Exploring the Emigrant Trail
John BrabynNegotiating a dry creekbed

The historic emigrant trail to California and Southern Oregon traversed vast tracts of desert through Idaho, Utah and Nevada before reaching the Sierra Nevada. I have had the pleasure of exploring, at various times, several remaining sections of the old trail scattered across Nevada.

Near the eastern border of Nevada, the town of Wells is a good jumping off point for exploring the trail. The old main street of Wells (Formerly Humboldt Wells), at the back of town opposite the transcontinental railway tracks, is a treat -- old store fronts abandoned in favor of freeway frontage. Across the tracks a few miles northwest by dirt roads (ask the locals for directions) are the impressive stone ruins of Metropolis -- a farming town established early in the century but gradually faded when the large scale plans for bringing in water from the Humboldt River did not pan out.  

Near the old town it is possible to find several signposted sections of the Bishop Creek section of the trail, which lead in the general direction of Highway 80. I followed one branch, now definitely a 4WD route, for several miles until it petered out into the swamps of Bishop Creek. Roughly paralleling the trail is an old Southern Pacific railroad grade which once served Metropolis. The scenery in this area is beautiful, with the snow-capped Ruby Mountains in the background.
                                                                            (Photo: The trail through the Black Rock Desert)

The Trail followed fairly closely the modern route of Highway 80 from this vicinity down to Winemucca.  A short distance further west, the Applegate-Lassen branch, to Oregon's Willamette Valley and the northern extreme of California, turned off in a more westerly (rather than south westerly) direction. Its general course can still be followed from the vicinity of Mill City. On our most recent trip to the Black Rock Desert in July 1996, my daughter and I picked up an interesting section of this trail from our base camp in Lovelock. Proceeding north on the remote dirt road heading north past Seven Troughs and through Rocky Canyon heading north to the Black Rock, we spotted a trail marker just south of the turnoff to the ghost town of Scossa. (The town is worth a visit because of its ruins including a recently inhabited house and a number of mine headframes).

Driving west on this historic trail gave a tingling feeling in the spine, thinking of all those old wagons passing this way. Now not much more than a pair of faint tracks winding tortuously through the rolling terrain towards Rabbithole Springs. If this and other sections of the trail do not receive a bit more wheeled traffic in the near future, they will disappear completely.

From Rabbithole, the trail headed northwest towards Black Rock Spring, the next available water, situated out in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. I have so far been unable to find any remains of this section, heading through the brush down to the bare badlands of the Black Rock, so it is necessary to follow the graded dirt road to Sulphur. (Alternatively one can proceed west on dirt roads following the route of the signposted Nobles Cutoff which crosses a dry lake and meets the graded gravel of Highway 49).

In 1993 my son Trevor and I passed through Sulphur (uninhabited) and explored westward on the service road north of the Union Pacific tracks. This rough 4WD trail is interrupted frequently by deep sandy washouts opposite culverts under the railway which channel flood waters into the Black Rock basin. After about 7 miles, we managed to find a turnoff (quite clear on the 1:250,000 topo map but just a faint trail on the ground) heading northwest into the desert. This 4WD route (see photo on this page) marked the resumption of the old Applegate-Lassen Trail. The passable section, heading directly across the bare rolling mud and sand toward Black Rock Point, deadends at the Quinn River (actual flowing water!), one of the inlets to the vast Black Rock "dry" lake. Before that a branch winds westward, eventually depositing you on the Playa. Gerlach and blacktop can be reached about 100 miles after leaving the pavement outside Lovelock.

If you plan to explore this remote territory, go prepared with spares, tools, supplies, survival equipment, recovery gear and water. Good maps and navigation are necessities; the USGS 1:250,000 series is a minimum. The distances are considerable, vehicle sightings rare to non - existent, and the desert explorer can easily find himself 50 miles from the closest civilization in any direction.

Whether or not historic trails and travel routes such as this will remain open and available for history-reliving experiences will depend on public input to the process now going on to "protect" National Trails from the public. Unless you and others write in to the relevant government officials, elected and unelected, it is all too likely that large sections will be closed. Of course, nobody these days is going to walk 50 or 100 miles to travel these historic vehicle routes on foot, so in all likelihood closed sections will become overgrown and lost forever. All taxpayers interested in preserving, experiencing and enjoying our historical heritage should get involved in helping to prevent this from happening.

Return to Exploring the Emigrant Trail

Return to Expedition Reports

Return to Desert Exploration

Return to The Brabyn Pages

If you have comments or suggestions, email author John Brabyn