Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

June 1, 2022
Desert Odyssey: The Mountains and The Desert – Part 5

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote”

Edward Abbey

Continuing West from Dugway Pass on the Pony Express National Historic Trail you cut through the imposing center of the mountains that proved to be a significant obstacle back in the 1860s. The mountains on the north side of the road are the Dugway Range and the mountains on the south side of the road are the Thomas Range. 

Once the road leaves these mountains it skirts the base of the Black Rock Hills on the south  along the edge of a vast open basin that stretches northwest all the way to Nevada, across the northern end of the Fish Springs marsh and the salt flats that are now part of Dugway Proving Ground. 

The Thomas Range is an interesting group of mountains from a geologic standpoint as there are some rare minerals found here including fluorspar, red beryl and topaz. 

The range runs in a general north/south direction and takes the shape of an elevated, much dissected plateau, that increases in elevation southward from the Dugway Pass area. It culminates in 7,047-foot Topaz Mountain. 

I used to think that the range was named after John Thomas, an early settler who homesteaded at Fish Springs for decades in the early 1900s, but through research I discovered that Captain James H. Simpson named the range in 1859 for Lieutenant Colonel Lorenzo Thomas, assistant adjutant general of the Army. 

Simpson’s impression of the area was as follows: “The Solitary mountains and mountain ranges in the desert, as I have before remarked are of igneous origin, entirely denuded of vegetation, and look in some instances as if they have been blasted by fire. Such is the case in Colonel Thomas’s range in the pass of which we are encamped.” 

Descending these mountains from Dugway Pass you will notice a high lone peak to the north which looks like a pyramid, so much so that it is labeled Pyramid Peak on USGS maps. This peak totally fits Simpson’s description, as it is made up of tortured volcanic rhyolite that has been in some places fantastically distorted and weathered paper thin in some places by wind, sand and rain over the eons.

Due to its solitary nature and conspicuous summit, Pyramid Peak, which rises to an elevation of 6,120 feet, makes a great destination for a desert hike and a wonderful perch from which to survey the Thomas Range to the south and the surrounding mountains and desert. 

Although it is short, this is not an easy hike as its slopes are steep to the extreme in places and the abrasive, grotesque rhyolite presents unique challenges up to and along the summit ridge. This peak will be discussed in detail in a future article. 

Continuing west out of the mountains you will notice a sign denoting a two-track road heading off to the north that announces the “Geode Beds.”

What is a geode? Geodes are described by the Utah Geologic Survey as round chunks of rhyolite within which gasses were trapped during past volcanic activity. The trapped gasses created cavities within the rock and over thousands of years, water percolated through these cavities depositing minerals inside them. 

These world-famous deposits of geodes lie about 2 miles to the North of the Pony Express Trail and are a great destination for the rock hounder. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the most common mineral found within the geodes is quartz in various colors: clear (rock crystal), purple (amethyst), and pink (rose). 

You do not need a permit to hunt for or collect geodes here as the entire geologic deposit or “beds” are on public land. You will however need to do some planning and ensure that you have plenty of water and gas because the west bench of the Dugway Range is a super remote area. 

Continuing west along the trail from the Geode beds, if you have not already, you may experience what I call a “West Desert Dust Trap,” which consists of a stretch of road that has failed completely and turned into a powder bin of alkali dust. The dust is sometimes 12 or more inches deep and up to 50 feet long. 

If you hit one of these dust traps at speed it will seem like the road literally explodes on impact and a gigantic plume of dust will burst skyward and trail you as if your vehicle is on fire. 

In these situations, it is best not to be following another vehicle because your field of view will become completely obscured for a stretch and you will be covered in alkali powder. 

Mark Twain traveled through this area on the Overland Stage in 1862. He eloquently described being destroyed by all-encompassing dust in his book called “Roughing It,” which was published in 1871. 

One last word of caution about the dust traps — If you stop your vehicle for any reason, make sure that you wait a few seconds before you open the doors or windows because depending on wind direction, your dust plume could catch up with and engulf your vehicle — providing you with a similar experience to what Twain wrote about in his book. 

About five miles beyond the Geode Beds, you will see the forlorn volcanic Black Rock Hills and as you round the northern point of these hills you will notice a very good road that breaks off towards the north end of the Dugway Range. This road provides access to the ruins of the old mines in the northern Dugway Range and it ends at the perimeter of Dugway Proving Ground. Just beyond this road you will arrive at Black Rock Station Site, which is likely the most mysterious station site along the trail. 

Not much is known about Black Rock Station, other than the fact that George Washington Boyd had a contract to supply it with wood, water and hay back in the days of the Overland Stage following the Pony Express. 

Just behind the station marker that was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in 1940, you will see Black Rock, for which the station was named. It rises several hundred feet above the plain. A walk to the top of this rock is a relatively easy thing but you need to pay attention to where you step as the rock is broken and uneven. There are small cacti and the possibility of rattlesnakes. From the top of Black Rock, you have a commanding 360-degree view of the desert. 

To the west, 6,749-foot Castle Peak, the highpoint of the Dugway Range, rises abruptly from the silent, unpeopled valley. 

At the north end of the Dugway Range you can clearly see the Lake Bonneville Terrace, or the ancient shoreline, nearly 1,000 feet above the plain. It was cut by ancient breakers that smashed in endless waves against the mountains. 

To the north of this is the mysterious, jagged lone mass of Granite Mountain that rises out of the salt flats of the dried-up ancient sea. This peak, or rather jumble of peaks, seem to drift on the barren flat like a proud old dreadnought that is frightful yet interesting and picturesque from any vantage point. 

Legend has it that some Indian tribes believed the mountain to be cursed. They would not visit it. During prohibition, it is said that bootleggers utilized the remote fortress just south of the old Lincoln Highway for their nefarious purposes.

Looking northwest from Black Rock, the sagebrush and salt bush carries on for several miles. The terrain runs into a ridge of lumpy sand dunes and then falls a bit to the bright white alkali salt playa that stretches for over a hundred miles to the north in the direction of Wendover, Nevada. Looking to the west, there is a tiny, lonesome dark rock outcrop several miles out into the valley and beyond that are the marshes, sloughs and pools of the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. 

This area was extremely problematic for the Pony Express and Overland Stage. The route had to detour nearly six miles south into the Fish Springs Valley to go around the impassable quagmire that the Fish Springs Marsh presented back in the day. 

My favorite thing to gaze upon from Black Rock however is the incredible east face of George H. Hansen Peak which rises to an elevation of 8,523 feet making it the highpoint of the barren Fish Springs Range. Its sheer cliff faces and massive reverse dip incline of differing geologic strata laid bare are something that I have sat and stared in awe at for quite a spell from the summit of Black Rock. 

In next week’s article we will make a study of one of the strangest, most unexpected things you will encounter out along the Pony Express Trail, the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge.

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