Fernley Swales


Just a mile north of Fernley, the Fernley Swales is the ONLY visible example of deep sand swales left by emigrant wagons on the California National Historic Trail  There in an 130-acre Historic Preservation Easement is a truly unique bit of Nevada history with the trace of the 1844 to 1868 Emigrant Trail and the original grade of the Transcontinental Railroad (1869 – 1902), which became the first designated Nevada highway, Nevada Route 1, and then in the early 1900’s the transcontinental Victory Highway.

For over 20 years on the National Public Lands Day, the last Saturday in September, the BLM Carson City office, the CA-NV Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA), and the citizens of Fernley host an annual cleanup party to remove trash that has been dumped in and near the Fernley Swales.

Thanks to our dedicated partners for supporting this event!
Fernley Rotary Club
Bureau of Land Management
Oregon California Trails Association
Waste Management, Inc

Some amazing volunteers at the annual cleanups!

Participants in the annual cleanup meet at 9 am at the end of the pavement on Truck Inn Way past the Terrible’s Travel Center at the East Fernley I-80 Exit 48.  Participants wear a hat and layered clothing.  Heavy gloves, boots and long pants are advised as prickly weeds and brush are abundant.  The BLM provides trash bags, cleanup tools, extra gloves, cold drinks, a clean porta-potty and a hand wash station.  Volunteers receive a National Public Lands Day t-shirt and a free entry pass for National Parks and other public land sites.

National Public Lands Day is the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for public lands and brings together hundreds of thousands of individual and organizational volunteers to help restore America’s public lands.    https://www.neefusa.org/public-lands-day.

 for more information on the annual cleanups, contact Rachel Crews, BLM Archaeologist:  rcrews@blm.gov or  Jon Nowlin, OCTA representative, ccnvww@gmail.co

A fun and productive day at the Fernley Sand Swales clean up. Great cooperation between BLM, Cal Nevada chapter of OCTA, Boy Scouts, City of Fernley, Fernley Rotary and the local community!


On Saturday, September 30 (National Public Lands Day), there will be a community cleanup of a segment of the historic Fernley Deep Sand Swales, a most arduous portion of the Truckee River Route of the California Emigrant Trail.

Participants will meet at 9 am where the pavement ends on Truck Inn Way, a quarter-mile north of the Terrible’s Travel Center at the I-80 East Fernley exit, exit 48.  Visitors can stop by and see the new Fernley Swales interpretive signs at Terrible’s entrance on their way to the event.

Work will conclude no later than 4 pm.  Please wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes and bring sunscreen and a sack lunch. Long sleeved shirts, long pants, and a hat are recommended.  Gloves, shovels and rakes, trash bags, and water will be provided by BLM and participants will receive a commemorative t-shirt.

The cleanup is coordinated by Fernley Boy Scout Troop 1783 in partnership with the Fernley Rotary Club, the City of Fernley, the Bureau of Land Management, the California Nevada Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, and Terrible’s Travel Center.





National Public Lands Day is the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for public lands and brings together hundreds of thousands of individual and organizational volunteers to help restore America’s public lands.    https://www.neefusa.org/public-lands-day.


Fernley Swales Interpretive Signs Installation






A Historic Preservation and Access Easement for a 133 acre parcel adjacent to the north boundary of the City of Fernley contains an approximately one mile segment of the Truckee Route of the California Emigrant Trail, next to the original grade of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), the first transcontinental railroad.  After the CPPR was relocated in 1902, wagon, and then early automobile traffic along the emigrant trail moved to the easier path of the abandoned railroad.  This became the northern east-west automobile route across the State and in 1917 was designated Nevada

Route 1.  It was designated the Victory Highway in 1919 and was in contention with the Lincoln Highway farther south for selection as the primary transcontinental route.  In the 1930s the route was renamed US 40 and moved south of the Fernley Swales segment.



The Truckee River Route of the California Trail over the Sierra crest was established by the Stevens-Townsend Murphy Party in 1844 (11 wagons, 26 men, 8 women, 16 children).  In 1845 traffic increased to at least 50 wagons and over 260 emigrants.

Of the various segments of the California Trail across the Sierra, this route was generally regarded as the most difficult.  The trail from today’s Wadsworth to the formidable passes at the crest of the Sierra required over 20 difficult crossings of the Truckee River.

In the early 1840’s, the route was little used and its reputation as something to be avoided was greatly enhanced by stories of the horrible fate of the Donner Party in 1846.  However, in 1849, following the discovery of gold in California, use of the Truckee Route increased to perhaps 9,000 people.

In 1850 emigrant traffic on the Truckee River Route dropped to an estimated 5,000 compared to 40,000 over the easier Carson Pass route.  Western emigration over the Truckee River Route diminished through the 1850’s and 1860’s and nearly ended in the early 1870s when the transcontinental railroad provided a much easier way to cross the country.

The Truckee River Route is part of the California National Historic Trail, established in 1992.


The Fernley Swales north of Fernley were the last seven miles of the passage through the arduous 40-Mile Desert from the Humboldt Sink.  This segment of the Truckee Route of the California Trail was one of the most dreaded and exhausting portions of the entire trail.  It comprised a series of soft sand dunes and plains that made up the final challenge to the exhausted emigrants and their remaining stock before reaching water and forage at the Big Bend of the Truckee River.

The passage of the thousands of emigrants and their wagons and stock wore a deep trench or ‘swale’ through the sands.  The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1868 replaced most of the wagon routes for westbound emigrants.  The trail through the Fernley Swales continued to be used as a local wagon road until 1903.

Today these sandy swales north of Fernley are the best preserved deep sand swales along the entire Oregon and California trails.  The one-mile segment formally designated as the Fernley Swales is in the heart of the last seven miles of the Forty-Mile Desert.

These sandy swales convey a very visible sense of the obstacles to overland travel to California, particularly in the years of the gold rush, better than most other remaining sections of the trail.



The original grade for the CPRR section of the first transcontinental railroad is directly next to the emigrant trail through the Fernley Swales.  This segment was in use from 1868 until 1902. The Fernley Swales area, while a terrible barrier to wagon traffic, presented a relatively easy preliminary route for the railroad construction. Once the railroad opened for business the proceeds were used to upgrade and reroute segments.  In 1902 the CPRR through the Fernley Swales was moved south through Fernley towards Hazen.  Track and rails through the Fernley Swales were taken up in 1903.



In 1903 wagon and early automobile traffic on the emigrant trail quickly moved to the easier CPRR grade and the sandy emigrant trial next to the CPRR grade was abandoned.  The advantages of the abandoned railroad grade as a portion of the transcontinental road system were obvious.

In 1917, the Nevada legislature enacted the State

Highway Law that created the Nevada Highway

Department.  The Fernley Swales portion of the CPRR grade was selected as part of Nevada Route 1, the first northern east-west route across the state.

After the end of the Great War in 1918-1919, this road became known as the Victory Highway, and was in contention with the Lincoln Highway farther south for selection as the primary transcontinental route.  In the 1930’s the route, renamed US 40, was moved south of the Fernley Swales segment, leaving it as a little-used secondary road that still conveys the feeling of driving along the original transcontinental railroad and early highway.


There are 19 distinctive historical displays highlighting the emigrant travels across Nevada, on I-80 from Wendover west to Reno and US-50 from Fallon to Genoa.  All are marked by a highly visible

“CALIFORNIA TRAIL’ standard and include two information panels, one with a map showing the emigrant routes across Nevada and all the display locations and the other illustrating the emigrant travels near each location.

The California-Nevada Chapter of the Oregon California Trails Association (OCTA), in cooperation with Terrible’s Travel Center, is installing the 20th California Trail display at the Travel Center, where it will be visible from westbound traffic exiting and entering I-

80 at the East Fernley Exit 48.  The same high California Trail standard use at the other 19 displays will be recognizable to I-80 travelers that have stopped at the other displays.

Nevada Energy will assist in installation of the California Trail standard.  To the right is a representation of the standard and two display panels at a potential site in the Travel Center.

Added to the standard format on the map panel is an inset map showing the location of the Fernley Swales and Central Pacific Railroad grade north of Fernley.  The area of the Historic Preservation Easement is outlined in the inset map.

The panel describing the Fernley Swales highlights not only the struggles of the emigrants and their animals crossing the deep sand swales but also the 1868 arrival of the transcontinental railroad, and, after the Central Pacific tracks were relocated in 1903, the railroad bed becoming  Nevada Route 1 and the Victory Highway.

The three phases of transportation history in the one-mile
section of the Historic Preservation Easement makes the
Fernley Swales a unique historical site.


Fernley Swales Diary Accounts


Fernley Swales Timeline