Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

May 17, 2022
Desert Odyssey: The Mountains and The Desert Part 3

“The trail is the thing, not the end of the Trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for”

Louis L’Amour

Once you finish exploring the Simpson Springs station re-creation, you will notice some old stone pillars on the left side of the road as you head out onto the wide-open desert. These are the old entrance gate posts to the Civilian Conservation Corps camp, where elements of Division of Grazing Company 2517 operated from about 1937 to late 1940. 

Many of the improvements you see along the Pony Express Trail such as the rock embankments in Lookout and Dugway Pass, Aunt Libby’s Pet Cemetery, and all of the old Pony Express Markers were constructed by the CCC boys. They also graded the road, built culverts and generally improved the trail and range for livestock activity, transportation and recreation. 

In a few miles, you will see a sign that says Death Canyon is several miles to the south. If you turn left here and do some exploring, you will find the area favored by emigrants for camping sites. Emigrants would detour to south off the trail here in the 1860s as there was plenty of water and grass at Indian Springs which they utilized for their final preparations before they entered the most desolate regions of the trail. 

Colonel Patrick Edward Connor and his California volunteers built a road through this canyon, over the pass and down into Porter Valley via Lee Canyon in 1862 on their march from Stockton, California to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory to keep an eye on Brigham Young. An historic marker in the area reads “Camped at Indian Kanyon Spring on Connor’s Cutoff…done a washing and repacked our wagon preparatory for crossing the desert. Started at 12 ½ pm and drove to the Riverbed and grazed at 3 o’clock”. This inscription is one of many you will find at significant emigrant sites along the trail. There markers have quotes from Emigrant and traveler’s journals inscribed on silver plates that are tacked to  wrought iron “T” type markers making them extremely durable and likely to remain in place for decades out in the desert.  

The Oregon and California Trails Association is responsible for the emplacement of these markers. In this area you have a good view of the rocky knob of 8,205-foot Lion Head Peak in the Simpson Range. The name makes me wonder if an old timer thought that the cap rock looked like a Mountain Lion from some angle. 

Heading west back on the Pony Express Trail, the road dips down into the desert and heads almost straight as an arrow due west towards the far off Dugway Range. Somewhere out in the distance is the Old River Bed. You can’t see it from this point and you won’t really know it’s there until you actually come upon it. 

Along this stretch in the fall, legions of sunflowers line both sides of the road and enhance the somber beauty of the Desert Scene. The horses of the Onaqui herd favor this area and may be seen off to either side of the trail here. Last time I passed through I noticed them off to the south near some interesting knolls with Table Mountain rising up in the background. 

That memory reminds me of another when I told my friend Kelly, who is a wildlife photographer, that I had seen the most beautiful old white stallion with a long white mane and tail out in this area. She became excited and told me that this horse was the “Old Man.” She could not believe he was still alive but she was very happy when I told her he was. The Old Man is a 30-year-old Stallion that has been shunned, even banned from the herd by the younger Stallions. More about him later. 

Continuing west, the road suddenly and abruptly drops down over 100 feet into the bottom of the Old Riverbed which is an old river channel a mile broad that was gouged out of the desert thousands of years ago as the northern arm of Lake Bonneville drained into the Sevier Desert as that giant ancient lake began to disappear. The Old River Bed was a novel thing and well known to travelers, Pony Riders, Overland Stage employees and passengers back in the day, both from a geological perspective and due to the fact that some of the Overland Stage employees insisted the place was haunted. Their tales spoke of writing in the sky, and apparitions on the side of the road and at the River Bed Station which they referred to as “Desert Fairies.”

As you look up at the Table Mountain pyramid from the dusty bottom of the Old River Bed you will notice terraces cut into the peak uniformly at various levels. These terraces were carved by the relentless battering of the waves in ancient Lake Bonneville that were driven by the wind from the northwest over the period of thousands of years. In more recent times, even though this place seems like a dust bowl and most days is, there is the potential for devastating flash floods in this channel, one of which was well documented by one of Howard Egan’s boys in 1861 as he was freighting supplies out to the Pony Express stations to the west. 

After bottoming out and crossing the Old River Bed, the Pony Express Trail climbs steeply up out of the channel near the northern foot of Table Mountain and then enters upon what was known in the time of the Pony Express as the “20-mile desert.” One time, Porter Rockwell was called upon to investigate a Stage Coach robbery in this area and he was perplexed as to how someone could have pulled it off in this area as he described this portion of the desert as being as flat as a barn floor without any place even a jack rabbit could hide. Along this stretch of trail you have impressive views of the Slow Elk Hills and their strange, tortured rock formations with the large Keg Mountain complex rising to the South West behind it. 

I often wonder about place names in the desert that I cannot find the origin for in a reference, on a map, or in a document. Were the Slow Elk hills named after the fact that the rock formations look like Elk frozen in stone? or were they named after some Paiute Chief or Warrior? We may never know. Keg Mountain is similarly perplexing. Did some cowboy or bandit have a stash of alcohol hidden out in this range or possibly a powder magazine? It is said that back in the day, deserters from the Army at Camp Floyd and other bandits and outlaws made their hideouts in Keg Mountain, possibly launching depredations on unsuspecting emigrants and travelers from that locality. 

The next station west from the River Bed, at the far side of the 20-mile desert was Dugway Station. This Station however provided no relief to the Pony Riders or stagecoach passengers as it is a place that is barren beyond description and dry as the Sahara Desert — the ground around it, when walked upon turns into a fine white powder. This station did however make quite an impression on the travelers as Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, and Sir Richard Burton all made significant mention of the station and men that worked in this God forsaken place. 

To the west of Dugway Station is a low round mound of a mountain that stands out in contrast to the gray rhyolite of the Thomas Range behind it. This hill is called Bittner Knoll and from its summit you have a commanding view of the Dugway Station area and back across the 20-mile desert to Table Mountain and the Simpson Range beyond. As you approach the Dugway Range from the East, it makes you wonder how and where the road you are on, that is heading straight that range, will cross the mountains and where. 

Captain James H. Simpson, of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, discovered Dugway Pass in late October of 1858 while on a reconnaissance out of Camp Floyd to search for a wagon road route across the desert to California. While standing in the pass as October snow flurries swirled around his party, he decided to head back to Camp Floyd and prepare to resume explorations in the spring due to lateness of the season. Simpson named this place “Short Cut Pass” as it saved the traveler dozens of miles by passing straight through the range instead of circumventing it via its northern end. 

In next week’s article we will examine the Dugway Range, Dugway Pass, the lonely and mysterious “Black Rock” and points further west towards Fish Springs.

Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Deseret with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.

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