At first glance down state Route 196 in Skull Valley, it seems wide open and empty. You know what? It is. That is one of the main attractions to this place, I believe.
Skull Valley is a vast expanse of empty land where the sky seems impossibly large and the sunrise gives a golden kiss to the peaks of the Cedar Mountains through breaks in the Stansbury Mountains each morning.
Similarly, the Stansbury Mountains and Skull Valley’s flat plain are turned all kinds of colors from orange to pink to purple, and then various shades of blue each evening as the sun sets. In this unsettled area each night, the first lantern in the sky is Venus, which shines brightly above the Cedar Mountains. Afterward, the rest of the planetarium lights up, and the billions of stars that embody the Milky Way are on full display.
These amazing occurrences play out day after day, night after night, in Skull Valley. There are many interesting places to explore, enjoy solitude and ponder in this strange place that is full of echoes. Starting at the north end of the valley, just about a mile down state Route 196, is a small salt playa on the right hand side of the road. If you are blasting down the valley at 70 mph, you’ll never notice the place. But if you slow down and pull off on one of the few “two track” roads that heads west through the brush, you’ll see it.
The most interesting thing about this spot is it’s flat as a board and white as snow. When I took my daughter there, she was amazed and ran for literally a half mile on the strange surface. There you feel really small. When you stand in the middle of this salt flat and look east toward the Stansbury Range, the ancient beach line or watermark of Lake Bonneville is plainly seen below the jagged cliffs.
To the south another point of interest rises from the plain to a height of several hundred feet and is named “Lone Rock.”
The salt plain itself is quite different than anything you may have experienced. It is smooth and solid in some areas; in others it is cracked and dry caked like mud. Surfaces that were solid and held your weight a few steps distant now fail under your weight, exposing you to the displeasure of soft, squishy and even stinky clay.
On a few occasions when I have stepped into this stuff, my shoe was left behind when I pulled my foot up. It’s kind of a rotten feeling when that occurs and retrieving the shoe can be a chore. Think of how hard it was for the Donner-Reed Party to extract their livestock and wagons out of muck like this in 1846.
For the better part of the year, the hard pan is unsuitable for foot or vehicle traffic. It is either saturated to the point it will bear no weight or there is actually several inches to a foot of standing water on it. These are the conditions that led Langsford Hastings to detour his “Cut-Off” clear to the vicinity of Iosepa to find firm ground upon which to cross.
One thing you will surely encounter in the valley is cattle. For 162 years since John Quincy Knowlton homesteaded in Skull Valley, it has been open range for livestock. Back in the early days 1850s, life here was rough. Quincy, as he was known to family and associates, came to the valley because he was looking for good winter range for his stock. He found a decent spring in 1852 and built a cabin there.
One day when he was out working the range, his wife noticed a band of Indians approaching their cabin. She quickly grabbed her baby and went out the other side of the cabin and hid in the rushes around the spring.
The Indians entered the cabin and made a mess of the place, looking for whiskey and food. According to local historian Orrin P. Miller, they found neither and became angry and burned the cabin to the ground and set fire to all the grass around the cabin and spring. This is how “Burnt Spring” supposedly earned its name.
Burnt Spring is now on private property and is inaccessible. Even if it were, like so many places in Skull Valley, its appearance would never suggest all of the interesting things that occurred there. It is just a small trickle of water and some tall grass.
After this occurrence, Quincy moved his operation south to the vicinity of Iosepa. Along with William Henry Hooper, they established the Hooper/Knowlton Corporation in 1854. A tiny settlement of several cabins and a small schoolhouse sprung up. In 1855 an expedition was made to Idaho where the two men traded goods for 200 horses from Indians there. Miller stated that the Cedar Mountain wild horses are descendants from this initial batch of stock.
On several occasions I have gone to Skull Valley at night to check out the stars. They shine exceptionally bright there because of minimal light pollution from the city. You can hear coyotes cackle in the night, an owl hoot from the cedars, and the bawl of a far off cow. When I camp out there, I build a small fire fueled by sun bleached sagebrush and it is an enjoyable thing to sit there under the stars.
Many of the old stockmen must have done the same thing. At the end of a long, hard day of work on the range, I’m sure they relaxed around the fire as well. One story I found in an old newspaper clipping from the 1860s, sheds an interesting light on that life.
John Garr and William Empy had a cattle camp in Skull Valley. One day while at camp, they were attacked by Indians. Empy stated that after he and Garr escaped, the Indians plundered their tent of everything that was in it, including clothing, blankets and buffalo robes. The Indians burned what they could not carry off, including the line wagon.
Empy stated that the Indians then killed a fine cow and calf that were in the corral, and then drove off 150 head of cattle. Garr immediately made out for the herding grounds of Hooper and Knowlton, but by the time the posse returned, the Indians were gone and the destruction was complete.
Empy and Garr stated that they did not initially fight because they had obsolete weapons and only two charges of powder. That seems strange to me. At the height of Indian troubles in the Great American Desert, these guys were on the range with items sorely needed by the Indians. They also were without proper arms to defend themselves. Such things I think about while around the campfire looking up at the stars.
Next week we will take a closer look at Lone Rock, Horseshoe Springs, early explorers and the old trace of the Lincoln Highway down Skull Valley.