“That desert is about as fit for traveling as hell is for a Powder Magazine”
The above quote is what Orrin Porter Rockwell, a figure who has taken on a mythical aura where Utah History, and the West Desert in particular is concerned, told Sir Richard Burton, a scholarly British explorer when Burton inquired of Rockwell for advice before crossing the desert in 1860.
Continuing on in our description of the mountains and the desert along the trail, you will realize that Porter’s assessment of the trail back then, still holds true today.
As you descend Lookout Pass by a steep grade and enter onto the desert floor of Skull Valley you will see a prominent pyramid shaped mountain to the Northwest that stands tall above the neighboring hills. This peak is 6,434 foot “Round Top” and it is the highest point in a jumble of low mountains known collectively as Davis Mountain. This group of hills is named after David E. “Peg Leg” Davis who operated a telegraph station for many years on the southern toe of these mountains along Government Creek.
Due south of Davis Mountain are the imposing summits of the Indian Peaks which rise to an elevation of 8,410 feet. These peaks, when viewed while traveling west along the trail towards Simpson Springs present one of the most beautiful high desert scenes you will encounter along the route. The Indian Peaks were known simply as Indian Mountain to the freighters, miners and travelers who crossed this ghostly desert after the Pony Express and Overland Stage ceased operations.
Where the Pony Express Trail crosses the southern end of Skull Valley bordered by the Sheeprock and Onaqui ranges on the east, the Simpson Range to the West and Davis Mountain to the North is what I call “Porter Rockwell Country”. Back in the 1860’s Rockwell operated a ranch in “Porter Valley” between the Sheeprock and Simpson ranges where he raised some of the finest horses anywhere. Rockwell knew this portion of the trail and many hundreds of miles West as he was often called upon to track and apprehend horse thieves, and highwaymen who held up the Overland Stage. It is an interesting coincidence that this valley is not named for Porter Rockwell. It was actually named by Captain James H. Simpson for Major Fitz John Porter, Adjutant of General Sidney Albert Johnson’s “Army of Utah”. For serious history buffs, Porter, would later be promoted to Major General and would be made the scapegoat for the Federal defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas during the Civil War.
The interface between Porter Valley in the South near Erickson Pass and Skull Valley where it is crossed by the Pony Express Trail is one of my favorite areas on the whole trail. Back in 1859, while exploring West out of Camp Floyd, CPT James H. Simpson looked upon this land and described it in the following manner: “The most abundant plant in the Great Basin is the Artemsia or Wild Sage, and as it is seen almost everywhere in the valleys and on the mountains, it gives its peculiar bronze color to the general face of nature. Sometimes this all-prevailing color is modified by the more vivid green of the Sarcobatus Vermicularis or Greasewood, sometimes by the yellowish light-green of the Lynogris or Rabbit Brush, both of which are found interspersed not infrequently among the Artemsia and on the mountains not infrequently by the dark color of the scrub cedar and occasionally the pine and balsam (aspen).”
Anyone who travels the trail today will appreciate the eloquent and accurate description that Simpson provided and it is easy to see why Porter Rockwell favored this area for raising his horses. Out in the middle of Skull Valley you will come to a major crossroads, at least as major as they get in the desert. From this point you have an amazing view of the Indian Peaks of the Simpson Range off to the South West.
If you turn left at the crossroads, you can travel all the way to the Little Sahara Recreation Area or the town of Delta via Erickson Pass. If you turn right, you will travel North about 10 miles and arrive at the junction of Utah Hwy 196, Skull Valley Road, and Utah Hwy 199, Johnson Pass Road, near the strange looking feature of a lonesome chapel out in the middle of nowhere, right outside the Dugway Proving Ground main gate. Instead, continue due west and in a few miles the trail will drop into the bed of Government Creek and then it will rise out of the creek bed and bend around the Northern foot of the Simpson Mountains.
Along this stretch from Government Creek to Simpson Point, you have your best chance of seeing a Pronghorn Antelope. These are fascinating creatures and they are a living link to the ice age. The Pronghorn has survived when other species such as the Wooly Mammoth and Saber Tooth Cat became extinct due to their tolerance for very hot and very cold extreme temperatures and drought. You may also encounter a large herd of sheep, usually accompanied by a couple of sheep dogs and an out rider as this route has been used for over 100 years by sheep men who move their herds out on the desert during the bleak winter months and then back over Lookout Pass to the high meadows and pasture of the Wasatch Mountains and points beyond in the spring.
As the road bends around the northern foot of the Simpson Mountains it turns due south towards Simpson Springs. Along this stretch you will see the sun blasted, vegetation free Simpson Buttes. The depressing view of a desolate land without vegetation or water is a startling scene and a warning to those who are unprepared to turn back. This section of road is one of the rockiest and wash boarded. There have been several times when I arrived at Simpson Springs to the sound of one of my tires going flat so ensure you have everything you need before you venture out into the desert.
For whatever reason, the Simpson Mountains possess a handful of good perennial springs. Some of which form small streams that run year-round in Death, Indian Springs and Lee Canyons to name a few. Beware of this water however because it is fouled with cattle droppings and some of the streams originate from old abandoned mines and the water may be contaminated.
At Simpson Springs proper you will have some incredible views from the old replica Pony Express Station down onto the Simpson Buttes. If you look West from the station site you will see the Dugway and Thomas Ranges with the higher Fish Springs Range rising up behind them and then the towering, often snow-capped Deep Creek Range rising above all in the far distance.
Looking to the North West you will see a lone mountain that looks like an old battleship sitting on the bottom of a long gone, ancient sea. This is Granite Mountain and it lies completely within the boundaries of Dugway Proving Ground. Looking to the West just off to the left a bit is the pyramid-like prominence called Table Mountain, a conical peak that rises straight up out of the Old River Bed….a feature that is un seen from this vantage point that will be discussed in detail later.
Back in the time of the Pony Express, Simpson Springs was the last dependable water source before travelers entered out onto the most pitiful, treacherous and lonely waste of the desert. The Simpson Range is one of the last ranges before you reach the Deep Creeks on the far side of the desert that has any amount of timber on it, even though the majority of the trees on the Simpson Range are gnarled, sandy and peely barked Utah Juniper. These trees are common throughout the desert and they provide important habitat for all kinds of creatures that depend on them. As far as humans are concerned, they are basically useless for anything but some shade or a campfire. In next week’s article we will head west out onto the worst part of the Desert through the Old River Bed towards the Dugway.