Great Basin 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 Great Basin room.

Great Basin


West of South Pass in Wyoming, routes to the Great Basin diverged at several points over time. In the earliest years, the California Trail entered the Great Basin from the north, going by way of Fort Bridger in Wyoming, Fort Hall in Idaho, and then south to the Humboldt River. Later the Sublette and Hudspeth Cutoffs shortened the original route but also entered from the north.

Parting of the Ways, about twenty miles west of South Pass, marks the beginning of the Sublette Cutoff that was opened in 1844. Here, emigrants could continue their journey to either Oregon or California.

In 1846 the Hastings Cutoff went west from Fort Bridger through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert to the Humboldt. Beginning in 1848, the route west from Fort Bridger went to Salt Lake City and from there the Salt Lake Cutoff went back to the main trail at City of Rocks.


In 1849 California-bound emigrants had four choices of routes west of South Pass. Before that the only practical choice was between the original route via Forts Bridger and Hall and the Hastings Cutoff. Swipe the pictures below to see the advantages and disadvantages of each route.

“In 2 or 3 miles we came to forks of the road, one going around by Fort Bridger and Salt Lake, and the other cutting off the elbow, and joining the first at Thomas’ Fork of Bear River.” – Elijah P. Howell, 1849

Great Salt Lake Desert Mural
City in the Desert

For gold-seekers on their way to California the Salt Lake Valley was synonymous with the term "Mormon". From their beginning in 1847 the Mormon settlement struggled for survival. By 1848 the community badly needed manufactured goods and hard currency to finance the immigration and settlement of the thousands of remaining Mormons still trying to reach the Salt Lake Valley.

Overland travelers passing through or stopping in Salt Lake City rested, recuperated, and purchased services from the Mormons, providing them with the goods and money they needed. This influx gave the colonists a recognized circulating currency which they used to establish their foothold in the region.

Great Salt Lake Desert


The 85-mile wide Great Salt Lake Desert west of the Great Salt Lake presented one of the worst parts of the journey for the emigrants who took this route. The deceptively solid-looking surface of the salt flats created an obstacle for wagons and teams. Once on the flats, emigrant wagons fell through the thin surface into thick mud below, exhausting animals as they struggled to pull trapped wagons through the heavy mire. Mud, searing heat, and lack of water made travel across this area extremely hazardous.

“This was the severest trial I have had by far, the desert proving to be 93 miles instead of 75, as we had understood, and having to walk all the way almost without stopping, with but little to eat and drink, and no sleep, was soul-trying in the extreme.” – John Wood, 1850

The Salt Desert from Floating Island, looking west to Silver Island Mountains, photographed 1999 (Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved)

“We struck a great white plain uniformly level, and utterly destitute of vegetation…. As we proceeded the plain gradually became softer, and our mules sometimes sunk to their knees in the stiff composition of salt, sand, and clay.” – Edwin Bryant, 1846

"Even the Cattle Were Deceived"

As they traveled across the desert, travelers in emigrant trains experienced fantastic images.

“… the mirage, when the sun shone, would make every object the size of a man’s hat look as large as an ox, at the distance of a mile or more; so one could ramble all day from one of these delusions to another…” – John Breen

“During the afternoon the inevitable mirage appeared, and some of Bruff’s men were convinced that they looked at a lagoon fringed by tall trees. Their captain learnedly explained the phenomenon. He thought, however, that even cattle had been deceived, and had stampeded toward the ‘water’. Carcasses lay scattered about in that direction, as far as could be seen.” – George Rippey Stewart, The California Trail

“The desert mirage disclosed against the horizon, clear, distinct, and perfectly outlined…. Each jagged cliff, or pointed rock, or sharply-curved hill-top, hung suspended in air as perfect and complete as if photographed on the sky. Deceived, deluded by these images, in spite of their better judgment, several members of the company were led far out into the pathless depths of the desert.” – C.F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party

How Does a Mirage Work?

During a mirage, the air near the earth's surface is hotter than the air just slightly above it. The two different layers of air have different densities - and each reflects light at a slightly different angle, bending the light.

Our eyes and brain assume that light is traveling in a straight line, even if it isn't. Because the light curves as it reaches our eyes, we see the blue of the sky reflected on the earth's surface. It looks to us as if the light is reflecting off of real water. But a mirage isn't just an illusion - photographs taken of mirages look exactly the same way!

City of Rocks Mural
Great Basin


A map of the Great Basin shows how it got its name. Surface streams in this vast area never reach the sea, draining instead into isolated lakes. The Wasatch mountains to the east and the Sierra Nevada to the west form the borders, but a series of short mountain ranges divide the interior of the Great Basin into smaller basins.

USGS Topo Map (National Atlas of the United States)

The various routes comprising the California Trail followed water drainages throughout the Great Basin, allowing travelers access to watering holes along the way.

“The valley varies in width from a few rods to ten miles and mostly barron this is decidedly the hardest part of the journey that we have as yet experienced – the rivers mountains hills or marshes are not to be compared to these hot sandy deserts…. hot enough to cook eggs in the sand.” – Amasa Morgan, 1849

The Pioneers (The Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 1963.002:0307--A)

1841 - Bidwell-Bartleson Party opened the Humboldt River route

1844 - Truckee River route opened

1846 - Hastings Cutoff opened; Donner-Reed party

1847 - Mormons establish first permanent white settlement in the Great Salt Lake Valley

1848 - Carson River route, Applegate-Lassen Trail, and Salt Lake Cutoff opened

1859 Central Overland route established south of Humboldt route

Thousands of Names


About 15 miles south of the Idaho state line lies a prominent bluff of pitted sandstone. By 1852, the site now known as Record Bluff held the names of thousands of travelers who rested in its shadow, seeking some connection with those they'd left behind or hoped would follow. Today, only a small number of inscriptions that once covered it survive.

Emigrant inscriptions on Record Bluff (Courtesy of Don Buck)
Record Bluff, Nevada (Courtesy of Don Buck)

“[Record Bluff] is a huge sandstone bluff in which … thousands have … inscribed their names there, perchance thinking it might, at some future day, afford to some dear friends who should be winding their weary way through this lone wilderness a momentary pleasure in knowing that they were standing just where that dear one had stood, years before, and gazed with the same feelings of delight with which we now look upon it.” – Harriett Sherrill Ward, 1853

City of Rocks


Massive granite rocks at City of Rocks fascinated the emigrants. The scenic grandeur and evocative nature of the place challenged their imaginations, and they called it by many names, including Castle City, Pyramid Circle, Pyramid City, Monumental Rocks, and City of Rocks.

While some wagon trains passed through City of Rocks, it also provided a place for nooning or camping for the night. Large granite rocks rise out of a well-watered valley. A clear mountain stream meanders through it, and a spring is at the base of one of the monoliths.

City of Rocks (Courtesy of Dr. Paul Link, Department of Geosciences, Idaho State University)
City of Rocks was an important emigrant hub in the Rocky Mountain West.

“we caught a glimpse of what at first appeared to be a city of ruins. There were walls, domes, monuments, spires, palaces, and roofs, all of dazzling white.” – John Steele, 1850

“This is known as the City rocks and certainly bears a striking resemblance to a city…” – Helen Carpenter, 1857

Mobile Family Life


One out of five women experienced some stage of pregnancy during her journey. Though the family might camp for a day or more when a woman began labor, traveling often resumed within hours of the birth. Many baby names reflected the place they were born - La Bonte, Platte, Columbia, or Nevada. A boy born in 1853 at City of Rocks was named Pyramid Alonzo.

Young boys and girls milked cows, fetched water, helped with younger siblings, gathered fuel, and washed dishes. In rough areas, children walked ahead of the wagons and threw stones out of the way, cleared brush, and put tree limbs over muddy spots to keep the wheels from sinking in.

(Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Z-121)

Whether they found the overland trip challenging or pleasant, most children remembered it as one of the most interesting times of their lives.

"Emigrants to the West" prepare a meal on the prairie. Undated woodcut. (Corbis BE042499)

“I carried a little motherless babe 500 miles, whose mother had died, and when we would go from camp to camp in search of some good, kind, motherly woman to let it nurse no one ever refused when I presented it to them.” – Margaret Windsor Iman, 1852

Death on the Trails


About five percent of emigrants died on the trail, or twice the rate if they had remained at home. Averaged over the 2,000-mile length of the trail, there would be ten graves per mile. Diseases like cholera, dysentery, mountain fever, tuberculosis, and scurvy caused the majority of deaths, followed by accidents and violence.

“The dead (from cholera) lay sometimes in rows of fifties or more…. Crowds of people were continually hurrying past us in their desperate haste to escape the dreadful epidemic.” – Ezra Meeker, 1852

(Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming)

The death of a loved one on the overland trail was worse than at home, where the gravesite could be visited and cared for. On the journey the deceased was abandoned to the elements, animals, and possibly Indians, rarely to be seen again by grieving family and friends.

In 1849, J. Goldsborough Bruff sketched a burial ceremony and grave along the trail. (The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA)

“They had just buried the babe of the woman who died days ago, and were just digging a grave for another woman that was run over by the cattle and wagons when they stampeded yesterday. She lived twenty-four hours, she gave birth to a child a short time before she died. The child was buried with her. She leaves a little two year old girl and a husband. They say he is nearly crazy with sorrow.” – Jane Gould Tourtillott, 1862

Sarah Winnemucca was born along the Humboldt River in 1844. This was just five years before the mass migration of gold seekers and pioneers traveling to California changed the Paiutes' way of life forever. Named Thocmetony, or "shell flower", Sarah and her family considered the Pyramid Lake region home but traveled long distances to hunt and gather. As the miners and settlers claimed more land, the Paiute began to suffer. With their land use restricted, sustenance becoming scarce and their situation becoming dire, they were forced to start asking for help. Sarah acted as a voice for her people for many years.

Sarah's grandfather, Chief Truckee, and her father, Chief Winnemucca, realized early on the importance of learning and understanding the settlers' ways. Sarah and her sister were sent to live with Major William Ormsby and his family. The Ormsbys taught the girls to speak, read, and write English.

Sarah then continued on to work as an army scout and interpreter during the Bannock Wars, spoke more than 300 times about the plight of her people across the country, as well as spoke in front of Congress and became an author. Published in 1883, her book Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (which can be read online here and here) is the first book written by a Native American woman.



At Soda Springs, Bidwell, Bartleson, and thirty-two others in nine wagons split from the rest of the party and turned south towards the Great Salt Lake. After leaving the Bear River the party spent the next two and a half months finding a way to California without an accurate map or a guide to lead them. Scouts went ahead of the party into the strange, inhospitable country to search out water and grass and find routes through and around the numerous north/south mountain ranges they encountered.

By mid-September they reached the edge of the Pequop Mountains in northeastern Nevada, where they abandoned their wagons and continued on as a pack train. They traveled south along the Ruby Mountains, crossed at Harrison Pass, and worked their way north to the Humboldt River. They followed the Humboldt River to the Humboldt Sink, then made their way along the Walker River and reached the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada on October 14. They were the first American wagon/pack train to travel across the Great Basin.

Soda Springs, on Bear River, Idaho, William H. Jackson, c. 1868-69. (Brigham Young University L. Tom Perry Special Collections)
Bidwell-Bartleson Map

The Bidwell-Bartleson Party split from guide Thomas Fitzpatrick and the Oregon-bound missionaries at Soda Springs, an important landmark on the Oregon Trail, and turned south toward California.

“We were now thrown entirely upon our own resources. All the country beyond was to us a veritable terra incognita, and we only knew that California lay to the west.” – John Bidwell, Reminiscence of 1841

Listen to the Bidwell/Bartleson story from the Great Basin.



When the Donner Party arrived at Fort Bridger, Hastings had already left. Assured that the Hastings Cutoff was a good route, the Donner Party rested a few days, then followed the Hastings wagons. At the edge of the Salt Desert, they found a note from Hastings saying it would take two days to cross the desert. It took five, using up critical supplies and energy that cost them dearly as they lost precious time.

In the desert they abandoned wagons and cached property, and on the other side they lost another week searching for lost cattle. Then they trailed for more than two weeks through rough mountain and valley terrain to the Humboldt River. Their first camp on the river was at the mouth of the South Fork of the Humboldt, just south of the Trail Center.

Tensions mounted as they traveled down the river. Matters came to a head when James Reed was banished from the party after he killed teamster John Snyder during an argument. Reed and another man went ahead to California for supplies. The demoralized party struggled on. Exhausted, they rested at Truckee Meadows (Reno) before they began to ascend the Sierra Nevada.

The Hastings Cutoff emerged from the mouth of South Fork Canyon and intersected the California Trail on the Humboldt River. (Courtesy of Dale Porter)
Hastings Cutoff Map

“The rest of the Californians went the long route, feeling afraid of Hastings’ cutoff. But Mr. Bridger informs me that it is a fine, level road with plenty of water and grass.” – James F. Reed, 1846

“The Captain of the Donner Party was then seeking the new road or shortcut to California. … an easier and more pleasant road.” – Lovina Graves, Reminiscence of 1846

Listen to the Donner/Reed story from the Great Basin.

Shoshone Camp Mural

Shoshone Hunting and Fishing Items

Shoshone Tools and Toys

Shoshone Willow Work

Mural depicting forced evacuations
Life in the Desert

"Take from the earth and give back to the earth, and don't forget to say please and thank you." - Julia Parker, Miwok/Pomo/Paiute

Prior to the overland migration the Western Shoshone (Newe), Northern Paiute (Numa), and Washoe Indians found what they needed to survive in the valleys and mountains of the Great Basin. In the river valleys they found the willows, tule, and sage brush from which they built their shelters. Pelts from beaver and rabbits kept them warm. Antelope, deer, ducks and a variety of plants fed them. In the fall pinion pine nuts gathered in the mountains provided sustenance so they were not hungry in the winter. This desert country provided a decent living for people who understood how to live here.

Great Basin Native American Tribes
White Settlement

Ranchers found water and forage for their stock where antelope and deer grazed. Miners sought out mineral deposits beneath the pinion groves in the mountains. As whites arrived in the Great Basin they took the resources they wanted and divided the land with roads and fences, often destroying resources and travel corridors vital to the Shoshone and Paiute ways of life. In the transformed Great Basin, Newe and Numa were forced to adopt new lifestyles to cope with scarce game and an invasive foreign culture that demanded they abandon their dearest traditions.

“Since the white man has made a road across our land and killed off our game, we are hungry, and there is nothing for us to eat. Our women and children cry for food, and we have no food to give them.” - Chief Washakie, Shoshone

Mural depicting an Indian school
Mural depicting intercultural celebration