If you’re driving to or from California this summer, you’re following one of the great wagon trails left by our forefathers. Consider taking a little time along the way to learn about the route and the intrepid travelers that built this nation.
Most of the California emigrants took the northern route from St. Louis to Sacramento. Imagine these emigrants crossing the Great Plains, hiking over the continental divide at South Pass in Wyoming, then circling around the alkali flats of the Great Salt Lake, on through the basin and range country of Nevada – then to face down that wall of mountains, the Sierra Nevada west of Reno.
Just think what courage and strength it took for our people to make this migration.
During the heyday of the California Trail – from 1841 to 1869 – between a quarter to a half million people took this route. It was 2,000 miles of dust and grit, and most of them walked it. Even if they had a wagon and stock to pull it, those wagons were loaded with tools and goods to make a new life in a new land. They walked, every one of those 2000 miles, crossing rivers and dry plains, through forests and canyons, a months-long journey to the promised land.
If you ever drive that route, especially in the long valleys and high desert and prairie of Nevada, you can see forever – and still, 150 years or more later, there just isn’t much of human manufacture around. It’s blue mountains and sagebrush, fence lines and dirt roads heading off in the distance as far as the eye can see. Imagine how those early settlers felt crossing this land on their own with only their wits and experience to guide them. Many died. No records were kept, but experts think at least 15,000 of us died on the journey.
Portions of the trail still exist. Marks of wagon wheels remain etched in the land, heralding the passage of these farmers and shop clerks. You can still find the bits and pieces lost along the way, the tobacco tins, broken wagon wheels, square nails and spent bullets.
Now we drive that same trail, passing in hours what took them weeks. Along that long empty freeway. there’s a great place to stop which teaches about the emigrant’s experience. In Elko, Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management has built an interpretive center with dioramas and interactive exhibits. Volunteers give live demonstrations of daily life on the trail, for both Native Americans and pioneers. There is a reconstructed Shoshone village and wagon encampment. Their website californiatrailcenter.org is also very informative.