In The Spotlight
Hastings Cutoff Documentary
Retracing the Fateful Steps of the Donner-Reed Party
North of the town of Wendover in western Utah lies a scenic section the Hastings Cutoff route of the California National Historic Trail in an area little changed from the days of the overland pioneers. The trail passes just to the north of the famous Bonneville Salt Flats and crosses a large mud playa known as Pilot Valley before finally arriving at Donner Spring. This emigrant route across the eastern Great Basin, first pioneered by John C. Fremont’s 1845 expedition, was made infamous in its promotion by Lansford Hastings and subsequent use by the Donner-Reed Party in 1846.
For parties that chose to attempt the Hastings Cutoff, the crossing of Pilot Valley and arrival at Donner Spring was the final desperate leg of a nearly 90-mile waterless passage across the Great Salt Lake Desert that caught most emigrants unaware and ill-prepared. Because of its central location on the trail, this 2-3 day passage usually had to be endured by man and beast in August, over mud and sand, in near triple digit temperatures. During its historical use from 1846-1850, numerous first-person journal accounts document harrowing ordeals involving extreme dehydration, dead and dying livestock, abandoned wagons, stranded or delirious emigrants, and heroic rescues. The Donner Reed Party’s loss of oxen in Pilot Valley likely contributed to their later winter entrapment and forced cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Today, trail enthusiasts can drive maintained dirt roads an hour north of Wendover, Utah along the scenic Silver Island Mountains Backcountry Byway and view the Hastings Cutoff route in a setting largely unchanged from when emigrants struggled through this dramatic and hauntingly vast landscape. If one knows where to look, trail traces are still detectable across the mud playa and mountain benches. The Oregon-California Trail Association (OCTA) and BLM have placed route markers and signs at Donner-Reed Pass. The NPS and OCTA maintain an excellent interpretive site at Donner Spring near the base of Pilot Peak. Stories and actual artifacts from the trail can be viewed today by appointment at the Donner Reed Museum in Grantsville, Utah. Several outstanding sources on the Hastings Cutoff across Utah are readily available, including important works by Charles Kelly and Dale Morgan. For more information, visit www.donner-reed-museum.org or contact the BLM Salt Lake Field Office at 801-977-4300.