Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Sonora Pass & Early Explorers

Oldest of the trans-Sierra emigrant trails to California is spectacular Sonora Pass crossed by Highway 108, second highest (9,626 ft.) of all the highway crossings of the range. It is lower by 321 ft. than Tioga Pass to the south, the pass that goes through Yosemite National Park.

It just so happens State Route 108 which reaches its highest elevation at Sonora Pass is one of the closest Sierra-Nevada Mountains crossings to where I live. (The other is Tioga Pass.) Many times I have driven this pass to the mountain towns on the west side of the summit. Several times I have driven over Sonora Pass on my way to Bridgeport in Mono County. The road is extremely winding and steep on the east side.

Some of what makes crossing the Sierra-Nevada Mountain range so treacherous is it is a steep range. It rises quickly from the Central Valley, most of which is under 1,000 feet above sea level to heights of almost 10,000 feet above sea level. As steep as it is on the west side, the drop on the east side into the Mono Basin and Owens Valley is even steeper.

About twenty years ago my husband and I drove a 3-cylinder Diahatsu over Sonora Pass to Bridgeport. That night it snowed. Although the roads were clear by the time we decided to return home, on the way back, the car could not build up enough power to drive up the steepest parts of the road east of Sonora Pass. Fearing Tioga Pass was already closed for the winter snow season, we drove north to Carson Pass to get on the west side of the mountain range. Such has been my experience with driving Sonora Pass even in these modern times.

Donner Pass to the north is probably the most famous due to the tragedy that took place there. However, Sonora Pass was also an early pass attempted by explorers seeking the best crossing from the Great Basin of Nevada to the fertile lands of California west of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

Plaque at Sonora Pass Summit
Some believe the Bartleson-Bidwell party, with mules, horses and oxen, made the first crossing on October 18, 1841. However, the U.S. Forest Service indicates they crossed north of Sonora Pass in the Carson-Iceberg area. Other sources claim they crossed about eight miles south of the current Highway 108.

The first documented immigrant traverse of Sonora Pass appears to have been in the late summer of 1852 by a wagon train known as the Clark-Skidmore Company which made it to Columbia in Tuolumne County. Once they arrived, Sonora citizens sent a delegation in 1853 to divert emigrants from the more northerly routes leading to Sacramento.  The wagon train of William Duckwall and George Trahern were persuaded to follow this route, struggling over boulders and precipices. They lost cattle and some wagons but reached Relief Camp where Sonorans had provisions for sale at Relief Camp for the many pioneer parties that were soon winding down the mountains. By 1853, several thousand emigrants had followed the route. 

"Grizzly" Adams took the trail over Sonora Pass in April, 1854, and reported “On all sides lay old axle-trees and wheels....melancholy evidence of the last season's disasters."

By 1855, the original Walker River Trail had been abandoned as a wagon route.  A new route eliminated the old emigrant trail.  The new trail followed more closely the present route of Highway 108.

Evening at Blue Lake near Sonora Pass - Ctsy Jeff P., Berkeley, CA, USA
One can only imagine the challenges faced by nineteenth century explorers trying to get across this mountain range, especially if they arrived late in the year and found themselves caught in snow storms. From the Mono Basin to the east, travelers following the West Walker River headed towards the mountain peaks as seen in the following photograph probably had no idea of the difficulties ahead of them due to the steepness and rough rockiness of the way.

My Independence Day 1881 – Zina Abbott’s Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs is available both as an ebook and in print on Amazon. If you have a Kindle Unlimited account and have not yet read all three of my first three books in the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs series, this book containing three novellas will count as one book on your KU queue. You may find the book description and purchase link by CLICKING HERE.


Plaque dedicated September 10, 1983; Bodie chapter No. 6 for Matuca chapter No. 1849, E clampus vitus


  1. I love that photo with the sunset background. I'm so grateful I didn't have to be one of those pioneers. What a hard trip they had!

  2. Zina,

    The country there is as beautiful as it is wild. The only time I've been in the area was on a business trip. I flew into Reno and then drove, via the Truckee route, to Lake Tahoe. It was a lot like driving in the high country of the Rocky Mountains here in Colorado. When you think about those pioneers who were tough enough to make it across the Great American Desert (the plains), then make their way over or around the Rocky Mountains, only to hit the Sierra Nevada range when they were so close to their destination. Talk about people with perseverance.

  3. It always amazes me how determined and hearty these early travelers were. I enjoyed the post, and learned much. Thank you. Doris

  4. I am trying to imagine how in the heck these early pioneers traveled these treacherous mountain passes with oxen and mules when your car couldn't muster the energy on a modern road. I guess these were people who were determined to get to the other side for certain.
    I have a fear of heights so I don't believe I will ever drive this route. I have a terrible time driving the Blue Ridge Mountains and they are not as high or steep as the Rockies. The photographs were beautiful, especially the one of Blue Lake.
    All the best to you, Zina.


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