Utah Historic Trails

William B. Smart
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

Spread out a Utah highway map, and let your mind go back a hundred, two hundred years. Where those green, blue, and red lines run, long before the ribbons of asphalt and concrete they represent crisscrossed the state, ran the earlier highways of exploration and adventure.

Highway builders today seek the best combination of shortest distance and easiest terrain. So too did the Spanish padres, the mountain men, the government explorers, and the home-seeking pioneers who blazed and carved Utah’s historic trails. It is no accident that after the discovery of the easiest way over the Continental Divide at South Pass, Wyoming, the major traffic into Utah funneled down Echo Canyon, where Interstate 80 and the Union Pacific Railroad now run. All or part of most Utah highways–all the major ones–follow trails established by historic explorers and the Indians before them.

There are, of course, exceptions: trails that followed the shortest but far from the easiest routes. Two major ones were born of ignorance and foolhardiness. One, made by the 1879-80 Hole-in-the-Rock expedition that was attempting to establish a Mormon settlement on the San Juan, is a carved trail through southeastern Utah country so savage it is still negotiable only by the most strenuous jeeping and hiking. The other exception, far more tragic, was the route followed by the California-bound Donner-Reed party of 1846. Lured by a California promoter, Lansford Hastings, who promised they could save 400 miles of travel, they left the known trail at Fort Bridger and cut a trail (to be followed the next year by the Mormons) down Echo Canyon, over Big and Little mountains, and into Salt Lake Valley. Continuing west, they skirted north of the Stansbury Mountains, then struck out across the Great Salt Lake Desert for Pilot Peak, eighty miles away. John C. Fremont, the famed government explorer, had crossed that way in 1845. So also had the mountain man Jim Clyman with Hastings in 1846. So also would a detachment of the Mormon Battalion in 1847, a military survey crew under Howard Stansbury in 1849, and possibly a few California-bound gold-seekers, who left no record, in the same year. So the eighty waterless miles of salt flats could be successfully crossed, but not easily, by wagons. The Donner-Reed party bogged down in the sticky mud, abandoned four of their wagons, lost many of their oxen, and barely escaped the desert with their lives, only to face starvation and cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada.

For the most part, however, blazers of the trails through Utah generally chose routes now followed by highways or, at least, dirt roads. That was especially true of two major routes–the Mormon and the old Spanish trails–both of which are described in detail elsewhere in this volume.

It was mostly true of the first Utah trail known to history–that of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition. In 1776, those two padres, seeking a route to link the Catholic missions of New Mexico with those of southern California, traversed Utah from its northeastern to its southwestern corner, entering the state at Jensen and reaching the vicinity of St. George before turning east to find a way home. The only three areas where present roads do not generally follow their route are also those areas where they had the greatest difficulty. One was where they fought their way over the Wasatch Mountains from the vicinity of Strawberry Reservoir to reach and preach to the Indians at and around Utah Lake. Another was where they suffered in the bitter cold and almost impassable mud of the Escalante Desert. And the third was where they blundered across the redrock desert of southern Utah and northern Arizona before finally finding a way across the gorge of the Colorado River at the Crossing of the Fathers. They failed in their effort to establish a trail to the California missions; that would wait half a century, with the development of the old Spanish Trail. Their pleas for the establishment of missions among the Indians of Utah’s central valleys went unheeded; otherwise Utah’s culture today might well be Spanish-American rather than Mormon.

The greatest trailmaker to tread Utah soil was Jedediah Smith, the literate young fur trader who accomplished an incredible number of firsts: first to open South Pass to western emigration, first to travel the north-to-south length of Utah, first to reach California from Utah soil, first to cross the Sierra and the Great Basin, first to traverse the California and Oregon coasts to the Columbia River. In 1826, as a new owner of William Ashley’s fur company, he set out to explore to the south and west, looking for beaver, and, as he said, “to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land.” That quest would take him on not one but two round trips to California. The first, in 1826, followed the present routes of U.S. Highway 91 from southern Idaho through Cache Valley and on to Utah Lake, highways 6 and 10 into and through Castle Valley, I-70 to Salina and Cove Fort, and I-15 to Cedar City, St. George, and on to California. Only on his return trip, after a terrible mid-winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada Range and the Great Basin, did he blaze a Utah trail where roads do not now follow: in the desolate western desert, now part of Dugway Proving Grounds, where he and two companions nearly perished before reaching the springs where Iosepa was later built. His second trip, starting just ten days after the first ended, followed much the same route, except that he swung east of the Wasatch past Bear Lake (along the routes of present highways 89, 16, I-80, and 189) and skipped the loop into Castle Valley. That trip was a disaster. Ten of his men were killed by Mojave Indians as they crossed the Colorado River in southern Nevada, and fifteen others were killed by the Umpquas in southern Oregon. Smith himself died at the hands of the Comanches four years later on the Santa Fe trail. He was thirty-one.

Utah’s main north-south route–originally the Arrowhead Highway, then Highway 91, then I-15–was developed gradually. The Dominguez-Escalante expedition was the first on it, traveling from Utah Lake to present-day Scipio. Jedediah Smith traveled most of it in 1826 and 1827, and other trappers, including Ewing Young, Kit Carson, and Peter Skene Ogden, followed. John C. Fremont mapped the country up to Utah Lake in 1844, and in 1848 Miles Goodyear took a pack train over the entire Salt Lake-Los Angeles route. But the first wagon was dragged over the trail in 1848 by Mormon Battalion members returning to Salt Lake Valley after mustering out in Los Angeles. And it was a former Battalion member, Jefferson Hunt, who in 1849 led the first party to make it an actual wagon road. Many gold-seekers bound for California had reached Salt Lake City too late in the season to cross the Sierra Nevada. Hunt offered to take them on a new southern route in 1849 to Los Angeles, from where they could travel north to the gold fields. Some 500 emigrants with 100 wagons accepted the offer, at ten dollars a wagon. Disgruntled with the slow pace and the road-building effort, and suspicious of Hunt, most of them elected to take a shortcut west from Enterprise. They got into trouble in the Beaver Dam Mountains, and most returned to the trail. Of those who didn’t, a number died in the Death Valley region, while those who followed or returned to Hunt reached California safely.

Another wagon road built mainly by homeward-bound Mormon Battalion veterans was the Salt Lake Cutoff of the California Trail. From Salt Lake City it ran north along the present route of I-15 to the vicinity of Snowville, then west to the Raft River and City of Rocks area just north of the Utah-Idaho border, and on west to the Humboldt River in Nevada.

The storied but short-lived Pony Express in 1860-61 followed the main emigrant trail down Echo Canyon into Salt Lake Valley. Interstate 80 now follows most of that route. That a major highway doesn’t follow much of the route west to the Nevada border may be due to a little-remembered political tug-of-war. In 1913 auto and tire companies formed the Lincoln Highway Association and contracted with states along the proposed to build a transcontinental highway. The route was to skirt south of the Great Salt Lake Desert to Ibapah on the Nevada border, proceed on to Ely, and there divide, one branch swinging south to Los Angeles, the other continuing west to San Francisco. But Utah officials wanted the route to divide at Salt Lake City, not Ely. So the state put its money into what became Highway 40 across the salt flats to Wendover, never finishing its section of the Lincoln Highway along much of the old Pony Express route. The dispute scandalized the nation, but the proposed route remains a dirt road through the desert.

William B. Smart, Old Utah Trails (1988).