The Black Rock Desert's foreboding climate has been a natural barrier for millennia. Imagine such a vast desert with 175 miles of emigrant trails leading toward Oregon and the California gold fields. Few stayed for long in the Black Rock, and segments of these historical routes remain intact to this day. Part of the BLM's National Conservation Area, 1.2-million acres of Nevada's Great Basin history remain accessible to future generations.
John C. Fremont and party were the earliest Euro-Americans to travel through High Rock Canyon and into the Black Rock Desert. On New Year's Eve 1843, Fremont entered High Rock Canyon. Earnestly seeking the mythical Buenaventura River to the Pacific Ocean, the explorer stumbled instead into Nevada's Great Basin. While not finding the river, Fremont did find a unique canyon, laced with springs and surface water that could fortify livestock and travelers.
Accounts of this route spread quickly and soon met a variety of historical needs. Settlers pouring into Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley placed themselves at extreme risk in the Columbia River routes. Forced to raft their wagons and families through the Columbia Gorge, brothers Jesse, Lindsay, and Charles Applegate suffered tragedy during an 1843 venture. Jesse's 9-year-old son, Edward, and Lindsay's 9-year-old Warren both drowned in the Columbia River near The Dalles. Seventy-year-old "Uncle Mac" also perished when the raft capsized.
Determined to spare other families similar misfortune, 16 men, led by Jesse Applegate and Levi Scott, used Fremont's notes and maps to secure a safer route into Oregon. In addition to avoiding the treacherous Columbia River, the group sought a southern exit from the Willamette Valley. The War of 1812 and nearby Canada had Americans concerned that Great Britain might invade the United States territory of the Pacific Northwest.
The Applegate Trail, established in 1846, would become a major route to the West. Peter Lassen cleaved from this trail in 1848, establishing a route to the high valleys of the Sierra region. A year later, the California Gold Rush began. Overland travelers followed Nevada's Humboldt River in such large numbers that feed for animals became scarce. With Applegate and Lassen's trails promising access to the Sierra passes, many gold seekers headed northwest of the Humboldt and into the Great Basin's Black Rock Desert. Soldier Meadows, Mud Meadows, Fly Canyon, and High Rock Canyon became the west side egress and sanctuary from the extreme desert environment.
Prior to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the overland trails and sailing ships around the southern tip of South America were the only routes to the Far West. One of the later discoveries of that brief but significant 1846-to-1860s migration was the Nobles Trail. From 1851 to 1852, William H. Nobles established a route from the lower Black Rock Desert to Honey Lake Valley north of today's Reno, Nevada. Combined, these trails helped build the agricultural valleys of California and Oregon and fed the mining communities of the Far West.
Remnants Of The Applegate Trail
The Applegate party used High Rock Canyon as their access to the Black Rock Desert. They rode across the Black Rock toward the Humboldt River. Intercepting pioneer groups at Idaho ready to travel the treacherous Columbia River route, Jesse diverted 100 wagons from Fort Hall, Idaho, into Nevada. Near present day Winnemucca, the wagon train joined the balance of the Applegate party and headed west toward the Black Rock Desert. It was September, when heat and other desert extremes rivaled the Indian attacks and sparse forage for animals.
The stretch to Humboldt, Nevada, followed the California Trail. At Humboldt, the settlers bent northwest and soon found themselves on a gigantic playa laced with blowing sand and pools of hot, unfit water. Surely, many of these pioneers had second thoughts about Oregon. They were continually at the mercy of a menacing climate and hostile, first-American inhabitants of the region who fought to preserve their traditional way of life. These indigenous people had inhabited northern Nevada since the last Ice Age. For 11,000 years, tribes survived in a vast lake region that eventually dried into stark desert. Settlers, and soon the miners, flooded the Far West. In less than two decades, Euro-Americans would threaten the very existence of indigenous tribes.
The Black Rock Desert remains intact to this day, and it is easy to envision wagon trains and settlers trudging their way westward across the playa. Risking lives and livestock in a 150 mile traipse from the Humboldt River near Winnemucca to Soldier Meadows, this was clearly the most hazardous stretch of trail leading to the Sierra, Siskiyou, and Cascade Mountains. There were scores of life-threatening challenges for a wagon trip-the Black Rock Desert ranked high on the list.
While Black Rock Point was a prominent landmark, High Rock Canyon is obscure. Contrasting the mirages and dust trails of the playa, the canyon nestles northwest of the desert's floor in the sloping Calico Mountains. In 1843, an era when aerial perspectives and motorized transportation were non-existent, discovering such a canyon was a marvel.
Soldier Meadows, a virtual oasis at the edge of the desert, gives hint to the importance of this trail. Livestock stretched to their limit, parched days and chilling nights, and a strange, hostile world of scrub sage and blow sand yielded to grasses and gurgling, freshwater springs. Today, these features at Soldier Meadows Ranch and Mud Meadows still invite us. As late as November, the grasses yield precious nutrients for livestock and native animals. The hearty sage blooms bright yellow, and rivulets of cool water form pools lined with tule. For eons, the area has teemed with game birds, waterfowl, antelope, and deer.
If possible, visit this region in late spring or early fall. Through May, snows and rainfall make desert playa travel unpredictable and often unsafe. Despite the arid climate, this is high country. The desert floor rests above 4,000 feet, and at this northern latitude, snow and cold can predominate from late fall through Memorial Day. As Fly Canyon and High Rock Canyon climb toward higher elevations, the fauna and flora shift subtly to high desert country.
A variety of interesting side trips lie within the region. Horse folks enjoy the many BLM management areas for wild horses. Hikers find wilderness excursions in several sections of the Calico Mountains. Four-wheelers and day travelers will experience exceptional scenery and enjoy historical sites over a vast area. Join us on a trip through time, and plan your own adventure to the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon!
Don't Leave Home Without These!
While the pioneers suffered unimaginable hardships on the emigrant trails, most were prepared. Today, we have every advantage in the way of camp food, first aid equipment, and tools for field fixes. A winch, Pull-Pal anchor, straps, chains, and lockers are just some of the mechanical backups that enhance our travel. Sometimes, though, it's the simplest item that can keep your 4WD alive on the trail.
Manual or air lockers help eliminate wheel spin. At an environmentally sensitive area like the Black Rock Desert or High Rock Canyon, the XJ Cherokee excelled with its ARB Air Lockers front and rear, crossing mud, streams, and rutted trail sections without tire spin. Use your locker(s) to minimize environmental impact. Carry an air line repair kit for field repairs.
While you're at it, consider ARB's outstanding fix for keeping food cold-yes, cold, not just cool. The electric Fridge Freezer holds 50 quarts of perishables and can freeze food harder than the walls of Fly Canyon. If overnight camping, for one day or several, here's the solution for meat and other refrigerated items-even ice cream for the kids. This travel companion makes camping a lot simpler!