Riding the Pony Express


As temperatures cool with the much-anticipated advent of fall in Utah, most local recreators start thinking again about the desert adventures that seem a bit daunting in the heat and big monsoons of summer. Most of those thoughts focus on the famous spots in southern Utah like Canyonlands, Robber’s Roost, Cedar Mesa, and the myriad of others, but there are also beautiful and untrammeled desert adventures that begin only an hour away to the West. Last spring we didn’t feel like making the 3-5 hour drive south and instead we decided to visit our local desert that not only has the austere beauty of the southland, but also is home to a world class bird refuge, and to get there we got to ride the famous Pony Express Trail.

Like many Americans, we knew vaguely about the Pony Express but didn’t know any details about it. As the West was getting settled in the 1850’s mail was a big problem: mail from anywhere east of the Mississippi being sent to anywhere west was freighted across the Gulf of Mexico to Panama, carted across isthmus, and finally put on another ship bound for San Francisco. It literally took months for news and letters to reach the west coast, much less places inland. In 1850 President James Buchanan authorized the creation of the Butterfield Overland Mail route, which took a southern track from Arkansas through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona en route to California and was a series of stagecoaches that could run throughout the winter and took 25 days. However, the unrest that was preceding the Civil War complicated the ability for mail from the North to be running through the South, and – just like us, wanting faster and faster internet connections today – everyone wanted their mail to come faster, especially as the hordes coming to California for the Gold Rush wanted to keep abreast of the news as the country was threatening to go to war with itself.

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This set the stage for competing interests that would offer faster service (the Google Fiber of 1860) so some ambitious businessmen came up with a more direct, stagecoach-free northern route that used only lone, small (125 pound max) guys on barely-tamed horses carrying mail in mochilas (Spanish for “backpack”) and boldly promised to carve the time down to only 10 days. The route generally went due west from St. Joseph, Missouri to Evanston, Wyoming (paralleling – to the north – modern-day Interstate 80) and once in Utah went over Big and Little Mountain passes and through Salt Lake City, across the Great Basin of Nevada to the south shore of Lake Tahoe and finally down the American River to the San Francisco Bay. It was complicated: the business consisted of 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and a couple of hundred support personnel, all of which was spread across vastly remote places full of bitter, increasingly-bellicose natives. And to make it even harder on the riders, the sponsoring company’s president Alexander Majors was a pious sort who made the adventurous young men sign an oath:

“I, , do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”


Maybe they were hoping that these riders would be going so hard that they wouldn’t have the time or energy to engage in any trailside shenanigans.

Fortunately, for us non-equine types, it’s not necessary to ride a horse on the Pony Express; we used the modern day equivalent: our bikes. And while the Pony Express route was created to maximize efficiency it also passes through some beautiful and interesting terrain that now makes for equally-efficient gravel road bike touring. We chose to start our ride in the sleepy ranching hamlet of Vernon, just southwest of the southern end of the Oquirrh Mountains. Soon enough we were climbing about 600 feet feet over Lookout Pass, and a fun descent brought us into the flats that led around the base of the Simpson Mountains to Simpson Springs, an important stop on the Express due to the nice water source in an otherwise-arid zone. The Pony Express station at Simpson Springs is still mostly intact, and there’s a nice campground as well in the oasis formed by the springs. Beyond that we cruised along with virtually no cars through the southern end of the Dugway Valley, where we saw a herd of the area’s wild mustangs, which are thriving to the point where the BLM is talking about killing many of them, which is not sitting well with the public that loves the concept of wild horses.


Like the Pony Express riders, our next destination was Fish Springs. The Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1959 to provide permanent protection for the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that use the wetlands there as a much-needed rest stop between points far to the north and south in the spring and fall. Almost 300 different types of birds are known to use the refuge, including great horned owls, white-faced ibis, great blue herons, tundra swans, snowy egrets, waterfowl, eagles, and many more. Back in the day they decided it would be good to create a vast system of dikes to enable people to drive around and check out the birds; this invasive infrastructure probably wouldn’t be constructed today, but it still provides an opportunity to get out into the marshes to be able to see the many types of birds there.

Our mini-Express adventure plan was predicated on our ability to be able to get water and camp at Fish Springs (any place called ‘springs” has got to have fresh water, right?) but what we didn’t anticipate is that Fish Springs is located in the salt flats, which might have an effect on the water. As we rolled along the road and saw the first water alongside that clearly spread into the flats we stopped and took a taste: gaaack. “Brackish” was a generous term; probably just fine for a traveling goose but sub optimal for a couple of thirsty cyclists. However, far off in the distance we could see some buildings and hoped that where there were buildings there was potable water. It turns out that the refuge actually has a bit of infrastructure and a full-time, onsite manager, who after being a little gruff about our lack of knowledge of the area and desire to camp there agreed to let us camp on the lawn of the buildings and talked our ears off about the refuge, even as we were desperate to get out of our chamois and plop down in the shade. And there was plenty of good water; the refuge had continued the ingenuity of the Pony Express folks who somehow had found and pumped find the good water that oozes out somewhere.


The first Pony Express rider galloped away from St. Joseph on April 3rd, 1860, and reached Salt Lake on April 9th. It took only 3 more days to get all the way across the basin to Carson City, Nevada, and on April 14 the mail was formally delivered in San Francisco, so these guys and their ponies were covering almost 200 miles per day.   Buffalo Bill Cody – whose Wild West show was a hit at the Chicago Worlds Fair and elsewhere around the world – got his legend started when his relief rider got killed by natives and he went ahead and rode 322 miles in less than 22 hours; learning that made our own early-season bike saddle soreness seem pretty trivial! And when Lincoln was elected, a “special delivery” with the news made the entire trip in only 7 days, 17 hours.

Back on our own steeds we decided to leave the Pony Express route proper (which continues around the north side of the Deep Creek mountains and into Nevada) and loop back towards civilization via the Weiss “Highway,” another little-traveled gravel road that runs south of the Simpson, Keg, Tintic, and Sheeprock mountain ranges (there are a lot of small, unknown ranges in the West Desert). Despite being inspired by the endurance of the Pony Express riders, as the day wore on we realized that we had been a bit overly ambitious about our route for only a weekend tour in early spring with no riding miles in our legs, so when a lone pickup came by with some locals returning from a weekend of car camping we flagged them down and they were kind enough to give us a ride back to Vernon. Buffalo Bill would have been quite disappointed, but we wanted to get back home to Salt Lake in time for dinner!


Despite its notoriety, the Pony Express was short lived: the price was exorbitant ($130 in today’s dollars to send a letter at the beginning, though it dropped to the equivalent of $27 by the end) so the volume wasn’t commensurate with the infrastructure, but more significantly, the first transcontinental telegraph was sent on October 24, 1861, and the Pony Express folks closed the operation down two days later, just as the telegraph itself was ultimately displaced by the telephone.

But the romance of the lads determinedly pushing their impossibly-strong horses across the harsh and beautiful landscapes to carry both national news and correspondence from loved ones to folks on the frontier can still be easily discovered on two wheeled steeds with panniers, frame bags, and CamelBaks taking the place of mochilas. And with the migrating birds appreciating the cooling temps as much as we do, it’s a great time to Pony on up to the Fish Springs refuge.


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