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Sierrra Nevada Mountains - The Applegate-Lassen Trail

Posted in Features on January 1, 2005 Comment (0)
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The 1840s and the California Gold Rush brought a migration of humanity that American might never again experience. Like the flow of an incoming tide, tens of thousands of rugged individuals, enticed by the prospect of free land and tales of gold for anyone who took the time to stop and pick it up, packed their wagons and headed west toward California. Published accounts of places such as Gold Lake, where gold dust and thumb-size nuggets were rumored to litter the shoreline, created a euphoric enthusiasm for the West. Entrepreneurs and teamsters, adventurers, sharecroppers, and ladies of the evening lined up to take their share of the riches to be found in California. The jumping-off points for wagon trains from the east were Council Bluffs, St. Josephs, Old Fort Keary, and the appropriately named Independence, Missouri. For more than 1,000 miles, long trains of buckboard wagons crept west across the Great Plains. The goal was to start the trek late enough for the spring grass across America's heartland to be plentiful for livestock and early enough to reach the Sierra Nevada mountains before severe winter snows set in. In any case, all travelers headed west would have to cross the great desert in the stifling dead of summer.

Following the fateful news of the 1846 Donner-party tragedy, there was a significant movement to establish a shorter, less difficult route to California. Because new people meant commerce to California merchants and landowners, there was also a fair amount of jockeying to draw California's newest citizens. In an attempt to attract settlers to his land, Pete Lassen, a prominent Northern California rancher, began volunteering as a guide for westbound wagon trains. When his first group approached the Humboldt River, near the turnout to the California trail in Nevada, he veered north instead, along a faint wagon track left by Lindsay Applegate the year before. Despite the fact that Lassen's new route posed unexpected challenges, costly delays, and added 200 miles to the journey, several reputable eastern newspapers reported it as an easier and shorter route to California. We joined the Sacramento-based Sierra Treasure Hunters Four Wheel Drive Club and guide Jim Harris, aka "Uncle Willy," for a glimpse into the past to visit northern Nevada's High Rock Desert and trace the fading wagon tracks of this little-known route, the Applegate-Lessen Immigrant Trail.

The sun crested the Sierra Nevadas as we passed the fateful site of the 1846 Donner party encampment and entered the vast Nevada desert. Forty miles east of Reno, we veered off the pavement to a dirt track near Nixon, Nevada. Desert sage and rabbit grass blanketed the valley floor, and the distant indigo waters of Pyramid Lake lapped at its barren shoreline. With the tires aired down to 15 psi, we marked our position on our Garmin 12 GPS and headed north across the eastern section of the Paiute Indian reservation.

The Winnemucca dry lakebed flanked us to the west as we charged Baja-style along the lower elevations of the Nightingale mountains. Giving the suspension on our '82 Toyota pickup a hard workout, we crested a rise and momentarily cheated gravity. The landing couldn't have been more precise - dead center into a shallow arroyo. The impact stuffed the suspension to its limits. Upon recoil, both front tires were leading in opposite directions, and the steering wheel was about as useful as a Subaru on the Rubicon. Heavy on the brakes, we managed to keep it upright and out of the arroyo. A quick inspection revealed a broken tie-rod end. If there is one thing we learned in Boy Scouts, it's to be prepared. Pulling a spare out of the parts box, we were rolling again within 30 minutes.

As recent as 8,000 years ago, ancient Lake Lahontan covered more than 4,000 square miles of Nevada and California. Ancestors of the current Paiutes fished its waters, hunted along its marshes and reed-lined shores, and inhabited the surrounding hills. In ancient times, the road we were traversing would have been 500 feet beneath the surface. Today, the landscape is void of trees, and any measurable precipitation quickly evaporates. Along the Nightingales, intriguing geological formations abound, and the only remaining evidence of early inhabitants is an occasional arrowhead that might be kicked up underfoot. More contemporary artifacts are the numerous mines and stamp mills tucked away in hidden canyons. Our morning objective was to locate and explore the remains of the MGL-Nightingale, a turn-of-the-century tungsten mine that operated until the Depression.

Veering east into one of the larger rifts in the Nightingale range, the skeletal remains of the MGL came into site. A large concrete stamp-mill foundation stood sentinel at the entrance to the box canyon. Further inspection of the canyon revealed numerous mineshafts, old structures, dynamite lockers, and a set of narrow-gauge ore-cart tracks running out of the mountain. Although the valley has long been silent, closing our eyes, we envisioned life in a mining camp. We could hear the ghostly hiss of the steam engine, a rhythmical clatter of the stamp mill, and bearded teamsters sitting high on an ore wagon, hollering out obscenities at an overburdened oxen team, dogs, chickens, and humans scattering from its path. The Nightingale didn't play out and has also long been silenced. Satisfied with our historical nuggets and remembering that we had several hundred miles of desert to explore, we moved on.

The last gas stop on this adventure was in the remote northern outpost of Gerlach. Residents of this isolated settlement like to say, "Gerlach is where the pavement ends and the West begins." A salty character named Bruno owns the only gas station, restaurant, hotel, and bar in town. Bruno is a likeable character, his kitchen serves up a pretty mean dish of ravioli, and he's a good source for local information and current conditions in the Black Rock Desert. Just north of town lays the Black Rock Playa (a dry lakebed), which spans a distance of 30 miles to the north and eventually fades into a mirage of heat waves.

The site of the international land-speed record of 700-plus mph, the playa is as flat and smooth as a pool table. As previously mentioned, there's no speed limit. We peeled onto the playa and charged, pedal to the metal, tire to tire, for the better part of 30 miles. Now, we're not talking a cheesy blue-plate special here; this was a verifiable triple-shot of adrenaline. Fifteen miles onto the expanse, we backed off the coals and rolled to a silent standstill. By late spring, the intense desert sun had desiccated the lakebed, deep fissures spread across the playa like the web of a spider, and our shadows appeared to be the tallest thing for miles. In the distance to the east lay the most prominent landmark in the region and the one by which the desert received its moniker: the Black Rock. We headed for its base and the intersection of the Applegate-Lassen trail. In roughly 30 minutes, we covered what would have taken a wagon train almost two grueling days to complete.

In 1849, there were an estimated 22,000 immigrants stretched out along the 1,500-mile route to California. By August, one wagon train after another had followed Lassen's tracks into the dry and desolate wasteland now known as the Black Rock Desert. While the first groups had sufficient water and grass for their livestock, resources were quickly depleted by the onslaught of humanity. The highly touted tales of plentiful water and grass for grazing quickly proved false, and by late summer, conditions deteriorated, and the situation became desperate.

Oxen teams and humans alike began to suffer the effects of the relentless desert sun. In a state of delirium, livestock would stampede towards a mirage on the dry lake, only to collapse in exhaustion onto the baked and barren playa, perishing where they fell. The mortality rate for their human counterparts wasn't much better. By late summer, abandoned wagons and gravesites littered the desertscape. It's told that small wooden crosses from less-fortunate travelers would be passed every few hundred yards along the route. For travelers west, the Applegate-Lassen Trail would come to be known as the 1849 Trail of Death. Silent for more than 150 years, we examined the remains of a buckboard wagon, abandoned and half-buried in the hardpan. Discussing the plight of our predecessors, we were grateful to have the security of our 4x4s. One hundred and fifty miles from the urban lights of Reno, we made camp at the Double Hot Spring under a brilliant desert sky.

Morning shadows stretched across the playa as we rolled out of camp, following Uncle Willy north along the Black Rock range and the ghost town of Hardin City. Thought to be the next mother lode, devious prospectors provided handpicked high-grade ore samples to the assayer's office. Enticed by potential riches, investors plunked down enough capital to finance an entire town. By 1866, Hardin City boasted three stamp mills, a hotel, saloons, and a post office. As quickly as people flooded into the valley, news that the original ore samples were salted caused them to head for the next big strike. The town all but shut down in a matter of months.

We veered east into a small box canyon, to a site known as Murder Rock. Uncle Willy is a literal encyclopedia of information on the area and shared the tale of Pete Lassen's demise. For more than a century, there was only speculation as to the location where Pete Lassen, his friend Clapper, and a third unknown companion were bushwhacked in 1858. Lassen's body was recovered shortly after the incident, but Clapper's was left behind. It wasn't until 1990, when a backpacker discovered Clapper's remains buried in a creek embankment, that this was determined to be the spot. A small memorial now marks the site.

To the north lies Soldier Meadows, which served as the region's only calvary outpost through the turn of the century. The first troops in this remote region were responsible for Indian affairs in the area. Times have changed, and for the past few decades, Soldier Meadows has operated as a working ranch and rustic bed and breakfast. Passing numerous hot springs, we climbed a ridge to the west to an overlook, which provided 270-degree views of Soldier Meadows Valley and High Rock Lake. Antelope and wild mustangs, which migrate to higher elevations when the valley temperatures rise, dotted the landscape.

With several wilderness areas and the Bureau of Land Management's implementation of a "Closed Unless Posted Open" policy, many existing roads to the high country have been decommissioned. That is a political way of saying, "Closed to all mechanical travel (including mountain bikes)." The bureau does allow foot traffic, but as we learned from our predecessors, conditions are not conducive to foot travel, and modern-day time constraints seldom allow the weeks needed. So, it is effectively closed.

From a saddle between two peaks, we descended to a valley to the west. Harris pointed out long striations across a limestone ridge, evidence of steel wagon wheels descending the ridge. Approaching the entrance to High Rock Canyon, we appeared to be at an impasse. The valley floor narrowed and the trail became barely wide enough for our rigs to squeeze through. Fording a small creek several times, the sheer canyon walls rose 400 feet to either side. Writings of early settlers can still be seen along the trail and in several small caves (except for a few that some moron defaced). Over lunch, Uncle Willy shared tales of the days gone by. It is said that on several occasions, the Paiute Indians rolled large boulders from the cliffs onto settlers resting in the shade beneath, scattering livestock in a mass of confusion. As the canyon widened, deep ruts in the valley floor, evidence of the passage of hundreds of wagon trains, paralleled our sandy two-track.

The valley winds to the northeast and is joined by numerous small tributaries. Near Yellow Canyon, named for the heavy concentrations of yellow sulfur in its northern banks, we stopped at an old ranch building named the Garage. The vehicle-size portal was just the right size for a small rig. Constructed from walls of stone with a roof of timbers, mud, and grass, it's slowly yielding to the elements. Visiting several old miners' cabins, we made our way back to an abandoned cattle ranch at High Rock Lake. By midsummer, the lake has usually long vanished in the desert sun. We took the opportunity to scavenge for artifacts and arrowheads on its now-dry shores.

Back on the main route to Double Hot Springs and returning to camp, we were glad to be doing so in the comfort of our 4x4s. We had traversed more than 350 miles of dirt roads, salt flats, and two-tracks in a span of just three days. Envisioning the plight of the pioneers, we could only imagine their hardships, trials, and tribulations, and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment they must have sensed after surviving the unforgiving Trail of Death and High Rock Desert.

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