California National Historic Trail

Sights to See

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock - Bayard, Nebraska

Crawling slowly up the North Platte River, emigrants peered eagerly ahead for their first view of Chimney Rock, the most famous of all the landmarks on the "Great Platte River Road."

This prominent column of clay and sandstone, resembling a tall factory chimney, was mentioned in more emigrant diaries than any other landmark on the Oregon-California Trail. Visible for miles, Chimney Rock was more than a wonder of nature. As a milepost on a journey noted so far for its monotony, the column was a significant landmark in measuring the emigrants' progress west.

An impressive curiosity to modern travelers, Chimney Rock was a, "grand and splendid object," to 19th century emigrants, who had never seen the geological wonders of the American West. On June 27, 1849, Elisha Perkins was humbled and awed by his visit to this remarkable curiosity when me wrote, ". . . camped opposite to & about 1 mile from Chimney Rock. I had some curiosity to see this . . . Imagine a pyramid standing alone though surrounded by rocky precipices some 150 feet high & at its base 20 feet through . . . No conception can be formed of the magnitude of this grand work of nature until you stand at its base & look up. If a man does not feel like an insect then I don't know when he should."

The Nebraska State Historical Society has built a new visitor near the site that contains excellent interpretive exhibits.

Ash Hollow Complex

After negotiating the climb up California Hill, the emigrants traveled 18 miles across the high tableland between the South and North Platte rivers before descending Windlass Hill into the North Platte Valley through Ash Hollow. Ash Hollow is a natural landmark that served as the gateway to the North Platte Valley.

It was a favorite campsite for emigrants because it offered wood, pure water, and grass for the stock. Wagons descended the 25-degree slope of Windlass Hill for about 300 feet; subsequent erosion of the tracks worn by rough-locking the wheels has left at least five scars of trail ruts run down its side. From the top of the hill, trail ruts can be followed south until they disappear into a wheat field at the top of the plateau.

The source of the name is unknown. Emigrants never referred to it as Windlass Hill. Howard Stansbury passed through Ash Hollow on July 3, 1852 and commented, "Here we were obliged, from the steepness of the road, to let the wagons down by ropes. . . . The bottom of Ash Creek is tolerably well wooded, principally with ash and some dwarf cedars . . . traces of the great tide of emigration . . . plainly visible in remains of camp fires, in blazed trees covered with innumerable names . . . total absence of all herbage."

The complex includes Ash Hollow Spring, Rachel Pattison's grave, Windlass Hill, an emigrant campsite, and good drinking water. A visitor center with interpretive exhibits is operated at Ash Hollow State Historical Park.

Fort Laramie

For 56 years, Indians, trappers, traders, gold seekers, overland pioneers, soldiers, and Pony Express riders swept past the doors of the fort on the Laramie.

The fort traces its origin to Fort William, a fur-trading post constructed at the junction of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers in 1834. In 1841, the American Fur Company replaced the old log fort with a larger adobe structure, which they called Fort John. Fort John was noted as an island of civilization where information concerning trail conditions could be obtained from post personnel.

To protect the thousands of emigrants and Argonauts who were flowing up the Platte River Valley from increasingly frequent conflicts with Indians, the U.S. Army bought Fort John in 1849 for $4,000. The old fur trade post soon stood at the edge of a growing complex of military buildings, where emigrants were able to obtain supplies, repair equipment, re-shoe animals, and prepare for the difficult trip through the Rocky Mountains. For the next 40 years Fort Laramie stood as one of the most important military posts in the trans-Mississippi West.

It continued to serve as a stop for overland emigrants, a station for the Pony Express, and as a staging point from which troops were sent into the Indian's last strongholds. By 1890, the post had been bypassed by the nation it had helped expand and was sold at auction to the homesteads it had made possible.

Fort Laramie National Historic Site maintains a visitor center/museum with interpretive exhibits and several restored buildings from the military era.

Fort Laramie National Historic Site:

HC 72, Box 389

Fort Laramie, WY 82212

Tel: 307-837-2221


Sutter's Fort has been reconstructed at its original location. It commemorates John Sutter's creation of the "kingdom of New Helvetica" near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers.

Following the discovery of gold on the south fork of the American River in 1848, Sutter's empire collapsed in the chaos of the rush for wealth, but Sacramento grew up between the fort and the river. For many, Sutter's Fort represented the end of the California Trail. On June of 1846 Lt. Joseph W. Revere "came to some extensive fields of wheat . . . and saw the white-washed wall of the fort, situated on a small eminence commending the approaches on all sides. . . . The appearance of the fort, with its crenelated walls, fortified gateway and bastioned angles; the heavily bearded fierce looking hunters and trappers, armed with rifles, bowie-knives and pistols . . . and the dashing horsemen scouring in every direction . . . carry me back to the romantic east, and I could almost fancy . . . that I was . . . the guest of some powerful Arab chieftain in his desert stronghold."

The fort is of adobe-stucco construction and takes up the better portion of a large city block. Sacramento Area State Parks maintains the replica fort and provides exhibits and living history interpretive services.

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
2701 L Street
Sacramento, CA 95816
Tel: (916) 445-4422

Mormon Station

In the spring of 1850, the DeMont-Beatie-Blackburn party, a group of about 80 Mormons from Salt Lake City, headed for the gold fields of California. When they reached the Carson Valley, they "concluded to start a station for trade" and built a large log blockhouse at the north end of present-day Genoa, Nevada.

This station conducted a lively trade, supplying food, supplies, and fresh livestock, at a steep price, to emigrant parties bound for California on the Carson Route. On July 2, 1850, David Wooster came to "...the site the Mormons have fixed up for a new settlement. They are building a large block house at the base of the mountain where there is plenty of timber, two miles from the river bank . . . They are selling beef and other supplies to the emigrants at two dollars per pound."

A later station has been reconstructed by Nevada State Parks. The old post office in Genoa was used as the Pony Express station.The building was razed years ago, and the site is now a vacant lot, just south of the courthouse. The livery stable across the street supplied riders with fresh horses. That site is now the picnic area for Mormon Station State Park. The park has a museum with exhibits inside a replica of the old trading post.

Mormon Station is located in the small town of Genoa, 12 miles south of Carson City via U.S. 395 and State Route 206.

Independence Rock

Independence Rock was the most-noted landmark on the emigrant trails west of Fort Laramie.

An oval outcrop of granite rock, it is 1,900 feet long, 700 feet wide, and rises 128 feet above the range. The rock derived its name from a party of fur trappers who camped there and celebrated Independence Day in their own style on July 4, 1830. Independence Rock became one of the great bulletin boards of the Oregon-California Trail-a place to look for word of friends ahead or leave messages for those coming behind. On July 26, 1849, J. Goldsborough Bruff "reached Independence Rock . . . at a distance looks like a huge whale. It is being painted & marked every way, all over, with names, dates, initials, &c - so that it was with difficulty I could find a place to inscribe it."

Today, a highway rest area provides parking and interpretive wayside exhibits. The sure-footed can still climb to the top of the rock to inspect emigrant names that were placed there 150 years ago.

Independence Rock State Park
P.O. Box 1596
Evansville, WY 82636
Tel: (307) 577-5150


Devil's Gate is a narrow cleft carved by the Sweetwater River through a ridge called the Sweetwater Rocks-370 feet deep, 1,500 feet long, and only 50 feet wide in places.

Devil's Gate is among the more interesting geographical landmarks along the emigrant trails. This natural feature became visible approximately 15 miles to the east. The gorge was impassable to wagons, and the trail passed to the south of the ridge, but this dark, gloomy canyon intrigued the emigrants. Many camped here, and almost all took the detour to inspect the gorge.

Osborne Cross recorded his delight on July 10, 1949. "This gap is truly wonderful, being a space not over twenty yards wide and about five hundred feet high, having very much the appearance of being chiseled out by the hand of man rather then the work of nature." More than 20 graves are thought to be located in the immediate vicinity, although only one is marked, and many emigrant inscriptions can still be found on the rock walls of the gorge.


Scotts Bluff

Scotts Bluff was the last famous landmark along the "Great Platte River Road" in Nebraska.

In 1845, General Philip St. George Cooke marveled at the strange formation that rose before him. "Looming afar over river and plain was 'Scott's Bluff,' a Nebraska Gibralter; surmounted by a colossal fortress and a royal castle, it jutted on the water. . . . This morning marched three miles still nearer to that mysterious mountain . . . without being disenchanted of its colossal ruins and phantom occupants."

This immense sandstone and clay formation blocked wagon travel along the south bank of the North Platte River, forcing early travelers to swing south and go through Robidoux Pass, a natural gateway in the great bluffs. In 1850, a shorter route was opened through Mitchell Pass, which stayed closer to the river and eliminated the eight-mile swing south.

A short section of deep and eroded trail ruts in Mitchell Pass has been developed as a walking and interpretive trail. A paved road allows visitors to drive to the top of the bluffs. From this vantage point, a magnificent panoramic view is available well into Wyoming. On a clear day, visitors can see Laramie Peak, almost 60 miles to the west. The National Park Service also maintains a museum, which contains many of William Henry Jackson's paintings of the 19th century American West.

Scotts Bluff National Monument
PO Box 27
Gering, NE 69341-0027
Tel: 308-436-4340

South Pass

South Pass was perhaps the most important landmark along the emigrant trails. It marked the end of the long ascent to the Continental Divide and the emigrants' arrival at the frontier of the Oregon country. It was also thought to be the halfway point along the trail.

South Pass dictated the location of the emigrant trail, for only via its gradual ascent was wagon travel over the Continental Divide practical for large-scale emigration. South Pass is the wide, flat summit of a long and gradually ascending plateau, with low ridges and hills on both sides and a wide sage and grass-covered saddle between. Many emigrants commented that they scarcely noticed the ascent or the crossing.

On July 12, 1846, Edwin Bryant made his way "up a very gentle ascent to the SOUTH PASS OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, or the dividing ridge separating the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific. The ascent to the Pass is so gradual, that but for our geographical knowledge . . . we should not have been conscious that we had ascended to, and were standing upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains-the backbone . . . of the North American Continent."

For info on visiting South Pass, contact:

Bureau of Land Management
Rock Springs Field Office, Wyoming
280 Hwy. 191 N.
Tel: (307) 352-0256

City of Rocks Complex

One of the great scenic and historic landmarks along the California Trail, the City of Rocks was mentioned in almost every emigrant account. It is an area of fantastically weathered granite formations, which the emigrants fancied as steeples, hotels, houses, temples, and palaces in a "Silent City of Rocks."

On July 19, 1849, Wakeman Bryarly's "road continued between . . . & around these rocky piles but the road itself was good. You can imagine among these massive piles, church domes, spires, pyramids, &c., in fact, with a little fancying you can see [anything] from the Capitol at Washington to a lovely thatched cottage."

The City of Rocks Complex includes a series of sites: Twin Sisters, a natural historic landmark; Pinnacle Pass, wide enough for one wagon; Emigrant Canyon Spring, where remnants of the Kelton to Boise stage station and excellent trail ruts can be seen; and Salt Lake Cutoff Junction, where this alternate route comes up Emigrant Canyon to join the California Trail in an open valley approximately one mile south of the Twin Sisters.