The Pony Express Trail in Utah’s West Desert

On Friday we were looking for something to do. We spent the previous day packing and needed a change of scenery. Zach suggested “going for a drive” and briefly showed me the description for the Pony Express Trail. It sounded fine to me, so we set off for what we assumed was a nice afternoon excursion. 7.5 hours later we were at the end of the Utah segment near the Nevada border.

The portion of the trail we followed began in Lehi and ended in Ipabah for a total of 133 mostly unpaved miles. To get back to I-80, we had to drive to West Wendover, Nevada, another 55 miles away. By the time we made it home, we’d been gone for 11 hours. Not the afternoon drive I thought we were doing. But it was spectacular. We were both surprised by the austere beauty of the West Desert, a landscape that reminded us of West Texas. It was alive and lush with antelope, wild horses, and a wildlife refuge for wetland bird species. What began as an interesting drive turned into a grand adventure, exactly what we didn’t realize we wanted.

At the top of Lookout Pass
The Lookout Pass Station Marker
Antelope Family

The Pony Express operated briefly for 19 months from 1860-1861. It cut mail delivery from 6-8 weeks by ship to an average of 10 days as riders traversed 1900 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Ultimately outdone by the speed of the telegraph system, the Pony Express was critical in relaying the early events of the Civil War to the West. At its height, it operated with 420 horses and 80 riders.

These ruins at the Simpson Springs stop were from a CCC Camp

Riders wore bright red shirts and blue pants and carried a lightweight rifle and a Colt revolver. They were required to weigh less than 120 pounds (!) so that the full weight each horse carried was 165 pounds. Neither of us would have made the cut!

A long empty road
Loved this view as we climbed up a pass in the Dugway Range
At the top of the Dugway Range pass, we could see the Salt Flats in the distance

Soon after our descent from Lookout Pass, we came across a sign for the Onaqui Wild Horse Herd Management Area. The Onaqui wild horses are one of 19 wild herds in Utah managed by the BLM. We were hopeful for a sighting. Keeping our eyes peeled, we crested a small rise and suddenly, spread below us was a huge group of horses moving east along the Pony Express Trail.

We stayed still and watched them from the car in awe. Truman let out a single bark, but then remained silent, entranced by their graceful movements. We noticed three smaller groups on the opposite side of the road also moving east. Zach pulled off onto a side road where we could observe them as they drew closer. One group passed directly in front of our car and I had to clamp Tru’s snout shut. It was incredible!

Another highlight of the drive was our discovery of Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1959 using the proceeds from duck stamp sales, the Refuge covers 17,992 acres at the southern end of the Salt Lake Desert. 10,000 of which is a wetland habitat supplied by several natural springs. The Refuge was created to support migratory bird species, but certainly all of the wildlife in the area benefit from its preservation and management. 290 bird species have been recorded at the Refuge.

When we came upon the Refuge, it felt like a true oasis. We decided to drive part of the auto tour since it’s open sunrise to sunset. We were there in late afternoon and had no difficulty spotting several different species. Not that we knew what any of them were… It was quiet – we were the only visitors – and each sighting felt privileged.

It was also at Fish Springs that we realized how much father we had to go! We saw one of the only mileage signs of the day and noted that West Wendover was still 105 miles away! So, we trudged on toward the next landmark: the Deep Creek Mountains. Unknown to us (and probably lots of Utahns), this range of mountains has a couple 12,000+ ft. peaks and lots of solitude. Driving around this range was gorgeous.

Beautiful stretch of the Deep Creek Mountains
Gorgeous view from Canyon Station

Our final stop of the day was at the Canyon Station. Overlooking the Salt Lake Desert and nestled at the end of the Deep Creek Mountains, it was my favorite of the station stops. We had stunning views in all directions and almost felt like we’d accomplished some great feat of strength and endurance ourselves. We traveled through Overland Canyon, emerged on the other side of the Deep Creeks, and started back toward civilization.

Ruins at the Canyon Station
Looking down toward Overland Canyon

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