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Summer adventure on the Pony Express National Byway

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Although the Pony Express existed for just 19 months, most Americans today still know about the young riders who carried messages through hostile territory. More than 150 years later, travelers can still find adventure along the old Pony Express route through central Utah.

The Pony Express Trail National Back Country Byway begins near Fairfield, Utah, and ends at Ibapah. Most of it is still wild and undeveloped, so today’s travelers can get a realistic image of what those early riders saw on their journeys. There are no gas stations or convenience stores, so visitors should take plenty of water, fuel, food and anything else they might need. Cellphone service is spotty at best.

Along the route, visitors can enjoy history and a variety of recreation. The terrain is typical of the Utah desert: sage flats and rocky outcrops interspersed with juniper-covered hills. Wildlife in the area includes antelope, deer, wild horses, coyotes and a variety of small animals. Lizards and snakes are also common.

The trail begins near the Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn State Park on state Route 73, five miles south of Cedar Fort. Weary travelers and Pony Express riders stopped at the inn. It is open 9 to 5, seven days a week between March and October.

After leaving the state park, there are a number of stone markers designating stops along the route. Unfortunately, most are frequently vandalized, and the plaques on each marker are often missing.

At Simpson Springs there is a restored Pony Express station and a BLM campground with restrooms. Water is also seasonally available. It makes a great rest stop for young travelers.

About 25 miles past Simpson Springs are the Dugway geode beds. Geodes are essentially volcanic rock bubbles. Over time, the hollow space inside the bubble fills with water carrying dissolved minerals that eventually form crystals. The Dugway beds are among the best places in the country to find these unusual rock specimens.

Locating the geodes is simple. Bring shovels and look for places where there is evidence of previous digging. The biggest excavations cover hundreds of square feet, and there will be small geodes and broken pieces of larger geodes lying on the surface. Digging can produce unbroken specimens. Most of the geodes will be fist-sized or smaller, but it is possible to find some that are much bigger.

The geode beds and surrounding area are on land owned and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Casual collectors may take small amounts of gemstones and rocks from unrestricted federal lands in Utah without a permit if the collection is for personal, noncommercial purposes.

About 20 miles farther is Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. This landmark includes a 10,000-acre marsh system. It is literally an oasis in the desert with water supplied by five major springs and many lesser springs and seeps. The refuge is maintained to provide vital habitat for migrating wetland birds.

There is an 11-mile auto tour route through the refuge, and travelers can see a variety of migratory waterfowl other wildlife. The refuge is a birder’s paradise with hundreds of different types of birds making stops or residing in the area. Camping is also available.

The byway continues on until Ibapah, along the base of the Deep Creek Mountains. The final section has the potential for rough roads and treacherous conditions — especially when wet. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.

From Lehi to Fish Springs is about 120 miles. Continuing all the way to Ibapah adds another 30. Plan on at least four hours of travel time each way when conditions are good.

Driving directions:

From Salt Lake City, take I-15 south to the Lehi Main Street exit. From Lehi, take state Route 73 west past Cedar Fort to Fairfield. The turnoff for the Pony Express Road is just past Five Mile Recreation Area west of Fairfield. The Pony Express Road makes a little jog at the junction at Faust. Turn south, then west again on the first road to the right. There is a sign indicating that you are on the scenic byway.

Pony Express facts

  • St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif. — about 1,900 miles
  • Average speed: 7 miles per hour
  • Average time: 10 days
  • Fastest time: 7 1/2 days (Lincoln's inaugural speech)
  • Distance traveled by each rider: 60 to 120 miles (William C. "Buffalo Bill" Cody rode 322 miles in 21 hours and 40 minutes, using 21 horses.)
  • Home stations: 60 miles apart
  • Swing stations (where riders changed horses) averaged 11 3/4 miles apart
  • Rider salary: $120-$125 per month

Flint Stephens has a master's degree in communications from Brigham Young University. He has been an editor and journalist for newspapers in Utah and Illinois. His blog is www.utahvalleydad.com.