Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway
Photo © Dick James Photography
Named after "Major" John Ebbetts, Ebbetts Pass (el. 8,730 ft.) is the eastern of two passes in the area crossed by Highway 4 within the Stanislaus National Forest. The Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile long National Scenic Trail, crosses the summit at Ebbetts Pass and is a famous intersection for thru-hikers leaving the High Sierra and entering into the Tahoe region.
The pass is part of the Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway, a 61-mile stretch of California State Highways 4 and 89 in Calaveras and Alpine counties, between the towns of Arnold and Markleeville. It includes expansive views of granite outcrops, basalt columns, ancient volcanic peaks, deep river canyons, glacially carved valleys, majestic stands of conifers including giant sequoias, open meadows, clear mountain lakes, and swiftly flowing streams and rivers. All can be experienced along the route. One can find historic relics of people who lived here before as well as present day resorts and recreation facilities.
Ebbetts Pass—a high mountain pass of the Sierra Nevada range in Alpine County—was once used only by the Miwok and Washoe Native Americans of the area to cross the mountains. In 1827, this trail was used by famous trailblazer and cartographer, Jedediah Smith, to leave California at the urging of Mexican officials. It wasn’t until 1850 when John Ebbetts—Captain of the Knickerbocker Exploring Party of New York—crossed this pass with a large train of mules, guiding a party of miners into the then gold-frenzied California.
John Ebbetts saw the trail as a suitable route for the installation of the Transcontinental Railroad; mostly due to his observations of such little snow. This, however, was likely an anomaly, as today the highway is closed from November through May due to excessive snow accumulation transforming into a winter wonderland. In 1853, Ebbetts returned to this area while leading a survey party for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company, who were researching possible routes for the Transcontinental Railroad. He recommended this route to his friend—and lead surveyor of the party—George H. Goddard, whom later named the pass Ebbetts Pass in his honor.
The route was eventually determined unsuitable for a train and Ebbetts made plans to return and survey it for the installation of a road instead. However, in 1854, while traveling to Petaluma aboard the steamboat Secretary, John Ebbetts was fatally injured in a boiler explosion. No emigrant train ever used Ebbetts route, but a toll road was established there in 1862 to serve the then booming silver mining region of Silver City. Today, visitors appreciate Ebbetts Pass for its leisurely-paced drive, unique and beautiful scenic vistas, access to the Pacific Crest Trail, and historic relics.
The pass is registered as California Historical Landmark #318 and a marker is located on the left when traveling east (18 miles southwest of Markleeville, at post mile 18.5).
Compared to the high-speed trans-Sierra routes of Highways 50 and 80, driving the Ebbetts Pass is a special and unique experience. The lack of a center line, along with dramatic elevation changes, steep grades and sharp curves encourage travelers to traverse the route at a leisurely pace, gaining time to experience the scenic vistas in a more intimate fashion than any other route through the Sierra.
Length of Byway or Route: 61 miles
California State Highways 4 and 89 in Calaveras and Alpine counties, between the towns of Arnold and Markleeville.
It includes expansive views of granite outcrops, basalt columns, ancient volcanic peaks, deep river canyons, glacially carved valleys, majestic stands of conifers including giant sequoias, open meadows, clear mountain lakes, and swiftly flowing streams and rivers.