Eric Erlenbusch

Road Trip: Historical Sites & Wide-Open Space

This is one of but a handful of drives that touch on the rough, desolate region of the Great Basin, the desert land that lies to the west of Utah’s famed mountain and high plateau country. This is not an easy region to appreciate on first sight; it resists the modern tourist almost as staunchly as it did the early settlers who quickly learned simply to avoid it. Dry, cracked alkali flats and volcanic plains devoid of much vegetation, home to rattlesnake and tumbleweed, alternate with craggy mountains. But in its remoteness and its sheer resistance to man’s attempts to domesticate it, it has a raw, imposing, and eternal power.

Location: Central Utah, on the edge of the Great Basin.
Overview: A 50-mile basin and range drive across broad, dry valleys and past rough desert hills filled with mining history.
Travel Season: Year-round. Can be very warm in summer.
Special Attractions: Tintic District mining towns, Great Basin desert views, rockhounding, Little Sahara Recreation Area, site of Topaz internment camp, Fort Deseret.

GPS of Start: 39.955102, -112.117647 (Eureka)

GPS of End: 39.352555, -112.563705 (Delta)

Drive Route Number: U.S. Highway 6.

Camping: Developed sites limited to campgrounds at Little Sahara, commercial RV park at Delta; undeveloped sites on public lands along the route.

Services: All services in Delta; limited services in Eureka and Lynndyl.

Nearby Attractions: Nebo Loop Scenic Byway, Pony Express Trail Scenic Backway, Notch Peak Loop Scenic Backway. 

The Road Trip

In some ways, this drive describes various attempts at coming to terms with the Great Basin; or, at least, of Man’s tenuous and sometimes failed efforts to put this rough land to some practical use. The drive runs from the old Tintic Mining District south along US 6 to Delta, the last outpost on the edge of the Great Basin and site of Topaz Relocation Center, a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Along the way, the route offers glimpses of the vast desert wasteland to the west, of the fascinating accumulation of shifting sand dunes at Little Sahara, and of a river that just gives up and dies here in the desert.

The 50-mile drive is on excellent, flat, paved road.

Mining History

To reach the drive’s starting point at Eureka, exit I-15 at Santaquin and take US 6 west. The drive from Santaquin to Eureka passes small farming towns and old mining sites, a sign of things to come. West of the hamlet of Elberta the landscape becomes more dramatic, as you leave agriculture behind and enter the rough desert hills called the Tintic Mountains, named for a Ute Indian chief.

In 1869 ore strikes in these hills resulted in the establishment of the Tintic Mining District. Within 30 years this became one of America’s most important mining districts, with most activity centered around Eureka, Mammoth, Diamond, and Silver City — some of the most rough-and-tumble towns in the West. The population here soared to an estimated 8,000 just before the turn of the century. Mining slowed in this century but continued through the 1950s and has recently resumed here. Altogether, the district produced an estimated $570 million in silver, gold, copper, lead, and zinc.

Present-day Eureka has a very authentic “mining town that’s seen more prosperous days” appearance. This is a quiet, funky place and your last opportunity for fuel and food for a long way. For a good overview of the mining history in the Tintic area, stop at the excellent Tintic Mining Museum, upstairs in the old city hall on Main Street. As with the many Daughters of Utah Pioneers museums in small towns across Utah, call one of the numbers listed on the front door and someone will come down to open up for you. Also note the old Porter Rockwell cabin on the right; Rockwell was a bodyguard to Brigham Young whose violent exploits are famous in Mormon lore.

As you leave Eureka at its southern end, note the old gallows frames used for lowering miners into the tunnels and for extracting ore. The most prominent of these, just on the right as you leave town, has a nice interpretive plaque that explains how the underground mining operations were carried out.

A mile or so past Eureka, U.S. 6 trends slightly to the left — ignore the fork to the right, signed for Tooele. Ahead of you stretches out the grim, dry expanse of the Great Basin. At this point the highway travels due south through a broad valley ringed with rough, arid, desert hills. A little more than 2 miles past Eureka is the well-marked turnoff on the left for Mammoth. Though there is not much to see here, it is worth the short (less than a mile) side trip up this paved road to the shabby but interesting cluster of houses in a spectacular hillside setting. Mammoth was the site of the Tintic District hospital just after the turn of the century.

It is just under a mile to a similar turnoff on the left, this one to the defunct town of Silver City. Depending on the status of the current small-scale mining operation up this road, you may or may not be able to reach the town site, which sits on private property. The short drives up these two canyons are worthwhile to give a sense of how the mining in this district was spread out among many small canyons, each with its own little community, all centered around the larger town of Eureka. Don’t be tempted to explore the mining sites or old equipment because it is dangerous.

Woodpiles & Beaches

Back down in the desert, driving south along U.S. 6, it may seem surprising that this is not a state-designated scenic byway. The landscape is pristine, wild, high prairie dotted with rough hills covered with sagebrush, pinyon, and juniper. The views are terrific and, except for the relics of old mining operations, there is no sign of development. The road is excellent, flat, and fast.

Just under 20 miles south of Eureka is the turnoff, on the left, signed for Paul Bunyan’s Woodpile (unless vandals have removed the sign). A cluster of lava columns, each about a foot in diameter, the “woodpile” formed about three million years ago and now resembles a gigantic stack of petrified wood. You will have to get out of the car to see it, but the short walk can be a nice break. Drive 3.3 miles on a decent but somewhat rough dirt road to a gate. Park below the gate. You can see a little of the woodpile from the trailhead. The moderate trail is about 1 mile long. Fires in 1996 and 1999 burned out the formerly wooded area and destroyed the trail, and signs replaced after the fires have been subject to constant theft and vandalism, so the exact trail may be hard to find. It’s fairly easy to pick your way up the hill and look across the ravine at the woodpile or to hike a little farther to the woodpile itself.

A few miles to the south on U.S. 6 is Utah’s largest dry beach. Most of the sand at Little Sahara Recreation Area was left by the Sevier River, which flowed into Lake Bonneville, the prehistoric sea that filled this part of the Great Basin until about 15,000 years ago. Southwest winds picked up particles of sand, then were deflected upward by Sand Mountain until they lost impetus and dumped the sand here, forming this isolated, 124-square-mile system of free-moving dunes. The dunes are still moving to the north and east at a rate of between 5 and 9 feet per year.

From the well-marked Little Sahara turnoff, it is 4.4 miles to a left turn, then 1.5 miles to the visitor center, the hours of which vary greatly. It is open Friday through Sunday during spring, summer, and fall; the staff also has helpful information about other local sites. If the center is closed, there will usually be someone around to answer your questions, and there is plenty of self-service information on using the recreation area facilities.

Campgrounds here are very nice, with water and toilets, though the constant roar of dune-buggy and motorcycle engines can be annoying to those in search of peace and quiet in the desert. If the noise gets on your nerves, you can escape to the Rockwell Outstanding Natural Area, a 9,000-acre, vehicle-free zone set aside to preserve a sense of the natural ecosystem. The park’s surroundings are mostly BLM land, which means pack-it-out primitive camping is allowed just about anywhere that’s not fenced off. Stay away from Little Sahara on weekends if you are sensitive about noise.

If you decide to skip the visit to Little Sahara, you will get an idea of what it is like as you continue south on U.S. 6, when Sand Mountain comes into view on the right. This fascinating geological oddity (it is an isolated, gigantic dune) appears either black or sandy gray, depending on the light.

Just as you pass Sand Mountain, look off to the right, farther south and west, and you will see one of the world’s largest coal-fired electric plants. Intermountain Power Project’s immense power plant supplies electricity for communities as far away as Southern California. About 12 miles past Little Sahara, the road passes the first cultivated fields as you approach the small community of Lynndyl, a quiet farm town, with a gas station and convenience store, tucked away in a cluster of trees.

South of the oasis of Lynndyl, you return to the desert. In about 3 miles you will pass under the very impressive network of power lines that issue from the power plant. Note that the Sevier River now flows to the left of the road on the final leg of its long journey from the high snows of the Markagunt Plateau to its eventual dissipation in the dry wasteland to the southwest of Delta. Strange to see a river that, rather than flowing into some other body of water, just runs out of energy and dies.

Shortly after crossing the Sevier, you pass the small Delta airport and then the golf course, announcing you are in Delta’s northern suburbs.

The modern town of Delta is not particularly scenic, but it is a convenient service center and the last community of any size for anyone striking out across the Great Basin. There are a couple supermarkets, a few family-style restaurants, and a surprising number of motels that cater to rock hounds and birders (Delta is surrounded by designated waterfowl-management areas).

Delta was not a pioneer Mormon community, but the area has a long history. Remnants of Folsom Early Man culture, dating back nearly 8,000 years, have been found in the nearby Sevier Desert. In 1853 Captain John Gunnison and six of his men were killed by a Native American war party while surveying a possible transcontinental rail line. There is a monument to the massacre, but little else, a few miles west of Hinckley on U.S. 50/U.S. 6 and then south at the well-marked dirt road to the monument. Fort Deseret is about 4 miles south of Hinckley. If you are expecting an elaborate pioneer stockade, this simple adobe structure will be a disappointment. The 10-foot mud walls were put up in a big hurry at the start of the Black Hawk War in 1866, when Brigham Young advised all of the Mormon settlements in central Utah to prepare for hostilities. The Native Americans never came, so the fort was never tested. (Probably a good thing, from the looks of the place.)

Delta came into being in 1907 after construction of the Yuba Dam, east of here on the Sevier River, made it practical to irrigate new fields here.

Desert Attractions

Beyond Hinckley there is little but rough, dry, inhospitable, and thoroughly glorious Great Basin desert for more than 80 miles, until you reach the Nevada line. Most tourists who make that drive are on their way to Great Basin National Park, just over the border.

In spite of the town’s rather prosaic birth, there are things to see in the Delta area apart from the imposing desert scenery to the west. Delta’s Great Basin Museum, at 328 West 100 North (right in the middle of town), is a good source of information on regional history and geology. Trilobites at Antelope Springs and topaz crystals at Topaz Mountain are among the more popular rockhounding finds. The 50-mile desert/mountain Notch Peak Loop Scenic Backway heads north of US 50/US 6 about 43 miles west of Delta. Usually drivable in passenger vehicles, it offers good opportunities for rockhounding and trilobite hunting. Check in at the Great Basin Museum for tips on other likely spots and pick up its useful little guide.

Delta’s more recent significant historical claim to fame was a regrettable affair that took place here more than half a century ago. During World War II, 8,700 Japanese Americans were uprooted from their California homes and relocated to an internment camp named Topaz Relocation Center, set in a marshy area on the edge of the Sevier Desert.

The site is worth a visit as a reminder of how innocent people have been made to suffer during difficult and stress-filled times. To reach the site, continue west on US 6 from downtown Delta, go straight where US 6 curves to the left, and follow signs for Sutherland (the power plant will be visible straight ahead). The road takes a hard angle to the left at mile 1.2, but just follow this obvious main road (now called 1500 North) for 2 miles until you see a prominent sign indicating Sutherland to the right, Abraham and Topaz straight. (You are essentially working your way northwest on the most obvious main roads within a grid.) At 7000 West, make the clearly marked right turn for Topaz. Go north on 7000 West for 2.5 miles to a stop sign and the end of the pavement. Continue north on good, graded gravel to the intersection with 4500 North. As the sign indicates, turn left on this off-and-on paved road.

At this point you are in the general vicinity of the relocation center, and you begin to get a sense of just how unpleasant this must have been for the thousands of Japanese Americans banished to this alkali wasteland. At mile 3.7 watch for the unmistakable memorial on the left.

In recent years, members of the Japanese-American community have bought the land where the camp once stood, ensuring its preservation as a monument to the tragedy. From the monument, a labeled driving tour along the grid of roads constructed for the camp leads to remnants of buildings — shops, the newspaper office, a baseball field — and a lingering mood of desolation and rough times. Whether you visit the Topaz site or not, stop in at the restored Topaz recreation hall behind the Great Basin Museum.

The quickest way to reach the I-15 corridor from the Delta area is to drive 27 miles east on US 50 through undulating, brush-covered hills. Salt Lake City is a little under 3 hours of direct driving from Delta.  

Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.

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