West Desert Ramble & the Pony Express
Utah's West Desert is sparsely inhabited. Unless we're talking wild horses and stories, then there are more than a few of those.
This itinerary is a slow-paced, yet adventurous drive into one of the few wild frontiers left in the western United States. It brings together unique scenery, history and wildlife all along the fascinatingly desolate Pony Express National Historic Trail.
Utah’s West Desert covers history from a handful of angles. There’s geological history in the form of the Bonneville Salt Flats and the unique Basin and Range topography. There’s cultural and religious history in the form of early frontier, Mormon and stagecoach history. There’s even World War II history, and the boom-and-bust tales of mining ghost towns.
The Pony Express National Historic Trail is a bumpy, dusty and remote dirt road. This itinerary requires preparation, but thoughtful travelers shouldn’t hesitate to go out and follow the path of the Pony Express riders. It will be an experience you will never forget.
Preparing for West Desert Travel
This itinerary suggests a loop starting and ending in the Salt Lake metropolitan area. It can be approached from either direction, and done in two days, or even one. Lehi, Tooele or Wendover are the nearest supply points, depending on which section of the trail you depart from.
This route is best attempted by a four-wheel drive vehicle. You should take plenty of food and water, good maps, a spare tire and the tools and knowledge needed to change your tire because cell phones are unreliable in the desert. Ensure your gas tank is full and it wouldn’t hurt to have a 5-gallon gas can and several extra gallons of water in your vehicle. There is no potable water or food available between Camp Floyd State Park and Ibapah (near the Deep Creek Range) on the Pony Express trail. Contact the Bureau of Land Management to inquire about road conditions in wet weather.
- Camp Floyd State Park Museum
- Simpson Springs
- Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge
First: stock up on water, food and fuel in Lehi. It's going to be awhile before you see civilization again. Then, head toward Camp Floyd State Park Museum, which occupied the same time period in history as the Pony Express. The Stagecoach Inn near the museum served as a stagecoach stop and, during 1860–1861, a Pony Express stop. Afterwards, head out on the Pony Express National Historic Trail. Stops along the trail include the Simpsons Springs historic site, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and the Deep Creek Mountain Range. The only option for an overnight stay is camping. Check out the Civilian Conservation Corps campground in Callao or find a spot near the trailhead to Ibapah Peak.
Historic stories of the United States Army, Mormon pioneers, stagecoach travelers and the Pony Express all collide at Camp Floyd and the town of Fairfield. The Army arrived in 1858 and constructed Camp Floyd to suppress a supposed Mormon rebellion. The Army remained here for three years before being recalled for the Civil War. Today, Camp Floyd State Park features historic structures, tour guides and a cemetery. Learn more
For Pony Express riders and the Native Americans long before them, Simpson Springs was known as one of the most dependable watering points in Utah's West Desert. At the site you can see a replica of a mail service station. Visitors to Simpson Springs can also enjoy a 20-unit campsite that offers picnic tables, fire pits, charcoal grills and vaulted toilets. The campground is open year-round. Learn more
See an oasis in the desert in the form of more than 10,000 acres of wetlands. It features an auto tour route across a network of roads built on top of dikes that allows different vantage points of the pools and wildlife. Fish Springs is an unexpected delight in the middle of a barren desert and a must-see for wildlife enthusiasts or birdwatchers. There's no better place to stop for a picnic while cruising the Pony Express trail. Learn more
- Deep Creek High Country
- Gold Hill Ghost Town
- Historic Wendover Airfield
Wake up and explore the Deep Creek Range, a green oasis that has been an anchor to nomadic peoples for more than 8,500 years due to the abundance of water, pine nuts, game and shelter. These granite peaks are the rocky guardians of the Deep Creek, include the 12,000-foot Ibapah Peak, the fifth-most prominent summit in Utah. On your way to Wendover, pass through Gold Hill, a near-abandoned mining town that boasted 3,000 people in its heyday. Spend the afternoon exploring the Historic Wendover Airfield, where captivating history of another era (World War II) is on display. Overnight in Wendover
The Deep Creek Range is completely unexpected and not-to-be believed until you see it. It's like a mirage in stark contrast to the barren landscape that makes up most of the Pony Express National Historic Trail. This area provides habitat for mule deer, elk, bobcat, cougar, bighorn sheep, coyote and many other smaller creatures. Along the benches of the mountains just outside the canyons, pronghorn antelope and wild horses are common sights. At 12,000 feet, Ibapah Peak is the fifth-most prominent summit in Utah.
Gold Hill is an abandoned mining town that boasted 3,000 people in its heyday. Today, don’t expect to find anything resembling a functioning saloon, pool hall, slot machine or gas station. On Gold Hill's Main Street you will see a handful of forgotten stores. There are still a handful of permanent residents in Gold Hill, able to survive due to the proximity to Wendover. Be respectful of them and their property.
Get a sobering look at the secret Manhattan Project and how this base was used as a bomber-training site for bomber pilots in World War II, including those bound for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The air base is open daily, and the museum is open Thursday to Monday. To visit the museum arrive at least an hour before closing. The base is also close to the large-scale Sun Tunnels artwork in Utah's West Desert. Donations accepted. Learn more
- Bonneville Salt Flats
- Benson Grist Mill
This day takes you through Utah's legendary Bonneville Salt Flats, a 30,000-acre expanse of hard, white salt crust on the western edge of the Great Salt Lake basin. If you're cruising through in the summer you might catch a racing event such as Speedweek, where professional and amateur teams from around the world compete for land speed records. If nothing else, stop for photos and enjoy the unique backdrop. Drive to Tooele for one last historical stop at the Benson Grist Mill, an early Mormon pioneer structure from 1854. Now in Tooele, consider driving or hiking to the Bingham Mine Overloop or attending a weekend star party at the Stansbury Park Observatory. Overnight in Tooele or Salt Lake City
The formation of the Salt Flats began at the end of the last Ice Age, when the waters of ancient Lake Bonneville began to recede. In modern time, this area has been a fascination for racers set on establishing land speed world records, and anyone looking for a one-of-a-kind photograph. The Bonneville Salt Flats cover nearly 46 square miles and total salt crust volume has been estimated at 147 million tons, and nearly 5 feet thick in spots.
Located in northern Tooele Valley beside a spring-fed pond, the Benson Grist Mill was made of rock and wood by skilled pioneer artisans over 150 years ago. From 1854 to the 1940s, the Benson Mill processed wheat and corn by the ton. Now, this historic site hosts monthly events, including a farmers market, garden tour and pumpkin walk. The mill is open for tours May–October on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Learn more
Tooele is one of the best base camps for Utah's West Desert. The area boasts top ATV trails (check out the Prospector Trail Complex), hiking trails, fishing spots and great gaming and hunting. Top human-made attractions include Deseret Peak Complex and Utah Motorsports Campus. If you're looking to stay in the town, consider driving or hiking to the Bingham Mine Overlook or attending a weekend star party at the Stansbury Park Observatory.