Desert Virtual Tour

If you are pressed for time, or just want to revisit the content, this page allows you to view the text and images available on the interpretive panels in the Forty-Mile Desert room.

Forty Mile Desert


Emigrants dreaded the Forty Mile Desert with good reason. It was the last great obstacle before they had to pass over the Sierra Nevada. In the tremendous effort to cross the desert, many emigrants saw all or part of the elephant.

Wagons and dead animals littered the trail, giving it the appearance of a pathway through endless piles of discarded objects. As people grew desperate they threw out even the most treasured items that they had hauled for months to lighten the loads for the weakening animals. Emigrants made campfires from the discarded materials, giving the appearance of flares stretching across the desert at night.

Pilgrim's Progress, J. Goldsborough Bruff, 1849 (Huntington Library)
40 Mile Desert (David Jamiel, BLM)

“The desert! You must see it and feel it in an August day, when legions have crossed it before you, to realize it in all its horrors. But heaven save you from the experience.” – Eleazar Stillman Ingalls, 1850

“As if in cruel mockery to torture us whilst thus already suffering sufficiently, again and again mirages arose, deceiving with their pleasing enchantments.” – William G. Johnston, 1849

Truckee or Carson


From Big Meadows the trail continued southwest along the edge of the Humboldt Sink. In wet years the sink became a broad shallow lake. At the southern end of the sink the trail forked where two routes crossed the Forty Mile Desert to the Truckee River and the Carson River.

At the other end of the desert, the Truckee route took emigrants over a more difficult mountain passage. After the Carson route opened in 1848, it was overwhelmingly preferred. Whichever route was chosen, emigrants were heartily glad to be leaving the Humboldt River.

“There were two roads across this desert, one to Truckee River, the other to Carson River. We took the latter.” – David R. Hindman, 1849

The Carson and Truckee Routes paralleled each other across the desert until they reached the rivers at the other end.

“Today we bid a final adieu to the nauseating Mary River. Never again so I desire to see its poisoning waters, miserable sloughs, parched valleys and bare painful looking mountains.” – William Franklin, 1850

Trail ruts are still visible today leading toward the mountains on the other side of the desert (Photograph by Shann Rupp)
Death and Desolation


Some emigrants and thousands of animals died on the Forty Mile Desert. The heat, stench, and litter combined with the stark natural environment made the desert crossing a horrific experience.

(Bancroft Library)

“About ten miles out the dead teams of ’49 and ’50 were seen scattered here and there upon the road. Very soon, however, they became more frequent and in a little while filled the entire roadside; mostly oxen, with here and there a horse and once in a while a mule. Wagons, wagon irons, ox chains, harness, rifles, and indeed all the paraphernalia of an emigrant’s “outfit” lay scattered along this notorious route, reminding one of the defeat of some great army.” – John Hawkins Clark, 1852

(Courtesy Churchill County Museum and Archives, Fallon, NV. Photograph by Greg MacGregor)

An unmarked emigrant grave in the Forty Mile Desert.

“It was to be an all-night trek. It might have well been named ‘Death’s trail,’ for as we followed the winding trail through the sage-brush, we saw white bones and carcasses of various animals.” – Henrietta Catherine McDaniel, 1853

Animals and Wagons


Surviving the Forty Mile Desert required food and water for the emigrants' animals. Most people took this chance to lighten their loads so they could make the crossing easier for their weary animals and create room for water and hay. Others abandoned their wagons and packed their belongings on their animals. Some families even made new wagons or carts out of pieces of the abandoned ones, while a few walked and carried whatever they could.

Gold Diggers Traveling Across Rugged Terrain (Corbis PG16996)
All manner of discarded items littered the Big Meadows area. (High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon)

“Here we find hundreds of dead animals & lots of stoves and all kinds of iron works where the emigrants lightened their wagons to take on grass & water.” – Lucena Parsons, 1851

“All are now busily preparing to cross the desert; some are over-hauling their goods and casting away everything that is deemed useless.” – John F. Riker, 1852

1848 Colt Dragoon Revolver

Some emigrants took five or six firearms. Handguns weighed up to four pounds. Rifles could weigh ten pounds or more.

Getting Across


Emigrants made the desert crossing in one run of twenty-four hours or more, stopping periodically to feed and rest their animals. Many emigrants started in the late afternoon and traveled all night to avoid the heat of the day, but still had to make it through scorching heat and hot sands the next afternoon.

The last ten miles were the worst as wagons became mired in deep sand. Some emigrants abandoned their wagons and led their livestock on ahead. Others left someone with the wagons, took the animals on to water, and then returned with them for the wagons. Once the emigrants approached the end of the desert the parched animals would often stampede to the Truckee's water.

Cropped from Colorado Desert and Signal Mountain (The Bancroft Library BANC PIC 1963.002:047811-A)

“It was a hard march over the desert. The men were tired out goading on the poor oxen which seemed ready to drop at every step. They were covered with a thick coating of dust, even to the red tongues which hung from their mouths swollen with thirst and heat.” – Luzena Stanley Wilson, 1849

“Just at dawn, in the distance, we had a glimpse of Truckee River, and with it the feeling: Saved at last! Poor cattle; they kept on mooing, even when they stood knee deep in water. The long dreaded desert has been crossed and we are all safe and well.” – Sallie Hester, 1849