Origins: The Applegate Trail was blazed in 1846 as a southern approach to Oregon's Willamette Valley. The Lassen Trail opened two years later as a northern approach to California's gold fields. Both California- and Oregon-bound pioneers followed the same trail for 175 miles across present northwest Nevada and northeast California until splitting at Goose Lake near Lakeview, Ore.

Claim to fame: The Applegate-Lassen Trail was used by as many as 10,000 forty-niners, making it one of the most popular gateways to California in 1849. The trail's Black Rock Desert stretch was one of the deadliest along the entire overland route because of its heat and lack of water. The trail also earned a bad name as a result of the suffering endured by 1849 stragglers.

Trail: Most historians hail the Applegate-Lassen Trail as the West's best-preserved 19th-century trail. Nearly all of the 145-mile stretch of trail between Imlay, Nev., and California's Surprise Valley is still visible. Trail quality varies depending on the amount of use by modern vehicles, with most sections seldom or never traveled by vehicles. Miles of vintage wagon ruts haven't been traveled since emigrant days.

Trail markers: The trail can be retraced with the help of markers placed about every five miles by volunteers of Reno-based Trails West, which has published a detailed guidebook. More information may be obtained by writing Trails West, P.O. Box 12045, Reno, NV 89510.

Camping: Visitors can camp almost anywhere along the trail because virtually the entire stretch from Imlay to Surprise Valley is on public land. No towns or stores are within 10 miles of the trail, but nearby Gerlach and Cedarville, Calif., offer limited services. The Soldier Meadows Guest Ranch is off the trail at the north end of the Black Rock Desert.

Warning: The trail crosses one of the most remote, uninhabited regions in the lower 48. Cell phones are unreliable in it, and help can be 60 miles away in the event of a vehicle breakdown. The Black Rock Desert's mud flats pose a special hazard when wet.

Federal protection: While the gold-crazed pioneers cursed the region, Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan are seeking to protect its grand landscapes and history. Nevada Democrats next year plan to introduce legislation designating it as a National Conservation Area.

Emigrant diaries: Every single mile of the Applegate-Lassen Trail has a story to tell. One of the keys to unlocking the tales is a detailed emigrant diary. Israel Lord's journal is one of the best. The region is so little changed that diarists' descriptions of the landscape still ring true today, giving visitors a chance to see the land through their eyes.