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Picturing history: Big Mountain to Little Mountain on the Pioneer Trail

At 7,400 feet of elevation, it was one of the highest points on the California, Pony Express and Mormon Pioneer National Historic trails. It was often simply referred to as “the summit.”

SHARE Picturing history: Big Mountain to Little Mountain on the Pioneer Trail
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Original trail at Big Mountain now used for hiking and biking.

Kenneth Mays

About 17 miles northeast of downtown Salt Lake City, state Route 65 crosses a mountain pass at the border of Salt Lake and Morgan counties. This pass, or saddle, is known as Big Mountain. At 7,400 feet of elevation, it was one of the highest points on the California, Pony Express and Mormon Pioneer National Historic trails. It was often simply referred to as “the summit.”

The climb to the Big Mountain summit was strenuous. Moreover, descending it on the west side was extremely challenging because of the steep grade. It was at Big Mountain that the pioneers first had a partial view of the Salt Lake Valley. Even though several difficult days of travel still lay ahead of them, the pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejoiced that they had finally seen part of the valley where they would establish their new home.

Following the difficult descent into Big Mountain Canyon, the pioneers soon had another climb up a steep divide to the summit of Little Mountain. Eventually, the main trail would follow Parley’s Canyon, but President Brigham Young and the pioneer company of 1847 followed the Little Mountain route which had been blazed the year before by the Donner-Reed party. That notwithstanding, preparing that trail for their wagon train required much slow and difficult labor to deal with stumps, logs, rocks and holes (see “We’ll Find the Place,” by Richard Bennett, page 215). From the Little Mountain summit, they worked their way down Emigration Canyon and entered the Salt Lake Valley.

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Big Mountain Summit with trail signage.

Kenneth Mays

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