The Surprisingly Awesome California Trail Interpretive Center

by Feb 17, 2015Nevada

California Trail Interpretive Center outside

California’s emigrant trails across the plains and prairies to the west were busy places. When you drive through Nevada, don’t miss the California Trail Interpretative Center in Nevada when passing through on Interstate 80. The history center pops up out of the desert and offers a great travel stop in Nevada near Elko for kids and adults alike.

We have driven by the California Trail Interpretive Center near Elko, Nevada, more times than we can count in the last decade, heading to and from destinations east. Finally, we made the time for a visit and found out, wow, were we ever missing out on an educational treat!

The center is located right on the historic California Trail, the same trail nearly 250,000 pioneers used to attempt a 2,000-mile trek from Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska to the promised “gold-lined” lands of California and Oregon between 1841 and 1869.

Like many Americans, we’d heard the story of the Donner Party. But until we spent several hours (and we could have spent more) wandering through the California Trail Interpretive Center, we didn’t fully comprehend the events that led to the Donner Party disaster. Nor did we fully appreciate the journey of the Bidwell-Bartleson party, the first emigrants to attempt the wagon crossing from Missouri to California in 1841.

Inside the museum, there are photos, displays, original murals, and dioramas that vividly depict the history of those making the journey. Interactively designed, the displays include recordings read from actual journals recounting how the emigrants prepared for their journey and what prompted them to set out in the first place.

California Trail Interpretive Center

Inside the museum, the displays, dioramas, murals and audio recordings provide an entertaining, educational feast.

Outside the museum, docents have designed a mock pioneer encampment with covered wagons, handcarts and tents. You can wander among it all, feeling like a pioneer. Kids seemed to truly enjoy the setting. There is also a super re-creation of a traditional Shoshone summer camp.

California Trail Interpretive Center pioneer wagons

The California Trail Interpretive Center encourages getting up close, personal and hands-on with many of the displays, including the pioneer camp re-creation just outside the museum building.

You’ll learn some fascinating bits of information. Such as, if you had to lighten the load in your wagon to keep moving, what would you do? Many pioneers simply dumped items out of their wagons along the way, items that were discovered years later. Imagine finding, in the middle of a flat prairie or desert, blacksmith anvils, gold washers, chisels, axes, lead, trunks, spades, plows, baking stoves, cooking stoves, kegs, barrels, weapons, a Gothic bookcase and yes, even a diving bell.

California Trail Interpretive Center pioneer encampment

California Trail Interpretive Center details

The California Trail Interpretive Center, operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is located approximately eight miles west of Elko on Interstate 80 at Exit 292. The center is free and is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Parking is available for cars, trucks, RVs and campers. For more information go to the California Trail Center website at or call 775-738-1849. There is also a very good Facebook page for event updates that can be found by clicking here.

HITT Tip: During California Trail Days in May and June, there are musical performances, historic recreations and more – designed for the entire family. Our visit on an August day was also delightful, though. Although not formally a hiking destination, this is still an excellent spot to get out of the car and stretch those legs with a short hike. Starting at the interpretative center parking lot, there are several trails that total just over three-quarters of a mile, kept in excellent condition – half of the length is suitable for people with disabilities. Enjoy fantastic views of the nearby Ruby Mountains, the South Fork Canyon and the Humboldt River.

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