I present this post to you in the interest of public service…
When trying to research the Henness Pass Road, one will stumble across a few internet forums that contain vague and sometimes contradictory information or websites from various government agencies that just loosely mention the Henness Pass Road. Every one of these websites from the government agencies references a detailed brochure about the Henness Pass Road and yet not a single one has a copy that can be viewed online. Nor has anyone else taken the time to make one available online. Until now…
I have photographed each section of the brochure and uploaded it to assist with your planning (see the bottom of this post to cut straight to it). Unfortunately, the numbers in the brochure correspond to very few easily identifiable locations on the ground as most of the markers are no longer to be found. However, presumably, with the assistance of the brochure, one can identify these sites before departing. For example, if one utilizes one of the online topographic maps, the GPS coordinates for the sites of interest along the way can be plugged into a GPS unit prior to your departure.
Many readers will, undoubtedly, be unfamiliar with the Henness Pass Road and to try to make this interesting for everyone, I will briefly explain its history and significance:
In the Sierra Nevada mountains, animals such as deer and the extinct California grizzly bear would historically find the easiest routes through the mountains. Native Americans would then capitalize on the trial and error discoveries of the wild animals and further expanded these popular game trails into regular footpaths. Thus, over thousands of years, fairly significant trail systems were developed throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains. As such, contrary to the exciting myth of early Europeans pioneering routes through untamed wilderness, there were already many established trails in the Sierra Nevada mountains for them to make use of. So, although there were no records kept, it is quite likely that large sections of the major routes through the mountains today – such as Interstate 80 – were originally California grizzly bear trails.
Although it is impossible to know for sure, it is also certainly likely that at least part of the Henness Pass Road was one of these ancient routes as well. The first written record of the Henness Pass Road – then still a trail – dates back to 1849 just as the California Gold Rush was blowing up. At just under 6,700 feet, Henness Pass is the lowest mountain pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains. This, combined with its relatively modest grades led the Henness Pass Road to swiftly develop into a major immigrant trail for those on their way to the California gold fields. Later, after the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, the direction of traffic reversed and the route served as the primary supply road for the mines in Nevada.
The Henness Pass Road continued to be a major transportation route through the Sierra Nevada mountains until the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. A portion of the Henness Pass Road was later included in the Lincoln Highway, the country’s first transcontinental highway system and it continued to carry wagon (and later automobile) traffic until the completion of the last portion of the Victory Highway (later Highway 40) through the Truckee River Canyon in 1925.
For additional details one can simply read the brochure at the bottom of this post.
A map of the route taken by those making their way along the Henness Pass Road:
Assuming you wish to stop and check things out along the way, give yourself a day for a drive along the entire road. The Henness Pass Road has some sections that have been incorporated into modern paved roads and other sections that are bumpy dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. However, a 2WD vehicle can easily make the entire trip. No matter which vehicle one chooses to utilize though, fill up your tank and bring some food and water because there are no services along the way.
As I mentioned previously, the full Henness Pass Road brochure is displayed at the bottom of this post. However, before that section, I have uploaded a few pictures that I took on a drive from California to Nevada along the length of the Henness Pass Road that may be of interest to those trying to imagine what this route looks like (they are posted in chronological order).
In the initial sections of the road, one is mostly making their way through thick forest and one does not really break out of this until getting into the high Sierras:
There are, of course, interesting diversions all along the way – such as Forest City or the Wheeler Sheep Camp or any of the myriad roads which twist off mysteriously into the mountains:
A view of the Sierra Buttes from the Henness Pass Road:
This is the top of the Henness Pass – the highest point on your journey:
The view from the site of one of the major sheep camps that used to be found along the Henness Pass Route:
Given how empty the Henness Pass Road is today, it may seem difficult to imagine that this route was once extremely congested. One journalist of the time – J. Ross Brown – wrote in 1863: “At calculation we must have passed 2 or 3 hundred teams. Every wagon was heavily freighted, some with merchandise, others with iron castings for the mills, and quite a goodly number with families, fruit, whiskey, and furniture. There were horse teams and mule teams, and ox teams. I never before saw so many teams on one road, no wonder the dust was so deep!”
The Henness Pass Road was so crowded, in fact, that a serious proposal was made to restrict traffic during the day to freight wagons and traffic at night to passenger stagecoaches.
The record travel time from Marysville, California to Virginia City, Nevada by stagecoach was 25 hours and 25 minutes.
Not much left, but the below was the site of More’s Station – a way station along the Henness Pass Road that included a large hotel, a barn, a corral and a well:
The remains of a ranch along the Henness Pass Road:
This is the point where the Henness Pass Road drops from the maps and disappears into Verdi, Nevada: