“Life could not change the sun or water the Desert so it changed itself. The Desert has mothered magic things”
– John Steinbeck
Before we begin any discussion about the Pony Express, Overland Stage or Emigration, we must first describe the land in which all of these events played out.
The West Desert of Utah is part of the larger Great Basin which is an enormous area that encompasses most of the state of Nevada and a large portion of western Utah.
The Great Basin is unique in the fact that all water that flows from springs or out of the mountains within its boundaries never reaches the sea, instead it drains into the deserts and is soaked up by the sand or ends up in one of several large dead lakes such as the Great Salt Lake.
The land the Pony Express Trail passes through west of Camp Floyd is a dry and inhospitable place. In fact, due to the rain shadow effect caused by the 14,000-foot summits of the Sierra Nevada mountains, most areas in the Great Basin receive only 6-12 inches of rainfall annually. It is literally a land of thin, long, dry and sunbaked mountain ranges that have broad, barren, flat valleys or basins in between them.
This terrain stretches all the way across western Utah and the state of Nevada in the basin, range, basin, range interval configuration for hundreds of miles.
These ranges of mountains typically trend from north to south and are anywhere from 3-12 miles wide and 20-120 miles long.
Stephen Trimble, author of the book “The Sage Brush Ocean,” described the area as a temperate desert with cold snowy winters and hot dry summers dominated by sage brush valleys.
Trimble went on to state that the area is “too dry to farm, too cold to retire to, and too harsh for most seekers of beauty (1).” The preceding description which is spot on, coupled with the lack of available water, likely accounts for why this area has not been further developed or settled to a large degree since the days of the Pony Express.
Most people are repulsed by the vast, empty distances of the hideous desert and avoid it at all costs and if they find they must transit the desert, they do so with all haste so they can put the memory of the god forsaken place and experience behind them. I on the other hand find this high, cold desert with its blank ribbon mountain ranges, silent valleys and basins, a fascinating place where I can escape from civilization and look upon a land that is little altered since the times of the Pony Express and imagine things as they once were.
The following is a description of the mountains, valleys and landforms that you will encounter if you drive the trail today west from Camp Floyd. As you travel this route, keep in mind that the Pony Rider, Overland Stage, emigrants and Native Americans all traveled through the same area and dealt with the same obstacles back in the 1860s.
As you stand near the Stagecoach Inn at Camp Floyd or walk among the tombstones in the National Cemetery located near there, you will see a high mountain range to the north and you will be looking straight up Pole Canyon to the summit of 10,620-foot Flat Top Mountain, which is the highest peak in the Oquirrh Mountains.
Oquirrh is a Ute Indian word which means “Shining Mountains (2).” This is a very fitting name as these peaks, when viewed from the Salt Lake Valley, reflect a shine off their summits in early spring. I imagine the soldiers drilling in 1859 down in the dust of Camp Floyd and how they must have looked up at the summit of Flat Top Mountain, longing for the cool breeze off the snow cap and the shadow of the pines.
Heading west along Utah Highway 73 from Camp Floyd, you will climb gently to 5-mile Pass. Just as you reach the pass there are some low, juniper covered mountains on the left.
These are the Thorpe Hills and unfortunately, they have been turned in to an off-road vehicle playground and they are now criss-crossed up and down with all kinds of 4×4 tracks.
Just beyond the Thorpe Hills, UT HWY 73 bends north and it is here that the Pony Express Trail breaks away to the south west along the “Faust Cut-Off” which is named for Henry Jacob “Doc” Faust. Faust was the station master at Meadow Creek or “Faust’s” Station.
This is where the pavement ends. The road then cuts across a wide-open expanse called “Rush Valley” past a lonely Pony Express Trail Marker towards the next range of mountains which is the Onaqui range. Onaqui is a Goshute Indian word that means “Pine Tree Mountain.”
The Onaqui are a range of extremes as 9,020-foot Stookey Peak, the highest peak in the range, has a dense forest of Douglas Fir on its north east facing slopes. The western side of the range however is barren in many places from the floor of Skull Valley up to the crest of the peaks.
Continuing along the Faust Cut-Off you will cross the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and then arrive at UT HWY 36 in short order.
The Meadow Creek / Faust Station marker is just across the road here. Take a look at that and then head south on UT HWY 36 for about a mile until you see the turn off to where you can pick up the Pony Express Trail again.
Along this stretch you will notice some low hills off to the left. These are the Vernon Hills and they are famous for an interesting favorite of rock hounds called “Wonderstone,” which we will cover at a later point in time.
Continuing west along the Pony Express Trail again you will notice a high range of mountains to the south with broad treeless slopes sweeping up to their peaks. This is the Sheeprock Range which culminates in the 9,274-foot summit of Black Crook Peak. The mountains are named after the large rock formation in North Oak Brush Canyon that was known as the “Sheeprock” to early miners and stock herders in the area.
Turning your attention back to the west you will see the wall of the Onaqui Mountains before you. On the left, you will notice a towering lone mountain. This is Red Pine Mountain — elevation 8,516 feet. Red Pine Mountain is the northernmost peak in the Sheeprock Range and unfortunately, a few years ago, a large old growth stand of Douglas Fir that covered the north face of the mountain was devoured in a range fire.
As you approach the Onaqui, it is interesting to observe how some of the hills are completely covered with juniper while others are completely barren and how the interface between the two is startlingly abrupt. This is likely due to a fire that burned the northern half of the mountain many years ago.
The road enters the Onaqui Mountains here and crosses at a place called Lookout Pass — elevation 6,190 feet.
At Lookout Pass you get your first glimpse out into the West Desert. The views can be pretty amazing, especially approaching sunset. There are sparse juniper trees and large sagebrush in the area of the pass and along the road as it descends down into brush hollow where you will notice the Lookout Station Pony Express Marker and Aunt Libby Rockwell’s old Pet Cemetery.
Beyond this point the road drops by steep grade down into Skull Valley and bends around the foot of the mountain and out into the center of the valley. Off on your right-hand side as the the road rounds the mountain you will notice a low jumble of juniper covered hills. These are the Davis Knolls.
These hills, while not high in elevation, are interesting in their own right as there are tiny barrel cactus and bright orange lichens in intriguing patterns all over the rocks on the higher ridges.
In next week’s article we will continue our exploration of the mountains and the desert out along the Pony Express Trail in Western Utah.
(1) Trimble, Stephen The Sagebrush Ocean Reno, Nevada; University of Nevada Press 1989 p.14
(2) Van Cott, John W. Utah Place Names – A Comprehensive Guide to the Origin of Geographic Names; University of Utah Press; Salt Lake City, 1990
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.