If you’re a fan of Calif. Highway 88, you’ve probably seen the sign for Iron Mountain Road. It’s a pleasant back-country drive — and also a route with a great bit of history.
As the road’s alternate name (“Mormon Emigrant Trail”) implies, this was roughly the route blazed by the Mormon Battalion in 1848 on their return trip to Salt Lake. For the early eager gold-seekers of the 1850s, this became the way to Placerville.
Just over two miles after you turn onto Iron Mountain Road, watch for an Emigrant Trail T-marker on your right. (These metal markers have been helpfully posted by TrailsWest.) This was the site known as Leek Spring, and the T-marker is inscribed with an excerpt from the diary of Mendall Jewett, who camped here in July, 1850.
Just as today, the spot was a beautiful little valley surrounded by large pine & fir trees. Jewett dubbed it “the most romantic spot we have camped upon.”
Jewett wasn’t alone in recording his stop here at Leek Spring; other emigrant diaries mention both Leek Spring and the valley below, sometimes called “Onion Valley.” With its water, grass for the draft animals, and the abundance of wild onions (a real treat for the emigrants after months on the trail!), it’s no wonder that this became a popular camping spot.
It was, in fact, so popular with emigrants that enterprising early traders quickly set up shop here, knowing they would have ready customers.
“Here are several trading posts, on account of it being a great camping place,” wrote John Wood in his diary of September 13, 1850. A fellow emigrant named George Hegelstein observed in August, 1850 how pleased he was to be able to add to his provisions here, finding flour at the amazing price of “only fifty cents a pound” — and celebrated by purchasing a pint of whiskey “to refresh ourselves.”
One slightly later guidebook for emigrants confirmed that this was a “favorite camping place.” But it warned would-be travelers that, late in the season, “the grass will all be eaten off about here.” (Hosea Horn’s Overland Guide of 1852).
On your drive home, take a minute to ponder how closely today’s modern roads follow the path originally blazed by the first Mormon’s wagons. The same miles that today take us mere minutes to zip over in comfort required days of arduous travel for those hardy pioneers.