Through High Rock Canyon

HRCthumpby James Ray Deaton7/5/16
My annual summertime boonie-bouncing Jeep trip into the more empty Western places found me on the Applegate Trail through High Rock Canyon in northwest Nevada. Most of an old pioneer road, the Applegate Trail, is still there pretty much as the pioneers traveled it in the 1800’s — remote and rocky, dry hot and dusty, basin and range, white alkali flats, big wind, little water, rattlesnakes, antelope, foxes, big cats (only their tracks seen), bighorn sheep (unseen), ticks galore, California quail, sage grouse, jackrabbits aplenty and wild horses. Surrounded everywhere by tall sage, rabbitbrush and far horizons. It’s hard on human beings, boot leather, the unprepared and wheels and vehicles of any kind (whether pulled by oxen or powered by internal combustion).


The trail was forged by the Applegate brothers, Levi Scott and others in 1846 as an alternate, more southern (supposedly safer) route into Oregon from Nevada into California, then on up to the Willamette Valley. The Lassen Trail later branched off the Applegate into north-central California and for a year or two was the most popular (but not best) pioneer route into California and the Gold Country. The Applegate branches off northwest from the old California Trail near the present-day town of Imlay, Nevada. The route went past Antelope Springs, up and over Antelope Summit then back down to Rabbit Hole Spring (a water supply that made the route possible for the 19th century travelers), across the Black Rock Desert, through Fly Canyon, High Rock Canyon, Modoc Country, then on to Oregon and some very difficult trail sections through the Siskiyou Mountains, Umpqua Canyon and on to the Promised Lands of Willamette Valley.

“Fifty-Four Forty or Fight” was still in play and plenty of restless Americans from Back East saw economic opportunity, a little nationalistic duty, Manifest Destiny and plain good adventure in an overland trek to this new and wide-open country. There was no government subsidy, relocation stipend or hazardous duty pay to incentivize the move. CarvedLettersMen, women and families struck out West for the chance of a better life with no guaranteed outcome or social safety net if things didn’t work out. Although the emigrants traveled in groups with rules, government and customs, “rugged individualism” was not a derisive epithet, but an expected and appreciated personality trait.

It’s not the same, but you can still get at least a sense of what the 19th century pioneers experienced on the trail to California and Oregon. It passes through some of the most remote, pristine and stark natural landscapes in the lower 48. You can bounce along all day on the road and not pass another vehicle. You can stop for a remote natural hot pool soak in Soldier Meadows. You can walk (or tumble) down the Fly Canyon “wagon slide” where pioneers had to lock the wheels with chain and lower their wagons down with rope because of the rocky steepness of the trail.

Up the hill a ways from Antelope Springs in a cluster of desert bush and grass you can find Susan Coon’s gravesite, one of the few trail graves with its original headstone remaining. Susan Coon died after childbirth in August 1860. The SusanCoonGravechild, Robert Coon, survived and was taken on to California. Fellow pioneer Frank Dunn, a stonecutter traveling with the group, spent the night of her death carving the original headstone from native rock so it could be placed on the grave before travel resumed the next day. Robert Coon grew up and became a rancher in the Dayton district of Butte County, Calif.

An Oct. 7, 1931 article in the Chico (Calif.) Enterprise tells how, years later, Susan Coon’s grandson, her now-elderly daughter (“Mrs. Martha E. Lewis, 78, of Dayton” and other relatives, some who had been on the trail with Susan as children, were finally able to locate her gravesite.

“Actual discovery of the grave was made by Lewis while other members of the party were inspecting the ground near Little Antelope Spring,” the article reads. “The women who had been in the immigrant train when Mrs. Coon died recognized the place of the burial immediately when they arrived there Sunday and an intensive search soon revealed the lonely grave, although it had been 71 years since they had seen the spot.”

Even after 170 years you can walk through the sage along the actual wagon route and still see the faint twin track indentations their wheels wore into the earth. In a rock-bedded section of the High Rock Canyon there are twin grooves in the road, about 4 feet apart, where the iron bands of wagon wheelsWagonRuts wore tracks into the rock. Pioneer names and dates chiseled into the rock face and written with axel grease onto rock can still be seen. The soaring rhyolite and basalt cliffs of High Rock Canyon seem to close in at dusk— beautiful and a little scary at the same time. An orange-red full moon coming into preternaturally huge view will stop all campsite preparation while you stop and stare, dumbfounded. (How do it do that?)

“It was a singular place to travel through” said Pathfinder John C. Fremont who traveled through High Rock Canyon in late 1843 with his scout Kit Carson. “Shut up in the earth, a sort of chasm, the little strip of grass under our feet, the rough walls of bare rock on either hand, and the narrow strip of sky above.”

Bad road and remote camping are the touchstones of a good Nevada Jeep Trip. If you want to get a sense of the trials and toils the pioneers experienced when they traveled westward in the course of empire and an unknown future — the Applegate Trail through Nevada is a great place to start.

James Ray Deaton, one of six known conservatives living in Berkeley, Calif., is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
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18 Responses to Through High Rock Canyon

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Locating that gravesite has to have been an impressive feat, given how much area they would have to search unless they had the precise route. I suspect one could also get an idea of what the pioneers faced — maybe too much of one — by crossing Donner Pass in a heavy snowstorm.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It was unclear from your article, James. Where did the pioneers charge their iPhones along the way?

  3. Steve Lancaster says:

    The movies have distorted the wagon trains somewhat; we have the impression that the westward pioneers road on wagons. In fact most of them walked from St. Louis to CA.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Or rode on horses. George Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger notes that James Reed’s daughter rode a fine pony, and suggests that if Reed had been less proud he might have led the Donner Party instead.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      My father, family, and some friends (I didn’t get in on this) walked a few miles of the Oregon Trail during it’s centennial or something. He was complaining of foot pain for months afterward.

      I’ve certainly done my share of hiking. But after about 6 miles, I’m done, and this is in good shoes. They didn’t have Nike Airs back then. And they didn’t just walk 6 miles a day but perhaps sometimes more. And they did it day after day for weeks.

      Sure, maybe they weren’t sprinting. But no wonder there are so many graves along the side of the trails.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    An interesting article.

    I spent some time in Lovelock, Nevada, and its northern environs, just down the road from Imlay. I was looking at mining possibilities about halfway between the two towns.

    Once you get off the highway you enter into a barren yet impressive landscape. I recall driving down dirt roads where I saw hundred foot high gold leaching piles, wandering badgers and a few rodents. No cars crossed my path for weeks.

    I was there while Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It became clear that we were going to go to war when I noticed jets practicing bombing runs and screaming a couple of hundred feet over my head.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That barren landscape might have been a little awe-inspiring, if not outright frightening, to those who had come East from more watered and wooded areas.

      Here in the People’s Republic of Washington State you get that effect compacted. When you cross east over the Cascades, you get into much drier country, some of it near dessert.

      For those who survived, the bounty of the Willamette valley (and reaches further north, including in and around Puget Sound) must have made the trip seem worthwhile. My mother loves reading stories of the pioneers. I’ll have to pick up a good historical novel or two. Yuze guys may have suggested some before. But I’d love one that eloquently told of the trials and tribulation, the landscape, and the final victory (and further struggles) of starting from scratch in a new land.

      Imagine that. Starting from scratch with nothing more than you could throw in a wagon, on a few horses or mules, a cart, or whatever. I know you get a feel for much of this in the movie, “The Grapes of Wrath” with Henry Fonda. Maybe that book by John Steinbeck is the place to start. Any opinions?

      And I still haven’t gotten an answer to my question. I’m sure James just hasn’t visited this thread yet. But where did they plug in their iPhones along the way?

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Can’t help you on that last one. When I was young I read a number of stories about the pioneers going west, probably in schoolbooks. In addition, there are at least a few good histories, such as George Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger (the Donner Party) and Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman is apparently in the public domain. You can download it at Amazon for free (perhaps at as well if you need another format).

          By coincidence, I’m getting into a wee bit of the opening of the West via “The Oklahoma Kid” which I was watching just now. But it’s really about Bogart vs. Cagney.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        But where did they plug in their iPhones along the way?

        Don’t know for sure, but I know where I would like people to stick them today.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        Prairie dogs were caught and put in a cage with a wheel connected to a small generator the trickle charge was enough to charge the phones. Now, please solve the cell tower problem.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Weren’t the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas sufficient?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Oh…that makes sense. I forgot about PDP. That’s a now-forgotten standard when horsepower replaced it.

          I don’t know what steampunk technology they used back then, but I’m pretty sure a network of cell towers already existed…like this one. They just tapped into it. It’s my understanding that Robert Conrad’s “The Wild Wild West” is highly accurate in terms of the technology they had back then. LP (Loveless power) is another forgotten technology.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Dr. Miguelito Loveless invented both TV and radio as well as penicillin,but he didn’t make them available. On the other hand, Burgess Meredith played a physicist who came up with E=MC squared before Einstein did, so he may have accomplished something before he went bad.

  5. Steve Lancaster says:

    Packing for a trip of this kind is a special talent. In effect you are packing every essential for civilization. You need clothing, but not too much, food, water not just for humans but also for animals. Take too much and you need another wagon, take too little and you will die of hunger or thirst. The closest we have today is packing a spacecraft for an extended trip. I doubt that any pajama boy or girl is up to the task, cross country in a wagon or from earth to mars.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I don’t recall where I read it, but I understand that one could make one’s way on much of the Oregon Trail by following the discarded furniture and non-necessities-of-life detritus, left along the route.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Waterd and some food could be supplied along the way, of course. This is what made the dry drives — significant marches without water — so difficult. The Hastings cut-off (used by the Donner Party) had two major dry routes, which were longer than he claimed. (I’m sure the survivors were none too pleased with him.) This cost them a lot of oxen (a few of which might have been eaten), and wagons that those oxen pulled (along with a lot of supplies).

  6. Anniel says:

    James Deaton: I love your travels through country I’m familiar with. I also love the photos that accompany them. I still think your article about Baby Angelia is one of my all time favorite ST articles. You have permission to please go on more vacation treks.

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