Kyburz Flat, Explore Petroglyphs, sheep camp & way station

More’s Hotel plaque at Kyburz Flat. | Mark McLaughlin

Before and during California’s Gold Rush era, a multitude of routes were blazed over the Sierra Nevada into the Golden State. The northern mining district in the Bear, Yuba and Feather River valleys were distant from the main trans-Sierra arteries that utilized the Truckee River route west over the Donner Pass area or the Carson River trail through the mountains south of Lake Tahoe.

Restored Basque brick oven. | Mark McLaughlin

In the early 1850s gold seekers discovered a more direct route to the northern mines by cutting away from the Truckee River near present-day Floriston and heading northwest into Dog Valley toward the Little Truckee River. From there miners and wagons crossed a relatively low 6,842-foot pass over the Sierra divide into the west-flowing Middle Fork of the Yuba River. For years, the Henness Pass Road served as the primary supply route from San Francisco and Sacramento to the Comstock mines in Virginia City, Nev. This historically significant road was later included in the Lincoln Highway, the country’s first transcontinental highway system.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service hosts a cluster of three thought-provoking interpretive sites at Kyburz Flat, about 16 miles north of Truckee on Highway 89 at its intersection with old Henness Pass Road. Kyburz Flat is a peaceful wildlife viewing area with streams and small pools of water depending on the season. It is also part of a protected animal migration corridor.

Once you enter the site, drive to the first interpretive marker about one mile east of Highway 89. The area reveals a remarkable example of cupule petroglyphs that offer evidence Washoe Indians and their ancestors camped in the area 2,000 years ago. Second, a nearby loop trail traces the remains of More’s Station, a busy way station and hotel for stage passengers and other travelers on Henness Pass Road. And finally, a short distance away, is a fully functioning brick oven used by Basque sheepherders to bake bread and cook stews while they grazed their flocks in the nearby meadows during warm Sierra summers. This informative historical tour takes about an hour to visit all three sites.

Cupule petroglyphs. | Mark McLaughlin

The large petroglyph at Interpretive Marker 1 is a slab of rock where small round pits (cupules) have been patiently ground into the surface by Native Americans. Some ancient symbols and grinding holes etched in obdurate granite in the Sierra are the work of generations. Petroglyphs are scattered throughout these mountains, but cupules are distinctive and part of traditional ceremonial activities such as fertility rituals and a place to leave special offerings. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California considers this area an important heritage site to be treated with respect with no rubbings or castings of the petroglyphs. Photography is allowed.

More’s Station
Next stop is an interpretive path through the remnants of More’s Station, hotel and ranch within a short walk down the road from the petroglyph. After the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, Henness Pass Road was improved to handle the increased traffic of hundreds of food, merchandise and equipment-laden freight wagons, as well as farm buckboards hauling families and their household goods to booming western Nevada. More’s Station was a 320-acre spread operated by Lysander More and his family. Much of the trail is on a wooden boardwalk free of the prickly sagebrush, occasional snake and loose rock that characterize this arid landscape.

Illustrated signs indicate the location and functions of the hotel, barn, root cellar, water well and corral. Piled rocks reveal low walls used to anchor fenceposts that kept stock animals safely in the corral, while a shallow pit marks the location of a 40-foot-deep well. The well was hand-pumped to deliver potable water to the surface for parched and dusty humans and livestock.

Wheeler Sheep Camp
A short drive or 15-minute hike away are the open meadows of the Wheeler Sheep Camp, one of the main grazing areas for the Wheeler Sheep Company based in Reno. This camp was built and managed before 1921 by the Gallues brothers John and Felix. Immigrants from the Basque country in the western Pyrenees Mountains of Spain, the Gallues are part of a rich heritage of Basque ranchers in California and Nevada. The first wave of Basque nationals were mostly illiterate with little to no experience in sheepherding; they learned on the job working for others.

Initially drawn by the California Gold Rush, Basque ranchers and sheepherders later moved operations to Nevada due to less expensive land and economic booms brought on by a series of precious metal discoveries. A second surge of Basque immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century were not attracted by gold and silver. Most were escaping political and economic turmoil in their home country and seeking a new stable life with steady employment in sheepherding among their transplanted compatriots in the Great Basin. All the buildings built by John and Felix Gallues for the Wheeler Sheep Camp are now gone except for a large brick oven that was first constructed in 1927. The present version is a restoration completed in 1992. The dome oven is fully operational and may be reserved for use by the public. Contact the Sierraville Ranger Station for permission.

It’s easy to miss the entrance to Kyburz Flat with only a small sign along the roadway. Heading north from Truckee, look for a large chain-linked fence on the right side before you reach Jackson Meadows Road. Turn and follow the dirt road into the protected area to reach the parking area for Kyburz Flat. At the parking area, you’ll find the petroglyph and the boardwalk nearby. Continue north along a short sideroad to reach Wheeler Sheep Camp, which also has a parking area.

Passenger vehicles are OK to reach the site; traveling any further along Henness Pass Road will require a vehicle that can handle rough conditions, however. There is a vault toilet at the parking area. | fs.usda.gov