Nevada History
by John C. Evanoff is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Reno's Little Known, but Oldest Trail

The Trodden, but Unknown
September, 2008
By John Evanoff

In early 1841, a group of emigrants led by Captain John Bartleson and John Bidwell lead a group of settlers to California on a route they researched from Joseph Walker’s travels in 1834 to find the elusive best path over the Sierras. The five month 2,000 mile trip from Missouri to California led to two decades of heavy trail use on the path which would become the legendary California Trail. One of the more direct trunks of the California Trail from the junction at Lovelock was across the desert to Wadsworth and up the Truckee River canyon to the base of the Sierras. This section of early American Wilderness was thought to be one of the toughest routes for those struggling for a new life, gold or farmland across the Sierras, but it was also the quickest for those in a hurry. The crossing of the dreaded Forty-Mile Desert and fording of the Truckee River as many as two dozen times to reach the Truckee Meadows proved to be a major hardship for the many Conestoga wagons and pack animals that tried this route. No one gave up trying to use this trail during the period between 1846 and the introduction of the railroad in the 1860’s. They knew of the trials and tribulations, but kept to the trail anyway and cross the Sierras to seek their dreams as soon as possible.

Once at the eastern end of our beloved Truckee Meadows, the only way to move through it was to take a hard left along the eastern hillsides and eventually cross the Steamboat Creek near where Rattlesnake Mountain and Huffaker Hills lie. These small volcanic outcroppings in the meadows were a common resting ground for thousands of 49’rs. Late in the 1850’s, Mormons and others tried to build bridges across the Steamboat Creek near the Truckee River to make the route more direct through the valley, but most of those efforts were for not because of the annual flooding which usually resulted in the total destruction of the course and structures.

For many of the emigrants, this part of the marshy end of the valley and the grasses near the Huffaker Hills where two sets of springs always had fresh flowing water was the perfect place to rest for a few days or weeks to regain strength for the battle to cross the high sierras. Of the many that stayed at this place, the Donner Party was probably the most notable. Their long stay to recover from their long ordeal to get to this spot in 1846 led to disaster. Snows fell early in the fall that year and stranded the group in several camps between Prosser Creek and Donner Lake. From that point on, the westward travelers began to spend less time recuperating here and made sure to get back to the trail before any snow reached the mountains. As many as three hundred wagons at one time parked at this point from June to September. The parties would stake out several acres of grass land on both sides of what is now Rattlesnake Mountain or if that was too busy or shorn down, they would move to the smaller hills to the south where the fast running and clear Thomas Creek came off of Mount Rose. Wherever the grass was tallest along these small volcanic hills, the settlers made sure their stock was well fed and watered for the trail ahead.

Both sides of Rattlesnake Mountain including Alexander Lake and all of the Huffaker Hills can be traversed and several trails crisscross the hillsides, although Rattlesnake is privately owned. You can spend an hour or less walking the Huffaker Trail to the top of Huffaker Hill or a couple hours walking around the entire group of hills. In the autumn, the mornings allow you to get a better feel for what it might have been like for the emigrants. Looking down from Rattlesnake Mountain to the east, all you see is houses and the golf course of Hidden Valley, but in the 1850’s, there were small circles of wagons and stock animals claiming sections of this part of the valley. Looking south you would see more wagons and smoke from the emigrant’s fires all the way to Huffaker Hill and looking west, you might see a wagon train beginning to move along what is now Virginia Street headed for Donner Pass.

Many of the old ranches in the area are long gone and forgotten. At one time, Huffaker was a major lumber camp and some of the ranches in the area raised cattle, chicken and pigs to supply meat to the lumberjacks and Virginia City miners. The fishing was outstanding in all the creeks and ditches and many of emigrants who parked their wagons in the 1850’s at this place caught fish by hand and with makeshift nets. Hunting was exceptional all over the hills and up to the alluvial fan spreading from the base of Mount Rose. Whites Creek, Galena Creek, Thomas Creek and Steamboat Creek were unnamed in those early days, but were well remembered in the fact you could hunt rabbit and deer within ear shot of the wagon trains. The tribe of Washoe Indians that lived near Steamboat Hot Springs occasionally traded with the emigrants who had Indian trail guides. The pinion nut dough they produced and traded for glass beads and trinkets was well received by the emigrants. Many of the pioneers were also astounded by the fabulous tule baskets weaved by the Washoe women.

Huffaker Trail is the easiest trail to hike and it has interpretive kiosks describing the hillsides, flora and history of the area. Unusually, it has nothing to say of the history of the pioneers that parked their wagons here in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Aside from emigrant journal entries on the valley and this resting area, very little was handed down except by word of mouth over the last century. Some news clippings and stories written of the California Trail speak to the importance of the trail stop. Only the oldest families in the area have some of that knowledge that was handed down to them and now you do too.

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