Expedition Preview – Trails, Tales & Relics

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.

Lt. Beale incorporated the prehistoric footpath, the Rio Grand – Pacific Ocean native trade route into his wagon road. Most of Beale Wagon Road would eventually evolve into the most famous highway in America, Route 66, with the exception of a section between Barstow and Laughlin, the Mojave Road that Overlanders still enjoy today.
Pete Getty and I first scouted this segment in April of 2015.
The American West expansion was fuelled by the widely held belief that American settlers had a mission to expand, spreading its form of democracy and freedom across North America, coined “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, at the expense of Natives, as
painted by John Gast in 1872. 
100,000 swarmed west with the news of the 1849 California Gold Rush.  The roar of the rush has subsided, but imprints linger, that I find very compelling.

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

Frontier Routes got their start long before recorded history, as natives traveled North America for thousands of years. John C Frémont and his scout Kit Carson passed by Pyramid Lake, during the Freemont Expedition of 1843-44. They were well received by natives open to trade and eager to share their footpaths. That is until greedy treasure seekers and European emigrants later dispossessed them of their ancestral lands.
Paiute Medicine Chief Truckee not only welcomed Frémont and Carson, he personally showed them the pass through the Sierra Nevada a route soon used by ‘49 gold-seekers, that today honours his name.
The 350′ deep Pyramid Lake is the largest natural lake in Nevada. The ever-changing turquoise to azure blue waters are captivating as are the formations around the lake created by Crystalline Tufa deposits formed when springs under the lake discharged up to 26,000 years ago.
Tufa formations that gave Pyramid Lake its name, taken by Timothy O’Sullivan who joined Clarence King’s geological survey of the fortieth parallel—the first federal expedition in the West after the Civil War, in 1867.
With the aid of old maps I found on the Internet, I was excited to discover a trail that was likely once a footpath used by natives and possibly the John C Frémont Expedition route, later broadened for wagons, by 1849 Californian gold rush treasure seekers and emigrants.

California Emigrant Trail – Black Rock Desert

Retracing the California emigrant trials across Black Rock Desert.

Applegate Emigrant Trail – High Rock Canyon

While retracing the Applegate Trail up High Rock Canyon, from Black Rock Desert, I encountered a group led by Mathew Mangus, an Overlander I had been interacting with on social media and wound up traveling the canyon with them. Small world.
This old map shows the Freemont Expedition that runs north and south and the route that US Army Corp Captain James Simpson surveyed in 1859, as a route for the Central Overland Stage Route, runs east and west. Simpson’s Route was also used by the Pony Express.
Using GAIA USGS Maps on my tablet, I like to cross-reference the routes with the old map. While traveling east of Virginia City I was excited to find the Pony Express which was also the Overland Stage Route, clearly marked on my GAIA USGS maps, making it very easy to retrace.
Even though I was following a live GPS map that showed, in real-time, that I was on/near the original trail, it was reassuring to run into posted XP signage – it was a kick. 
The Pony Express Route was broken into five Divisions; the most remote and dangerous was Division Five, across the deserts of the Great Basin of Utah Territory and what would become the state of Nevada. Even when water could be found, stops like Sand Springs Station were described by travelers as a “Vile Hole with water so alkaline that it would blister the hand”.

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.

The BLM does a great job of posting markers on historical trails, but the routes are often overgrown between markers. This is where GAIA USGS maps on my iPad make an invaluable pair. I just trust and follow the line on my maps , assuming geography permits, until the trail becomes visible again, and it generally does. I still carry Map Books as backup.

Central Overland Stage Route & Pony Express

While traveling east of Virginian City, Nevada, along the Overland and Pony XP Route I noticed Dead Camel Mountains on my GAIA USGS map. Later, research showed that I had once again run into the continuing story of the US Army Camel Corps experiment with camels. The program was abandoned once the Civil War started, and the able desert trekkers were sold to private freighters.

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.

The completion of the national telegraph line put an end to the Pony Express, bringing the 18 month rocket ride to a grinding halt in 1861 – but not before playing a valuable role in the Civil War effort for President Lincoln, by keeping the caretakers of this massive Comstock Silver Lode wealth onside with the Union.

Great Southern Overland Stage Route

While traveling in Anza Borrego Desert, in Southern California I came across a segment of a route that started the incredible era of the US Mail Overland Stage – The “Oxbow”; The Great Southern Overland Stage Route.
An enterprising professional stage driver, John Butterfield, convinced Henry Wells and William Fargo, of Wells Fargo fame to merge their firms with his Butterfield and Wasson Express to form The American Express Company – the same that thrives today.
The new enterprise won a $600,000 government contract to deliver mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in 25 days, stopping, on average, every 30 miles to change horses and every 60 miles to change drivers. This was considered an incredible feat compared to 18,000 mile, 5 month sailing journey around Cape Horn, first used to carry mail to California.

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.

Wells, Fargo & Co. would soon carry gold, silver, cash, oysters and ladies of the night to and from every boomtown worth its salt, fuelling their transportation leadership position in the West to the thousands of boomtowns that sprung up in the most unusual and inaccessible places, only to be abandoned, when the mines played out.

Downeyville, Nevada

These routes became one of my favourite targets. Downeyville, NV was named after two brothers who discovered silver and lead in 1878. The town once had saloons (of course), a post office, mercantile and a Wells Fargo office, a sign in those days of the towns importance. Despite a tiny population of 200, the town produced 12 million in ore.
Traveling up Craig Canyon, the same route the Wells Fargo Stage used to get to Downeyville. Below is one of the several foundations my friend, Bruce Daniluck (who toke these photos ), and I found in Downeyville, on a scouting trip. The homes had fireplaces and small doorways. This structure had a large opening for doors and front window, suggesting a commercial enterprise, like Wells Fargo.
It’s easy to see why the green treasure box on the Wells, Fargo & Co stage coming out of remote towns like Downeyville, producing 12 million in ore, with no lawman, became a target for bandits and desperadoes. The firm hired guards and equipped them with sawed-off double barrel shotguns, creating the enduring term “riding shotgun”.

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.

The 30-stamp mill is a rare example found in this condition.
I enjoyed peering through the windows of the intact interiors, like the stage office and residence (below), separated from the stable by a stud wall. The horses were replaced by Model T service in 1920’s.

Retracing old stage and wagon roads most often lead me to ghost towns mining camps, old west relics and wilderness I enjoy photographing.

Using digital USGS maps on GAIA, I plot waypoints on trails that link clusters of mining activity and I’m often rewarded with great overland routes, like Union Pass, an exhilarating two-track that links the ghost town of Belmont and boomtown survivor of Austin, NV

Austin, Nevada

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

Heading south, Union Pass linked me to Belmont ghost town. Digital USGS Maps lured me there, showing 4WD trails, mines, ghost towns, mill ruins and, even an old court house ruin.
Belmont’s 1865 silver strike was one of the earliest in Nevada, home to Combination and Highbridge Mill. The courthouse built in 1876, was abandoned shortly after the Nye County Seat was moved 45 miles south to Tonopah, in 1905.  Dirty Dicks Saloon got its start in 1867 and continues to serve patrons. Local cowboy “Sly” was tending bar, part time, when I stopped in, in one of my many pass-thru treks.
While doing a walkabout taking photos in Belmont, I was invited inside inside a frontier residence (in background behind fire engine) by the owner who was working at stabilizing the home, while retaining its 1860’s patina. 
Back on the trail again, I was totally excited to find and retrace the Belmont-Manhattan-Tonopah Stage Route – Outstanding!

Old School Research

Google is my most valuable research tool, but I’ve always enjoyed sifting through used book stores and museums for old maps and books. It’s sometimes better if they’re dated because I’m looking for clues to find old, and sometimes forgotten trails, mine camps and boomtowns.
This book only cost me a few bucks on Amazon because it was published in 1981 and the pages were falling out, but It gives me infrastructure information that is 39 years old; photos and clues I might not find on the Internet to forgotten trails, mines and settlements.  Once I have names, I can search Google and my GAIA GPS digital USGS Maps,

Bayhorse, Idaho

The old book captured my interest in Bayhorse Hotel. I was glad to see it was still standing, thanks to the Idaho Parks and Recreation Services who has stabilized it. It has weathered to a golden brown, just the way I like to photograph them.
Of course, Wells Fargo, once picked up valuables from Bayhorse.
For years access was limited to Bayhorse Mill and town because it was on private land. It is now protected by Idaho Parks and Recreation Services. A park ranger noticed me pulling up in my Jeep and encouraged me to check out a new ledge road that had been reopened to the Skylark Mine tram station, high above.
The steep and narrow ledge road made for an exhilarating drive. I was happy I didn’t encounter anyone during several trips (benefit of travelling off-peak) as there are few places to pull over.
The drive and views along the ledge road itself were worth it, but then I was rewarded with the most incredible ghost structure perched on the side of the mountain, the Skylark Mine Tram Station.

Placerville, Idaho

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.

The first camp was named Pionneerville, originally coined Hog’em as the early parties had claimed so much of the good ground. Soon other camps included Placerville (above) and Centerville and Idaho City, 
One of the two stores surviving in Placerville still serves locals. The Magnolia Saloon and the other store, the Boise Mercantile, are now museums, the first chain stores to serve the Pacific North West. Another survives in Idaho City that has been repurposed as a saloon.
I had the town to myself in October, but the museums were closed. I took the interior photos during a summer scouting trip.

Idaho City

Stage road to Centerville and Idaho City., aka Slaughterhouse Gulch,
This brick building was built in 29 days after the big fire, serving as the Boise Post Office from 1867 to 1910, as well as book store, come meat market, come Idaho World newspaper office, and in the back, a residence for its owner.
It became a museum in 1958. All it’s missing is the stage in front, to match the historical shot.
Idaho City, was once the largest city in the Pacific North West boosting a population of 7,000. Now only 500 people make this home, but most of the Old West buildings that were built after the big fire, survive. Like those found in 1849 California Gold Rush; brick and iron shudders and doors protect from future fires.

Atlanta, Idaho

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.

Town folk have stabilized the jail and festooned the walls with historical photos. I particularly like the old toll road (below) that linked to Kelton Stage Road and Oregon Trail. Until 1937, it was the only access in and out. The tole road has been widened but is still single lane over the pass.
Most boomtown survivors have done so because of a select few that protect the town, relics and history. I had the privilege of encountering one of Atlanta’s resident-guardians, Kerry Mossman has saved many structures and meticulously restored them to period. The cabin below was once a house of ill repute, a far cry from the fancy bordello’s seen in Hollywood movies.
My favourite of Kerry’s work is the little white commercial building that got its start as a lawyers office, but spent the majority of its life as Barber Shop.
 Kerry watched old structures destroyed as he grew up in Atlanta and has made it a personal mission to stabilize and restore as many as he can, while retaining the old world patina.
At the back is the barbers residence.
The miners cabin was stabilized and furnished for the pleasure of visitors by Kerry and Bob, the towns local carpenter who is another saviour of anything historical.
Terry has restored many Atlanta homes to period, but I really liked the authenticity and simplicity of the typical miners cabin of the day. I know this will sound odd but I got goosebumps when I walked into several of the homes Terry has restored and furnished. It was like walking into a time capsule.
I kept expecting the miner to walk in on me taking pictures of his cabin.

Oregon Trail & Kelton Stage Route

So many trails, so little time… Leaving Atlanta, I dropped down towards the Snake River Canyon over on the Goodale Cutoff of the Oregon Trail, and on to retrace the famous Three Island Crossing climb to Bonneville Point, before looping back down Kelton Stage Road. The line was built in 1869 to link Idaho to the transcontinental rail. 
The imprint left by the 400,000 that traveled this way between between 1846 and 1869 remains, even where motorize vehicles never followed. To celebrate this iconic trail, I found a spot to set camp below Teapot Mountain, a famous camp targeted by travellers for the hot springs.

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.

In 1863 Michael Jordan was prospecting along Oregon Trail looking for the “Lost Blue Bucket Mine” and followed a stream which later took his name, after he struck gold.
Sadly, Jordan was killed by Indians the following year near Three Forks Crossing in Owyhee Desert (above), and never enjoyed the bonanza that followed the second largest silver strike in America.
I was able to find intact segments of three different stage roads connecting Silver City northeast to Murphy – Fort Boise and West to Jordan Valley and Owyhee Crossing.
In a museum near Silver City, I came across this Wells, Fargo & Co Express box, (identified by remnants of green paint), It had been broken into, with lock still intact.
While Overlanding I like to take a hotel once a week to freshen up. When passing by Silver City I always try to time a stay at this outstanding Old West boomtown survivor.
The 1866 Idaho Hotel, is still a purveyor of authentic lodging, meals and spirits.
Wells Fargo Express stage office was located next door to the hotel during the boom times. As the mines played out the stage office was moved inside the Idaho Hotel lobby.
The entire hotel looks very much the way it would have in the day.
The bar was shipped from England, around Cape Horn and freighted in from the west coast, likely Ultimata Landing on the Columbia.
The hotel was on the edge of collapse in 1972 when Ed Jagels purchased it and started the restoration. The torch was passed on to Roger Nelson with Ed’s Passing in 2001.

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.

Most of Skinners Tole road from Silver City to Jordan Valley has been upgraded to a two lane gravel road, but I was able to find untouched sections to retrace.
Split rock, a landmark along the stage route.
1867 Valley Grocery & Supply is on the pioneer ranch of the Hanley Family located just east of Jordan Valley.
Mike Hanley, local historian, found and restored the Silver City to Chico CA stagecoach.
From Jordan Valley, Skinner built his tole road across the lava field to Owyhee Crossing. I can imaging traveling this rough trail in a stagecoach was not a pleasant experience, never mine the constant threat of Indian attacks.
Near Owyhee Crossing.

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.

The promise of instant riches was a magnet for prospectors, entrepreneurs and seasoned boomtown veterans who knew opportunities would abound.
The Earp brothers, of the Tombstone OK Corral fame arrived; Virgil became a Goldfield Deputy Sheriff, no easy task with 49 saloons.
Wyatt Earp opened his own saloon in Tonopah, just down the street from these survivors.
The rush left in its wake an incredible array of intact head frames, boomtown ghosts and relics. Most boomtowns were abandoned as quickly as they sprang up, when the money ran out. Stores, hotels, saloons, brothels, houses, railway stations were deserted contents and all.
Peering in the window of this little survivor in the Bullfrog & Goldfield Railroad Maintenance Yard, Goldfield, NV.
Directly across the street from the maintenance yard, the Santa Fe Club, strategically built along the entrance to the Florence Hill mining district on the edge of Goldfield.
Saloons were often first in, last out. The Santa Fe is one of the longest continuous operating in the state.
Goldfield – Gold Point Stage Route
Gold Dust Saloon in Gold Point.

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.

 Rail lines jumped from 35,000 to 254,000 miles by 1916, alone. Short lines were being built in every direction, mostly due to new ore strikes and emigration in the west. Two or three rival lines often raced to the same discovery that sometimes were played out on arrival.
The LV&T reached Rhyolite in 1904, the first of three railways. The line and the depot, was abandoned by 1914 and despite being repurposed several times over the years, it has stood empty and forlorn most of its life, a magnet for ghost town enthusiasts.
The Las Vegas & Tonopah RR was first to reach the regions mines and was quick to build a depot (above). A twin of the depot had just been constructed, down the line, at the Old Spanish Trail crossroad. The LV&T had surveyed new lots around the water stop and called it Las Vegas (meaning Fertile Valley in Spanish).
Once rails and ties were salvaged, rail beds were used as roads or totally forgotten. 
By the mid 1950’s the Golden Era of railroad had peaked and soon massive abandonment left an incredible network of rail trials. Some are reserved for hikes, bikes and equestrian while others are rated multi-use to include off-road vehicles.
The Route of The Hiawatha. Motorized and Non-motorized segments of the Rail-to-trail east of Moon Pass travels through 14 cavernous tunnels, 9 high trestles, waterfalls and river valley ridge-vistas.
The North Fork of St. Joe, The Route of The Hiawatha goes high on East side and another Milwaukee Road Rail-trail hugs the river.

2 Comments on “Expedition Preview – Trails, Tales & Relics

  1. Hi there, my names Steph and I work for an award winning TV production company called Blast Films. Loving your blog – I would love to speak to you about a project I’m working on. Whats the best way to reach you?


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