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Picturing history: Rocky Ridge on the trail west

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Approaching the summit of Rocky Ridge. A monument is seen at the right.

Kenneth Mays

By June 25, 1847, President Brigham Young and the pioneer company had journeyed beyond the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater River. That afternoon, they trekked up the segment of the trail known as Rocky Ridge.

“To avoid a steep-walled canyon, the trail leaves the bottomlands of the Sweetwater River and climbs about 700 feet in two miles through a rugged, boulder-strewn path. It was one of the most difficult stretches of the emigrants’ entire journey,” according to Rocky Ridge on wyohistory.org. There, 1,038 miles west of Nauvoo, Illinois, the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and California Trail reaches an altitude of 7,300 feet, one of the highest points of the entire journey west.

Although countless thousands of pioneers followed this difficult route, in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Rocky Ridge is more commonly associated with the Willie Handcart Company of 1856. Rescue companies sent by President Young first encountered the Willie company at the base of Rocky Ridge at its eastern end in October of that year. But, as needed as they were, most of the rescuers and supplies continued eastward hoping to find the Martin Handcart Company.

The Willie company ascended Rocky Ridge in deep snow in extremely adverse conditions. Company member Levi Savage noted in his journal (and is published under Rocky Ridge on history.churchofjesuschrist.org): “We buried our dead, got up our teams and about nine o’clock a.m. commenced ascending the Rocky Ridge. This was a severe day. The wind blew hard and cold. The ascent was some five miles long and some places steep and covered with deep snow. We became weary, set down to rest, and some became chilled and commenced to freeze … .”

Presently, hikers can follow the Rocky Ridge trail, which is overseen by the BLM. 


People pulling a handcart on the Rocky Ridge trail in 1993. (Kenneth Mays)

Kenneth Mays

Kenneth Mays is a board member of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and a retired instructor in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Department of Seminaries and Institutes.