“On we plodded, my horse and I, over 30 miles from food or drink either way, whether before or behind. Night found us far behind all my comrades; I dragging, pushing and coaxing by turns my weary horse, the dreary waste stretching as far as the eye could reach—I knew not how much farther—a scene of death and desolation. On either side of the road and almost walling it in were the dead and decaying carcasses of horses, mules and oxen mingled with the deserted and dying beasts of the day. One never can realize the horrors of such a situation till called upon to pass through it himself.”
— Joseph Alonzo Stuart 1849
Portions of two historic emigrant trails pass through Black Rock-High Rock country. This is the longest undisturbed section of the Emigrant Trails remaining in the U.S. and it is protected within the National Conservation Area.
Exploring these emigrant trails is a unique learning opportunity for children and adults alike, bringing the history of our nation to life in a way artifacts in glass museum cases can never match.
In 1843-44, explorer John C. Fremont, with scout Kit Carson and party, traveled from the northwest through High Rock Canyon and Soldier Meadows, along the edges of the Black Rock Desert Playa, and camped near present-day Gerlach en route to Pyramid Lake and beyond. No archeological traces of Fremont’s travels have been found, though he created maps that were used by later explorers and travelers.
In 1846, the Applegate Brothers back-tracked Fremont’s route to establish a wagon route to Oregon that would avoid the treacherous Columbia River. The route was used for several years as the “Southern Road to Oregon.”
Two years later, Peter Lassen took the same route though the Black Rock Country thinking it was a quicker route to his northern California ranch. He got lost and ended up blazing a new road, the Lassen Trail, to get to his ranch. From this combination of interests, the Applegate-Lassen Trail was born.
In 1851, William H. Nobles found a cutoff from the Applegate Trail west through present-day Gerlach that shortened the journey to Northern California via today’s Susanville.
This short cut, known as the Nobles Cutoff, was established as an emigrant trail in 1852. Initially, the trail left the Applegate Trail at Black Rock Hot Spring and traversed the bulk of the Black Rock Desert Playa. In 1856, an alternate route was found that leaves the Applegate at Rabbit Hole Spring and passes by Trego Hot Spring.
Following the Trails by Vehicle
Many traces of the passage of these early emigrants remain at various points along these routes, such as wagon wheel ruts, axle grease markings on rocks, and emigrant glyphs. It’s possible to follow along much of these trail routes today by vehicle, though 4×4, high clearance vehicles are recommended with 10-ply tires.
There are short sections where motorized vehicle routes leave the original trail to protect the evidence of early emigration from damage, but even here the available motorized routes closely parallel the historic trails. The views from these historic trail routes are virtually identical to those seen by the emigrants who traveled here in the early to mid-1800s.