The Final Years of the Walker River Trail
Once word of the hardships of the Walker River Trail had spread through newspaper accounts, most emigrants shunned the southern route and chose the more popular Carson River Trail. A few emigrants bound for the Southern Mines, however, took advantage of the Sonora Pass route. Some were cattlemen, others were families with relatives already in California who had advised them of the route. The best estimates place the number of emigrants to cross over Sonora Pass in 1854 at about 650.
One of the most unusual persons to make his way over Sonora Pass in 1854 was the man known as Grizzly Adams. Adams, who was living in Tuolumne County at the time, decided to head to the Rocky Mountains on a hunting trip. He and a friend, along with a number of Mi-Wok Indians, ascended the west side of the pass in the spring when considerable snow was still on the ground. They had to chop channels for the wagon wheels and cover the ruts with pine boughs to keep their wagon from sinking into the snow.
Adams brought a couple of tamed grizzly bears tagging along with him. It was his practice to kill adult grizzlies, take their cubs, and raise them as pets. The bears followed behind the wagon, led by tethers. In Adams' rather fanciful account, he describes wild animals attacking their campsite and having to fight them off with rifles and knives.
James Hamilton Briggs
Among the emigrants to cross Sonora Pass that year was James Hamilton Briggs, a nephew of Kit Carson. During a hunting outing on the pass Briggs accidentally shot himself in the arm. It was two weeks before he reached Sonora and was able to obtain medical aid. By then doctors were forced to amputate his arm.
The Demise of the Trail
After the initial excitement of the Gold Rush had subsided, overland migration fell off considerably. There are no accounts of emigrants using the Walker River Trail after 1854, but most likely a few took advantage of the direct route into the Southern Mines. At the same time several new trails opened up leading into California, among them the Big Trees Trail and an improved route over today's Echo Summit (Highway 50 by Lake Tahoe).
When reports of gold discoveries along the Walker River and in other places in Mono County began to reach California later in the decade, the Walker River Trail became a convenient route for miners to access the new diggings. Pack trains made regular trips over the old Sonora Pass route, delivering much needed goods to places such as Mono Diggings. After the initial commotion, it appeared that the eastern Sierra gold strikes would prove to be more excitement than actual gold; but around 1861 discoveries in places such as Aurora, Nevada, brought a stampede of interest in the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
The Sonora and Mono Wagon Road
Talk of building a road across the mountains drew support from Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Calaveras, Mariposa, and Tuolumne Counties. Early investigations soon concluded that the old Walker River Trail was not a feasible route for a road. Surveyors looked instead to the route now followed by today's Highway 108. After a lot of arguing and discussing and rearranging of routes, work finally began in the early 1860s. The new road led from Strawberry up the ridges above the Stanislaus River and through today's popular camping places like Dardanelle and Kennedy Meadows .
The Sonora and Mono Road was finally completed in the fall of 1864. Soon afterward the mining strikes in Aurora and the surrounding area played out. After that, the Sonora and Mono Toll Road was only used by a few farmers delivering their goods to the eastern Sierra and an occasional herdsman driving his flock to mountain pasture. It appeared that the road might be neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair. Then in 1878 the fabulous strikes in Bodie erupted.
Suddenly the Sonora and Mono Road was the most popular route to Nevada south of Placerville. Wagons stacked up one after another, hauling supplies to Bodie. Eventually, though, the excitement over the new strikes played out and things settled back to a more easy going pace.
Meanwhile, the old Walker River Trail was completely forgotten. Erosion swept away most remnants of the old emigrant trail so that today in most places no traces remain. Fortunately the route is preserved in the Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness areas, and those who know where it is can walk along it, experiencing the trail much as the pioneers did.
Read more about Grizzly Adams in Richard Dillon's and Theodore H. Hittell's classic books.