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High Rock Canyon - The Emigrant Trails

Rock Formations
Moses Ludel | Writer
Posted June 1, 2010

Into The Black Rock Desert

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.

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