I think a lot about wagon wheels. Since I spend a lot of time traversing the landscape on foot, I am keenly aware of how flat it isn’t. Even the desert, which one imagines to be flat, can be mountainous, rocky, sandy, and at the very least undulating and maze-like with shrubbery and waterway slots. It is astonishing that the early American emigrants made any progress across the landscape with loaded ox wagons. It seems an impossible trial in the best of conditions, but then they had to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some passes, like The Emigrant Trail, were so crude and treacherous they were abandoned almost as soon as they were discovered.
The Emigrant Trail was blazed in the 1850’s by people trying to reach the Mother Lode of gold in Sonora and Columbia, California from the east. It was called the “West-Walker Sonora Road”. Those who discovered it had a fantasy of making it the preeminent overland trail and railway to the southern mines, but when it was scouted for that purpose by The Atlantic & Pacific Company, Major John Ebbets declared, “This route is the worst that could be…I advise no emigrant to take it.”
For a wagon to traverse the pass, wagons had to be lowered on ropes and ravines were filled with boulders in attempt to flatten the trail. In 1853, 593 wagons used the West-Walker Sonora Rd, but despite efforts by Sonora residents to promote the route to their city, it was abandoned by 1854 in favor of a more viable pass
Now there is an excellent road over Sonora Pass and the Emigrant Trail remains what it always was, a narrow mountaintop footpath on tilted glacier carved granite. It is said that near a landmark called Burst Rock it is possible to look over the cliff and see remnants of wagons that were lost in the attempt to cross the pass. I did not see them, but I don’t claim to be a patient detective. I’m more like Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon, a cursory glance in each direction then, “OK, let’s go.”
What I love on this trail are the many, many tarns (small mountaintop lakes) where one can camp and fish, or just sit and contemplate the strange erosion and tundra flora on their shores. For this lowlander, to sit atop a mountain, watching ducks float across a tarn, with a view of Yosemite National Park on the low southern horizon is pretty mind-bending. It feels like trying to act normal on another planet called Upside-downland. Lakes in the sky? Rubbery grass? And ordinary old nerdy ducks? Weird, but good weird.
These photos are from my hike of the Emigrant Trail in Summer of 2014. See my green tarp set up on the right-hand shore of the lake? I knew I was too close to the water, but thought to myself, “Self, who the heck is going to see you out here in the middle of nowhere and question it.” Within an hour a ranger came hoofing along the shore to tell me to move. She was wearing an expedition pack just line mine and I like to imagine that she lived on the trail, roaming the mountains for weeks at a time, living off the land and fiercely protecting the wilderness from cavalier idiots like me.
I started The Emigrant Trail at Gianelli Cabin trailhead near Pinecrest in Stanislaus National Forest. (Permit required.) Trailhead elevation is approx. 8,600 ft. The remains of part of Gianelli Cabin are still there in a meadow near the parking area. It was a hunting cabin for the Gianelli family in the early 1900’s. You can find it if you are willing to look. It is an unmarked site and all that remains are just a few of the lower logs that give the dimensions of the cabin.
The Emigrant Trail inspires the imagination and lends some context to the hardships people were willing to endure for the possibility of finding their own California gold.