The Western States Trail finds its origins with the Native People who lived as hunters and gatherers as part of sophisticated trade and seasonal migration patterns who moved across the Great Basin from what is modern-day Utah into northern Nevada, California and the mountains around Lake Tahoe. From their various ancestral homes, these routes of seasonal migration proved key. The Washoe people, for example, traveled to the shores of Lake Tahoe “Da ow aga” (“edge of the lake”) to harvest spring plants, to pick berries and seeds that had both nutritional and medicinal value and to catch the lake’s native fish. With the arrival of white explorers and settlers years and years later, the footprints of the Native People would prove to be a guide, a link through the wilderness, and would aid another group of people on their journey.
The California portion of the trail was taken up by trans-Sierra travelers in the 19th century seeking a passage between the gold mines of the foothills near Auburn, and the silver mines of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. William Brewer, a member of the Whitney Survey, crossed the Sierra by the trail in 1863. He remembered, “It was grand, but a very rough trail, in fact, awful bad, and what was worse, no water.” Once the gold and silver rushes of the 19th century faded, so too, in many ways, did the trail. Robert Montgomery Watson, the longtime constable of Tahoe City, California, helped re-discover and re-mark it during the late 1920s and early 1930s. His granddaughter, Mildred Watson Collins, recalled in an oral history how much Watson loved rekindling history through his rediscovery of the old Placer County Emigrant Road, built in 1855, between Lake Tahoe and Auburn, California. Watson and his granddaughter searched for old “blazes” – cuts or slashes in the bark of the pine trees along the trail used for direction finding for travelers from years before. “He made me take out a leave of absence and come help him,” Margaret recalled of her sophomore year at UC-Berkeley, around 1930. “And I could get up and down off a horse easier than he could at the time, and I could see the blazes. He’d say, ‘Look for an old blaze!’ and I’d say, ‘Well, there’s one here’ and ‘I don’t think that’s right!’ and he’d ride over and look at it. ‘Yes’ and then we’d put up the signs. It was all marked. He had a lot of signs to put over there.” At the top of Emigrant Pass, high above Western States’ start in Olympic Valley, stands the rock monument built by Watson in 1931, at an elevation of 8,774 feet, now called “Watson Monument.”
In 1955, the late Wendell T. Robie with a party of five horsemen rode the Western States Trail from the post office in Tahoe City to Auburn, proving that horses could still cover 100 miles in one day. Through his energy and vision, he subsequently founded the Western States Trail Foundation and organized the annual Western States Trail Ride, also known as the Tevis Cup “100 Miles – One Day” Ride.
In 1972, a group of 20 U.S. Army infantrymen attempted to hike the trail nonstop, starting one day ahead of the Tevis Cup ride. They were guided by a local horseman, Jim Larimer (who would finish Western States seven years later). Details of the hike are sketchy at best, with some rumored to have taken a short cut and Larimer reporting that several had taken rides on his horse at various points along the way. Nonetheless, seven of the 20 made it all the way to Auburn, in times between 44:54 and 46:49.
In 1974, with the inspiration and encouragement of Drucilla Barner, first woman to win the Tevis Cup and Secretary of the WSTF, Tevis veteran Gordy Ainsleigh joined the horses of the Western States Trail Ride to see if he could complete the course on foot. Twenty-three hours and forty-two minutes later Gordy arrived in Auburn, proving that a runner could indeed run the entire trail within the 24-hour time limit of the Tevis Cup – 100 miles in one day.
In 1975, a second runner, Ron Kelley, attempted the same feat, only to withdraw within two miles of the finish with ample time remaining. In 1976, Ken “Cowman” Shirk ran the 100 miles, finishing just 30 minutes over the 24-hour mark.
In 1977, 14 men from four states participated in the 1st official Western States Endurance Run, which was held in conjunction with the Tevis Cup Ride. Runners were monitored by Dr. Bob Lind at the three veterinary stops set up for the horses, and although the race organization transported the entrants gear, runners were responsible for producing all of their own supplies, except water. Three runners finished the course: Andy Gonzales, age 22, in the record-breaking time of 22:57, and Peter Mattei and Ralph Paffenbarger, ages 53 and 54, who tied in 28:36 (and the 30-hour award was born!).
In the fall of 1977, the Board of Directors for the Western States Endurance Run was formed as part of the Western States Trail Foundation. It was made up primarily of the handful of runners and riders who had helped monitor the progress of the 14 pioneers earlier that summer. The Run organization later became its own entity and is now known as the Western States Endurance Run Foundation.
1978 heralded a dramatic increase in both interest and participation in the Western States Run. Culminating a year-long effort by the inspired Gang of Four (Phil Gardner, Mo Livermore, Shannon Weil, and Curt Sproul) to create an independent event, the race took place in June, a month earlier than the Tevis Cup Ride. The event mushroomed to include 21 aid stations and six medical checks, thanks to an ever-growing corps of loyal volunteers and the support of the Placer County Sheriff ‘s Communications Reserve and the Search and Rescue Unit. 63 adventurers ran the race, and the first woman, Pat Smythe, finished in 29:34.
One hundred forty-three runners from 21 states and three foreign countries attempted the course in 1979. Since then, the Run has reached its full entrance quota and draws athletes from across the nation and around the world.