How Long Was the California Trail?  

Do you know how long was the California Trail? To begin with, the trail stretches to a total distance of 1,950 miles. Out of that distance, 1,100 miles are still observable to this day. The path’s recognizable sections lie on public lands.

The California Trail began in western Missouri. Then it crossed the Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains. Finally, it ended in the goldfields of northern California.

 What Is the California Trail?

how long is the California trail

The California Trail was an emigrant trail across the western half of the United States from the Missouri River to the state of California. The trail has numerous cut offs and splits for alternative paths for travellers.

The California Trail carried hundreds of thousands of gold-seekers and farmers to the farmlands and goldfields of the Golden State.

The combined length of the trail, including its cutoffs and splits, is more than 5,000 miles.

How Long Was the California Trail – Trail Passing through Ten US States

The California Trail used to pass through ten states in total. However, this does not mean that the combined lengths of these ten US states represent the trail’s total distance.

Instead, there are only some touchpoints where the trail passes through a particular state. So, when trying to determine how long was the California Trail, we consider only the main path, and not the branches. 

The touchpoints of the trail are the following:

  • On the northern side, the trail touchpoints are the states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.
  • On the southern side are the states of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Historical Value of the California Trail

chimney rock california trail
Chimney Rock National Historic Site with sunflowers, western Nebraska, USA. The peak of Chimney Rock is 1289 meters above sea level.

The California Trail has immense historical value. First, it is proof of the largest mass migration in American history. About 200,000 people travelled westward through this trail from the 1840s to the 1860s.

Most of these emigrants settled in Oregon or California.

Today, the trail houses 320 historical landmarks, most notable of which include:

  • City of Rocks
  • Chimney Rock
  • South Pass
  • Scott’s Bluff
  • Fort Laramie
  • Devil’s Gate
  • Independence Rock
  • Sweetwater River

What Happened on the California Trail?

From 1848 until 1869, thousands of businessmen, miners, pioneers, and farmers passed through the California Trail to the Golden State. In two years, the new settlers caused the population to balloon to 120,000. This qualified California to be the 31st state of the United States.

According to other estimates, the influx was about 250,000 new settlers who came in until 1869. It took three to six months for emigrant families to complete the journey.

During the journey, the wagon was the travelers’ home. However, it would not provide a good place for the travelers to rest. That is because wagons did not have suspension to absorb the jolts caused by the rugged terrain.

Also, it was necessary to keep the wagons as light as possible. If not, it would cause draft animals to easily get exhausted and die.

Trip Not Easy

The 2,000-mile journey was far from easy. Travelers faced the treacherous Rocky Mountains, as well as the Nevada deserts and the frosty Sierra Nevada.  

Also, there were few supply stations. For travelers to survive through the trail, they had to be self-sufficient. They had to master the skills of setting up night camps, capturing clean drinking water, chopping wood, building fires, etc.

Mortal accidents, American Indian raids, illnesses, and threats of violence were constant concerns among travelers.

Thousands of travelers died of cholera outbreaks on the California Trail. Illness claimed about 30,000 lives on the trail, with an average of ten to fifteen deaths per mile.

Strained Relations with Indians

Not only did California Trail travelers deplete the surrounding resources. They also disturbed and contaminated the environment. This angered the native American Indians who lived near the trail.

Many travelers feared the Indians, but after some weeks on the trail, they learned that Indians did not want to fight. Instead, they preferred to trade. The Indians bought cloth, ammunitions, beads, and metal pots from travelers.

In return, travelers bought comfortable moccasins, fresh foods, and warm buffalo cloaks and robes from Indians.

Within years, emigrants began to settle in areas along the trail, and the relations between Indians and emigrants became strained.

The new settlers contaminated the water supplies. Further, they transmitted diseases to Indians. Ultimately, the Indians had more reasons to fear the white settlers.

Animals on the California Trail

Emigrants took animals with them, including oxen and horses. But as they moved along the trail, they also encountered wildlife native to the ten states.

Some of the animals came to have a special meaning for the travelers. However, many animals across the trail terrified them, including:

  • Owls, California condors, and bald eagles
  • Mountain lions and jaguars
  • Black bears and grizzly bears
  • Coyotes and grey wolves
  • Bison
  • Rabbits and squirrels
  • Snakes
  • Badgers, beavers, and prairie dogs
  • Moose, elk, deer, and antelope

Today, mountain lion and coyote attacks on the California Trail are still common.