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Then & Now: Trail passes watery oasis in barren desert   PDF  Print  E-mail 
Written by Jaromy Jessop  
Thursday, 12 January 2006



Lay down all thought Surrender to the void

It is shining

It is shining

Lennon / McCartney

As you leave Black Rock, rounding the northern tip of the Black Rock Hills to the south, you will enter a broad seemingly lifeless valley. There is quite an abundance of life in this valley however, as you will see. Ahead across the valley, rugged, treeless and almost alien looking peaks rise from the playa. This impossible-looking escarpment is the Fish Springs range which culminates in 8,524-foot George H. Hansen Peak.

The Express Trail heads straight across this wide, flat valley. This section was one of the most soggy, dusty, or bumpy parts of the trail depending on the season. As Howard Ransom Egan put it, "It was the worst part of the desert." A soldier in Colonel P.E. Connor's column heading east in 1862 described a messenger arriving at Fish Springs after crossing the valley from Black Rock. "When the correspondent arrived, the sun had well nigh broiled most of the vigor and all of the patience out of his body, he was very thirsty. If he had a face, a thick stratum of alkali dust rendered it invisible."

If you roll down your vehicles windows along this stretch too soon after a stop, you will be enveloped in your own alkali hell and you will be covered as if by volcanic ash from head to toe. A good rule of thumb in the desert when you stop your vehicle is to wait a few seconds, maybe even 20, to let your dust plume pass you by before you open your vehicle.

Sir Richard Burton crossed the desert by the light of the moon after descending Dugway Pass and rounded Black Rock Point out into Fish Springs Valley. He stated that dust was not the major problem but, "The principal inconvenience to man is the infectious odor of the foul swamps." People living near the Great Salt Lake know this odor as "Lake Stink" or "Lake Smell." Driving on I-80 from Grantsville to Lake Point your nose will suffer much the same odious persecution.

This valley stretch of the Pony Express Trail was an absolute nightmare when wet. The riders and stage drivers at times would have to divert south nearly 10 miles to circumnavigate the mud flats. H.R. Egan stated on one occasion in 1862, he got stuck in the mud five miles east of Fish Springs Station. He stated he had to abandon his wagon and he could see three other abandoned stage coaches on the road ahead toward the station. His father Howard Egan came up with the idea of "Mud Wagons," which were much lighter and were used in the wet spring months.

As you reach the center of the valley you will notice increased vegetation and a large sign announcing you are about to enter the "Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge." Depending on the time of year, there may be large pools of clear water on either side of the road, which at this point thankfully is a graveled, raised dike.

Fish Springs was famous in 1859 when Horace Greeley spent the night on his famed trip from New York to San Francisco. He stated the following: "There are many fish in the pool and stream and they are said to be good. I should have liked to verify the ascertation, and if they bite 100th so freely as the mosquito's here about, it were an easy manner to afford the stage passengers here a change from their usual rations." According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Robert Sims, the gnats and mosquito's can still be an egregious nuisance at times.

On May 6th, 1859, Captain James H. Simpson and his command spent the night at Fish Springs. He stated there was a mail station here with a thatched roof. The following is his description of the springs: "The springs are large and very copious, very clear, the bottom presenting a whitish appearance with a hue of green. An innumerable quantity of fish are to be seen sporting in the water. We have caught some specimens. They are a kind of chub. They are about 6 inches long, and have darkish speckled scales. They are very inferior for the table." Guess he didn't like how they tasted.

There are so many interesting stories about Fish Springs. Human occupation of the area and the adjacent mountains dates back thousands of years. A team from a university did an archaeological dig in the mountains and discovered pinyon husks in an ancient cave. This suggests that thousands of years ago, the inhabitants would walk back and forth between the Fish Springs range and the Deep Creek and Snake ranges to the west to gather pine nuts for food. It is very interesting to imagine these nomadic, archaic peoples wandering among and between the timeless ranges of the desert.

Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge is an extremely interesting place to visit. They have migratory bird checklists posted on their website so you can check off the types of birds you see there. An auto tour of the pond dike system is highly recommended and is the main attraction. You must remember, however, that you are seriously out in the middle of nowhere now. The nearest gasoline and services are over 50 miles away in Delta. Be prepared with emergency supplies if you go out this far in the desert. Consider a five-gallon can of gasoline, plenty of water, spare tire, radiator water, food, etc.

The forlorn Pony Express marker is a few miles beyond the refuge. It is a very bleak and depressing place. Imagine crossing the horrible desert, finding water, gulping down a large slug of it, only to find it warm and brackish. One rider stated the water was drinkable if you could stand the smell. There is too much information on Fish Springs to cover in one article. There will no doubt be future articles on this place. The staff seems very friendly and interested in answering any questions. Contact information is provided below.

Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge

Hours of Operation

Office: Monday - Friday 7: a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Auto Tour Route: Daylight hours only

Phone: 435-831-5353


Jaromy D. Jessop grew up in West Valley City where he attended Kearns High School and earned the Eagle Scout award while exploring the Utah Desert. A graduate of the University of Utah, B.S. in geography, U.S. Army Reserve Captain Jessop lives with his family in Dugway where he is employed by Jacobs Sverdrup at Michael Army Airfield.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 January 2006 )



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