We take wagons from Buick, Subaru, and Volkswagen on a very special road trip
It was oddly appropriate we’d suffer a wagon calamity on The California Trail. It’s a fate that befell many of the Gold Rush pioneers whose tracks we’d been following, not to mention the Dust Bowl families who would shamble west to escape economic ruin and the infamous Donner Party.
Our quartet of modern, reliable transportation was slated to journey in five days what took our 19th century ancestors five months. They had 50-inch wooden wheels, broken trails, and death by dehydration. We had winter tires, paved roads, and Egyptian cotton bedsheets. Still, we should have known better. Ghosts haunted our path.
By the side of a pitch-black, wind-swept two-lane Wyoming highway, our plan became as mangled as our Buick. The comparison test we’d begun the day before was over.
Right there and then, we knew this wouldn’t be your typical road trip story or comparison test. Instead, we’ll recount the journey the way our forebears would have when they finally reached the Golden State—a tale told by those who survived it, gathered around a campfire. After all, the pages of Motor Trend make excellent kindling.
Alisa: The Priddle clan landed first and took possession of the first two wagons, the 2018 Subaru Outback 3.6R Touring and the 2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack TSI 4Motion—just as the Evans, Seabaugh, and Walker families touched down. Soon, they had the new 2018 Regal TourX and our Volvo V60 Cross Country support wagon in hand.
Scott: It was too bad we couldn’t include the Volvo in the comparison like we had planned, but with the all-new model announced literally as we were getting on the plane, it just wasn’t fair to pit a last-generation car against three newer models.
Christian: May as well have had a Conestoga wagon and oxen in the comparison.
Alisa: Wagon trains were full of women and children, so it only made sense that we traveled as families, too.
Scott: I think our spouses had different ideas of what this was going to be. Kathryn kept asking what we were actually going to do each day. It was strangely hard to explain we’d just drive until we either got hungry, hit a waypoint, or came across something the photographers liked.
Alisa: Steve expected long days and lots of waiting around but that each stop would be an opportunity to soak in the surroundings.
Christian: Yeah, Elayna expected both but also thought we could handle driving farther than the 400 miles (640 km) a day we averaged. But the MT style is more representative of what the pioneers did. You go until you stop. Who knows where the next food, water, or restroom will be?
Scott: An early omen: The Priddle family had trouble finding our rally point in Kansas City. At any rate, the early 19th century Bingham-Waggoner Estate was a perfect starting point. It’s hard to believe Independence was once the bleeding edge of the frontier—but now it’s a Kansas City suburb with Applebee’s and Outback, just like any other.
Christian: The mansion was neat, but I was pretty stoked to get out of there and on to Nebraska. I wanted to be on the trail, even if Lincoln was founded after westward migration on the California Trail began. I was happy I snagged the Regal first, too. Nothing like a German-built American wagon to represent the diversity that helped settle this land.
Scott: A German-built American wagon, an American-built Japanese wagon, and a Mexican-built German wagon. How quintessentially American.
Christian: Lincoln was not an easy drive. Perhaps it was the Buick’s seats, but I felt broken when we arrived. I did otherwise like the Buick, though; it rode sweetly, had good passing power on the freeway, and most important, it had radar cruise control and lane keep assist, which is pretty much the modern-day equivalent of a yoke of oxen—it just goes on its own with just the slightest bit of human intervention.
Alisa: It was a cold evening in the Midwest, so I liked the VW’s heated seats. I wish it had a heated steering wheel like the other two.
Scott: The Subaru felt the most like a modern interpretation of the prairie schooner wagon. Sturdy, practical, and pragmatic with lots of cargo space and ground clearance. Not as posh as the Buick or as sporty as the VW but ready for anything the road threw at us.
Christian: The worst part was knowing that this was going to be the easiest day, just like it was for the pioneers. Things only got harder as we moved westward.
Alisa: Up early on Friday morning to visit a replica 1800s town at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. We only lost one traveler when Steve went to check out a train.
Scott: I believe it was also here that Christian hurled the map into my car and ran away.
Christian: Elayna and I had been “elected” trail bosses for the day and handed paper maps. This sounded like a great idea in theory. But with the realization that we had 600-odd miles (965-odd km) to travel that day, I didn’t want to be the cause of any delays. So we cheated and used Google Maps to navigate us toward Fort Kearny.
Scott: I knew it! Anyway, I think of forts more like fortresses, and I was surprised to see Fort Kearny looked like a bunch of skinny poles: a tall fence surrounding a couple low buildings. To the pioneers, though, it was civilization in the wilderness.
Christian: I didn’t realize pioneer-era forts of the American West weren’t like the big colonial forts that dot the Atlantic seaboard. I was kind of let down by Fort Kearny. At least the Golf Alltrack was treating me well. It was a bit poky compared to the Buick, but it was fun to whip around corners and rode fine on smooth Nebraska interstate, and I really liked the panoramic sunroof, which gave everything an open-air feel. Also, as an added bonus, it had radar cruise control and lane keep assist.
Alisa: The VW felt sporty to drive, sure, but there was a lot of wind noise, and on rough pavement it rattled enough to shake out your fillings. The seats had lumbar support, which was important on such a long drive, but the seat belt dug into my hips.
Scott: At the fort, it was enlightening to get up close to a period-correct wagon. No suspension, sometimes no seats, not even that much space, really. Sure, there was some room to ride, but most of those people walked themselves all the way to California.
Alisa: I was surprised how narrow the wagons were, but given the passes they had to navigate, it makes sense. Modern wagons, on the other hand, just keep getting wider and longer.
Scott: We reached California Hill—the first major grade for westward travelers—later that day. It was the most revelatory part of the trip for me. Partially because the piles of snow and muddy ruts up that access road quickly made it obvious which of our cars were all-wheel drive for traction (Buick, VW) and which were actually meant for going off-road (Subaru, Volvo).
Christian: California Hill was the first time I actually felt a connection with the pioneers, especially seeing the wagon ruts across the Great Plains.
Scott: The idea those ruts would even still be there 175 years later is mind-boggling. It really drove home how much and how little the terrain has changed—and how many people took this route. The pioneers dragged themselves over every hill in the Western U.S. following the sun and those who came before them. There were no roads, much less grading and leveling.
Christian: I lucked out with the Subaru at California Hill. It was so fun blasting through that massive snow bank and “clearing” the trail in the Outback.
Alisa: I will never forget the huge grin on Elayna’s face when they went flying through the snow and over a jump. The Buick, having the least ground clearance, was more of a snow plow in the deep stuff, but it made it up the hill and back multiple times.
Christian: I remember Elayna saying, “Oh no, we’re not going to make it,” on the way up and then encouraging me to go faster when we went back down. It felt like the true modern-day successor to the pioneer wagons: Midwest-built, simple, reliable, and exceedingly capable. The bumps and jostles of California Hill weren’t kind to the Outback’s stereo, though. It started cycling aimlessly through Sirius, FM, and AM bands. We tried using CarPlay, but it shuffled through all the songs, randomly picked one, and played the first three seconds of it on endless repeat.
Scott: Incredible as the hill was, the sun was dropping fast, and we had to make Chimney Rock by dark. We had about 100 miles (160 km) to go, and I remember being slightly uncomfortable with how fast we’d have to drive to make it by sunset.
Christian: We were bringing up the rear in the Subie, and every time we passed a pickup, Elayna would wave and mouth “Sorry!” at the drivers. So if you’re reading this, uh, we’re sorry.
Alisa: We knew we probably couldn’t make it by sunset but then decided to go for it. That’s a modern luxury. The pioneers couldn’t just decide to whip their beasts of burden to get to the next stop faster. Oxen and wagons only go so fast.
Scott: It’s still tough to conceptualize the fact the pioneers made 15 to 30 miles (24 to 48 km) on a good day and we covered the western quarter of Nebraska in an hour.
Christian: I was pretty surprised with the Subaru here—it had plenty of passing power, and it didn’t flinch once at any of the potholes, cattle grates, or railroad crossings we passed.
Alisa: The Buick also had ample power for cruising and passing, but it was deceptive. Speed crept up on you before you realized it. I was OK with its lane assist, which corrected without being annoying. The Subaru annoyed me earlier with its constant beeping when its sensors kept finding and losing other vehicles in adaptive cruise mode.
Scott: The VW seemed laggy and a lot less willing to downshift than the Buick. Once you got it on the boost, it was fine, but it made you work for it.
Christian: The historical and geological continuity of the prairies is astounding. We saw many of the same sites the pioneers saw more than a century ago. Off to our left was Courthouse Rock, and then, out of nowhere, Chimney Rock burst out over the horizon, guiding us westward.
Scott: It’s one thing to read about the landmarks the pioneers navigated by, but it really doesn’t hit you until you see that spire in the distance and then finally up close.
Christian: I hated leaving Chimney Rock, and I really wanted to continue on the official trail to Fort Laramie. But there really wasn’t time, so we made our first “cut-off” in the spirit of the pioneers.
Alisa: The night was inky black. We were less than an hour from Cheyenne and looking forward to dinner and bed. It was a nice, straight run, and we were content to set the cruise control to the speed limit and finish out the day uneventfully. Until—
Scott: I never saw it. The Buick’s headlights just dipped and dropped away in my rearview mirror.
Christian: I passed it in the VW—the unmistakable silhouette of a buck stepping out on the left side of the road. I tapped the brakes and laid on the horn as Elayna went for the walkie. But the son of a bitch jumped in front of the Buick.
Alisa: I saw it but not in time. From my left, a huge deer appeared, about 6 feet tall. He seemed to leap in front of the car.
Christian: It towered over the Regal. It looked for a second like it had been a close call—the deer landed in a cloud of dust on the right side of the road as the Buick kept tracking straight.
Alisa: I just saw a line of fur across the hood. There was no time to react. He hit the right-front of the car with a sickening thud, and Steve’s eyes shot open. “What was that?” he asked. I kept the car straight then slowed and pulled to the side of the road. We sat there for a moment in shock as the others pulled off and came running over. Yes, we were all right. The deer was nowhere to be seen, but survival was unlikely. Steve tried to exit the car, but his door wouldn’t open. With flashlights we surveyed the damage as pieces of metal and plastic fell to the ground.
Scott: I still can’t believe how well the Buick took that hit. It looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of Terminator 2. The headlight was obliterated but still functioning and pointing (mostly) straight. The radiator had a curve in it but didn’t burst. Nothing was leaking or interfering with the engine or the steering. From inside the car, the only tell was the check engine light. I was worried we’d be there all night waiting on a tow truck, but damn if the thing didn’t drive. You all thought I was crazy wanting to drive it the rest of the way to town, but it did it fine.
Christian: You are nuts. But that thing is a tank. I took over the lead in the Subaru, and from my rearview mirror I couldn’t tell anything was awry.
Alisa: It’s a testament to the structural integrity of the Regal. That kind of impact could easily have made it undrivable, but the front absorbed the force incredibly well and the deer flexed enough that the airbags didn’t deploy. Still, I appreciated Scott taking over driving the Buick. I was still in shock, I think. Following the Buick, the only telltale sign of the impact was a piece of bumper hanging out.
Alisa: Our fear the next morning was that the Regal wouldn’t start, but it did and drove fine to the local Buick dealer.
Scott: I was ready to drive it the rest of the way to California. You all, less so.
Alisa: The fear was being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a broken wagon. Did the story of the doomed Donner Party not teach you anything? We were traveling in the dead of winter, just like they were. If we were stranded in the mountains (forgetting the convenience of roadside assistance for a moment), who would we eat first to survive?
Christian: A) I was the one who was supposed to drive it next; and B) We were going to some pretty remote areas. I wasn’t too keen on breaking down in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert. Let the record show that I still maintain you’re nuts, and Kathryn is nuts for going along with your plan.
Scott: That’s how we know we’re right for each other. I would’ve driven it the rest of the way myself, and we were going to be almost exclusively on I-80, which mirrors the California Trail route near perfectly. Help wouldn’t have been far at any point.
Christian: Yeah, nothing like driving at 85 mph (137 km/h) with a hole punched in your intercooler.
Scott: Well, we didn’t know that at the time.
Alisa: I thought the mechanic would lay out a bunch of info and we’d be debating whether to continue, but when he learned we were headed for Sacramento, he said bluntly, “It’ll blow up long before you get there.” Pretty cut and dried diagnosis.
Scott: The car was fine as long as you didn’t go too deep into the throttle. You Negative Nellies just had to insist we take it to the dealer.
Christian: That’s like saying, “My leg is fine so long as I don’t walk on it.”
Scott: … as long as you don’t run on it.
Alisa: In the end, its epitaph was carved in Cheyenne stone: “The Buick stops here.”
Scott: Even though the dealer was able to see us first thing on a Saturday morning, it really screwed up our logistics. There was no way we’d make trail stops at Independence Rock and Fort Bridger in the daylight remaining. At that point, we felt like a proper wagon train.
Alisa: With the Buick out of commission, we were really living the pioneer story, where wagons broke down and had to be left behind. The families hopped in the wagons of other families, which is exactly what we did: For each leg, a non-driving couple found themselves in the back seat of the Subaru—which had the biggest back seat and cargo area. At 6-foot-5, Steve really only fit in the back seat of the Subaru.
Scott: Losing the Buick took a pretty heavy toll on morale. We were down a wagon, our comparison was shot, we wouldn’t get to see Independence Rock, one couple at a time had to ride the rest of the trip, we were running late, we had to hustle again to make Fort Bridger by sunset, and we still had three days to go.
Alisa: And I had a hell of a headache after hitting that damn deer.
Scott: Of course we’d lose the Buick, which had the largest cargo area and a big back seat. Thankfully, the Subaru’s cargo is nearly as big and a little more usable with that more upright rear window. Even with an extra family’s worth of luggage, the window still wasn’t blocked. That all said, I’m still surprised at how big the Alltrack’s cargo area was despite being the smallest car. It wasn’t that much tighter than the other two.
Christian: It might’ve been morale-related, but I was liking the VW less at this point. After riding and driving the super comfy Subaru, I was getting annoyed with the flintiness in the Alltrack’s ride and its lack of passing power at altitude (strange for a turbo). It’s not that the Alltrack was super slow. It’s just that it wasn’t nearly as smooth as the Outback or our dearly departed Regal.
Scott: It was certainly the stiffest ride, which wasn’t a plus on a 2,000-mile (3,219-km) journey. At least the rest of the day went by without incident.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Scott: Antelope Island State Park might have been off the trail, but it was absolutely worth the diversion to see the buffalo that were such a prominent feature on the pioneer trails.
Christian: Not only did it feel like we were out on the prairie, but it was also awe-inspiring to get up close and personal with wild bison like that.
Scott: You say that, but he didn’t take a run at you. One of them took exception to the Volkswagen and charged us. It kept chasing when we drove away.
Christian: It was so funny to watch them run. They almost skip like billy goats.
Alisa: The scenery really got dramatic with the Great Salt Lake Desert and mountains ahead.
Scott: The Great Salt Lake Desert is desolate, but it didn’t really sink in until we diverted off the highway to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Standing on the salt, it’s almost impossible to imagine dragging wagons across it. The sun reflecting off the salt was both blinding and hot, even in January, and the pioneers mostly reached this point of their passage in August.
Alisa: It was the most unique surface. It looked like ice but wasn’t slippery, yet it was cold to the touch. And where it was wet it looked like wet cement, waiting to suck in anything that put pressure on it.
Christian: We all think of Bonneville as a place to go fast, but it was really sad to think of wagon parties like the Donners’ slogging across that expanse. I know if it were me in a wagon train, I would’ve looked across the 80-mile (129-km) expanse to Pilot Peak on the other side and just said, “You know, Salt Lake City ain’t so bad.”
Alisa: The interesting part was figuring out where the wagon trains crossed the mountains and how and why some parties chose a longer route without knowing it at the time. You stare at mountains and say, “We can go right or left,” then luck plays its hand.
Scott: The California Trail Interpretive Center was kind enough to settle our debate over why Hastings Cutoff, which I-80 roughly follows, detoured south through the Ruby Mountains rather than use the modern pass. Seemed so obvious from the freeway they could’ve stayed north and gone right across, but the view must’ve been different from the seat of a wagon 175 years ago.
Christian: I think our perspective was ultimately colored by what we know a car can do. A decent pickup truck would have no issue dragging 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg)—the average weight of a loaded up wagon—up some of those grades. But even a shallow grade was a lot of trouble for oxen. It was humbling to realize the Donners didn’t really have a choice. They just had to keep going in the tracks left behind by that dastardly conman Lansford Hastings. The exhibits allowed us to see, hear, and smell (really) the stories of the pioneers. We walked out with a new sense of awe and appreciation. We also were really bummed out. Lots of death and despair out on the trail. All of this struggle, sacrifice, and loss on the gamble of a better life for their families out in California.
Scott: The final drive from Elko, Nevada, where the Interpretive Center was to Reno was a real slog. I can’t imagine walking it in the summer. “The 40 Mile (64 km) Desert” felt like 400 miles (640 km) in a car, and Reno didn’t come into sight until we were at the city limit.
Christian: The drive was easy up to Truckee, California. Amazing that a pretty town like this sprung up alongside the California Trail, especially considering the tragedy around the area. I wanted to spend more time there, but like the pioneers we had to keep moving.
Scott: It’s easy to second-guess the Donner Party’s decisions, but standing there, looking way up at the Pioneer Monument’s pedestal, the same height as the snow that winter, you realize you have no idea. Then you see Donner Pass on the far side of the lake, and you wonder how they hiked over the ridge, much less dragged wagons over it.
Christian: I cannot imagine climbing Donner Pass with wagons. It’s steep in a car, requiring the Golf to downshift a few gears to stay on boost and maintain speed. After that, the rest of the drive was kind of a letdown. All of a sudden there were more and more cars on the road, sucking me out of the 1840s mindset I’d been feeling. It all felt so very modern. We weren’t taking in the views of the pioneers. We were taking in the views of modern American—drive thrus and all.
Alisa: We experienced traffic for the first time. It felt like our adventure was coming to an end. It was turning into a regular car trip.
Scott: To find Sutter’s Fort—the endpoint of the California Trail—plopped right in midtown Sacramento just off the freeway was a real juxtaposition. To think that little thing was the light at the end of the trail for people who’d just walked across half the continent.
Christian: After the quiet solitude and humbleness of the past few days, that was a bit jarring. I escaped for a bit in the original central building. It’s amazing that this is what was greeting pioneers at the end of the trail. My first inclination was … well, was it worth it? But then I started really thinking about it: This would have been the first building settlers had seen in months.
Alisa: We were completely exhausted, and we were not even remotely roughing it. I have so much appreciation for the families that risked everything to make the trek.
Scott: And really, it didn’t end there. The settlers still had to go find a bit of land and build a life on it. Like the pioneers, it didn’t end there for us, either. The Priddle clan needed to get to San Francisco, and the Evans, Seabaugh, and Walker families all needed to get to Los Angeles. Even after our historically appropriate Mexican lunch to celebrate, there was a long way to go to get to our homesteads.
… and then the Subaru’s sunroof shattered for no apparent reason.
We couldn’t let it end there, so go to our comparison to find out how we ranked the cars once we got a new Buick to test in Los Angeles.
|2018 Buick Regal TourX||2018 Subaru Outback 3.6R AWD||2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack TSI 4Motion (SEL)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||Flat-6 alum block/heads||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/alum head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1,998 cc||221.5 cu in/3,630 cc||109.7 cu in/1,798 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||250 hp @ 5,500 rpm*||256 hp @ 6,000 rpm||170 hp @ 4,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm*||247 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm||199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,500 rpm||6,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.9 lb/hp||15.1 lb/hp||20.6 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||Cont variable auto||6-speed twin-clutch auto|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||3.08:1/2.07:1||4.11:1/2.23:1||4.38:1 (1-4) 3.33:1 (5,6,R)/2.53:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS||12.4-in vented disc; 11.8-in vented disc, ABS||11.3-in vented disc; 10.7-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||7.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/50R18 97V (M+S) Continental ProContact TX||225/60R18 100H (M+S) Bridgestone Dueler H/P Sport AS||225/45R18 92Y Pirelli Cinturato P7 (runflat)|
|WHEELBASE||111.4 in||108.9 in||103.5 in|
|TRACK, F/R||62.8/63.0 in||61.8/62.2 in||60.9/59.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.3 x 73.3 x 58.4 in||198.6 x 72.4 x 66.1 in||180.2 x 70.8 x 59.6 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||5.7 in||8.7 in||6.9 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||40.0 ft||36.1 ft||35.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,726 lb||3,869 lb||3,510 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||58/42%||57/43%||56/44%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.8/39.6 in||38.3/38.9 in||38.6/38.6 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.1/36.9 in||42.9/38.1 in||41.2/35.6 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.9/55.4 in||58.1/57.3 in||55.9/53.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH 1ST/2ND ROW||73.5/32.7 cu ft||73.3/35.5 cu ft||66.5/30.4 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.1 sec||2.9 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.4||3.1||4.0|
|QUARTER MILE||14.7 sec @ 94.7 mph||15.2 sec @ 95.9 mph||15.5 sec @ 87.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||118 ft||125 ft||117 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.88 g (avg)||0.80 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.2 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)||27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)||27.0 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,600 rpm||1,450 rpm||2,100 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$39,760||$39,605||$36,510|
|AIRBAGS||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r head, front knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver seat pan||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||6 yrs/72,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||6 yrs/70,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||6 yrs/72,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||6 yrs/70,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||16.4 gal||18.5 gal||14.5 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||18.2/32.3/22.6 mpg||19.6/27.9/22.6 mpg||21.3/31.4/24.9 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||21/29/24 mpg||20/27/22 mpg||22/30/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||160/116 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/125 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.81 lb/mile||0.86 lb/mile||0.78 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|
Tackling the California Trail
The Oregon Trail gets all the attention (and a kick-ass computer game), but far more Americans emigrated on the lesser-known California Trail headed toward what would become the Golden State.
Many wealthier Eastern Americans traveled by sailing ships and whalers around Cape Horn to San Francisco. The rest made the treacherous 2,000-mile (3,219-km) trip from Independence, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, the same way we did: by wagon.
Our wagons might as well be spaceships compared to those the settlers used. The typical transport was a farm wagon. About 10 feet long and 4 feet wide with no seat, no brakes, and no suspension, they were packed from floor to their canvas-covered ceiling with supplies and belongings. Pioneers were expected to walk alongside their wagons as they were pulled across “Indian country” by four yokes, or pairs, of oxen. According to 1849’s The Emigrants’ Guide to California the average cost of a wagon, including the oxen and other equipment, was $600 USD, about $18,000 USD in 2018 dollars.
There wasn’t much for these pioneers between Independence and Sacramento—this was doubly true for those who headed west before 1849’s Gold Rush. Just a couple of trading posts and landmarks dotted the prairies and deserts as settlers passed through Louisiana Purchase land and into Mexican Alta California.
The trail followed the Platte River through Nebraska and into Wyoming, hitting landmarks such as Chimney Rock and Independence Rock before splitting. The established trail avoided Utah and Nevada’s Great Basin Desert as much as possible, meandering north into Idaho before dropping down into Nevada’s 40 Mile (64 km) Desert for the final push over the Sierra Nevada into California. The other route, the Hastings Cutoff, attempted to find a faster, more direct route across Utah and Nevada before rejoining the established trail in Nevada. The cutoff was advertised to shave precious weeks off the 6- to 10-month trip. It didn’t.
The Donner-Reed Party, perhaps the best-known wagon train, found out the hard way. They were just the second party to attempt the cut off. After essentially building their own road as they passed the Great Salt Lake, the party got further delayed crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats, losing wagons and livestock as they made the 80-mile (129-km) trek to Pilot Peak on the other side. By the time they hit the Sierras in November 1846, the cutoff had cost them a month. As they attempted to get their remaining wagons over the mountains, the party got stranded in 20 feet of snow at what’s now called Donner Lake in Truckee, California. Thirty-four members of the Donner Party ended up losing their lives at their makeshift camp as the rest took drastic measures, including cannibalism, to survive.
It wasn’t until the following spring that the remaining members were rescued and brought to the trail’s end point, Sutter’s Fort in downtown Sacramento. When the Donners left Missouri, California was part of Mexico. By the time they arrived, it was firmly in American hands.
More than 200,000 people emigrated west on the California Trail and by sea between 1841 and 1860. Those first emigrants were on to something; the Transcontinental Railroad and later the Lincoln Highway and I-80 largely mirror the exact trail our ancestors used to move west.