Black Crook Peak is the highest summit in Tooele County’s Sheeprock Mountains at 9,193 feet above sea level. But even looking out from an airplane 1,000 feet above the peak, still isn’t high enough to grasp the enormity of Prospector OHV Backway Complex.
Billed as one the largest complete OHV trail systems in the western United States by local and state recreation officials, Prospector’s expanse covers approximately 1,500 square miles in Tooele, Juab and Utah counties. There are 847 miles of signed Class B county gravel roads that take ATV and UTV riders deep into Utah’s rugged and remote West Desert backcountry.
From its most northeasterly point at Five Mile Pass on the Tooele and Utah county border, Prospector’s network of trails spread southeast to Eureka and south to Little Sahara National Recreation Area, west to Lookout Pass and Simpson Springs on the Pony Express Trail, and south over Erickson Pass to Desert and Keg mountains deep into Juab County.
Not only is the terrain big, rugged and remote, Prospector also passes through some of the Old West’s most colorful human history, the most prominent of which is the Pony Express Trail, and mining areas, the latter being the inspiration of the complex’s moniker and brand.
For riders who are looking for bigger and longer excursions, like Prospector’s scenic loops around the Sheeprock and Simpson mountains, which are 75 and 52 miles long, respectively, they just have to come to Tooele County.
And they are coming, according to Dave Brown, Tooele County trails specialist. Since formal marketing of Prospector began in March 2016 with a printed and online trail map, and informational kiosks installed on the complex, he has seen a surge of riders. Brown distributes the map to OHV dealers along the Wasatch Front and in Tooele County.
Prospector has also been the subject of several news and features stories in newspapers and magazines, and has been highlighted on radio, TV and video programs, like “At your Leisure.”
“I was out on the Pony Express Trail this spring on a Thursday afternoon with state officials working on a new location for a new trailhead and bathrooms for Prospector, and we stood there watching rig after rig go by pulling trailers filled with ATVs,” Brown said. One of the state guys said, ‘Are you sure one of these is going to be enough?’”
He added it’s amazing to him the number and kinds of people he talks to out on Prospector — and not just from Utah. There are riders, and also people in vehicles, exploring the trails from throughout the U.S. and even Europe. Some are there for the first time, but many are returnees, he said.
Prospector is a joint venture between Tooele, Juab and Utah counties, along with the Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation, the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.
According to a prospectus by state parks and recreation, Prospector is a “concept as much as it is a place,” with initial work beginning in 1995 to organize its pre-existing trails and gravel roads into an official OHV/UTR riding area for the state. But with several state and federal agencies involved, that work was often delayed as officials tried to sort through issues and concerns throughout the complex, including access, rights of way, sensitive areas, and wildlife protection.
Finally, most of those concerns were resolved by 2015, said Brown. State parks and recreation immediately began to install hundreds of carsonite trail markers on clear zones next to county B-roads throughout the complex, each featuring GPS waypoint coordinates to help riders, especially those unfamiliar with the West Desert, to stay on course.
Each of those waypoints was placed onto a detailed, printed route map, which on one side shows the entirety of Prospector, and on the other, a more detailed view of the loops around the Sheeprock and Simpson mountains. The map underwent an update and reprinting this year.
The update includes newly added routes in the East Tintic Mountains around Eureka, and a trail southeast of the Onaqui Mountains that connects with the Pony Express Trail at Faust to help reduce ATV/UTR traffic in the Vernon area.
“The first map had 462 miles of signed trails,” said Brown. “The new one has 847. It’s almost exactly doubled in size.”
According to Brown, what kept state and county officials moving forward on organizing Prospector was the area’s potential, B-roads and other trails already established that were routinely being used by riders, and the need to provide a safe area for thousands of riders along the Wasatch Front to enjoy their machines and the outdoors.
According to state parks and recreation, there are more than 250,000 registered off-highway vehicles in Utah, with approximately 80 percent of them along the Wasatch Front. With all those riders paying taxes on their ATV/UTRs, and limited public access for motorized riding on the Wasatch Front, the state looked west to Tooele County.
And there it found a willing partner in local officials, Tooele County Trails Committee, and Brown. Plus, the county was already well known for being a popular ATV/UTR site, with the BLM’s Five Mile Pass and Knolls OHV areas in the county.
That partnership, according to Brown and county officials, is based on providing a place for ATV/UTR riders to ride responsibly and safely, equipped with information and clearly marked trails that keeps riders where their supposed to be. The effort is to strike a balance between providing organized access for riders, and protecting the environment, stressed Brown.
Currently, there are two locations on the map that are designated parking areas/trailheads for Prospector. The first is at Five Mile Pass and the second is at Vernon Reservoir. Both have restrooms, and camping is available.
However, the Town of Vernon (population 264) is considered to be the de facto hub of Prospector, due to its close proximity to Vernon Reservoir and the Pony Express Trail — and having the only convenience store for 25 miles from anywhere. That convenience store is the Silver Sage Café. It has fuel, food, water and supplies — vital stuff ATV/UTR riders and campers need before heading into the desert — and friendly employees, like Amanda Holden.
Holden said she has worked on and off for the Silver Sage for four years. She said since the first Prospector trail map was released last year, business at the café has “definitely gone up.” The busiest time is Saturdays in the spring and fall, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Riders come in for a bite to eat and to buy supplies.
The café has also become an information center for Prospector. Holden said riders call for trail conditions, and to find out if a recent storm actually dropped rain on the trails.
She said the increase in business is welcome, but there’s something else that has caught her eye:
“It’s good to see parents out there with their kids, families riding together,” Holden said. “It’s good to see them getting refreshed for the next week.”
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