Backcountry 4 – Wheel Drive Trails – The Pony Express
Pony Express riders crossed the Wild West for the first time in April 1860, covering 1,900 miles in a record 10 days. The ambitious system became the fastest means of communication between East and West. In those days, the proceedings took three weeks to deliver the mail. The new service was also the most expensive. A one-ounce letter costs $ 10 to send from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California.
Flipping through the trail guide, Backcountry Adventures: Utah, I found a mapped section of the old Pony Express route. I wanted to see it and experience it for myself. Of course, you’d be driving rather than horseback riding, but this remote road in the Utah desert remains largely untouched. It looks a lot like when the passengers rushed east and west with their precious packages.
Because the trail is so remote I’m glad the book has ample directions and GPS coordinates. Taking a wrong turn and getting lost here would be disastrous. These landmarks also mark the location of the old Pony Express stations and other sites.
The Pony Express trail begins in the mostly abandoned Gold Hill, a former Utah mining town. From Salt Lake City, take I-80 West to Wendover. Get enough gas and supplies here; there are no services anywhere along the 139 mile trail. Turn south on Alt US 93 and travel 24 miles, crossing briefly into Nevada. Turn left at the intersection with the paved road towards Ibapah. After approximately 15 miles, drive towards Gold Hill on an unpaved road.
As you leave the ruined city, the barren desert stretches to the horizon. Soon I come across an unimproved section of the actual Pony Express route. The Overland Stage also used this trail after the Pony Express closed. It feels like this track has been abandoned since the last horse and trainer. I can easily imagine a lone rider battling the sweltering summer heat to stay on schedule.
As I pass several old Pony Express stations and markers, I begin to see how the system worked. About 190 stations spanned the untamed western border at 10 to 15 mile intervals. Wasting no time, the riders stopped for water and a fresh horse at each outpost. This ambitious operation used a total of 400 of the hardiest horse breeds.
Poorly equipped, each postman (weighing less than 120 pounds) traveled grueling 100-125 miles a day or night. The company wanted skilled riders who were “young, lean, wiry types, no older than 18 … They preferred orphans …” Racing against the clock, they raced through difficult terrain in extreme weather conditions and faced constant danger of attacks from the Indians. About 10 miles from Gold Hill is Canyon Station. Indians attacked this Pony Express station, killing a stage conductor and four soldiers. They then burned the structure, now a pile of rubble, to the ground.
Continuing through the town of Callao, where several buildings from the Overland Stage era still stand, you will arrive at Simpson Springs station just past the midpoint. Here is a restored Pony Express station. Fresh water is available here and you can camp if you want this to be a two day trip.
Beyond Simpson Springs are several more stations before the end of the trail. Although it was a success, the Pony Express was too expensive to maintain. The land telegraph, completed in October 1861, put an end to the Pony Express. In total, he operated for just under 19 months. Unbelievably, only one mail bag was lost and a cyclist died during his operation.
Other notable sites have sprung up along the old Pony Express and Overland Stage route. This trail passes through the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. Fish Springs, once used by the Pony Express horses and riders, is now an oasis for bird watchers. The end of September is the height of the autumn migration of waterfowl. Beyond the refuge is Black Rock Station and a field of geodes, a rock hunter’s refuge. The broken open geodes are hollow with intricate crystal formations. It will also pass Dugway Proving Grounds, the site of previous military chemical and biological weapons testing. The trail ends at Camp Floyd, home to 3,000 soldiers in 1857 during a rumored Mormon uprising.
This information and much more is available in Adler Publishing’s Backcountry Adventures series.