No matter the season, if you are contemplating a journey on the Pony Express Trail in Tooele County, it’s essential that you are properly prepared.
Spring and fall are my recommended times to travel on the trail; the days are usually not too hot and nights are cold enough to keep most of the bugs at bay. When the desert awakens in the spring after a long winter, it is beautiful as everything is green — if only for a while.
Spring doesn’t last long in the West Desert, however. The green quickly fades to tan and brown, and the days become uncomfortably hot. Yet, summer can be a fascinating time on the desert as well. Every evening the cool air dumps off the mountains into the low spots and cools the desert down. The sky is full of stars and you can sit by a campfire, mesmerized by the cloudy appearance of the Milky Way.
You can also pick out constellations, watch a shooting star, or track a silent satellite across the night sky. Sometimes a thunderstorm will partially obscure the view, but then the lightning show will make you forget about the stars as each flash and rumble lights up and shakes the desert.
Summer mornings on the desert is when things start to wake up. The sagebrush and desert grass smell sweet, birds chirp and sing, and then the sun bursts over the top of the eastern mountains. Evening is just as stunning as the setting sun burns the outline of the western mountains a molten gold and the same birds call through the twilight, crickets chirp, and somewhere off in the distance an owl will hoot.
Autumn is a wonderful time on the desert as well with battalions of bright sunflowers lining the Pony Express Trail and golden-capped rabbit brush abundant on Lookout Pass. High on some of the area peaks a hint of crimson or gold can be seen where pockets of Rocky Mountain maple or aspen trees somehow survive.
The desert can be beautiful in winter, especially when the junipers and pines are snow frosted on the higher peaks, or the desert ranges are dusted white to their bases while the valleys remain free of snow.
Those are common sights along the trail in the winter but the desert today can be as deadly as it was back in the 1800s. There are no raiding American Indians, but if people are not properly prepared, dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion and starvation can kill just like they did back in the Old West.
Road conditions are generally good as long as there has been no recent precipitation and temperatures are agreeable. Winter can come suddenly in the desert any time after Halloween, and can bury the trail in snow and lock it in deep freeze for months. In these situations, the road may be impassable for days and the temperatures can drop well below freezing for extended periods.
As for travel tips on the Pony Express Trail, if rain or snow is in the immediate forecast, it’s best to steer clear of the desert. Road conditions along the trail can deteriorate rapidly in bad weather. This is a lonely road in a storm and if you get stuck you could be on your own for a while. Lightning is also a hazard. Check the weather carefully before you enter the desert. Use good judgment to keep you and those with you safe.
Along with road conditions and weather, water is another critical item to keep in mind. There is no potable water available between Camp Floyd and Ibapah (Deep Creek) on the Pony Express Trail. This is more than 100 miles of dusty hot or frozen desert, so make sure that you take plenty of water.
I recommend at least a gallon per person and maybe more if you plan on stopping for some of the hikes or explorations we will discuss over the coming weeks. There are springs, seeps and even a few small streams if you know where to look, but they are all fouled by livestock and wild animals. Any water you find must be purified by boiling, iodine, a water filter or even combination of several of these options.
Similarly, there is no food available between Camp Floyd and Deep Creek. In fact, Lehi, Tooele or Wendover are your nearest supply points, depending on which section of the trail you take. Plan ahead, take plenty of food and ensure your gas tank is full. It wouldn’t hurt to have a 5-gallon gas can and several extra gallons of water in your vehicle. It can be a sorry predicament to be 50 miles away from food when your stomach begins to growl or you run out of fuel.
Passenger cars can negotiate most of the Pony Express Trail — if you are careful. But I strongly recommend a 4X4 vehicle because once solid roads can turn to mush during a rainstorm or disappear completely if it snows. Flat tires are also a constant occurrence on the trail, especially in the rocky section where you round the Simpson Mountains just beyond Government Creek. I’ve rolled into Simpson Springs twice with a flat tire and had another one on the Indian Springs access road. Make certain that you have a spare tire, tools and the know how to use them.
Obey the speed limit, which in the desert is roughly 35 mph. If you need to go slower, do so. I have witnessed several rollovers on the desert where people were going too fast, lost traction on the gravel, over corrected and flipped. The vehicles look like smashed tin cans after those episodes. Slow down, wear seatbelts and pay attention to the road.
In most areas along the Pony Express Trail, your cell phone won’t work. Be prepared and plan accordingly. Tell someone where you are going, what route you will follow and when you expect to return. Law enforcement and emergency medical services are hours, not minutes, away — if you are even able to get a cell signal to call them. For this reason, I always have a first aid kit in my car and I am always armed on the desert. I feel better that way if I have to deal with varmints and my .45 tends to keep strangers honest, if necessary. Remember, a turned ankle is inconvenient in the city, out in the desert and mountains it could prove fatal. Be prepared, use caution in all that you do, and travel in a group with others if at all possible.
Lastly, GPS is an amazing tool but when the batteries die, you could find yourself in a jam. Contact the Bureau of Land Management, Tooele County or visit the Utah Department of Natural Resources bookstore and buy some good, old-fashioned maps. Study them and know your route before you go. Take them with you so you can verify your route and ground truth into your navigation. Getting lost is another recipe for calamity in the desert.
Finally, if you take proper precautions, and make sure your camera has plenty of memory and batteries, you can have an amazing experience following the hoofbeats of the Pony Express Trail riders in our West Desert. “Be prepared,” as the Boy Scouts say, and enjoy the national treasure that is the Pony Express Trail in Western Tooele County. In next week’s article, the adventure begins.
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 and his family live in Stansbury Park.