My quest to find a near all-dirt route that travels sections of the most exhilarating and storied historic trails in America, led to a zig-zag route from north to south, yielding 73% dirt overall, 54% in Montana/ Idaho Panhandle, 77% in Oregon/Idaho, 75% in Nevada and 83% in California. I scouted this route in segments over nine years, and in one clean swoop the fall of 2019. Photos are from expedition and scouting treks, using two different Jeep JK’s with Habitat tops.
Half the pleasure of a self-reliant 4WD expedition, for me, is sifting through old maps, history books and mining records looking the most interesting old west routes and relics I can photograph. Afterwards, reliving the experience by documenting what I discovered.
Many old routes have fascinating roots. Take Mojave Road, the most popular overland trail in America, still traveled today. It was a prehistoric footpath for natives for thousands of years, before it was broadened into a wagon road by the US Army Camel Corp, led by Lt. Edward Beale.
Mojave Road – Beale Wagon Road
Edward Beale was a Navy lieutenant that fought in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War alongside Col. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson and was recognized as a war hero during the battle of San Pasqual that took place just north of San Diego in 1846. Over the next three years he would cross the country no less than seven times, and was the first to bring the news of the California Gold Rush to Washington. Beale is said to have come up with the idea of importing camels into the US, during a trip through Death Valley with Kit Carson. He was able to convince the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to import 33 camels for an experiment.
The US Army Camel Corp was born just in time for Beale to employ the corps when Abraham Lincoln commissioned him to build a Wagon Road from New Mexico to California.
Traveling north to south, in a zig-zag pattern, allowed me to pick up sections of iconic frontier trails that ran from east to west: The John C Frémont Expedition, Lewis & Clark Corp of Discovery Expedition, Oregon Trail, California Trail, Applegate Trail, The Great Southern Butterfield Stage Route, Mojave Road, Beale Wagon Road, the Central Overland Stage Road, the Pony Express, to name a few. This post shares a cross-section of what I discovered in no particular order, just a ramble taken from the 35 day expedition sequential posts.
Retracing John C Frémont Expedition Route of 1843-44
California Emigrant Trail – Black Rock Desert
Applegate Emigrant Trail – High Rock Canyon
GAIA GPS Maps – Favourite Tool
When asked what I would prioritize on a new expedition, I would say that after All Terrain Tires, it would be GAIA GPS Map Subscription. My iPad Mini sits right above my steering wheel, in sight line, without obstructing vision. Knowing exactly where you’re at, are going or can go. USGS maps are perfect for me while in US. GAIA Premium now has MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Maps) that advise what trails are open in US national forests and grasslands.
Central Overland Stage Route & Pony Express
The section of the route through Dead Camel Mountains, was named after the camels that were left to fend for themselves when the imported beasts kicked, spit and scared other freight animals off the roads, to the point where a law was passed in 1875 forbidding their use on established thoroughfares in the state.
When I first took the following photos during an early scouting trip following the Pony Express, I didn’t know why remnants of old posts were memorialized with a circle of rocks. I discovered in post-research, these are telegraph pole ruins that replaced the riders mail service in 1861. Later I came across stone ruins of one of the XP relay stations that were built every 12-15 miles, for a quick change to a fresh horse over the 2000 mile ride.
Great Southern Overland Stage Route
Wells Fargo Stage Routes
The classic Concord became the symbol of the Old West, popularized by Hollywood westerns. Most of the western trails were too rough for the luxury coach. Celerity or “Mud Wagons”, lighter, yet strong coaches were used that could plow through sand and mud. The canvas side panels were better suited to venting desert heat (see following).
When the Civil War broke out the Overland Stage route was moved north and soon Wells Fargo bailed out the indebted line and took control.
Government contracts did not allow early US Mail stage lines to carry valuables to minimize robberies.
When Wells Fargo took over the Southern Mail Company, they saw an opportunity for a separate network of stage lines that would ship valuables of every kind. Gold dust and bars, coins and other currency were carried in the famous Wells Fargo green box stashed under the drivers seat.
Berlin – Nevada
Just up the trail from Downeyville is Berlin Mill and ghost town. Established in 1863, operated until the 1920’s before being abandoned. The state stabilized a dozen structures and preserves them in a state of arrested decay.
Retracing old stage and wagon roads most often lead me to ghost towns mining camps, old west relics and wilderness I enjoy photographing.
The 1862 silver rush reputedly triggered by a Pony Express horse who kicked over a rock (true or no, it makes for a good story).
Austin, as most Nevada boomtown survivors, is proud of its heritage. The town was a major station for the cross-country Wells Fargo Overland Stage and Pony Express.
Belmont – Nevada
Old School Research
Traveling further south in Idaho, I kept coming across great historical stage roads and frontier settlements, like Grimes Pass to Placerville, named after one of the party’s founding members that was killed by natives shortly after their discovery. A member of the Grimes party had befriended a Bannock Indian who told him he saw yellow nuggets laying in the creeks while growing up in the region. On arrival in 1862, the prospectors found gold everywhere they panned on what would become Grimes Creek.
My little Southern Idaho Ghost Town book lured me further southeast to Atlanta to see if the old jail house was still around. Like saloons, jails are often some of the last standing. Sure enough, it was there and open for viewing – and much more. Atlanta, is one of the most outstanding living ghost towns I’ve come across. Most structures have been adopted by passionate owners that appreciate old world realism and patina.
Oregon Trail & Kelton Stage Route
Silver City & War Eagle Mines
While on the Oregon Trail in 1845, immigrants found strange clay nuggets in a creek that they used for fishing weights. At the end of their journey a passer-by glanced in the blue bucket they carried the nuggets in and recognized they had discovered gold embedded in clay.
Hill Beachy Stage Route
Wells Fargo had lots of competition from upstarts like of Hill Beachy who based his operation out of his Luna House hotel in Lewiston, Idaho Territory. When Silas Skinner built a tole road from Silver City to the 11,000 prehistoric Owyhee Crossing, Beachy followed with his stagecoaches, down to Winnemucca, on to Oregon and California.
Following The Strikes: Tonopah – Goldfield, Nevada
This old map lured me to Tonopah and Goldfield. They did not disappoint. One was silver and the other was gold. Tonopah was “Queen of the Silver Camps” and it was said “Gold flowed like wine in Goldfield”. Together they saved Nevada from bankruptcy.
Albeit much newer than my Old West targets, I was thrilled when I tripped across three great WWII ghost hangers where fighter pilot Chuck Yeager learned to fly a P-39 Fighter and bomber squads trained on B-34 Liberator. They were left to decay to a golden brown, much the way we’ve come to expect of ghost town structures.
Retracing Abandoned Railway Lines
No sooner had rich ore discoveries been made in the West, that government and railway tycoons were championing a transcontinental railway. After the Central Pacific Railroad met the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, there were seven more Transcontinental’s built in US and Canada. The 1870’s – 1880’s era was known as the Gilded Age, when the North American economy rose at the fastest rate in its history.