THE SIERRA PASSES
Awe-Some Trans-Mountain Routes
Though not as tall as the Himalayas, the Andes or the Alaska Range that holds Mount McKinley, the Sierra is still one of the most formidable mountain ranges in the world — and certainly in the Lower 48.
With Mount Whitney and the other fourteeners, it intimidates with height, but it’s also uniquely unbroken. Unlike the Rockies and the Cascades, the Sierra is a united front of continuous peaks along its entire length. That means that for 400 miles, there are very few opportunities for trans-mountain routes that cross its width.
Indians Find the Paths
Indians blazed the first ones, picking out lower points and the few available gaps to establish major trading routes that linked tribes on both sides of the range. Walker Pass was one, but there were also higher-elevation routes — much higher — near where the fourteeners gather. Though Kearsage and Taboose Passes don’t stretch across the width of the Sierra, both were used as trade routes between tribes in the Owens Valley and Kings Canyon. The elevation for each is above 11,000 feet.
There were additional trans-Sierra trade routes to the north. One was through Mammoth, and it almost became a major highway pass much later on. There was another through Yosemite, not far from what’s now Tioga Pass. Called the Mono Trail, it connected Mono Lake and Mariposa.
Explorers Make Them Known
The explorers came next and started to put the Sierra on maps, though it took awhile. The early California explorers avoided the mountains for quite some time until Jedediah Smith came along. He earned a place in history as the first white man to cross the Sierra in 1827, doing so west to east near what’s now Ebbetts Pass during a fur-trapping expedition.
Joseph Walker followed, reaching the Sierra in 1833, while he and the rest of the Bonneville Expedition sought an overland route to the Pacific. The group made an east-to-west crossing by Tioga Pass and a year later returned east via Walker Pass.
The Fremont Expedition made its first Sierra crossing in 1844 while in search of a river that didn’t exist. Concluding that the Buenaventura was a myth, Fremont, Kit Carson and others made a harrowing winter passage via Carson Pass. A few years later in 1850, James Beckwourth established the northern pass named after him while hunting for another myth, this one Gold Lake, which was said to be lined with the precious metal.
Pioneers Pour Across
By then, overland migration to California was already underway. Before the Transcontinental Railroad, some 250,000 people made the trip to California following the emigrant trails, plodding up to 2,000 miles with their wagons on a journey that could last up to six months and was a race against time to beat the Sierra winter. Besides being grueling, the trip was fraught with danger: Indian raids, cholera and other illnesses, starvation, the threat of drowning during river crossings, and more.
The first to make their way over the Sierra were the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, who came over Sonora Pass in 1841. They’d had to abandon their wagons, but a few years later in 1844, the Stephens Party made it across the Donner with theirs, marking the first wagon train over the mountains and a major landmark in conquering the Sierra.
Manifest Destiny caught on then — the idea that expanding the United States was fate, God’s will even. As more and more people headed West to fulfill that purpose, the overland route to California became known as the California Trail. It started in Missouri, and a good portion overlapped the Oregon and Mormon trails. (That stretch simply became known as the Emigrant Trail.) But once it got “Out West,” the California Trail split into several routes to reach what’s now the Golden State, especially as it approached the Sierra.
The main routes early on were the Truckee Trail over Donner Pass and the Carson Trail over Carson Pass. Later on, the Placerville Route (also called Johnson’s Cut-Off) was a popular choice, following what’s now Echo Summit toward Placerville. It had substantial advantages over the other two, skipping the many river crossings required on the Truckee route and taking a more direct path than the Carson Trail.
Any of these popular routes involved a brutal desert crossing through the Great Basin. The meek Humboldt River was the only water source to sustain the travelers and their animals, and it dried up altogether at the Humboldt Sink. Already weary from their travels and the relentless heat and sun, they then entered the dreaded Forty Mile Desert, where deep sand slowed their pace and boiling springs were the only water around. Thirst-crazed animals charged for them and scalded tongues, and unlucky pets who dove in for a swim were cooked to death.
Those who didn’t die of thirst found relief at the Carson or Truckee rivers on the other side, but then had to face the mountains as their final obstacle. Crossing the Sierra from the east is considerably more difficult than doing so from the west. The range is somewhat like a breaking ocean wave as far as shape. On its rounded western approach, it rises gradually, taking up to 70 miles to reach the crest. On the dramatic East Side, it rises sharply from base to summit in just a few. So getting a wagon across meant taking it apart and doing it piece by piece across the toughest terrain. (It’s also worth pointing out that both the first explorer and emigrant parties chose passes that are among the Sierra’s highest, making the first crossings even more difficult.)
Gold Brings “Roads”
But more made the journey each year, and when gold was discovered, they started coming in droves. That led to more routes and better conditions. Mountain travel became easier as trails became wagon roads (very rough ones) and wagon roads became toll roads where fees were collected to help pay for maintenance that eventually allowed for stage coaches.
Tahoe remained removed from the action until later. But once silver was discovered at the Comstock Lode, Echo Summit became one of the busiest Sierra thoroughfares as miners stormed between the original gold fields west of the mountains and the new riches in Nevada. It was so busy that the so-called “Roaring Road” was plagued with traffic jams well before cars became mainstream.
The First Trains
Another major conquering came in 1868 when the first train crossed through Donner Pass — literally through, in Summit Tunnel. It happened a year before the Transcontinental Railroad was officially done. That landmark wasn’t realized until the tracks extended into Utah and the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific were linked with the golden spike at Promontory Summit.
The Sierra fell to trains again in 1909. That’s the year the Western Pacific Railroad finished a second transcontinental railroad that went over the northern Sierra near Beckwourth Pass to establish the famed Feather River Route.
Both were tremendous feats, built by thousands of Chinese workers who were brought over in part because that country’s Great Wall is such a marvel of construction. They did very dangerous work, blasting through rock with explosives and contending with rock slides and avalanches. All three claimed lives. Some of the deceased are rumored to be preserved in cold, watery graves in Lake Tahoe. Others were buried in a special cemetery in Oroville, but later dug up and returned to their homeland.
Car Culture Takes Off
America’s been in love with cars for as long as they’ve been around. After the affordable Model-T was introduced in 1908 and the dream of owning one became more realistic, car culture was destined to become a core part of California’s identity.
By 1913, there was a coast-to-coast highway that allowed for cross-country trips. The Lincoln Highway took those travelers across the Sierra at Donner Pass, where they had to get across the railroad tracks by passing through wooden snow sheds that obscured the view of oncoming trains. Cars were also climbing the East Side into Yosemite on Tioga Pass by 1915, braving the one-way road and its sheer drops to Lee Vining Canyon.
Only nine other auto-friendly trans-Sierra routes have been established since. A map will show many other passes, but the ones highlighted here are paths that can be driven across the entire width. Though the range has been conquered, much of it still eludes such passage, notably the nearly 200-mile span between the Tioga and Sherman. And come winter, the options shrink from 11 to seven. When the Ebbetts, Sonora, Tioga and Sherman close, travelers who need to cross the central part of the range must hope that Donner Pass, Echo Summit and Carson Pass are clear or make long detours to the north or south.
Two Additional Notes About Driving Routes in the Sierra
First, our discussion of the passes runs the opposite direction of how most were blazed and traveled in their early days. We did so because most modern-age explorers would be coming from that direction, but the routes were generally discovered east to west.
Second, there are also two fine choices to auto tour the Sierra’s length. Highway 395 takes a spectacular route along the East Side and Highway 49 connects much of historic Gold Country on the other.
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