History of the Snake Range

An Engelmann spruce growing in the ruins of Johnson Mine

An Engelmann spruce growing in the ruins of Johnson Mine


There is evidence that humans have occupied the Snake Range since about 9,000 to 12,000 B.C. These earliest people appear to have been small, mobile groups which spent their time hunting animals and gathering plants. They hunted big-game animals, such as mammoth, bison, camel, ground-sloth, and horse, which are now mostly extinct. Around 9,000 B.C., as the climate dried out, natives began to use a wider range of plant and animal products as food sources and for clothing and implements. Evidence survives in the form of manos and milling stones, baskets, moccasins, spears, and digging sticks. Some artifacts show that these people traded with coastal California. By 500 B.C., people in the Snake Range area had settled into a distinctive lifestyle, living part of the year in small villages and supplementing their diet with hunting and food gathering. These people developed a characteristic artistic style as expressed in their pottery and rock art. At the time of first European contact, the native American group occupying the area was known as the Western Shoshone. They lived in small villages near water sources and occupied small, conical brush houses. During the spring and summer, families dispersed to gather plant seeds and roots, and to hunt. In fall, the families held communal rabbit and antelope drives, and gathered pinyon pine nuts. By winter, groups of families would congregate in small villages in the pinyon-juniper zone along the lower slopes of the mountains.

Spanish Explorers

Extensive European exploration of North America began with the voyage of Columbus in 1492. Two hundred and fifty years later the Great Basin still lay uncharted and unknown. By the 1770’s, Spain had established missions in California and New Mexico and was looking for an overland route to connect them. In 1776, the Garcés expedition explored the southern edge of the Great Basin, and the Escalante expedition reached a point about 80 miles east of the Snake Range.

Traders and Trappers

The next explorations of the Great Basin were done by British and American fur trappers such as Peter Skene Ogden and Jedediah Smith. Ogden was the first to explore the northern Great Basin, discovering the Humboldt River in 1829, which would later become the route of the Overland Trail. Smith was also the first to cross Sacramento Pass in the Snake Range in 1827. Driven by desire for profits in the lucrative fur trade and competition between British and American interests in western North America, other trappers rapidly completed the exploration of the Great Basin by 1830.

Emigrant Trails

With the establishment of the Old Spanish Trail through the southern Great Basin, and the Overland Trail across the northern Great Basin, emigrants bound for California started to traverse the inhospitable desert. The trickle of parties in the early 1830’s became a flood by 1850, spurred on by discovery of gold in California in 1849.

American Exploration

John Charles Frémont led several early expeditions to explore and map the west, and in 1844 discovered that the huge region between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains did not drain to the sea. He was the first to use the term ‘Great Basin’ to describe the area. After the Mormons successfully settled the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, they began to spread over a much wider region. Some of their outposts survived, others failed. In 1855, the White Mountain Mission expedition attempted to establish a settlement at present-day Garrison on the eastern slopes of the Snake Range. Snake Creek Farm, as it was called, lasted only three years. Meanwhile, the ongoing expedition produced the first written record of exploration in Great Basin National Park and was the first party to climb Wheeler Peak, known then as Jeff Davis Peak.

Transcontinental Routes

By 1850, the United States spanned the continent from coast to coast, and the government became interested in discovering practical routes across the Great Basin. In 1855, Howard R. Egan explored a route which crossed the northern end of the Snake Range. Captain James H. Simpson of the US Army was sent to the Great Basin in 1858 to do a reconnaissance of a more direct route to California and locate a site for a fort midway across the route. The Simpson expedition was the first scientific exploration and included a geologist, naturalist, photographer, and artist. During 1859-61, overland mail, stage, and telegraph service were begun along the Simpson-Egan route. The Pony Express was an ambitious express mail service which used this central route during 1860-61. It was quickly outmoded by the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. Further changes took place when the transcontinental railroad was completed along the Humboldt River in 1869 and most of the traffic moved to the swifter railroad.

Government and Private Surveys

After the turmoil of the American Civil War ended, the federal government sponsored a series of scientific surveys in the Great Basin. In 1869, George M. Wheeler was the leader of a reconnaissance survey of southern and southeastern Nevada, including the Snake Range. He and several of his men climbed the highest point in the Snake Range, which his men named Wheeler Peak in his honor. His report describes in detail the forests, wildlife, and mining in the Snake Range, as well as the native Americans. John Muir, the famous naturalist and conservationist, visited the Snake Range in the late 1870’s in the course of his survey of the resources of Nevada’s mountain ranges. He climbed Wheeler Peak and noted the evidence of glacial activity in the range. His journals and notebooks became the basis of his later articles and books calling for the protection of America’s natural resources. In 1878, a new federal agency, the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, was given the task of completing precise survey measurements across the country. The Survey established triangulation stations on many of the Great Basin’s highest summits. Using a transit-like instrument, the theodolite, the surveyors were able to take very accurate position measurements, which made it possible to accurately survey the land for legal boundaries and to produce accurate maps. Wheeler Peak was occupied for several seasons as part of this survey, and evidence of the survey station is still visible.

Miners and Loggers

Discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 in western Nevada set off the first mining rush in the Great Basin. When the Comstock Lode suffered a temporary depression in 1864, prospectors fanned out across the rest of Nevada. Discoveries were soon made in the Snake Range, but making a profit was difficult in the remote country. Miners have left their mark in every part of the range in the form of prospect holes and small shafts, but few sites were ever developed into large mines. Among the more notable operations in the South Snake Range were the Minerva tungsten mines, the Mount Washington copper-lead-antimony mines, and the St. Lawrence lead-silver mine on the southwest slopes, the Osceola placer gold mine on the northwest slopes, and the Johnson tungsten mine on the crest at Johnson Lake.

Logging has never been a major industry in the Snake Range because of the small forested area. In the past, timber was cut mainly to satisfy the needs of the mines and settlers. At one time there were lumber mills in South Fork Big Wash in the southern Snake Range and Hendrys Creek in the Mount Moriah area, among other sites.


The population jump caused by the mining boom led directly to more permanent settlements. By 1869 a number of ranches and small farms had been established in the Spring Valley and the Snake Valley flanking the Snake Range. The settlers were dependent on the creeks flowing out of the mountains for their water supply and on the timber growing on the upper slopes for wood.

Well-known as the discoverer of Lehman Caves, Absalom S. Lehman established a ranch on a creek near the east boundary of the present-day national park in 1870. He discovered the cave in 1885, and exploration soon revealed the cave’s beautiful and extensive natural decoration. He began to advertise the cave and serve as a guide, and by 1887 was establishing a new ranch at the cave to serve as a tourist center. He sold his old ranch on Lehman Creek in 1891, but died before he could develop his new ranch.

The settlement of Baker was established by Ben Lehman (the brother of Absalom Lehman) and several others in the late 1870’s. George W. Baker built a major cattle ranch at the town, which was later named for him. In 1911, the US Forest Service created a ranger station in Baker to administer the new Nevada National Forest, which included the Snake Range. Garrison was permanently settled about the same time as Baker by several families who began farming along lower Snake Creek.

The Snake and Spring Valleys have always been remote and difficult to reach by the standards of more populated regions. Railroad lines were extended to Ely, Nevada, and Milford, Utah by 1906, which helped ranchers and miners transport their products to market. US 50, the highway which crosses the Snake Range at Sacramento Pass, was completed by 1920 but not paved until 1947. Even today, the Snake Range is a long way from the nearest major cities.

Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest

By 1880, conservationists such as John Muir and others were advocating preservation of the country’s forests and natural wonders. Because of their work, the first national parks were established by 1890. In 1891, the National Forest Reserves were created, primarily to protect timber and watersheds. The US Forest Service was created in 1905 under the Department of Agriculture to administer the Forest Reserves, which were redesignated as National Forests in 1907. The present multiple-use and conservation policies of the Forest Service were largely developed by energetic Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester. The Snake Range, including the future Great Basin National Park, was included in the Nevada National Forest created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. As part of a major reorganization of the National Forests, the Nevada National Forest was eliminated in 1957, and the Snake Range became part of the Humboldt National Forest. More recently, the Humboldt and Toiyabe National Forests were combined into one administrative unit.

Lehman Caves National Monument

Cada C. Boak, a Tonopah mining broker and advocate of US Highway 50, led the effort, starting in 1920, to create a national monument at Lehman Caves. Two years later, President Warren Harding proclaimed Lehman Caves National Monument under the authority of the American Antiquities Act. The new monument was administered by the US Forest Service until 1933, when Lehman Caves and all other national monuments were transferred to the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior. In deference to grazing and mining interests, just one square mile was protected in the national monument.

Great Basin National Park

Shortly after the creation of the national monument, Boak and others began to advocate the idea of a national park in the Snake Range, but nothing came of these efforts. Interest revived in 1955, primarily due to the efforts of Weldon F. Heald, who became interested in the Snake Range after his rediscovery of the Wheeler Glacier on a five-day hiking trip. Partly because of the increasing public interest in preserving the South Snake Range as a scenic and recreational area, the US Forest Service designated the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area in 1959. As part of efforts to provide easy recreational access to the mountains, the US Forest Service built the Wheeler Peak Scenic Road and constructed several campgrounds in the mid 1960’s. Over the years, several bills were introduced into Congress to create a Great Basin National Park, but none were passed. Strong opposition from ranching and mining interests was a major factor in the defeat of the park proposals. But by the mid-1980’s, the movement to create a park revived. Mining and ranching were becoming less of an economic force and tourism was increasing. There was strong interest in protecting the remaining roadless areas in Nevada as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, primarily by residents of the populous Reno and Las Vegas areas. This led to revived interest in a national park and much debate between local and national advocates and opponents as to the size and exact boundaries of the park. Finally, Congress passed a bill which President Ronald Reagan signed on October 27, 1986, creating the present 77,000-acre Great Basin National Park, Nevada’s first national park.

The new national park inherited the facilities of the old Lehman Caves National Monument, including the small visitor center and the Forest Service campgrounds, roads, and trail system. As the new park became more well known and visitation increased, it soon became apparent that changes would have to be made in order to administer the area as a coherent national park. By 1992, a new general management plan was developed which called for the construction of a new entrance road and visitor center, and relocation and closure of some existing roads. Hikers would benefit from new hiking trails which would connect existing trails to form an expanded park-wide trail system.

Mount Moriah Wilderness

The Mount Moriah Wilderness protects 82,000 acres in the North Snake Range under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The Wilderness was created in 1989 as part of the Nevada Wilderness Act, which protected many roadless areas in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Interest in protecting roadless areas began within the Forest Service in the 1930’s, primarily under the influence of Aldo Leopold. The agency designated some places as wilderness closed to motorized travel, but these areas were protected only by administrative order. Wilderness advocates worked hard to gain more permanent protection for roadless areas, and their efforts resulted in the National Wilderness Preservation System created by Congress in 1964. The Wilderness Act immediately designated most of the existing National Forest Wilderness areas as part of the Wilderness System, but left a few areas to be administratively protected by the Forest Service as Primitive Areas. The Jarbidge Wilderness was the only designated wilderness area in Nevada before passage of the Nevada Wilderness Act. In wilderness areas, humans are intended to be temporary visitors. Permanent structures and motorized and mechanized vehicles, including bicycles, are kept out in order to preserve the primitive nature of the area. Mount Moriah Wilderness and the remainder of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest within the Snake Range are presently administered by the Ely Ranger District, headquartered in Ely, Nevada.