Along the Mormon trail

Jenkinson Lake, Pollock Pines

Since I live only a short drive away from the site of Mormon Island 1 (normally located under the waters of Folsom Lake since 1955, except during drought years), it may be only natural that driving along Iron Mountain Road, near Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, always gets me wondering exactly why this route is known as the Mormon Emigrant Trail. I usually imagined a string of wagon trains toiling across deserts to reach the Sierra Nevada from Salt Lake City, Utah. So I was surprised when I finally did a little research and learned the Mormon Emigrant Trail was actually created in 1848 by a group traveling in the opposite direction — west to east, from Sacramento to Utah. Although the beginnings of Mormon Island and the Mormon Emigrant Trail may not have been directly connected, they both occurred around the same time, during the first half of 1848.

1This community, originally known as Mormon Diggins, had its origins in the spring of 1848, when a couple of Mormon pioneers named Willis and Hudson, on their way from Sutter’s Fort to Coloma, decided to camp for the night along the American River and accidentally found gold [The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway, Ed. Peter J. Hayes, 2005].

Fleming Meadow Trailhead on Iron Mountain Road, just east of Jenkinson Lake

In April 1848, a number of the men working for Captain John Sutter in the Sacramento Valley decided it was time to travel back to Utah and fetch their wives and families. When they finally got started in May, they chose to avoid the difficult Donner Summit route and instead went looking for an easier, more direct route east. Some of their camping spots along the way included Sly Park, Camp Creek, Log Springs, and Tragedy Spring, where the group found the murdered bodies of three advance scouts.

During July 17-19, the group halted at a place they called Leek Springs. I always remember the name from a 1980s camping trip with our two dogs near Leek Springs Lookout (elevation 7621 feet/2323 meters). I’m sure I would have made a terrible pioneer, because I woke up in the middle of the night feeling anxious from the altitude and the extreme sense of isolation. I wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and sat outside, wide awake and listening to strange noises that sounded like somebody banging a bunch of pots and pans. Eventually, I realized I was hearing the cowbells from a herd of cattle grazing a little way down the mountain.

Once the pioneers made it around the north side of Iron Mountain (the modern road goes to the south), they soon found their way to Carson Pass; from there, it was downhill to Hope Valley and a stop along the shore of Red Lake on July 29, 1848. I haven’t yet made it as far as Red Lake, but just east of Carson Pass is Kirkwood and Caples Lake. It’s a modern reservoir that wouldn’t have existed in 1848 or in 1852, but the area is still rich with history and the beauty of the high Sierra Nevada mountains.

Caples Lake Dam on Highway 88

The quote from Mary Stuart Bailey’s 1852 journal may refer to Red Lake and the area that became known as Hope Valley

Highway 88 skirts the northern edge of Caples Lake

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