In last week’s article, I talked about the famed and feared “Great American Desert,” which is how our West Desert was known back in the time of the Pony Express Trail.
This area and the Pony Express National Historic Trail is a remarkable place to experience. It’s almost as if you have traveled to a different planet; when you go out into the desert, the mountains are bold and stark, and the ancient gray limestone cliffs stand against a sky with large empty valleys stretching off in the distance to the next range of peaks.
It is awe inspiring and gives one a sense of “being on the edge” when traveling into the desert, but it can be dangerous even in a time of satellite phones, GPS and 4×4 vehicles. Over the next several weeks, we will explore the trail itself and some little side adventures that I have taken that you may find interesting.
Before we do, you need to understand the environment you are about to enter because civilization will be left behind and you need to be prepared
There is no potable water available between Camp Floyd and Ibapah (Deep Creek) along the Pony Express Trail. This is a distance of more than 100 miles of dusty, hot desert. Make sure that you take plenty of water — at least a gallon per person — more if you plan on exerting yourself, like hiking.
What water you do find on the desert will be fouled by livestock and varmints and is possibly alkaline. Water on the desert must be boiled, treated with iodine or filtered before use. Point is this: Be prepared and have some sort of purification measure with you if you venture on the desert. Often times I will calculate the amount of water I think I will need and then double that as I never want to be a story for the newspaper man.
Similarly, there is no food or fuel available between Camp Floyd and Ibapah. In fact, Tooele in the east, and Wendover, 69 miles north of Ibapah, are your nearest supply points at either end of this section along the trail. Plan ahead, take plenty of food and ensure your gas tank is full. It never hurts to have a 5 gallon gas can on your truck just in case either. It can be a sorry predicament indeed to be hungry and out of gas 50 miles from any services in the desert.
While passenger cars can negotiate most stretches of this route in favorable weather, I strongly recommend a 4×4 vehicle. Road conditions west of Camp Floyd can be unpredictably predictable — especially if it rains or snows, so it is better to have a more robust vehicle. Flat tires are a common occurrence along the trail no matter what type of vehicle you travel in. Make sure that you have a good spare tire, the tools to change a tire and the expertise to do it.
Practice at home if necessary. Way the heck out in the desert is not the place to learn. Remember, once-solid road surfaces can turn to mush during a rain storm and seem to disappear after a heavy winter snow, so check the weather and don’t head out into rough terrain in a vehicle that is not made for the environment you enter.
Obey speed limits where they are posted and where they are not, I discourage anyone from traveling faster than 35 mph along the Pony Express Trail. Sure you can attain speeds up to 55 MPH on some stretches of the road, but your margin for error on the dirt roads is very slim and mistakes in handling your vehicle, however slight, can be catastrophic. I can think of several instances in the past few years where people have been killed out on the trail when they lost control of their vehicles because they were driving too fast on a graveled surface, over corrected and rolled.
Cell phone coverage is spotty at best in some areas of the trail; in other areas it is totally nonexistent. Law enforcement and emergency medical services are hours away, not minutes — that is, if you can get a cell signal to alert them. This is all the more reason to be prepared and slow down while driving the trail. Don’t take chances out in the desert. A turned ankle in the city is inconvenient, out in the desert and mountains it could prove fatal, so use caution in all you do.
Be careful, inform someone where you are going, the route you will follow, and when you expect to return. Be cautious of strangers as well. Most of those you meet along the trail are good and decent people, but you should constantly be aware of your situation and surroundings. Always travel in a group, and if you have a firearm, take it along if you are properly trained and know how to use it. I am always armed on the desert.
Spring (Late March to Mid-May) and Fall (Sept. 1 to Nov. 1) are the most enjoyable times to be out on the desert. Days are usually not too terribly hot and nights are cold enough to keep most of the bugs at bay. When the desert wakes up in the springtime from the long frozen winter, it is beautiful as everything is green for a short while. Mix in the snowcapped peaks and blue sky and you have quite the scene.
It does not last long, however, as the green turns tan and brown and the days get uncomfortably hot as May wears on. Similarly, autumn is wonderful on the desert with battalions of bright sunflowers and golden caps on the rabbit brush. Higher up on some of the peaks, a hint of crimson or gold can be seen where pockets of maple or aspen live high up in the rock, pine and fir of the Stansbury and Deep Creek ranges. Road conditions are good, too, as long as there has been no recent precipitation and temperatures are agreeable. Winter can come to the desert at any time after Halloween most years and can bury the roads in snow and lock the place in a deep freeze for months. Winter is beautiful but dirt roads may be impassible and it can be bitter cold.
If rain or snow is in the forecast, it is best to steer clear of the desert. Road surfaces and conditions deteriorate markedly once you leave the pavement. These are lonely roads in a storm and if you get stuck, there isn’t a port — you could be on your own for a long time. Lightning can be deadly if you are caught in the wide open valleys on foot or in your vehicle. Lightning is also dangerous on open ridges and mountain tops. Check the weather carefully before you enter the desert or the mountains. Use good judgment, make sound decisions and keep yourself and those with you safe.
Hopefully some of these tips will be useful for planning a trip into the West Desert. In next week’s article, I will discuss all of the colorful scenery of the desert and mountains — and some of the characters who operated in these wilds back in the day, who through their adventures and deeds, literally wrote our West Desert into the folklore and history of our nation.
I’ll also describe my latest adventure with a summer thunderstorm on the backside of the Onaqui Mountains, just north of Lookout Pass on the Pony Express Trail.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah. He has a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Utah, and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He, his wife and daughter live in Stansbury Park. Follow him on Twitter (JD Jessop) for more hikes and travels.