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Crossing the Sierra on the Emigrant Trail
This challenging two- or three-day hike crosses the Sierra Nevada from east to west. It passes through some of the most breathtaking parts of these majestic mountains, traveling along the trail of the Pony Express and in the footsteps of adventurers who once sought fortune in the gold rush of the mid-1800s. Each day ends at a beautiful mountain resort. Take an extra rest day or two, and enjoy good food, peaceful settings, and a relaxing sauna. The hike crosses Carson Pass and West Pass. The longest day is 19 miles. The first two days will make a lovely walkabout. Day 3 is especially challenging and should be attempted only by experienced hikers. The mountain trail is poorly maintained and may require some cross-country hiking. The trek is perhaps made easier knowing that earlier travelers on this route were hauling all their worldly possessions over the passes by wagon. Walk back into history and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- DAY 1: Grover Hot Springs to Hope Valley: 10.5 miles
- DAY 2: Hope Valley to Caples Lake: 19.1 miles
- DAY 3: Caples Lake to Silver Lake: 12.0 miles
- TOTAL MILEAGE: 41.6
GOLD WAS DISCOVERED IN CALIFORNIA in January 1848, and word of unbelievable riches spread around the world. Sam Brannan, who ran a general store at Sutter’s Fort, was one of the first to learn of the discovery. Thinking that selling supplies to prospectors would be easier and more profitable than mining, he traveled to San Francisco and paraded through the streets waving his hat and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.” San Francisco emptied overnight, and the word spread.
Treasure seekers from South America, Australia, and China poured in by sea. Entire crews abandoned ship after passing through the Golden Gate, and San Francisco’s harbor filled with empty ships, creating what looked like a “forest of masts.” Word of the discovery reached Washington, D.C., in November 1848, and President James Polk, wishing to solidify America’s new claim on California, announced the discovery to the nation. The American gold rush was on.
Thousands came by sea, calling themselves Argonauts after Jason and his crew, who sought the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology. Sailing around South America required five to six months, and many perished in the treacherous storms off Cape Horn. Others sailed to the Central American Isthmus, crossed it by land, and picked up another ship on the Pacific shore. Scores succumbed to yellow fever, cholera, and typhoid while slogging over swampy jungle trails.
However, because traveling by sea cost a princely sumbetween $200 and $500 (about $6,500–$16,300 in today’s dollars)most chose the overland route. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, published in 1845, set the price of the latter at $50–$60.
Seeking fortune and adventure, they came to St. Louis and traveled for six months by horse, by oxcart, and on foot on the Oregon Trail over the plains along the Platte River before reaching Fort Laramie and the breathtaking scenery of the Rockies. Most left the Oregon Trail north of the Great Salt Lake at Sublette’s Cutoff and made their way to the headwaters of the Humboldt River, to follow its meandering and heartbreaking course through Nevada and the Great Basin.
The Humboldt starts out with freshwater and rich pastures, but unlike most rivers that grow as they travel downstream, it disappears into the desert sands, turning into stagnant pools and alkaline plains before finally expiring in the Humboldt Sink. The last 150 miles of the river trail were littered with carcasses of cattle and oxen, discarded furniture, and abandoned wagons. Finally the pioneers crossed the Carson Desert and followed the Carson River into the Sierra Nevada. This route became known as the Emigrant Trail.
Despite higher passes and deeper snow than anything encountered in the Rockies, 20,000 adventurers crossed this route in 1849. Up to 50,000 a year followed from 1850 to 1852 before other routes drew travelers away.
On a crisp autumn day, my friend Scott and I set out to cross the Sierra on the trail of these early pioneers. A 41-mile ramble, this hike starts at Grover Hot Springs in the eastern Sierra, climbs out of Hot Springs Valley, and descends into Hope Valley. Then after crossing Carson Pass, it drops to Caples Lake, climbs over West Pass, and ends deep in the western Sierra at Silver Lake. The route crisscrosses the Emigrant Trail and for stretches follows the footsteps of the pioneers. Along the way, you’ll visit some of the most charming resorts and beautiful country in the Sierra.
Day 1: Grover Hot Springs to Hope Valley
GROVER HOT SPRINGS STATE PARK is just west of Markleeville. You can start the journey with a hot soak and a cold plunge in the pools. Our trail begins at the northwest corner of the park’s campground, skirting the broad, lush meadows of Hot Springs Valley (5,900'). Ascending the north face of the valley, the trail passes through forests of white fir, sweet fragrant Jeffrey pine, and red cedar. After the trail climbs gradually for 2 miles, the last mile of the 1,500-foot ascent is steep. Ancient, stately junipers with deep-red bark and dense, blue berries cling to granite cliffs.
From the crest, the view opens to the east, following the pastoral meadows of Hot Springs Valley down to the deep cut of the Carson River. Forested mountains tower above the valley. Farther east the forests thin, replaced by the desert sagebrush mountains of Nevada and the Great Basin.
We made this trek in mid-September, after the summer crowds, and, we hoped, before the winter snows. The 0.5-mile walk from the crest down to Burnside Lake (8,143') passed through meadows of grasses fading to brown, and skunk cabbage already saffron yellow and bent over, waiting to be blanketed in snow. The aspens at this elevation, higher than 8,000 feet, were starting to turn gold.
Burnside Lake rests in a high Sierra basin. Tall grasses grace most of its shoreline, but there are spots for a picnic and a swim in the clear waters. A dirt road descends a rolling 6 miles to Hope Valley. Sensible travelers will take this route and enjoy a 10.5-mile day of hiking. But not us. We spotted an interesting-looking trail on the map that wound through the mountains above the valley and promised to take us right to our destination, Sorensen’s Resort. After wandering for 4 miles, our trail sputtered out in the forest, and we had to turn back. Our 7:30 dinner reservation slipped by, and we walked the final miles with the glow of the Milky Way lighting our path.
As we staggered into Sorensen’s at 9 p.m., the restaurant had just closed. Our host, after hearing of our 18-mile adventure, offered only sympathy, so we dined on crackers, Brie, and salami. Scott took a long draw on his Lagunitas IPA and said, “This is the best beer I have ever had.” I could not argue.
Sorensen’s Resort (7,000') lies at the east end of Hope Valley. Sitting right on top of the Emigrant Trail, it nestles in an aspen grove across the highway from the West Fork of the Carson River. Cabins with fireplaces, kitchens, and comfortable beds, plus a sauna and a fine restaurant, mean a sojourner can rest in comfort.
The Emigrant Trail was blazed and the valley named not by gold seekers traveling west but by a Mormon party heading east to the Salt Lake basin. In 1846 the Mormons traveled west to flee the persecution that plagued them in Illinois and Missouri. Brigham Young accepted a request from President James Polk to form a battalion that would travel to California to fight in the war with Mexico, and 500 men and 90 women set out on the Santa Fe Trail to San Diego.
They arrived a month after the war ended and were discharged in July 1847 at the sleepy pueblo of Los Angeles. Some headed to Yerba Buena (San Francisco’s earlier name), and others traveled north through the Central Valley. Eighty of these men found work with Sutter’s Fort at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. Six joined James Marshall and traveled 45 miles up Rio de los Americanos to build a sawmill in a beautiful valley that local Indians called Coloma. Marshall discovered gold in January 1848, and the history of California and America changed forever.
Orders came from Brigham Young for the Mormons in California to join the other saints in Salt Lake Valley, and on July 3, 1848, 1 woman, 45 men, 150 oxen, 150 horses and mules, and 17 wagons set out. Following trails that Indian traders used for perhaps 10,000 years, they forged a new wagon route across the Sierra. Crossing two great passes, West Pass at 9,550 feet and Carson Pass at 8,576 feet, they arrived in a serene valley. Henry William Bigler, a member of the first Mormon party, wrote in his journal: “July 29, Moved across about one mile and half and camped at what we called Hope Valley, as we now began to have hope.”
Continuing east down the Carson River and turning northwest, they found the Truckee River. Meeting a group of 18 wagons heading for the gold country, the Mormons drew a map of the new route. Others followed: first a trickle of fortune hunters, then a flood. In California: A Trip Across the Plains, in the Spring of 1850, James Abby wrote of the exhilaration his party felt when they reached Hope Valley after the long journey across the country:
Here for the first time on our route the picture of the mountain scenery is fully realized; the mountains close in upon us on every side, and raise their lofty peaks high toward heaven....
Table of ContentsPraise for the First Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
1. The Marin Coast: Marin Headlands to Point Reyes
2. Crossing the Sierra on the Emigrant Trail
3. The Mendocino Coast
4. Sierra Nevada Foothills Along the American River: Auburn to Sacramento
5. Exploring Point Reyes National Seashore
6. Exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park
7. Walkabout the Monterey Bay
8. San Francisco to Half Moon Bay
9. Hiking the Tahoe Basin: Donner Pass to Lake Tahoe
10. Walkabout Carquinez Strait
11. The Lost Coast
12. Circumtambulation: A Pilgrimage Around Mount Tamalpais
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