America’s Wild West: Using 4x4s to Retrace History on the Applegate-Lassen TrailPosted in Events on January 3, 2019
We rested under the shade of a cottonwood tree, staring across an expanse of sagebrush bounded by brown foothills peppered with black volcanic outcroppings. One hundred miles to the west, the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada ascended nearly to the clouds, an ominous obstacle for man, beast, or machine. Before us the dirt road divided, offering two options. If we veered left, beyond the evaporating vestiges of the Mary’s River (Humboldt), the dreaded 40-mile Desert awaited. The two-track to the right was less established, an unknown. But tales of reliable water and rich grasses were powerful persuaders, and it was rumored to be a shorter and easier path to California. We took stock of our supplies, discussed the options, and turned the wheels toward the path less traveled—the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail.
Such were the thoughts of our venerable predecessors, those who ventured away from the security of Eastern living into the unknown. As soon as grasses on the Great Plains were sufficient to support livestock, thousands of wagon trains departed locales such as Independence, Missouri, for the Rocky Mountains. With a short window to clear the Sierra Nevada before winter snows set in, it was often a life-or-death race to the finish. The fork in the road along the Mary’s River would decide the fate of many.
It was late summer, and we were to join Jeep Jamboree USA (JJUSA) for its inaugural Applegate-Lassen Adventure, the first in a series of extended overland trips. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) declined JJUSA’s permit request, the trip was cancelled, and registration fees were returned. Fortunately, in the true spirit of adventure the participants decided to go anyway. It was officially “unofficial.”
Manifest DestinyNews of the 1846 Donner Party tragedy launched a movement to establish less dangerous routes to California and Oregon, neither of which were part of the United States at the time. Manifest Destiny, the belief that the U.S. should control all of North America, was largely dependent on settlers moving west, and many private citizens had cause to forge new corridors to their lands.
Jessie and Lindsay Applegate, prominent settlers from Willamette Valley, Oregon Territory, who had each lost a son to the Colombia River during their migration along the Oregon Trail, were determined to establish a safer route to the Northwest. Traveling south, the two brothers crossed Northern Nevada and eventually arrived at the Mary’s River and the intersection of the 40-mile Desert. Their path would become known as the Applegate Trail. Danish emigrant Pete Lassen, who held a Mexican land grant in Northern California, also saw the value of enticing settlers to his region; settlers meant new leases and commerce. A few years later, Lassen tied in the Applegate trail across the Black Rock Desert with his ranch near the present-day town of Vina. Although the route added 200 miles for settlers bound for Sutter’s Fort, Eastern newspapers eager to create a catchy headline reported it as being shorter and easier.
The Death RouteWhen the pioneers of 1849 reached the Mary’s, they circled the wagons in the sage and were faced with a dilemma—follow the established route to the 40-mile Desert or turn right into the unknown. Most turned left, but in August one group veered right, and nearly every subsequent wagon train followed. We traced their path over Antelope Pass, stopping to read one of the signposts erected along the route by Trails West. Each is engraved with journal entries from the pioneers. The entry on Antelope Pass confirmed that the first few trains found suitable grass and water. But as we ventured west toward Rabbithole Springs the accounts began to paint a grim picture.
In the distance a massif rose from a sea of white. Perched on the north end of an expansive alkali flat, Black Rock Peak became a navigational beacon for pioneers departing the spring. In 1843, explorer John C. Fremont was the first white man to visit the region. Commissioned by the government to find an alternative route to South Pass (Wyoming) and Oregon Territory, he continued west with his party through High Rock Canyon and across the Black Rock playa in the dead of winter. He observed “a column of smoke” rising through the fog, which was steam from another spring some 20 miles from Rabbithole. He and guide Kit Carson eventually waded over the Sierra Nevada in waist-deep snow, glimpsing “a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length” [Lake Tahoe] before reaching Sacramento.
Stretching north from the town of Gerlach about 30 miles, the Black Rock playa is seemingly endless. We opened up the throttle and proceeded to disperse a dozen dust trails that drifted off on a light breeze. About the midpoint we slowed and circled the wagons. Randy Stockberger, our head hashslinger, fired up the Dutch ovens, and we settled in around the campfire as twilight yielded to a moonless sky peppered with constellations.
We read accounts of wagon trains camped on the playa after days without food for their livestock or water of any quantity. Oxen teams, suffering from dehydration and enticed by the allure of water at the edge of a distant mirage, would charge off in a state of delirium only to collapse at their final resting place. Their human counterparts became equally desperate. Without beasts of burden to ferry their wagons, many collected what they could carry, abandoning all else and striking out afoot. Although many survived the onerous miles to the next spring, many succumbed to the elements. The following year, as the gravity of the 49ers’ plight reached the East Coast, the Applegate-Lassen would aptly be named The Death Route.
We circled the “wagons” in the middle of the Black Rock playa for our first night’s camp.
Boiling Springs and Cavalry OutpostsWith sunrise we shared a cup of joe and took in the vastness of the playa before making our way to the Black Rock Spring, the first water source since leaving Rabbithole. With the playa in our rearview mirror, we followed the trail north along the base of the Black Rock Range to Double Hot Springs. While their turquoise-blue depths are a thing of beauty, many souls have been lost by slipping off the steep edge and into the boiling abyss. The upper spring, which is 184 degrees F, was used by the pioneers to cook fowl and boil coffee. Downstream, however, the spring drains into a large agricultural tank that makes for the perfect desert hot tub.
To the north we stopped at the remains of Hardin City, one of the many short-lived boomtowns of the 1860s silver rush, before turning off the main track to locate a place known as Murder Rock. In addition to ranching, Pete Lassen explored many pursuits, one of which was prospecting. In 1895 Lassen, Ed Clapper, and a man named Americus Wyatt, while searching for Hardin’s lost treasure, camped in a canyon near his 1849 encampment. Shots rang out as they arose the next morning; Lassen and Clapper were dead. Wyatt blamed the local Paiute tribe, but many still speculate that he was the assailant.
The Black Rock playa is 30 miles in length.
The sun crept over the eastern horizon, dispersing warm hues over our camp near Soldier Meadows, site of the 1860s U.S. Cavalry outpost of Camp McGarry. The smell of coffee filled the air, and ranch-style biscuits and gravy were scooped out of a Dutch oven in steaming heaps as we lined up around the chuckwagon. We departed the Ranchers Cabin, an old wrangler’s hut that is now a BLM camp area, and made our way up to Fly Pass. The pass and adjoining canyon became a nemesis for wagon trains heading west. Steep ledges required travelers to unhook their teams from the wagons and lower them down by ropes through the precipitous terrain; a recurring task before reaching High Rock Canyon.
Sheer rock walls towered above, and the trail narrowed as we descended into High Rock Canyon and stopped for lunch near the opening of a small cave. Stepping inside revealed a large natural cavern with a smoke-stained ceiling and animal bones scattered about the floor, most likely an ancient camp of Paiute hunters.
Further on we found evenly spaced grooves in a section of bedrock, evidence of the passing of steel-banded wagon wheels, before reaching the Steven’s Camp homestead. For the pioneers that survived the hardships of crossing the desert, the crystal-clear creek leading up to the camp must have appeared like the Garden of Eden. Said to have been built by 1950s musician Tennessee Ernie Ford, the ranch house and surrounding valley was later acquired by the BLM. It now serves as a free bunkhouse complete with a kitchen and room for a dozen people.
Turning south we departed the Applegate-Lassen, picked up the Noble’s Cutoff near Gerlach, and entered the Smoke Creek Desert. Established in 1854 by William Noble, the Cutoff departed the main trail near Rabbithole and headed to Granite Springs near the town of Gerlach, bypassing much of Black Rock Desert. It would later be confirmed as the shortest and most gradual ascent over the Sierra Nevada and to the bounty buried deep within California’s Gold Country.
Circling the wagons under a grove of cottonwood trees near Buffalo Creek, Randy fired up the Dutch ovens one last time and we reflected on the tangled web of “shorter and easier” paths that dissected the region. Ironically, the emigrants that made that fateful right turn at the Mary’s River had suffered in vain. But the mid-1800s was an era of exploration and discovery, and many “white spaces” remained on maps of America’s extremities. When they struck out from Independence, Missouri, they took matters, and their lives, into their own hands. As we retired for the night, fried chicken was coming off the grill, and we raised a toast to those hearty souls that forged new lives in what was truly a wild, Wild West.
Without a breath of wind to disturb the silence, we enjoyed a night of libation and conversation under a galaxy of constellations.
Near Black Rock Spring we took a side route to a seldom-visited place called Hidden Playa.
Near Double Hot Spring, which is warm enough to boil potatoes, is a great camp area replete with a hot tub for 10.
While most of the Applegate-Lassen is quite easy, there are areas that require four-wheel drive.
By the end of summer, many areas of the alkali flat become thick with powdery silt.
Several cabins, remnants of the region’s private cattle ranching era, can be found near High Rock Lake.
With vertical cliff walls rising 350 feet from the valley floor, High Rock Canyon is a curiosity of nature.