Emigrant Gap, California

June 20, 2017

Last year, after we had visited Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe (you can read about it HERE), we decided that we would drive back to our hotel in San Francisco on I-80, by Donner Pass. 
To be honest when we made the decision it was kind of on a whim, my traveling heart wanting to see more of California and the beautiful area that we were surrounded by, and my mom always willing to go on an adventure. I had absolutely no idea the extreme beauty that was still to meet us that day after we had experienced the awe and wonder of Emerald Bay.

It was the best decision.

I can't recommend a trip to Emigrant Gap enough. Located along I-80 in California the views just driving to Emigrant Gap are so stunning and the pictures above show just a few shots that we saw of the beautiful countryside. As we drove along we just kept saying, "oh my... absolutely gorgeous", "oh my goodness this is beautiful" and were literally speechless at the beauty before us.
When we arrived at Emigrant Gap we stood at the overlook and just were blown away by the breathtaking beauty that was before us.
Since teaching about the westward expansion in AP US History years ago, I have always wanted to see Emigrant Gap. Emigrant Gap is a ridge that is famously located along the California Trail. It is located to the west of what is now referred to and called Donner Pass. 
Emigrant Gap is famous in tales of westward expansion mostly because of the cliffs that are so steep in this area that forced the pioneers in the 1840s to lower their wagons on ropes in order to continue westward. This section of the pioneer trail was also where pioneers were emigrating from the United States to California (as California was part of Mexico at that time). 

The feat of lowering wagons on ropes was something that I honestly had not thought that much about when I was a high school student. My history teacher at the time seemed to just gloss over the fact and paint the picture that the ropes were steady and the wagons were easily lowered down. This could not have been less true.

When I was teaching this section of history I learned that was simply not the case at all. Despite all that the pioneers encountered along their journey (sickness, starvation, praire fires, bears, fights with specific Indian tribes, etc.) one of the most dangerous parts of the journey came when the pioneers encountered this section of their journey with lowering the wagons in these steep cliffs. 
Now, I will be the first one to admit that when I showed portions of Into the West to my students the scenes that depicted this section of lowering the wagons caused us to giggle a bit. The "mountain" and "cliffs" in the show looked like a tiny hill about 10-20 feet high and at one point one of the main characters was idly standing on the hill watching a wagon break loose from its ropes and head towards her (yes, eventually hitting her). After I had tried to explain the incredible thing that the pioneers had done, the bravery that they had, and the incredible task of lowering the wagons, the scene did seem to downplay the severity of this task (and may have prompted the infamous "Into the West mock video" that made us all laugh- hahahaha). 

BUT standing in that space, overlooking Emigrant Gap last year, I realized how wrong both my high school history teacher and I had been. The task was anything but easy and anything short of being incredible. As I stood staring out at the rolling mountains, one after another, with the dramatic cliffs and high peaks I was stunned at the brave, courageous, and arduous task that the pioneers encountered.
It was absolutely amazing and incredible to stand in this place of history that was not only beautiful, but incredibly inspiring. 
To think about all that the pioneers encountered along their journey and then to think about facing this section of land - so close to where they were trying to go and yet still so far- this task would have seemed daunting and overwhelming. It was completely inspiring to stand in this area and pay tribute to those courage few who accomplished this. It was also absolutely inspiring. We saw this just a few days before "courtney the portney" was placed and standing there reminded me to be courageous and face the "mountain" that was there before me. 

If you ever get the chance to drive along Interstate 80 in California and see Emigrant Gap, I can't encourage you enough to go visit. You will walk away inspired, encouraged, and in awe of not only the beauty before you, but the incredibly bravery of a generation past.
"The spring of 1845 saw the first covered wagons surmount the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They left this valley, ascended to the ridge, and turned westward to Old Emigrant Gap. The wagons were lowered by ropes to the floor of Bear Valley. Hundreds followed before, during, and after the gold rush. This was a hazardous portion of the overland emigrant trail."
-Historical Marker at Emigrant Gap, California-


  1. It's always amazing to see sites that our pioneering ancestors blazed a trail through.

    1. Isn't it?!? I was so amazed by their courage and the determination that they had in blazing these trails!!

      Blessings, Rebecca :)

  2. Rebecca, I'm a freelance writer doing an article on the Pioneer Trail for "The Union" newspaper in Grass Valley (below Emigrant Gap on highway 20/49). The trail takes off at Bear Valley and basically follows Highway 20 down the mountain to about 5 miles above Nevada City. Your photo #21 is absolutely spectacular, and I wonder if I could get your permission to use it in my article? Thanks so much!

    1. Joan,

      Could you send me an email? I tried to reply back but you are a "no-reply blogger" and I can't seem to find an email- my email address is: caravansonnet@gmail.com :)

      Excited to connect and hear more about your project!
      Blessings, Rebecca :)

  3. Loved reading your comments about Emigrant Gap. I have a cabin at Emigrant Gap and I am always glad that other people love the area as much as we do. The history of the area also includes Native American Trails used by John Fremont on his expedition to California, the trail used by the Donner Party Forlorn Hope Group as they accidentally went into the North Fork of the American River Canyons, the Westward expansion as you mentioned, the Dutch Flat to Donner Lake Road (used to carry the Comstock load from Virginia City), the CPRR, the Lincoln Highway, Highway 40, etc. I could go on and on about the historical significance of this area. It is amazing that there is so little historical information on the area. But maybe it is because
    it is a place that people mostly traveled through, not that many people choose to stay in such rugged country.