841 and 1869, up to a quarter of a million people sold what they could not carry in a wagon and set out for California. These settlers moved over 2,000 miles to their new homes. Most made it, but some like several of the Donner party did not. They moved seeking new land, gold, adventure, and other reasons that we’ll never know.
Most of their trail was along the more commonly traveled Oregon Trail, and they entered their California Trail cutoff from many different points along the Oregon Trail. There was no easy trail to California, and they kept trying new trails.
How hard what it to get to California? Well, the first wagon train (the Bidwell party of 39 emigrants) left their wagons near Wells, Nevada and went on to California by foot using packed livestock to get there in 1841. In 1844 the Stephens Party traveling the Truckee route abandoned their wagons near what is today Donner Lake and packed onward. In the spring they went back for the wagons and were the first emigrants to take their wagons all the way to Sutter’s Fort. And we’ve all heard what happened to the 1845 Donner Party.
According to one brochure, in the end the trail looked like a rope with frayed ends, because there so many cut-offs at each end. The Humboldt River being the rope through the high desert of today’s Nevada.
On this trail were so many places to try their souls. There were prairies, canyons, deserts, and rugged mountains. If the high deserts of the Great Basin with its sluggish, alkaline Humboldt River didn’t get them, then there was the 40-mile desert east of today’s Reno with no water. After all of this, then they had to face the steep passes of the Sierra Nevadas just as winter was coming on.
Chuck and I decided to use the more commonly used cut-off trail that led from Fort Hall in Idaho and followed the Raft River south. We entered the Raft River Valley from Interstate 86 between Twin Falls and Pocatello, Idaho.
This road on some maps is called the Raft River Road and on others the Yale Road. This is the road that most closely follows the trail. Where it pulls off the interstate is the Yale Road exit. This is where we began to follow the California Trail. We will try to follow as closely to the trail as good roads will allow.
The road and the trail here passes through eight miles of farmland, and you can see the mountain ranges in the distance ahead. It runs through a very wide valley. There are also mountain ranges on both sides. The terrain in the valley undulates.
The colors for us were the same as for the settlers. This is August, about the same time period the settlers traveled through here. The grasses are straw colored from so little rain, and there is soft grayish-green sagebrush everywhere. Walking through the sagebrush is aromatic. It is a cloudy day, and the shadows dapple the foothills in the distance.
Most of these California-bound settlers were from the confining forested lands back east, which must seem oppressive to westerners today. I’m from back east, too; and I’m always captivated by the width of the vistas out here.
I wonder if the unlimited horizons translated for the settlers into unlimited possibilities. Did it provoke optimism that held them all the way through the long and monotonous journey?
What made them do it? Word was getting out that there was a better life in California, as good or better than found in Oregon. Wagons with families began to pull off of the Oregon Trail and make their way down to California.
Sometimes, these California-bound wagons had other family members who continued on to Oregon. There was a parting of the ways. Maybe the daughter of an Oregon-bound family married a son from a California-bound family or vice versa. Which way did the new family go?
Sometimes brothers decided to go their separate ways. The Oregon bound followed the Snake River, while the California bound followed the Raft River south and west nearly to its source. Those going to Oregon went right and those going to California went left. Families had to say their goodbyes. More often than not, it was goodbye forever.
Yale Road follows the Raft River, and the emigrants had been following rivers all the way across the west to reach this point. They followed rivers because they provided water and grazing for their livestock. Upon reaching the Raft, the emigrants turned south on the west side of the river.
The emigrants reported that the trail here was bad, dusty and “not a breath of air stirring to drive off the dust cloud that hung in the air.” They would move along at about 15 miles a day, a distance that we can drive in less than 14 minutes in air conditioned comfort.
If we really wanted to do this trail like they did, then we could hike the trail. At our age, though, I’m afraid we would never finish it. 🤔
There is a series of books that I’m using to find the roads closest to the trail. It is called “A Guide to the California Trail” by R. K. Brock and D. E. Buck. It gives detailed instructions on how to follow the trail and includes trail narratives from the emigrant journals and diaries. It would be a good series to use to hike the trail.
Finally, Yale Road crossed over Interstate 84, which runs south to Salt Lake City. Just on the other side of Interstate 84 we turned to the left on State Road 81 and drove for quite a few miles until we got to a little town called Malta. There we turned right on to State Road 77. These are still the roads that most closely follow the trail.
We realized that Malta was our last place to gas up. There are no reliable gas stations between Malta, Idaho and Wells, Nevada, if we take the dirt and gravel roads that follow closest to the trail, a distance of over 230 miles. These are some of the important facts that the book gives us.
There are at least two historical markers along the California Trail on State Road 81 . Both explain what it was like for the settlers to travel through this valley. They describe why they needed to follow rivers.
Not too far down State Road 77, Idaho 77 pulls off to the right. But we did not follow It. Instead we went straight. Within a few minutes we saw a sign that said that this was indeed the California Trail. So we knew we were on the right road. I had a copy of an old California Trail map, and this is how we knew that the road should have gone straight.
For the longest time, though, we weren’t sure what road number was that we were on. That is until we passed a sign that said we’re on Idaho 77. We just aren’t sure why it had 77 pulling off to the right and going straight, too. Local signs for a Scenic Bypass tried to steer us the other way.
There is a historical marker on this road that says that this is where the Hudspeth Cut-off joined the trail. Though it wasn’t much of a shorter route, most of the 49ers used it on their way to the gold rush fields. I wonder if this is the cut-off my ancestor’s party used.
So we followed ‘this’ Idaho 77 all the way to Almo, Idaho. A sign in Almo says, “Almo, where the pavement ends and the west begins.” Just below present day Almo is where the Salt Lake Cut-Off met the California Trail. During the Gold Rush, this is where wagons joined them “from the Mormon City”, according to one emigrant’s diary.
Also below Almo is where the City of Rocks is located. This is a national reserve now.
The City of Rocks wasn’t really a city. It was simply a circular valley where the settlers’ wagons stopped to camp. There was fresh water, there were places for their livestock to graze, and there were trees for shade. The settlers called this valley Pleasant Valley, because it was a great place to stop. Several left their signatures and talked about this place in their journals.
It was also where there were rocks of every shape imaginable. One emigrant wrote, “We enter a gorge of the hills which in a short time brings us into a large ampitheatre surrounded with rock of every kind of fanciful character.”
It is also the end of the paved roads for following the California Trail. It turns to gravel at this point, and I found out from a lady at the general store in Almo that even the gravel roads run out. By the way her store is a good place to get a homemade sandwich. Also, the steakhouse restaurant in Almo is good, too.
On the west side of the trail above Wells, Nevada, the gravel roads are good and follow the trail very closely. We read this in our book. We will try these roads out later, driving some of the trail from that western side.
There is a map that shows that they crossed from Idaho to Utah to Nevada right at the three corners of these states. There are no paved roads through this area, but I did find on my google map an Old Emigrant Road, which is gravel. This turned out to be the trail itself, which we found later when we drove it from the other side.
When I first studied this route I thought that they followed Goose Creek all the way through this area. What I had wrong, though, is that Goose Creek did not flow due south next to the Utah and Nevada line. Chuck and I took Utah 30 and discovered that there was a Goose Creek that crossed that road near the state lines. We wondered if this was the route they took, so we were confused.
But that creek bed was dry. I looked at this area again on Google Earth and noticed that there is a creek bed also called Goose Creek that could be accessed through a pass just southwest of the City of Rocks. This Goose Creek looks greener, which means it may have running water. It runs southwest from past the pass, not south. You can see on Google Earth where the creek beds were. This helped clear up some of the confusion.
Using Google Earth, a Utah and Nevada road map, and my own Google map, I believe one can follow the California Trail by gravel roads, a distance of over several hundred miles. I’m just not sure if you need a 4-Wheel drive or not.
Chuck and I drove up to the City of Rocks. There were signs that showed that we were on the original trail.
We loved seeing this place. It is an amazing site, and I can only imagine what the settlers thought when they saw its grey granite forms of turrets, pyramids and domes. We drove through the rocks and stopped for many pictures. My favorite was Record Rock on which many of the settlers wrote their names in axle grease.
We followed the road on past the Twin Sisters rock formations through Pinnacle Pass and on for about a mile farther. The pass in their time was just wide enough to get a single wagon through.
Unlike the movies, the wagons didn’t follow one another in single file, instead they pulled out and moved side by side. It was less dusty this way. Of course, at passes like Pinnacle Pass, they fell into a single file again. It was too narrow to do otherwise.
By the way just on the exit side of Pinnacle Pass there is a little parking area. A hiking trail to the pass and beyond is clearly marked. On the other side of the pass you can still see the faint remains of the California Trail gradually ascending through the sagebrush into Pinnacle Pass.
It is between this pass and along the Humboldt River that the emigrants jettisoned some of their treasures such as china, heirlooms, and furniture. Though the average wagon could carry a ton, these items made the load too heavy. Supplies such as food, utensils, stoves, bedding, lanterns, axes, wagon parts, ropes, and livestock were more essential. Women made up about 30% of the travelers.
Emigrants reported seeing all kinds of these items abandoned along side the trail. One reported seeing Mormons from Salt Lake in the area gathering the items to take back to Salt Lake where there were General stores which sold these items to the passing emigrants.
Down a ways from the pass the road was getting rougher and rougher. This is not a graded or gravel road, so we turned around. We had the wrong car for this type of terrain.
For us to follow the California Trail farther today, we need better roads or a four wheel drive and more time. It is already 6 pm, too late for over 200 miles of this and gravel. We backtracked all the way to Malta, Idaho, a distance of 24 miles.
Once we got back to Malta, we turned right off of 77, where Idaho 77 continues north. Then we traveled south on a paved two-landed road that had no sign but showed up on my GPS.
This is beautiful country. We are still in the Raft River valley but going south. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides. This road we are driving goes all the way south where it turns onto Utah 30.
The terrain was at first fairly flat with the same straw colored grass lands and grayish green sagebrush. Just after we crossed over the Utah state line, though, the terrain changed to more hills and green cedars amongst the grasses and sage.
We are no longer following the California Trail as closely, but we are traveling parallel to it at a good distance. The trail is to our northwest.
The California Trail turned southwest, too; and we did, too. The trail is on the other side of the Sawtooth National Forest and a narrow mountain range.
The terrain continues to change. We continued to drive through grasses with less sage and no cedars. There was no traffic. The road ran straight as a board.
Then, it climbed and made a right turn. To our left we could see a vast white area in the distance. Its end disappears over the horizon. On the map it shows that we are about ten miles north of the Great Salt Lake. There is nothing but flat land between us and the lake.
We know that most of the wagon trains did not take this route because they continued to follow water. The road we’re own just shoots straight across dry desert-looking lands.
Back on the California Trail, the Raft River stopped at its headwaters in the Goose Creek Mountains; but Goose Creek provided another stream for the wagon trains to follow with water and grazing lands. So that is why they are using the land next to Goose Creek that runs north to the south and west through the Goose Creek Mountains.
This is interesting country. There are towns on these gravel roads that pull off Utah 30. We could see one in the distance just north of the Great Salt Lake. There is also another one on the gravel road that follows Goose Creek. We can see it on a map.
As we approached the Nevada state line, we see the Newfoundland Evaporation Basin on our left and tall mountains straight ahead. This basin is man-made and designed to capture excess water from the Great Salt Lake.
We crossed Goose Creek about a mile west of the Goose Creek Rd, a gravel road. It is dry as toast. This is what confused us, because I thought it showed Goose Creek on the map going no where near this road. I have no service or I would recheck Google Earth and other maps. You can see that I was still confused about where the trail went.
We’re traveling through this area around the first of August, and the settlers traveled through here around the end of August or first of September. I’m wondering if they got any more rain than we’re getting right now. It hasn’t rained a drop on us in several days. This place is dry and hot.
Just after the creek we crossed over into Nevada. The mountains are all around us in the distance and beautiful. The road is now Nevada 233.
We finally got on Interstate 80 going west and got back off in a town called Wells. We stopped at a fairly good little restaurant called Bella’s in Wells, Nevada just off the interstate. Since it was called Bella’s I ordered the spaghetti. Chuck ordered baked chicken. Mine was great, but he said his was average. My advice is to order the Italian entrees at Bella’s.
After the settlers left the City of Rocks in Idaho and quickly crossed a small part of what is today the Utah/Nevada state line, they followed various streams south west for several hundred miles until they got to Wells, which was an area of natural water wells.
The Humboldt River’s main stream begins from one of these wells. A well around here is what we call a spring back east. I guess if this were back east, then Wells would be called Springs.