Camper Tracks Along the Pony Express Trail

By George A. Thompson
From page 24 of the January, 1976 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright © January, 1976 Lost Treasure, Inc. all rights reserved

Like a fine Russell or Remington painting, the famed Pony Express brings to mind fleet-footed horses and daring riders racing a band of pursuing Indians to the next mail station. Those old times seem quite romantic now, but they were not so picturesque to the riders of the Pony Express and the Overland Stage who followed practically the same route. Through wild desert they faced summer heat and winter cold and raced death every time they rode. Today's traveler can follow their lost pony tracks in the comfort of a modern camper.

The Pony Express trail stretched across endless prairies, through high mountain passes, and over sun-blistered deserts from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. But it is all history now except for an almost forgotten section of the trail along the southern edge of Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert.

Following the old Pony Express trail today is a camper adventure that everyone can enjoy. For the lover of history and the outdoors, there is always something of interest along the trail, from old stations and ghost towns to abandoned mines and rockhounding areas. The trail is still a little rough and often dusty, but it is a luxury route now compared to the running horse and bouncing stagecoach of the past. The country has changed little over the years. The desert is still the desert, and the old trail still snakes its way across the lonesome miles. Only the hostile Indians are missing.

The old Pony Express trail leaves Utah State Road 36, some 28 miles south of Tooele, county seat of Tooele County, and 33 miles west of Salt Lake City. A wooden, forestry-type sign points the way west. For several miles the narrow roadway is paved, but the asphalt soon gives way to gravel and finally to dirt as it follows sandy washes and draws. The old road is kept in repair during the summer months, however, and can be taken by almost any sort of pickup truck-camper combination.

The spring or fall months are the best time to explore this historic area, for summer on the desert is hot. Good tires, including a dependable spare, plenty of water and a full tank of fuel are absolutely essential. The next service station is more than 100 miles away.

After leaving U-36, the road climbs for 8 miles through cedar-studded foothills to Lookout Pass, where a historical monument marks the site of Point Lookout Station. It is said that the name comes from the pony riders' warning to the next rider, "Lookout for Indians ahead!"

"Aunt Libby" and "Uncle Horace" Rockwell operated the station. At the edge of the cedars a walled cemetery holds overland travelers who died or were killed along the way. It is a strange little cemetery. The unmarked graves are those of forgotten travelers. The fancy headstones mark the graves of Aunt Libby's favorite friends, her dogs.

From the cemetery, the old trail zig-zags down from the foothills to the edge of the desert, where it winds its way across rolling country to Simpson Springs. Recently, a chain link fence has been built around the old station ruins to protect them from vandals.

On the slope just above the road a grove of large trees offer shade to a little campground which is a perfect place to park a camper. There are toilets as well as tables and fireplaces under the trees. The inviting pool of cold water below the spring was built by CCC workers during the 1930's. It is not olympic in size, but many campers have enioyed swimming in it through the years. This oasis is an ideal spot to camp while exploring almost forgotten places, such as nearby Indian Springs and Death Canyon, abandoned mining districts a few miles to the south. Both are easily found by following directional signs on the main roadway.

It is an easy drive on a downhill slope from Simpson Springs to the ancient riverbed that was once part of diluvial Lake Bonneville. This is the site of Riverbed Station. Only a rock monument marks it now, but it was once a busy place.

A daring stagecoach robbery occurred there during the early days of the Overland Stage. As the stagecoach bounced its way down from the Dugway Range to the west, the driver saw what looked like a man's body lying face down in the sparse sagebrush along the trail. Thinking that he had found another victim of the desert, the driver stopped. When the shotgun guard rolled the body over, he was looking straight into the barrel of a cocked revolver. The outlaw quickly relieved the guard and driver of their weapons and then ordered them to "Throw down the box."

It took both of them to lift the heavy chest that contained $40,000 in gold coins.

Porter Rockwell, the famed Mormon marshal, later found where a horse had been hidden in a draw south of the trail and followed its tracks to the outlaw's camp near the south end of the East Tintic Mountains. Rockwell arrested the man and recovered $30,000 from several shallow holes where the outlaw had buried it. The officer, not knowing that the bandit had taken $40,000, missed $10,000 of the cache.

That $10,000 was never found, and there is no clue now to where it was buried. The outlaw was killed soon after his capture while trying to escape. Old desert residents still maintain that $10,000 in gold is waiting for some lucky searcher in a shallow hole not far south of old Riverbed Station.

Ten miles west of the Riverbed Station monument, the trail crosses the rocky crest of the Dugway Range. This is the end of the trail for many rockhounds. Dugway Range geodes are featured in rock shops all over the country. They are highly prized for their fiery crystal beauty. Several campers are usually parked on both sides of Dugway Pass. The west side of the range seems to be the favorite digging area.

An additional bonus for the rockhound is Topaz Mountain. It is south of the Pony Express trail in the Thomas Range and famous for the colorful topaz crystals found on its rugged slopes. A sign points the way to the mountain along a dim side road to the south.

For those not interested in rockhounding, Smelter Canyon near the north end of the Dugway Range hides the ghost town of old Bullionville, a silver camp of the 1870's. The primitive roads of the Dugway Range, however, are better suited to walking or trail bicycles than for pickup trucks, and water there is non-existent.

Tradition says the ghosts of murdered miners haunt the overnight campers in the Dugways. Four California miners who had struck a rich vein of gold were killed by Indians as they climbed Dugway Pass on their way back east. Their ghosts still roam the range at night, looking for the packs of gold the Indians threw into a deep crevice in the rocks.

The Pony Express trail continues west and passes another rock monument which marks the site of Blackrock Station. A short distance beyond there are several large, deep pools of water where Fish Springs Station once stood. Both stations are now gone, but the pools still glisten in the sunlight. Some of them are icy cold and have fish swimming in them. Others are near boiling hot. The road winds around the north end of the Fish Spring Range to a small volcano-like cone of boiling water. Arthritics often camp there to soak in the hot mineral springs near the cone.

The road swings around the Fish Springs Range where a large canyon lies to the south. Old buildings and mine dumps still cling to the canyon side. This is old Fish Springs mining camp, a relic of the 1890's.

A rough road climbs to the old Utah and Galena mines, but it is not recommended for heavy campers. The mining properties there are still privately owned. The visitor is welcome to take photographs, but he should treat the old building with care and watch out for the old shaft. Those mine shafts are deep and dangerous.

West of the Fish Springs Range the trail forks at the ruins of an old stone building. This is all that remains of Boyd's Station, which was a stop for both the Pony Express and the Overland Stage. The left fork of the trail turns southwest to Baker, Nevada. The right one goes northwest to old Willow Springs Station, now shown on maps as Callao.

Callao is the only place along the trail where one of the original stations is still in use. Callao is famous for its cottonwood trees, one of which is reputed to be the second largest in the nation. The log buildings still in use are part of the old Willow Springs Station. The Tripp and Bagley families have lived at Callao since the days of the Overland Stage. They still point to the unmarked graves of Indians killed in an attack on the station. To visit Callao is to step back into the past.

Six miles north of Callao, at a place Pony Express riders called Lost Springs, the old trail turns westward again to the ruins of Round Station at the mouth of Overland Canyon. Part of its circular walls still stand, and rifle portholes recall memories of wilder days.

Round Station was not a regular stop, but a small strategically placed fort where riders or stagecoach passengers could take refuge from Indian raiding parties. Indian raids in and around Overland Canyon were common.

The next station, deep in the recesses of Overland Canyon, was attacked and burned so often it was called Burnt Station. A stone marker, almost lost in the head-high sagebrush, marks the place where it last stood. Two nearby stations built earlier were also burned. At least five station agents were killed at Burnt Station along with a number of soldiers and other travelers. But their unmarked graves have long since been lost in the sage and cedar of the foothills.

As the trail leaves Overland Canyon, it climbs to Clifton Flats where it forks again. The Pony Express trail continues west to Ibapah on the Nevada border and goes on westward. Like the fork to Baker, Nevada, it is a long dusty trail with many turnings before it reaches the highway leading to Ely, Nevada.

The road is safe westward only with sufficient gasoline and a good map to show the route for the trail forks frequently, and is often dim. A better and more interesting route turns northward at the marked junction on Clifton Flats. The northward road passes the old mining camp of Clifton and goes on to the ghost town of Gold Hill.

Nearly all the buildings at Clifton have fallen into ruin except the old log cabin built by Oliver and Brigham Young, bachelor nephews of the famed Mormon leader. Their cabin still stands solid and square as the day they built it.

Only a few years ago Gold Hill was completely deserted. It was a real ghost town. But with the recent increase in gold prices, a few energetic citizens have returned to the old camp that once boasted the finest of business houses, its own railroad, and a population numbered in the thousands. Even though its ghosts are a little livelier now, Gold Hill is stili an interesting and colorful place to visit.

From Gold Hill the road is graveled and both forks lead to U. S. Highway 50. The left fork is shorter - 28 miles. The right fork is 41 miles, but it is a better road. U.S. 50 is black asphalt that leads straight north to Wendover, which bestrides the Utah-Nevada border. In Wendover, the bright lights never dim and the slot machines and gambling tables never cease operation. There is every accommodation for the camper adventurer at Wendover, from the tinsel and glitter of the gambling halls to gourmet meals and air-conditioned lounges.

The Pony Express rider and the stagecoach driver faced danger and death on the Overland route. Today's camper driver looks forward only to pleasant adventure along the old Pony Express trail.