Running the Pony Express Trail

by Davy Crockett

An Opportunity to Mix Western History with Ultrarunning Was Not to be Missed. Part 1 of an Occasional Series.

© 2005 42K(+) Press, Inc.

This is the story of an attempt to combine two of my passions: American history and ultrarunning. My history passion centers on 19th-century American history. My running passion drives me to cover long distances in remote areas and to participate in ultramarathons. Bringing these two obsessions together seemed possible by running the historic Pony Express Trail that travels within three miles of my home in Saratoga Springs, Utah. I was determined to run (in sections) a 145-mile stretch of the trail starting near my home and ending at the Utah/Nevada state border. To make the trip more interesting, I first went to work researching the history behind this portion of the trail. Little did I know the amazing events that once occurred out my back door in the west desert of Utah.

The Pony Express was about fast mail delivery. In our day, we send mail around the world in seconds using the energy it takes to click a key with our finger. In the 19th century, the time and effort to transport mail across the continent were extraordinary. An overland coach mail service between California and the other states (that is, St. Joseph, Missouri) began soon after the California gold rush. But the service was inadequate, irregular, and erratic. Harsh weather conditions, long distances, and Indian problems made it difficult to provide regular mail service.

In 1860, the Pony Express company was established to greatly speed up cross-country mail delivery. Mail sent by coaches took at least one month. The Pony Express promised cross-country delivery in only 10 days. The system operated like a relay race. Riders would change about every 100 miles. The riders would change horses every 10 to 15 miles. Skinny, athletic riders were hired, “young, good horsemen, accustomed to outdoor life, able to endure severe hardship and fatigue, and fearless.” Ultrarunners can certainly relate to these last few characteristics.

Much of the trail between Missouri and California has been forgotten and overtaken by ranches, roads, and towns. But the country traveled by the trail across western Utah and through Nevada is still rugged, untamed, and mostly untouched by modern development. Ruins from Pony Express stations or stagecoach stations can still be found along the way. I would discover that in some ways the trail in western Utah is more remote today than in Pony Express days because there are no longer relay stations or any shelters to give aid along the way.

Day One (December 3, 2004) Saratoga Springs, Utah, to Rush Valley–31 miles

My run begins in the frigid late morning hours on a sunny day. I desire to brave the winter weather in an attempt to connect better with harsh circumstances that Pony Express riders had to face constantly. I dress warmly in layers appropriate for the 21-degree-Fahrenheit temperature. I don my signature coonskin hat and use hand and foot warmers that will work great during the long run. I can’t help but think about how Pony Express riders had to accomplish their endurance rides without the benefit of high-tech clothing or gear.

The first leg of my run would be a nice warm-up—a four-mile route from the shores of Utah Lake across an expansive farm to connect with the Pony Express Trail. My wife bids me good-bye as I start my run from my house, and she is surprised at how quickly I disappear. Soon she sees me a mile away to the west, a small figure running across the wide-open farmland. My route across miles of open field is at times covered with an inch or two of snow. Ahead on my path, I spy nine huge birds strutting together across the road onto the plowed field. As I run closer, I can see that they are large geese. My approach startles the gaggle, and I pause to watch the beauty of these nine geese taking off in formation, circling to the west as if pointing to me the direction to the Pony Express Trail.

After I cut across a massive plowed field with uneven footing, my muscles feel warmed up and I feel great. I soon arrive at a new, massive housing development. I run for a time on sidewalks, passing by an appropriately named school: the Pony Express Elementary School. As I reach the location of the historic trail, a bell rings out in the air from the school, calling the children in from the cold playground.

When I talk to my friends about my long adventure runs or ultramarathon races, I get the usual astonished reactions and questions. I am frequently asked, “How can you run so far?” This always leads to the question truly difficult to answer: “Why do you do it?” I’m sure the Pony Express riders had similar conversations about their long endurance rides. These endurance riders would cover as much as 400 miles every week. One rider wrote, “At first the ride seemed long and tiresome but after becoming accustomed to that kind of riding it seemed only play.” The same is true about ultrarunning. As your fitness level improves with training, the long runs indeed seem like “play.”

Pony Express riders were truly 19th-century endurance athletes. Like ultrarunners, they kept track of their split times riding between stations, always trying to beat their personal records or even setting “course records” to their destinations. But the true victory for both Pony Express riders and for ultrarunners is to finish the race. One historian wrote that the story of the Pony Express was about “a lone rider facing the elements, racing time . . . involved in crossing the country, night and day, in all kinds of weather.” The same is true of the ultrarunner.

After 50 minutes of easy warm-up running, I arrive at the historic Pony Express Trail. My pace picks up as I run on walking paths lining the Pony Express Parkway. I am impressed that the city of Eagle Mountain and its developers had the wisdom to honor the history of the community with road names in the area such as Saddleback Drive and Porters Crossing. I marvel to think that just four years ago this valley was mostly open and empty range, dotted with cedars. Now it was a small city of hundreds of homes, a victim of massive suburban sprawl. As I run in the bitter cold through these foothills dividing Utah Valley and Cedar Valley, I think of a cold Pony Express rider, Billy Fisher, who became lost in these same hills.

Becoming Lost

During the winter of 1861, Billy Fisher was lost for 20 hours in a blinding blizzard. He wandered off the trail on this divide among the cedar trees. “I didn’t know where I was, so I just got off my horse and sat down to rest by a thick tree, which partly sheltered me from the driving snow. As I sat there holding the reins, I began to get drowsy. The snow bank looked like a feather bed, I guess, and I was just about to topple over on it when something jumped on to my legs and scared me. I looked up in time to see a jack rabbit hopping away through the snow. I realized then what was happening to me. If that rabbit hadn’t brought me back to my senses I should have frozen right there. I jumped up and began to beat the blood back into my numbed arms and legs. Then I got back on my horse and turned the matter over to him.”

His horse led to the banks of Jordan River where he was able to get his bearings and continue to the town of Lehi. He recalled, “When I got there I was nearly frozen to death, but the good woman at the farm house I struck first filled me with hot coffee and something to eat and I soon felt better. When I called for my horse, she said, ‘You can’t get through this storm, better wait till it clears.’ ‘The mail’s got to get through,’ I said, and jumped on the pony and struck out.”

Most ultrarunners have experienced the frustration of going off course during a race. For the most part, races have well-marked courses, but the worry of becoming lost is part of the mental stresses of the sport. Once, on a solo adventure run in Capital Reef National Park, I decided to run a favorite 23-mile loop in reverse. I ran into a wrong canyon, ended up getting lost in a maze of canyons, got all turned around, and after a couple hours of frustration ended up only a mile from my starting point.

On another solo adventure run across the Highline Trail in the Uinta Mountains, toward the end of the day as I was trying to reach my car before dark, I made a critical mistake. I ran up to the wrong pass. A snowstorm blew in, my headlamp batteries went dead, and I had no choice but to spend the night at 10,000 feet, leaving a worried wife at home.

The First Ride

The first ride of the Pony Express began on April 3, 1860, with both an eastward ride originating in Sacramento, California, and a westward ride originating in St. Joseph, Missouri. On April 7, 1860, the first pony rider from the west, Howard Egan, rode up this same trail I was running on. The first rider from the east rode across this path two days later on April 9. Howard Ransom Egan wrote of his father’s famous ride along this stretch:

“It was a stormy afternoon. . . . The pony on this run was a very swift, fiery and fractious animal. The night was so dark that it was impossible to see the road, and there was a strong wind blowing from the north, carrying a sleet that cut his face while trying to look ahead. But as long as he could hear the pony’s feet pounding the road, he sent him ahead with full speed.”

As I continue my run westward on the Pony Express Parkway, I can hear the soft pounding of my feet on the road that I’m sure was in stark contrast to the galloping of Howard Egan’s horse’s hoofs on this same road 144 years earlier. I soon reach the historic site of the third Pony Express station west of Salt Lake City—Joe’s Dugout. The site is unmarked and forgotten, being overwhelmed by development. It is located just west of a collecting area for runoff water. The land consists of a small plowed field but seems likely to be overgrown by development in the near future. I’m surprised the city has done nothing to honor the only station site within its borders.

In 1858, Joseph Dorton had visions of building a stagecoach station on this divide between Utah Valley and Cedar Valley. He built a rock house for his family, a barn, and a dugout to be used by travelers. The dugout was 20 feet by 30 feet, part of which was in the ground. Joe lived there during the days of the Pony Express, when it became a station.

Running Free From Modern Development

I am finally running free from modern development as I cross over a pass and enjoy a fast, long downhill run into Cedar Valley, a large expansive valley floor, six miles across and 20 miles long. Cars still pass me with speed on the road. I’m sure the passengers are surprised to see a guy running on the soft shoulder of this road that normally never has pedestrians.

At the valley floor, the trail leaves the modern parkway and becomes an isolated dirt road that runs diagonally southwest across the valley. I’m thrilled to leave the parkway and embark on the snow-packed road with no cars to dodge. I can see for miles in all directions across dry farms and open range. When the route for the trail was chosen in the 1850s, it was understood very well that the fastest route between two points was a straight line. It isn’t much of a surprise that the Pony Express Trail was as straight as an arrow in many places.

After a total of two hours of running, I reach the Pony Express Memorial Regional Park, a small rural park, about nine miles into the run. As I continue on through the wide and open valley toward the sun, I can see the town of Cedar Fort a few miles to the west, nestled at the foot of the majestic Oquirrh Mountains, with 10,411-foot, snowcapped Lewiston Peak shining brightly in the sun. To the southeast, I can see the 11,928-foot Mount Nebo, 36 miles away, the highest point on the Wasatch Front.

Camp Floyd–an Army Camp Long Gone

The sun warms me as I plod along the road heading toward the town of Fairfield, a grove of high trees in the distance. The long, level trail starts taking its toll on me, and I start to intersperse some walking stretches between running spells. As I arrive at the small town of Fairfield, I try to envision a camp of 2,500 United States soldiers stationed there in 1858: Camp Floyd.

In 1857, distorted reports were received in Washington, D.C., that the Mormons in the Utah Territory were in rebellion. President Buchanan sent out one-third of the entire U.S. Army to deal with the situation forcefully. This became known as the Utah War. To discourage the advancing troops, Mormons, who had the advantage of knowing the mountains and frontier conditions, harassed the troops as they approached the valley, scattering animals and destroying supply wagons. Brigham Young evacuated Salt Lake City and threatened to burn it down if the army entered the valley. Eventually a peaceful arrangement was reached, and the army decided to camp at Fairfield and established Camp Floyd. By 1860, Fairfield was a busy city of thousands, the third largest city in Utah with 7,000 inhabitants (3,000 soldiers and 4,000 civilians).

In the evening, the civilian part of the camp would spring to life. “Kerosene lamps lighted the dance halls and gambling tables. Fiddles played and boot heels stamped out the rhythm of the dance. . . . Bullwhackers and mule-skinners, just in from the long freight roads, forgot their cares and abandoned themselves to the distractions of the camp. Stage drivers and pony riders mingled with the crowd, killing time between runs on the overland road. Pistol smoke, knives, horse stealing, etc., were too common to attract much notice.”

At the three-hour running mark, I arrive at Camp Floyd Stagecoach Inn State Park. I stop for about 45 minutes, for lunch and to explore the historic park. I am pleased to see a nice display about the Pony Express Trail, inviting travelers to drive the trail ahead. Camp Floyd was the next location of a Pony Express relay station, and a monument describes its exact location. I eat a wonderful lunch of warm chicken noodle soup, a bottle of Ensure, some chips, and cookies.

A sign on a huge tree nearby indicates that John Carson, the founder of Fairfield, planted the massive black willow tree in 1858. He had ordered seedlings from San Francisco. I ponder that this tree was only a few feet high when the Pony Express rode by in 1860.

Nearby I see the Stagecoach Inn, a hotel built by John Carson in 1858. It was restored in 1959. A museum across the street was the original commissary building for Camp Floyd. I wish that I had time to stop for a tour, but I would have to save that for another time. It was time to continue my run to the west on the Pony Express Trail.

“On April 7, 1860, there was more excitement in Camp Floyd. People were gathered on the walls of the fort and other buildings looking southwest toward the Five Mile Pass. Presently a shout went up, for in the distance was seen a dark object, which rapidly grew and took shape. It was a horseman riding on the run. On his saddle were two leather pouches—the first mail from California by the Pony Express!”

The army remained there until July 1861 when the Civil War broke out. “As suddenly as the camp had sprung into life it vanished. Wagons were loaded with necessary provisions, and the great stores that were left on hand were sold to the highest bidder.” The large city of thousands shrank to a tiny town of 18 families.

The Pony Express route now takes me along a well-traveled highway for the next five miles to the top of Five Mile Pass. The incline is moderate, but it feels difficult as my full stomach tries to deal with my lunch. I recognize that I am running through the heart of what used to be Camp Floyd and wonder whether people have excavated the area with metal detectors. To the north, three miles away, I look up Manning Canyon, climbing into the Oquirrh Mountains. I think of a large town that once flourished up that canyon.

Gold was discovered at the head of Manning Canyon in 1870. A few men struck it rich in only a few months. Gold fever pulled at people to swarm up the canyon, and the town of Lewiston (later renamed Mercur) was established. At its height, 5,000 people lived up in the canyon. But as fast as the city grew into existence, it disappeared as the gold dried up, becoming a ghost town. Today there is nothing left of the town, which has been destroyed by modern strip mining. Newer processes made it profitable to go through the old tailings and recover even more metal. The town site is off limits as efforts are being made to reclaim the land and replant it with natural vegetation.

Dangers Along the Way

As I run up the highway shoulder, cars and trucks speed by at a rate of 65-plus miles per hour. Most are courteous and give me a wide berth, but some, especially the semitrucks, cruise past me as if I weren’t there. I consider the dangers during my run compared to the dangers that the Pony Express riders faced. The greatest dangers I face are being sideswiped by cars or running up against some drunk kids shooting out in the desert. The Pony Express riders faced constant dangers from Indian attacks. Many lost their lives. I look to the south and see the Tintic mountain range.

Chief Tintic, a Goshute Indian, roamed these hills with his tribe. In 1856, the Tintic war occurred in this valley. The Indians had been accused of stealing cattle from nearby herds. A posse of men with warrants set out to arrest Chief Tintic and his band. Tintic was camped near Fairfield. After dark, in Cedar Valley a battle occurred. One member of the posse was killed along with an Indian woman. Several other Indians were wounded.

During the night, the Indians moved their camp from Five Mile Pass into Rush Valley. Those at the rock fort located at Fairfield could hear sounds of moaning and crying from the Indians. A few Indians rode to Utah Lake and inflicted revenge by killing two men who were herding cattle (near my home in present-day Saratoga Springs). When daybreak came, the posse rode over Five Mile Pass into Rush Valley and found the Indians entrenched on a hill among some protective rocks. Shots were fired and the Indians said they were hungry for a fight. The posse decided to retreat. When it returned later, the Indians were gone.

My run continues. At the four-hour mark, I reach the Five Mile Pass recreation area, BLM land that on weekends is covered with ATVs and dirt bikes. After Five Mile Pass, the trail leaves the highway and turns straight west, heading into Rush Valley, a wide-open landscape left much as it was in 1860.

I am pleased to be away from the highway and the noise of civilization. All becomes quiet as I run toward the setting sun. An ATV trail parallels the road. My spirits rise as I run on the soft dirt trail filled with drifted snow. I’m astonished to see thousands of jack rabbit tracks in the snow, in every direction.

In 1860, Richard Egan, a Pony Express rider, started a westward ride along my route from Camp Floyd (Fairfield) to my next station destination, East Rush Valley.

Egan’s ride was during a blinding snowstorm. “As night approached, the snow was already knee deep to his horse. Soon it was so dark and snowy he could not see the trail. In order to stay moving in the general direction, Egan kept the wind at his right cheek as he traveled all night. At dawn, after an exhausting ride, he found himself back at his starting point [Camp Floyd]. The wind had changed direction during the night, and he had ridden 150 miles in a vast circle. Undaunted, he immediately mounted a fresh horse and continued on to Rush Valley Station without a rest stop.”

After a couple of miles, I stop to look around me. As far as my eye can see, there is nothing man made, except for the paved road. There is not a structure in sight to all the far horizons. The remote feeling is both invigorating and a little scary. Here I am out in the middle of nowhere, with frigid temperatures, left to my own skills and fitness to stay warm and out of danger. I watch the sun disappear behind the Onaqui Mountains ahead. Immediately the warmth disappears, and then the temperature drops into the teens. I pick up the pace in order to keep warm.

Running at Night on the Trail

At the six-hour mark into my run, I reach the East Rush Valley Pony Express Station site. An impressive stone monument marks the location. Sadly, thoughtless shooters have vandalized it. The plaque is missing, and only a portion of a picture of a horse gives the visitor a clue as to why the monument is there. I pull out my headlamp and cell phone and call my wife to start the long drive to pick me up.

Normally, as I approach the 30-mile mark of runs, I gain my second wind and feel unstoppable. The same is true this evening. I feel great, but the chill of the 16-degree-Fahrenheit temperature is finding its way into my bones. I continue my run toward an impressive crimson sunset. A few vehicles pass me along the way. They all slow down, surely in shock to see a guy running in the dark, out in the middle of nowhere. I wave so they know I’m fine. The sparkling stars pop out into the night sky, and I can see lights of civilization shining from the Tooele Army Depot, eight miles to the north, a facility that destroys a stockpile of chemical weapons.

After several miles, my wife, Linda, and my 8-year-old son, Connor, pull up in our van. My link back to civilization and the 21st century has arrived. I feel so fine that I ask if I could run for a couple of miles more, with Linda driving behind. I put on a warm jacket, and run fast and wild up the road. After a while, Linda pulls forward, stops, and out jumps Connor, who wants to run with his dad on the Pony Express Trail. We talk about the historic trail. The history is difficult to be understood by the mind of a modern 8-year-old boy. No cars? No telephones? No trains? Indians! That perks him up, and he is astonished to learn that Indians lived where we were running.

An oncoming truck slows and passes by us. The guy in the truck just cannot figure out what is happening. For many minutes he turns around, cautiously comes forward, slowly pulls back, and finally drives up beside us. “Are you OK?” he asks. I laugh and tell him all is well. He says, “Oh, I thought you were being chased.” I explain that we are only out for a run. That was very thoughtful of him to worry. I laugh at the thoughts that probably were going through his mind. Why in the world would a guy and his little boy be running ahead of a car, in the middle of the desert, at night, in the frigid cold? Surely he left thinking we were insane. Ultrarunners are used to such reactions.

Finally I decide to pack it in for the night. I reach the seven-hour mark, 31 miles, or 50K. I mark the location on my GPS and plan to continue from this point on another day.

To be continued . . .


Bensen, J. 1995. The Traveler’s Guide to the Pony Express Trail. Helena, Mont.: Flacon Press Publishing.
Carter, K. B. 1947. Riders of the Pony Express. Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.
Corbett, C. 2002. Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. New York: Broadway Books.
Di Certo, J. J. 2002. The Saga of the Pony Express. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press Publishing.

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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M&B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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