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Jeeping On The Historic Nevada Pony Express Route

Posted in Events on August 11, 2015
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Photographers: Becki OrtizEddie OrtizTony SodaroChad Brightly

Dawn came late to our first campsite, as the sun crept slowly over the near-vertical walls of Seven-Mile Canyon. It was nearly 7 a.m. before old Sol began warming our tent's walls with enough light to wake us up. We were in Nevada, camped down-canyon from Virginia City just off Six-Mile Canyon Road, and we had to break camp rather quickly to make our assembly point in a Virginia City parking lot on time. Even so, the first day on the trail would see us getting a late start.

Our goal was to explore as much of the route to Rhyolite from Virginia City (home of the Comstock Lode and Bonanza) as we could in the few days we allotted. Since we planned on meeting in town, we camped nearby, and most of us toured Virginia City the day before we were to hit the trail. We kept our eyes peeled for the ghosts of Mark Twain, Little Joe, and Hoss, made a visit to the Mark Twain Museum, and took a mine tour from the Pondarosa Saloon.

Our trailhead was the intersection of U.S. 50 (known as the loneliest highway in America) and Fort Churchill Road, a few miles east of Carson City, Nevada. Fort Churchill Road quickly turns into dirt on its way to the fort and was the start of our 100-mile trek on the Pony Express route.

Mail Man

Our relatively short trek along the historic route was a mere taste of the full 2,000-mile Pony Express route. Operating for just 18 months from 1860 to 1861, it carried mail, small packages, newspapers, and messages to Sacramento, California, from St. Joseph, Missouri. Its riders crossed the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains (via South Pass), and the Sierra Nevada in California by horseback, using a series of relay stations placed 12 to 15 miles apart.

Using a specially designed saddle cover called a mochila—Spanish for knapsack or pack—equipped with four pouches, one at each corner, a rider could slide into a relay station, jump off his pony (grabbing the mochila in the process), run to the fresh horse, follow the mochila onto the saddle, and be off again in less than 30 seconds. We visited two such relay stations on our trail of history.

Fort Churchill, the first stop on our trip, housed the Pony Express station in its headquarters building, which is still standing. Paiute raids on local residents and the Pony Express mail service created the need for Fort Churchill on the banks of the Carson River. Fort Churchill State Historic Park preserves the ruins of the 1860s adobe fort, maintains a visitor center in the headquarters building, and hosts a primitive (pit toilets) but attractive campground alongside the Carson River.

The 100-mile section of the Pony Express route from U.S. 50 to Fort Churchill and then between Fort Churchill (U.S. 95A) and the Smith Ranch (U.S. 95) is not a difficult trail to drive—in fact, the first 20 to 30 miles are over a two-lane dirt road. However, once you leave the pavement, this route is way back of beyond, so don't go alone. This is true backcountry and too far out for you to walk back out if you suffer a breakdown.

Sidetracked

We had planned on the site of old Rawhide for our first night on the trail, but we were forced to spend our second night there. With 19 vehicles and several with trailers, our speed was much, much slower than we had anticipated. We had also planned on refueling and re-icing at Gabbs, but a fellow traveler told us the station in Gabbs was closed. This forced a detour to Hawthorne, Neveada. Happily, our detour took us through the US Army Depot—known as the world's largest depot of conventional ammunition—so we got a chance to see some of the bunkers up close and personal.

After fueling and icing in Hawthorne, the group voted to take the highway directly to our final campsite in Gold Point, a privately owned and registered ghost town. Since one man owns the entire town, it stands to reason that he also owns the town's only saloon, which he opened for us.

The next day we wrapped up the trip at Rhyolite, Nevada, another registered ghost town about 25 miles south of Beatty. Even though didn't get to run the entire Pony Express route on this trip, we still managed to enjoy a wonderful taste of Western history, and we'll be back for a few more bites.


Once we crested this hill, we got out to marvel at what the Pony Express riders had to ride over in the dark, in rain, in snow, and once in a while, in hot sunlight.

If washouts like this were encountered by the pony guys, we hoped it was during daylight.

Unfortunately, the day before we set up this first campsite, Nevada had initiated a state-wide ban on open fires. Camping loses half its appeal without a fire.

Since we had participants coming in from three states, we picked a centrally located parking lot in Virginia City for our final assembly point.

Just off U.S. 50 on Fort Churchill Road, we aired down for our hundreds of miles of dirt.

There was wildlife along the route but not much of it.

We glimpsed this century-old wood bridge just off the modern road. It looked old enough to have seen Pony Express hooves.

Intermittent rains kept dust to a minimum along Fort Churchill Road.

Just before we reached Fort Churchill Historic State Park, we passed through a U.S. military testing facility and saw several armored vehicles undergoing extended testing on the adjacent hillsides.

Both alongside the road and at the state park we saw some beautiful campsites along the Carson River.

All along the Pony Express route we saw ancient buildings made from rock, adobe, and wood.

Built in 1860 with adobe bricks and stone foundations, many of the Fort Churchill buildings are still available for exploring.

Adolfo Rodriguez, a fellow Walapai 4 Wheeler, his wife, and two-year-old daughter packed their JK with literally everything but the kitchen sink.

Just before our first night on the trail, we found a stream to ford and play in.

We'd expected to make camp in Rawhide for the first night, but we found a campsite west of Smith Ranch (the current location of the historic Smith Relay Station).

Each morning we'd line up to make sure everyone was ready to leave camp and camp was ready for us to leave.

With no rain, we were forced to slow down and maintain a good distance between the Jeeps to control the dust.

Fortunately, we dropped down to the alkali dry lake early in the morning before the sun built the heat up.

Second night on the trail we camped near Rawhide.

Rawhide is about 20 miles south of the actual Pony Express route, but on our original planned route.

Since we had no time to prerun the course, we spent almost as much time checking the trail as we did taking photos of the scenery.

We enjoyed several scenic canyons along the trail in the Rawhide area, with somewhat challenging obstacles.

Ghost town sites, abandoned mines, and ancient corrals dotted the huge landscape of backcountry Nevada.

There were sloughs and swampy areas along our pathway, but we couldn't tell it they were year-round or sometime-sloughs.

We spotted this derrick near Gold Point built above a vertical mine shaft.

Gold Point is a privately owned ghost town south of Goldfield and just west of U.S. 95. This is an old ore mill.

Gold Point has a working windmill pumping water from a well.

The Gold Point owner welcomes guests and offers various campsites around town. Since it is private property, it was the only night on the trail we enjoyed a campfire.

The owner of Gold Point also has a sense of humor and built this gallows just for the fun of it.

Eddie Ortiz, my trail co-leader is grabbing one last photo before hitting the trail for Rhyolite, Nevada.

Don't get the idea that this trail was a piece of cake. It had some long hillclimbs and narrow choke points providing challenges, especially for those towing trailers.

On the last few miles before ending up at Rhyolite the weather started getting hot because of the drop in altitude.

We found a dry lake on which we could take a final group shot before splitting up at Rhyolite.

If you're ever traveling through Beatty—and like ghost towns—Rhyolite is a fascinating place to visit and explore.

An artist used this map to draw a portion of the route between Carson City and Smith Station.

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