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Stories from the valley

Devil’s Ladder at Carson Pass: A Hidden Historic Gem

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

Those familiar with California history have heard tales of the hardships endured by pioneers who trekked from the East to the wild, untamed West. While traveling months across grassy plains and sun-baked deserts, they faced dangerous river crossings, deadly diseases, and more. At long last, they neared their destination—the gold fields—only to face another challenge.

Having reached Red Lake in the Carson Pass Valley, they stood at the bottom of what was dubbed Devil’s Ladder, contemplating the arduous task before them—hauling their wagons up what was known as Three Quarter Mountain, so named for the length of the grueling climb.

To get a feel for what the pioneers endured, you can walk in their footsteps. Drive up Highway 88 to Carson Pass Station. Take Red Vista Road, just east of the parking lot, and travel about a quarter mile until you reach the dead end. Head to the information marker at the edge of the paved area.

After admiring the spectacular view of Red Lake below, locate the large chunks of granite strewn across the wide dirt road at the foot of the turnaround. To your left, you’ll see a rocky path, which is Devil’s Ladder. If you’re up for an adventure and are wearing sturdy shoes, consider making a careful descent.

devil's ladder trail

As you make your way down the mountainside, look for ruts carved in rock faces. The pioneers carried their goods on their backs, hitched oxen to the empty wagons, and hauled them up the steep grade. The wagon wheels of the over 150,000 pioneers who made the climb between 1849 and 1852 wore grooves in the granite. You might also spot scars on some of the larger trees beside the trail, caused by chains wrapped around them to help hoist the heavy wagons.

Once you’ve gone as far down Devil’s Ladder as you’d like, turn around. Take in the sight before you, putting yourself in the pioneers’ place. As you make your ascent, you might find yourself a bit winded due to the exertion at the higher elevation. As I paused to catch my breath a time or two, my appreciation for what those first settlers experienced became more real than any textbook could make it.

rocks on devil's ladder trail

At the top, cross the dirt road, locate the trail to the left of the boulders, and follow the metal rectangles on the trees, again looking for wagon ruts. Roughly 500 feet into your short trek, you’ll reach two large granite outcroppings with names on them. In August 1849, a group of Odd Fellows painted their names to commemorate nearing the end of their journey. The Odd Fellows today periodically refresh the paint.

historic sign on devil's ladder trail

Your trip back in time ends when you reach the pioneer grave marker, where an unknown adventurer is buried. To your right, you’ll see a path through the bushes that will take you back to the road, armed with admiration of the pioneers who scaled Devil’s Ladder and helped settle the Golden State.