Truckee Meadows Trail
The Truckee Meadows were a significant landmark on the Truckee River Route. After leaving the Sink, the emigrants crossed the 40-mile desert for two days, then spent three days along and in the Truckee River in its narrow canyon. Then the weary emigrants reached lush meadows in a broad valley. The Donner Party rested here for nearly a week to recruit their animals and prepare to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The meadows were a familiar sight to the 49’ers, and the later Nevada silver miners, and to the builders of the Continental Railroad. The city of Reno was built near the meadows, and many roads were built through the area. Modern trail buffs have identified several sections of old trail, which may be the Emigrant Trail of 1844-46, or may be later wagon roads.
Trail buffs had marked the route through Truckee Meadows from the mouth of the Truckee River Canyon east of Sparks, then south along Steamboat Creek to Rattlesnake Mountain. A campsite now called Donner Springs is preserved as a city park. But Don Wiggins, who has walked the trails for over ten years, researched old diaries and concluded that the emigrants took a different route. Mr. Wiggins believes that the emigrants left the Truckee River at Lockwood, ascended Long Valley Creek over a pass and down Hidden Valley Canyon to reach Steamboat Creek. He believes they did not head south to Rattlesnake Mountain, but crossed the creek and headed north to rejoin the Truckee River. Frank Mullen, Jr., senior reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal, wrote about this Ghost Trails Controversy in his comprehensive book The Donner Party Chronicles, Nevada Humanities Committee (1997).
Trails West Inc., is a non-profit corporation formed by volunteers dedicated to preserving trail markers on the California Trail through Nevada. The distinctive markers are made from railroad track, and are cataloged in trail guides available from Trails West. Starting June 23, Trails West volunteers are revising some signs, and relocating others, to reflect new research about the trail from the Humboldt Sink to Truckee. This has created a new controversy, as reported by Frank Mullen, Jr. in the Reno Gazette-Journal.
You can judge for yourself. Even if you can’t visit the trail in Reno, you can examine the maps of the area and read the primary sources on this page.
T. H. Jefferson Map of the Truckee River Route, 1846
Diaries and Journals, 1846-1850
Edwin Bryant, 1846. Bryant’s party traveled on mules without wagons:
August 23.--...We commenced our day’s march about eight o’clock, continuing up the river, the general course of which, as far as we have followed it, is nearly from the southwest to the northeast. Of course, there are many turns and windings which vary from this usual direction of the current of the stream. About twelve o’clock we emerged from the confined limits between the high ranges of mountains, affording us, in many places, room barely sufficient to pass, without leaving the bottom of the river, into a spacious and highly fertile valley, eight or ten miles in diameter. The grasses in this valley are very luxuriant, and their varieties numerous. There is no timber, with the exception of the clumps of small willows belting the stream, and fringing the margin of a deep and miry slough, which runs entirely across it. Pine timber, however, of stately dimensions, begins to exhibit itself on the sides and summits of the surrounding mountains. In crossing the valley on the southern side, we passed through several miles of tule, a species of rush, or reed, which here grows to a height of eight feet, on the wet or swampy soil.
After leaving the fertile land of the valley, the trail runs over an elevated and undulating barren plain, with a growth of stunted sage, and a soil mixed with sharp volcanic gravel, very injurious to the feet of our animals, some of which have become foot-sore and lame. We gradually approached the river, which again becomes walled in by high mountains, leaving the channel and a narrow bottom alternating from one side to the other, for a road or passage.
Heinrich Lienhard, September, 1846:
On the twenty-ninth we found the road to be bad at first. As before, it went along the river, which we often had to cross. Toward afternoon, we reached a lovely, open valley, where we stopped early to camp beside the river, which flowed quietly here. Before reaching this place, we had to drive down an extremely steep hill. That day, I was the driver, and since I was a short distance ahead of the other wagons and the hill, in spite of its steep grade, did not seem dangerous, I decided to descend it without awaiting the arrival of the others. I unhitched the front yoke of oxen so that I might keep only the very good yoke at the tongue of the wagon. Then after chaining the two rear wheels together, I drove on. The two oxen braced their legs forward as they descended. I held on to the wagon and likewise braced my feet against the ground, and now we went downhill about as fast as a railway train. But it proved to be a fine ride that could hardly have been surpassed by a sleigh. In a flash I was at the bottom, hitched up the other team, and was about to drive off when Zins arrived at the top of the hill with Kyburz’ wagon. Astonished, he looked down at me and wanted to know who had helped me down. When I answered that I had gotten down without help from anyone, he wanted to bawl me out for not waiting for him to help. I laughed about his unnecessary fear and told him that if one just held the wagon to the middle of the road, the drive down was easy. He tried it, and it worked with both of Kyburz’ wagons.
... a short distance before having reached the lovely, sunny valley, the road led along an insignificant creek, or rather a sort of ditch into which a little water from the river seemed to flow.
James Mathers, 1846:
30th Continued up the river 10 m -- Course W.S.W. 10
Thursday October 1st Traveled 3 m to a wide valley covered with grass and thence across the same 4 m and encamped by the river Grass scarce and poor -- The road extremely bad except on the valley -- There is pine timber on the river and on the mountains to the westward -- Some of the trees quite large General course to day West 11 m.
Elisha D. Perkins, 1849:
At 4 P.M. we emerged from the Canon into what is called Mist Valley, a beautiful level plain covered with fine grass, some 10 miles across & formed by the widening of the mountain ranges. Through this valley the river winds after leaving the gorge on the other side, its course marked by a line of cotton woods & willows. Soon after entering the valley we took a trail leaving the road to the right & supposing to be aCutoffas the road wound around a belt of marsh which crosses the valley at right angles to the river. We followed this trail around the base of the hills & soon found ourselves going off quite in contrary direction to the course of the road, & the marsh on our right was entirely uncrossable a perfect quagmire.
Wakeman Bryarly, 1849:
Friday, August 17th ...
We started at 6 o’clock & crossed, & recrossed the stream. Eight miles we nooned, crossing in this distance 8 times. Here we had tolerable grass, our Captain having picket it, & left one (of the advance) to point it out to me. We remained here until 2 when we again rolled, in the evening, we rolled 7 miles, crossing the river 4 times, making in all 22.
The road between the crossings was sandy in some places, rocky in others, & very steep both going up & coming down in others. After 7 miles we emerged in a beautiful, green, velvety valley, which, upon first coming in view, presented a most cheering appearance. We here crossed a slough, the crossing of which was fixed & bridged by our Captain & party ahead. Before this was done, it is said it was almost impassible, each having to be cordelled across.
Cyrus C. Lovelan, 1850:
This is a beautiful valley about ten miles wide, bounded on all sides with high and rugged mountains, some of which are heavily timbered. About half of this valley is thickly covered with grass, the other half perfectly barren. On the east side is a slough, by crossing this it is said to cut off six miles.
For further information on how to locate the Trail today, see the books listed in the bibliography.