California Trail

The California Trail was an emigrant trail of about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) across the western half of the North American continent from Missouri River towns to what is now the state of California. After it was established, the first half of the California Trail followed the same corridor of networked river valley trails as the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trails, namely the valleys of the Platte, North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers to Wyoming. In the present states of Wyoming, Idaho and Utah the California and Oregon trail split into several different trails or cutoffs.

By 1847, two former fur trading frontier forts marked trailheads for major alternative routes in Wyoming, Utah and Wyoming to Northern California. The first was Jim Bridger's Fort Bridger (est. 1842) in present-day Wyoming on the Green River where the Mormon Trail turned southwest over the Wasatch Mountains to the newly established Salt Lake City, Utah. From Salt Lake the Salt Lake Cutoff (est. 1848) went north and west of the Great Salt Lake and rejoined the California Trail in the City of Rocks in present day Idaho. The main Oregon and California Trails crossed the Green River (Utah) on several different ferries and trails (cutoffs) that led to or by-passed Fort Bridger and then crossed over a range of hills to the Great Basin drainage of the Bear River (Utah). Just past present-day Soda Springs, Idaho both trails initially turned northwest following the Portneuf River (Idaho) valley to the British Hudson Bay's Fort Hall (est. 1836) on the Snake River in present-day Idaho. From Fort Hall the Oregon and California trails went about 50 miles (80 km) southwest along the Snake River valley to another "parting of the ways" trail junction at the junction of the Raft and Snake Rivers. The California Trail from the junction followed the Raft River to the City of Rocks in Idaho near the present states of Nevada-Idaho-Utah border. The Salt Lake and Fort Hall routes were about the same length—about 190 miles (310 km). From the City of Rocks the trail went into the present state of Utah following the South Fork of the Junction Creek. From there the trail followed along a series of small streams like Thousand Springs Creek in the present state of Nevada till they got to near present day Wells, Nevada where they found the Humboldt River. By following the crooked, meandering Humboldt River valley west across the arid Great Basin, emigrants were able to get the water, grass, and wood needed by all travelers and their teams. The water turned increasingly alkali as they progressed down the Humboldt, there were almost no trees so "firewood" usually consisted of broken brush and the grass was sparse and dried out—few liked the Humboldt River valley passage.

  • Humboldt is not good for man nor beast…and there is not timber enough in three hundred miles of its desolate valley to make a snuff-box, or sufficient vegetation along its banks to shade a rabbit, while its waters contain the alkali to make soap for a nation.

—Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849

At the end of the Humboldt River where it disappeared into an alkali sink they had to cross the deadly Forty Mile Desert before finding either the Truckee River or Carson Rivers that led to the Carson Range and Sierra Nevada (U.S.) that were the last major obstacles before entering the California gold fields etc.

An alternative route across Nevada that bypassed both Fort Hall and the Humboldt River trails was developed in 1859. This route, the Central Overland Route, was about 280 miles (450 km) shorter and over ten days quicker. This route went through central Nevada roughly where U.S. Route 50 goes today from Carson City, Nevada to Ely, Nevada. From Ely the route is approximated today by the roads to Ibapah, Utah, Callao, Utah, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Fairfield, Utah to Salt Lake City, Utah (See: Pony Express Map) In addition to immigrants after 1859 the Pony Express, Overland stages and the First Transcontinental Telegraph all followed this route with minor deviations.

Once in western Nevada and eastern California, the pioneers worked out several paths over the rugged Carson Range mountains and Sierra Nevada (U.S.) mountains into the gold fields, settlements and cities of northern California. The main routes initially (1846-1848) being the Truckee Trail to the Sacramento Valley and after about 1849 the Carson Trail route to the American River and the Placerville, California gold digging region. Starting about 1859 the Johnson Cutoff (Placerville Route, est. 1850–51) and the Henness Pass Route (est. 1853) across the Sierras were greatly improved and developed as the main roads across the Sierras—both were toll roads to pay for maintenance and upkeep on the roads. These toll roads were also used to carry cargo west to east from California to Nevada as thousands of tons of supplies were needed by the gold and silver miners, etc. working on the Comstock Lode (1859-1888) near the present Virginia City, Nevada. The Johnson Cutoff, from Placerville, California to Carson City, Nevada along today's U.S. Route 50 in California, was used by the Pony Express (1860-1861) year round and in the summer by the stage lines (1860-1869) since it was the only overland route from the east to California that could be kept partially open for at least horse traffic in the winter.

The California Trail was heavily used from 1845 to 1869 when several rugged wagon route(s) across the Carson Range and Sierra Nevada mountains to different parts of northern California were established. After about 1848 the most popular route was the Carson Route which, while rugged, was still easier than most others and entered California in the middle of the gold fields. The trail was heavily used in the summers until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in 1869. Trail traffic then rapidly fell off as the cross-country trip was much quicker by train—only about seven days. The economy class fare of about $69.00 was affordable by most potential travelers.

The trail was used by about 2,700 settlers prior to 1849. These settlers were instrumental in helping convert California to a U.S. possession as volunteer members of John C. Fremont's California Battalion assisted the Pacific Squadron's sailors and marines in 1846 and 1847. After the discovery of gold in January 1848, word spread about the California Gold Rush. Starting in late 1848, over 250,000 businessmen, farmers, pioneers and miners passed over the California Trail to California. The traffic was so heavy that in two short years these settlers, combined with those coming by wagon from Salt Lake City, Utah to Los Angeles, California in winter, the travelers down the Gila River trail in Arizona and those traveling by sea routes around Cape Horn and the Magellan Strait or by sea and then across the Isthmus of Panama, Nicaragua or Mexico and then by sea to California had enough residents in California by 1850 (about 120,000 by corrected 1850 U.S. Census data) (See Notes:) to make it the 31st state.

The original route had many branches and cutoffs, encompassing about 5,500 miles (8,900 km) in total. About 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of the rutted traces of these trails remain in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and California as historical evidence of the great mass migration westward. Portions of the trail are now preserved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service (NPS) as the California National Historical Trail and marked by BLM, NPS and the many state organizations of the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA). Maps put out by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) show the network of rivers followed to get to California.

Read more about California TrailEstablishment, Preparation: Trail Supplies and Equipment, Sweetwater River, Early History and Maps of The California Trail, Legacy

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