Even after decades and thousands of miles of four wheeling in the western US, I’m still amazed to find neat stretches of trail scattered about. That was the case last year when I stumbled upon a portion of the Pony Express trail.
One late winter day, I was traveling on Alt US 95 just east of Carson City, Nev. and spotted a sign for the Pony Express trail. It sounded fascinating, so I peeled off. I drove the trail until it connected with US 95, about 30 miles later. The trail was solid mud, but my interest was fired up. I returned with a buddy for a short drive another day. We were met with mud yet again, but I was even more determined to return. I knew the next time would be a full blown scouting trip. That took place in February.
The Pony Express trail offers a nice mix of fascinating history, beautiful scenery, and enough 4WD challenges to keep you upright in your seat.
Pony Express an important part of American history
A full discussion about the Pony Express is beyond the scope of this article. (You can learn a lot on the internet.) But a brief review is helpful.
The Pony Express (sometimes called The Pony) lasted only about 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. That’s a surprisingly short time considering how deeply entrenched in America folklore it is. A little more than 1,800 miles long, The route stretched from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif. Its stated goal was to get mail from one end to the other in 10 days. That was faster than the stagecoaches, which had been carrying the mail up to that point.
Pony Express riders stopped at a series of stations along the way. They included main (or “home”) stations, as well as smaller relay stations. Some of the home stations were also used as stage coach stops, which added to their history.
Approximately 500 miles long, the route slices through the mid-section of Nevada. Of the 184 home stations along the entire Pony Express trail, about 20 were in Nevada. (Along with approximately 43 relay stations.)
Most of the land used for the trail is BLM or state owned. Some of the maps you find guide you over roads and highways that parallel the trail. Being four wheelers, we naturally want to drive the trail itself. Or what’s left of it. Portions have been moved to accommodate private land or other issues.
The trail is free to drive on, but according to the Park Service website, some historic sites and interpretive facilities may charge fees. We didn’t encounter any.
Nevada Pony Express excursion
After doing some calculations, I figured the group could run the bulk of the trail, west to east, in 3-½ days. I had three goals: 1) Drive as much of the trail in Nevada as possible. 2) Visit all the stations along the way (assuming they still existed.) 3) Driving fast, cover the distance in three days (well fast by 4-wheel drive standards). That last goal proved to be rather ambitious.
I divided the route into three segments.
Thursday: Dayton to Fallon. We gathered at Dayton, which is just east of Carson City, at about 3:00 p.m. on Thursday. Entering the trail at that point, we made it only to US 95 (just south of Fallon) right at sunset. That portion, roughly 53 miles, is mostly flat and easy going. Fortunately, the weather was dry, or this portion would be very muddy.
Friday: We drove through the Carson Sink to Sand Mountain. Encountered a number of rolling hills but also open grassland. The section was a lot of fun on the mud hills through the Carson Sink. It would have been very difficult if not impossible had they been wet. We arrived at Sand Mountain a bit before lunch. This was the location of the Sand Springs Station #147, a location for one of the home stations. There was only a marker and plaque. Nearby was a campgrounds and quite a few off road vehicles enjoying the sand dune.
From Sand Mountain we were forced onto US 50 over the pass. The pass is broken into three segments: Westgate, Middlegate, and Eastgate. Fortunate for us at lunch time, Middlegate features a bar, gas station and hotel. The bar is a classic. Dating from the Pony Express era in many reincarnations, it has antique tools on the walls, dollar bills on the ceiling, and a wood burning stove/furnace. It’s a must see, not only for the décor but to refuel the vehicles. The price of gas was outrageous by Nevada standards but right in line with California prices! The food was pretty good, too, though it’s typical pub fare.
We bailed off US 50 and back onto the Pony Express Trail at Cold Springs Station #144. This was perhaps the most intact station we saw and we spend a bit of time wandering through it.
The next section over the north side of the Desatoya Mountains and through Smith Creek Station was one of the more beautiful areas.
We ran out of sun light after 146 miles in the area of Austin, Nev. and called it quits for the day.
Saturday: The goal was SR 305 to the Utah border. This was a challenging segment. We spent a good deal of time looking for the trail, backtracking where it was blocked by land owners, and pushing through mountain trails that are rarely used and looking for camp sites.
We managed 102 miles before the sunset overtook us. It was apparent we were not going to reach Utah. We headed for the closest town to fuel up both us and the vehicles. To get a head start on the return trip home, we drove to Tonopah, stopping along the way at a very dark intersection for one last look at the night sky full of stars.
Typical challenges on the trail today
Despite its origins, the Pony Express trail is just another 4WD trail today: you don’t see any hoof prints. But you get some sense of the conditions the riders faced. Being a Pony Express rider was not an easy assignment. It was physically and mentally challenging, and many times flat out dangerous.
The biggest challenge we faced was staying on course. Some portions, particularly in the mountains, are marked frequently. It was always encouraging to see the orange signs. Other times the signs were nonexistent or spread out so far it was easy to turn onto another trail.
In other cases we came upon fences or were forced to drive around private land. In a couple spots we hit dead ends. Understand that the Pony Express trail is not 100% accessible. But enough is for you to explore and really enjoy the ride. An occasional placard fills in some of the details that aren’t readily apparent.
I suggest driving during a dry spell. My first two drives took place after it had rained. As you can imagine, the dirt trails were solid mud. (Like we should complain. Could you imagine taking those on horseback?)
We were really fortunate during the February scouting trip. The weather was clear, and most of the trails were dry. Even when we were up in elevation, the snow was only about an inch deep.
Returning to the Pony Express Trail
Although I’ve driven parts of the trail in Nevada before, this was my first attempt to scouting the trail border to border. But I’m already thinking of returning.
We didn’t complete the goal but had a lot of fun in the process. And I learned a lot, so I know what to do and what not to do in the future. The next trip will be shorter and more concise. For example, we’ll skip the part that courses through a subdivision. There are a few dead ends and other uninteresting segments. I should be able to turn it into a Friday – Sunday adventure. Mind you, we won’t cover the entire Nevada portion. But you will see and experience enough to more fully appreciate this historic trail.
The Pony Express trail offers a good mix of history and scenery, yet is still challenging from a four-wheeling perspective.
Do you feel like saddling up for a trip on “The Pony”? I’m thinking of offering a trip in spring or fall. You, too, could ride into a bit of Old West history.
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Did you miss the previous article?
- 2018-02-14 How to Know When to Retire Your 4WD Vehicle
- 2018-01-18 How to Beat the Cold While Camping
- 2017-11-11 The Perfect Cup of “Camp” Coffee
- 2017-10-11 Convenience of a 4-Door Model in a 2-Door Vehicle
- 2017-09-11 Amateur International 4WD Event – the Penultimate Bucket List
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