California, here we come, if . . .
. . . if we can cross those mountains
By Bill Sanford
Gold, good land, some great business opportunities! Like a magnet these words attracted people in the east and drew them west. The time frame: mid-19th century. (The discovery of gold by James W. Marshall at Coloma was January 24, 1848.)
What the beckoning words did not immediately convey was the existence of a towering mountain range: the forbidding Sierra Nevada.
The major challenge: finding ways to cross. The search was on for passes. Four routes/passes were scouted and became heavily traveled: Carson, Echo, Donner and Henness. Ultimately, roads were built over 15 passes, 15 ways to enter California’s great Central Valley from the east. Have you considered setting out to see them all?
The aim of this article is to tell how all those passes got their names. The order will be south to north, from Highway 58 running east from Bakersfield to Highway 299 running east from Redding.
Just before beginning, however, remember this: In most cases, we’re dealing here with second namings. Native Americans trod some of these passes long ago, and gave them names centuries before they were seen by any White people.
Tehachapi Pass, 4,065’ (Kern County). This name has been variously spelled. It is believed to derive from the name the local Indians gave to a creek: Tah-ee-chay-pah. At least part of the word is thought to carry the meaning of frozen. One writer theorizes “the meaning ‘frozen’ may have been applied first to the creek, which at some time was found to be frozen.” The pass today is very busy on account of lots of traffic on Highway 58 which links Bakersfield with Mojave, busy, too, with many Union Pacific and BNSF Railway freight trains. The two railroads share trackage rights across the challenging grade. To keep the steepness from being too severe, surveyors called for a loop – fairly famous in railroad circles – which is situated about 18 miles west of the pass. The loop is almost 3/4th of a mile around; it gains 77 feet in elevation and requires about 85 box cars to fill the whole of it. The rail route across the pass was built largely by 3,000 workers brought in from Canton, China. Most of the original track was laid over a two-year span (1874-1876). That the work was accomplished with picks, shovels, horse drawn carts and blasting powder is truly amazing. The loop has been dubbed one of the “seven wonders of the railroad world.”
The pass marks the southern end of the Sierra.
Walker Pass, 5,250’ (Kern County). This pass is named for Joseph Reddford Walker of Tennessee. Walker initially mapped it in 1834. An historian calls him “one of the great pathfinders of the American West.” Like Kit Carson, he served John Fremont as a guide (especially Fremont’s expedition of 1845-1846). The state highway which crosses the pass is #178, and it can be followed on east to Death Valley. When you’re at the pass, you’re 53 miles east of Bakersfield and 10 miles west of Ridgecrest. Also, when you’re at the pass, you may pause to read a plaque dedicated April 25, 1937. It contains a sentence which says: “This area was traversed by topographer Edward M. Kern, after whom the Kern River was named while accompanying the Fremont expedition of 1845.”
Much of the Walker Pass route is two lanes and some sections abound in curves which reduce your speed. This serves to push a lot of east-west traffic further south over Tehachapi Pass.
But to miss S.R. 178 is to miss much wonderful scenery. The lower Kern River Canyon features one gorgeous view after another. Lots of white water!
On my most recent crossing, I was captivated by all the Joshua trees on both sides of the pass. I can’t recall seeing the species as abundantly represented anywhere else. Our travel date was March 23rd and the trees were just beginning to adorn themselves with large white blossoms.
Sherman Pass, 9,200’ (Tulare County). This, the third highest crossing of the Sierra, is extremely crooked, making it a poor choice for anyone in a hurry. The name of the pass was transferred from Sherman Peak (9,908’), located about two miles north of the pass. The peak used to have a fire lookout tower on it. Some readers will be reminded of the famed General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. It is known to have been named by James Wolverton in 1879. Wolverton, a pioneer hunter, trapper and cattleman in the area, had served under Sherman in the 9th Indiana Cavalry. In all three instances, the person honored is General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), renowned Union general during the Civil War. What many don’t know or have forgotten is that before the war, Sherman was assigned to Ft. Tejon, south of Bakersfield, and became well-acquainted with central California. The route that bears his name was a sheep trail before it was a road. Logging interests poured considerable money into building portions of the road.
This route is notable for its ups and downs, twists and turns. If you’re in any hurry at all, forget it. But if you want a long leisurely link joining Earlimart on Highway 99 with Pearsonville on Highway 395 you might elect to take it – at least once. Incidentally, Pearsonville labels itself “the hub cap capital of the world.”
Tioga Pass, 9,945’ (at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, Mono County). The name was brought west from the east. It was originally an Iroquois Indian word meaning ‘where it forks.’ In this region, the name was first applied to the Tioga Consolidated Mine registered in Bodie on March 14, 1878. Two years later another Tioga Mine opened near Mount Dana. The Tioga Pass road dates from 1882-83. The pass is the highest road crossing of the Sierra, lacking only 55 feet of being 10,000 feet above sea level. From the pass, one can head north on foot to access Gaylor Peak (11,004’). One may also head south to climb the lofty 13,057-foot summit of Mt. Dana. The pass (Highway 120) is closed by snow at least half of the year, generally from sometime in November to sometime in May or June. The climb to the pass from Lee Vining (overlooking Mono Lake) must have appeared un-doable to early travelers. An elevation gain of over 3,000 feet in about 12 miles! Surely there must be some easier way.
Sonora Pass, 9,624’ (Tuolumne/Mono Counties). The community of Sonora began as a camp established in the summer of 1848 by Mexican miners from the state of Sonora. The town became the county seat February 18, 1850. The pass, named after the town, is on Highway 108. It is the second highest Sierra crossing, only 321 feet lower than Tioga to the south. A sign at the pass says this: “The Bartleson-Bidwell party, with mules, horses and oxen, made the first crossing on October 18, 1841.” By 1865, the route had become a toll road. Crossing remained difficult. According to the sign just mentioned: “It was said to take three weeks for a six-horse team to make the round trip between Sonora and Bridgeport.”
The route is usually closed by snow from November to May. It has grades up to 26%. Narrow and winding, it is “not recommended for vehicles or vehicle combinations that are unusually wide, heavy or long.”
Ebbetts Pass, 8,730’ (Alpine County). This pass is named for Major John Ebbett. Ebbett crossed it with a large train of mules in the spring of 1851. He had come to California a couple years earlier as captain of the Knickerbocker Exploring Company. He died in a ship wreck in the Bay Area April 15, 1854. The pass is on Highway 4 east of Angels Camp. It is known to have been used by Miwok and Washoe Indians prior to the coming of the White people. The name was made official in 1893 by action of the U.S. Geological Survey. A website carries a cautionary word: “Today, Ebbetts Pass is one of the least traveled passes in the Sierra Nevada . . . It has very steep sections with hairpin [turns]. It is rarely used by commercial traffic and is not recommended for vehicles towing long trailers.”
Carson Pass, 8,573’ (Alpine County). John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), the intrepid explorer, named this pass for his guide, Christopher (Kit) Carson. The name appeared for the first time on the Preuss map of 1848. You can find Historic Landmark 315 at Kit Carson Pass today. A party led by Fremont made it over the pass on February 21, 1844. They were very low on supplies, and were fortunate to make Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento on March 6 with no loss of life. Carson Pass is said to be “the most significant overland route during the California Gold Rush.” The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail crosses Highway 88 at Carson Pass.
Echo Summit, 7,382’ (El Dorado County). This Sierra crossing is on Highway 50, 14.4 miles west of the Nevada State line at South Lake Tahoe. A man named John C. Johnson blazed a trail over this pass in 1848. By 1857 stagecoaches were able to use the route. In 1859 the discovery of silver in Nevada’s Comstock spurred greatly increased traffic. ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson carried mail over the route for a time, and in 1860-61 the famed Pony Express riders galloped over this pass. Beginning in 1860 the route was operated as a private toll road. El Dorado County bought the road in 1886. The County deeded it to the state on February 28, 1895. It was designated the first state highway. The State Bureau of Highways had it paved in 1923. An authority on place names observes that “echo” is often used where an echo is heard. In the present instance, two lakes near the pass became known (and named) for their exceptional echoes. The road was originally known as Johnson Summit. Between 1848 and 1870 the pass had eight different names, but “Echo,” transferred from the nearby lakes, won out for the long-term.
Donner Summit, 7,240’ (Nevada County). The name is linked to tragedy. In 1846-47 an 81-member party of immigrants led by George and Jacob Donner was forced to winter-over adjacent to Donner Lake. Thirty-six died from cold and starvation. Today motorists in large numbers speed over Interstate 80 all the time. Others cross on Amtrak trains using Union Pacific tracks. The summit is about nine miles west of Truckee. In 1913, the ‘Lincoln Highway,’ the first road across America, was routed over Donner Pass. Keeping the road open in winter is sometimes extremely challenging. With 415 inches (over 34 feet) of average annual snow fall, Donner Pass is one of the snowiest places in the U.S.
Henness Pass, 6,920’, (Nevada County). Credit for pioneering the route is given to Patrick Henness in about 1849 or 1850. Prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869, Henness was one of the two or three most heavily traveled routes over the Sierra. But when the trains came in, the use of the Henness Pass quickly dwindled to nearly nothing.
Today, Henness Pass is largely reduced to an adventure route. A knowledgeable person told me the route should not be undertaken by ordinary cars. One should have 4-wheel drive or at least extra high clearance. Another knowledgeable person begged to differ. He thought regular cars could make it through at least during the summer. Wanting a third opinion, I went through with friends on June 20, 2009. We encountered 14 miles of unpaved road, and progress was slow, generally in the 10 to 15 mile an hour range, but making it through never posed a real problem. (We drove only as far as the intersection with Hwy. 89, 11 miles east of the pass.)
An article in the Grass Valley Union of July 26, 2008, puts some core history in short compass: “Commencing in 1860 and continuing for some nine years, the Henness Pass Road was one of the busiest Sierra crossings. This route was favored by teamsters and stage drivers over the Placerville route because of its lower elevation and easier grades. The route was given up by most teamsters when the Central Pacific Railroad was completed in 1869.”
During its heyday, traffic became so heavy that freight wagons were required to run during the day and stagecoaches during the night. Even now in the 21st century, wagons put in a very occasional appearance. There’s a group that organizes a wagon train every July.
If wagons are not your ‘thing,’ you may wish to contact two organizations offering more contemporary approaches. I have in mind the Henness Pass Highway Association, and the California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs.
Historically, the route was viewed as connecting Marysville, California, with Virginia City, Nevada. Today, the Henness Pass Road, such as it is or remains, may be regarded as a summer link connecting Camptonville on Hwy. 49 with Verdi, Nevada, on I-80.
Yuba Pass, 6,701’ (Sierra County). There’s a legitimate question here: Should Yuba Pass be included on this list or not? The road over the pass (Hwy. 49) does not begin in the Central Valley. Should that stand as a disqualification? On the other hand, Hwy. 49 does cross a summit which divides waters flowing to the Sacramento Valley from waters flowing into the Great Basin. Should that stand as a qualification?
I’m tilted toward inclusion. If you want to check out this pass personally, simply drive east from Marysville to Grass Valley using Highway 20, then turn left on Hwy. 49, and proceed up the Yuba River Canyon through Downieville and Sierra City. That will take you to the pass. Continue on and you will soon come to where Hwy. 49 ends as it tees into Hwy. 89. Take 89 south and in due course you’ll find yourself in Truckee and further on Lake Tahoe.
The Yuba River was originally given by Whites the Indian name of Henneet. John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort fame, changed the name to Yubu after the Maidu village near the confluence of the Yuba and Feather Rivers. The County, the City and the Pass have all taken their names from the River. Yuba County, one of the original 27, was created and named on February 18, 1850.
Beckwourth Pass, 5,212’ (Plumas County). This pass, on the Feather River Highway (Hwy. 70) 20 miles east of Portola, and 25 miles northwest of Reno, is named for James P. Beckwourth, a colorful frontiersman who was born in Virginia and traveled to California in 1844. There have been various spellings of his name. He is credited with discovering the pass which bears his name in 1850. It soon became an important immigrant route, crossing Plumas and Butte Counties, and ending in Marysville. Beckwourth built a home in Sierra Valley in 1852 and set up a trading post. In the course of time, the pass was used by the Western Pacific Railroad. A tunnel goes under the actual pass. Railroad surveyors succeeded in plotting the crossing of the Sierra without ever exceeding a one percent grade. Remarkable! To achieve that, they prescribed a loop near the hamlet of Spring Garden.
Fredonyer Pass, 5,748’ (Lassen County). This pass marks the high point on Highway 36 between Red Bluff on the west and Susanville on the east. This pass also marks the approximate boundary between the Cascade Range to the north and the Sierra Nevada to the south.
Fredonyer Pass and nearby Fredonyer Mountain are named for an early resident of the area, Atlas Fredonyer, who is credited with discovery of the pass in 1850. Twelve years later the story takes a bad turn. Fredonyer was indicted on May 7, 1862, for victimizing his own daughter. He was “tried and convicted in Quincy (Plumas County seat) for incestuous and criminal assault . . .” and sentenced to six years in San Quentin Prison. He was released after a matter of months, but that’s another story.
In 1995, the California Assembly and Senate both acted in support of a resolution which said in part: “Naming the mountain and pass after Atlas Fredonyer, given his crimes and subsequent conviction, seems improper, unacceptable, and undeserving . . .” The Legislative Counsel’s Digest declared: “This measure would memorialize [ask or petition] the United States Board on Geographic Names, United States Geological Survey, to rename Fredonyer Mountain and Fredonyer Pass to Griffith Mountain and Griffith Pass in honor of Deputy Sheriff Larry Griffith.”
Griffith was a Lassen County peace officer killed in the line of duty on March 2, 1995. Despite favorable action by both houses of the legislature, the federal government apparently did nothing. So, we continue to have Fredonyer Pass to the present day.
A Lassen National Forest staff member observes: “Water falling on the west side of Fredonyer Pass will eventually flow into Lake Almanor and then down the Feather River to the Sacramento. On the east side of Fredonyer water flows to the Susan River” and on eastward past Susanville.
Highway 44/no pass/it’s a mystery. There must be someplace between Redding and Susanville where water begins to flow to the east. The mystery: where is that place?
It’s not Eskimo Hill Summit, about nine miles north of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Water on both sides of this summit flows to the Pitt River and thence to the Sacramento and back to the Valley.
Someone advised me to seek help from the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento. Word came back that the point I wanted was at the coordinates of 40 degrees, 35 minutes and 38 seconds N latitude, and 121 degrees, 5 minutes and 44 seconds W longitude. A friend advised me that that point would be 18.3 miles from the Highway 44/89 junction at Old Station, and 21.9 miles from the Highway 44/36 junction just west of Susanville.
When you get to the point indicated, you find that there is no name, no sign. Only the water appears to have a clue. Some quietly heads east down the Pine Creek watershed while other water flows to the west down the Grays Valley watershed to Poison Lake.
Cedar Pass, 6,305’ (Modoc County). The town of Cedarville (pop. 500) was named by J. H. Bonner in 1867 after his hometown in Ohio. On the east side of town there’s a cautionary sign which says: “No services next 100 miles. Winter travel not advised.” This is not a
metropolitan area. Looking west from Cedarville, you are face to face with the Warner Mountains. Cedar Pass surmounts them as Highway 299 makes its way the 23 miles between Cedarville and the Modoc County seat of Alturas.
Water west of the pass uses the Pitt River to get to the Sacramento River and enters the Central Valley at Redding. Water east of the pass flows into the Great Basin.
Just in case you’re curious about the various mountain passes in order of elevation, here’s the list from highest to lowest: Tioga, Sonora, Sherman, Ebbetts, Carson, Echo, Donner, Henness, Yuba, Cedar, Fredonyer, Walker, Beckwourth, and Tehachapi.
Near the beginning I raised the possibility that you might like, over time, to drive over all the passes? I’m wondering: How many have you taken so far?
This article is heavily indebted to California Place Names by Erwin G. Gudde (University of California, c. 1969). It is also indebted to a number of individuals who graciously shared their knowledge of passes barely mentioned in printed sources. Bill Sanford can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.