Pony Express Trail


Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 05 October 2018

Where we Are

Pony Express Trail
for
Local Backpackers

UPDATE
October, 2018

Gross Stamp Sale: Pony Express

 

Brief Encounter
We briefly encounter and hike along a few hundred yards of the East-West line of the Pony Express Trail where we encounter its trail junction a couple of hundred yards West of the Echo Summit trailhead.

The Pony Express route comes East parallel with Highway 50, up from Strawberry to join our combined TYT-PCT-TRT routes just short of Echo Summit. We encounter it along our Tahoe to Whitney backpacking trip hiking from the South end of Desolation Wilderness to the North end of the Meiss Country Roadless Area.

Desolation Wilderness Backpacking Map
Click Red and Black dots.

Meiss Country Roadless Area Backpacking Map
Click Red dots

Us Southbound hikers hiking East up to Echo Summit all turn South off of Highway 50 following all the main Sierra Crest trails along the Tahoe Rim where the Pony Express Trail continues East for its steep descent into the Tahoe Basin. 

Our North-South Route(s)
TYT-TRT-PCT
We're already hiking on all the main Sierra Crestline trails here, being on the Tahoe to Yosemite, Pacific Crest, and Tahoe Rim Trails at the same time. The main Sierra Crestline trails share the same trailbed around the Western length of the Tahoe Basin.

The Pony Express
TRAIL PROJECT
The Sierra Nevada is but a small part of the 1900 miles of the Pony Express Trail project between Sacramento and Saint Joseph Missouri.
The Pony Express Trail project crosses this vast distance roughly across the center of the Western US transiting an amazing diversity of terrain, including the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.

THE HISTORY 
This route would have presented an amazing spectacle of natural and cultural wonders in 1800, a free-for-all in 1861, and today I'm going to stay in the Sierra Nevada, but  I'm curious about the radical differences between today's Pony Express route and its original.

Gross Sale, Oct., 2018.
Pony Express, envelopes, franks, and stamps, 1860-61.

 The Pony Express, its goals, context, managers and riders all tell a story about a culture that was in the process of  brutally reshaping the land, culture, and ecology of a continent during its short, but intense life.

 We'll try to explore how the Pony Express was shaped by, and shaped the Sierra Nevada terrain as much as possible through historical resources.
  Physically, much of the old Pony Express route is unrecoverable today. It is long buried under the physical development, the roads and cities, of the West that the Pony Express Trail was an integral part of building.

In the Sierra Nevada we can experience a more realistic perspective on the natural obstacles faced by Pony Express riders, as much of the Sierra Nevada remains in a semi-natural state. 

Pony Express Trail Map

I'm sticking to backpacking my Sierra Nevada Mountains, but this short segment of the Pony Express Trail offers fruitful backpacking options for the contemporary Sierra Nevada-Tahoe Basin hiker, as well as being a historical curiosity.

Foot Route Directly into Tahoe Basin
The segments of the reconstructed Pony Express route offer some nice day hiking up from Strawberry to Echo Summit and then own the sheer switchbacks of Hawley Grade below Echo Summit into Christmas Valley on the floor of the Tahoe Basin.

Closes a Tahoe Backpacking Loop
The Pony Express Trail has greater utility than just a historical curiosity or a day hike. The Hawley Grade segment provides the length of trail necessary to complete a backpacking loop route around the Meiss Country Roadless Area. Looping Meiss would be impossible without this little segment of the Pony Express Trail to tie the line of its trailheads together.

Check out  this nifty backpacking loop on the Meiss Country Roadless Area Backpacking Map.

 The short segment of the Pony Express Trail running East from Echo Summit into the basin allows us to "close a backpacking loop" around the upcoming crescent-shaped Meiss Country Roadless Area we are entering hiking South from Echo Summit,

The next 12 miles of our hike from Echo Summit around the South end of the Tahoe Basin are along the length of the crecent-shaped Meiss Country Roadless Area wrapping around the bottom, the South end of the Tahoe Basin.  

Meiss Country Backpacking Loop
The segment of the Pony Express Trail East from Echo Summit down Hawley Grade into the South end of Christmas Valley allows us to connect the Echo Summit Trailhead to the South Upper Truckee Trailhead, which allow us to turn our local in-and-out backpacking trips into loops. The Pony Express Trail turns the crecent shaped Meiss Country into a loop. Well, more of an oval than a loop, but you get the idea.

This connection allows us to hike loops all the way around the perimeter of the Meiss Country Roadless Area, which would otherwise be impossible. The crescent shape of Meiss Country and its terrain perched along the Tahoe Rim would not be well suited for backpacking loops without adding this little segment of The Pony Express Trail.

Local Trailheads
Though the Echo Summit, South Upper Truckee, Carson Pass, and Big Meadow Trailheads are all connected by a single line of trail across the Meiss Country Roadless Area (shaped like a "Y"), the short segment of the Pony Express Trail connecting Echo Summit to the South Upper Truckee Trailhead allows us to craft loops out of and back to any Meiss Country trailheads.

Check out  this nifty backpacking loop on the Meiss Country Roadless Area Backpacking Map.

Trail Guide Information

Trail Guide Page
Highway 50 to Echo Summit

 

Topo Hiking Map
Echo Lake to Echo Summit

 

The Pony Express Trail

The Pony Express Trail's legend has endured longer and stronger than the very short 18 month length of it's life. The run of the Pony Express between April of 1860 and October of 1861 filled in the last bit of the gap between the pressing demands for rapid communication between the coasts before the evolution of communication technology jumping from horseback to the telegraph ended the run of the Pony Express.

   The Pony Express filled the demand for information with galloping horses topped by daring riders streaking between stations set between 5 and 25 miles apart strung out across the heart of countless Indian Nations that were none too happy about our stealing their lands. Riding the Pony Express was not a job for the weak or faint of heart.

  The Pony Express was not just a tremendous feat of logistics, but represented a high watermark in the evolution of our culture's development of horsepower technology. The evolution of the stock, the development of the tack and customized gear, combined with the necessary riding skills saddled onto a logistical operation spanning 1900 miles composed of hundreds of riders and support personel represents the highest degree of sophistication for a horse-powered culture.

This evolution and sophistication of horse power technology was paralleled by the simultanous evolution of sailing ships. Each reached an amazing degree of devlopment in the middle of the 19th century before being almost instantly replaced by telegraph and steamship.

We have already evolved the highest degrees of "green" technology, well over a century ago. We abandoned horse and wind power in pursuit of technology capable of removing all limits to the growth of our population, power, and wealth.

These may not be the correct goals to pursue.

The Routes

The combined Pacific Crest, Tahoe to Yosemite, Tahoe Rim, and now the Pony Express Trail all continue South together for a very short shared distance along the South shoulder of Highway 50 up to Echo Summit. All are hiking towards the dramatic view over the precipitous edge of the Tahoe Basin at Echo Summit along Highway 50, but only those staying on the Pony Express Trail will see the view.

Our main Sierra Crest trails turn South, Right, into Echo Summit Trailhead before encountering this stunning view of the South Tahoe Basin while the Pony Express Trail breaks off from our route as quickly as it merged, continuing straight East up to the edge of the Tahoe Rim and its spectacular views before descending to the floor of the Tahoe Basin. Our route stays up along the rim of the Tahoe Basin.

Our route following these three combined Southbound Sierra Crest trails turns Right at Echo Summit to continue following the curving Rim of the Tahoe Basin bending Southeast into Meiss Meadow and our not-too-distant exit from the South end of the Tahoe Basin through the Carson Gap.
  The Pony Express Trail heads East right over the edge of the cliff below Echo Summit to switchback down the Hawley Grade Trail into Meyers' Christmas Valley on its way East.

That's pretty much the end of a fomal PET "trail" in the Tahoe Basin, until you pick up traces of its route again tracking East of the Sierra crossing the deserts of Nevada.

The PET is a trail project in progress.

Pony Express Trail Information and Resources

The Pony Express Trail tracks East into the Tahoe Basin via the steep Hawley Trail down from Echo Summit. The Hawley Trail down the cliff face below Echo Summit was apparently part of the original Pony Express Route across the High Sierra.

Today the Hawley Grade Trail offers aggressive hikers a steep and direct climb connecting the South Upper Truckee Trailhead at the end of Christmas Valley in Meyers to Echo Summit. This allows us to execute backpacking loops around the Meiss Country Roadless Area, as mentioned above. 

This is fantastic, as we don't even need permits to backpack in Meiss Country. But don't forget that fire permits are required even for camp stoves.

History

My interest in the PET is mostly historical. I see little reason to follow it down mountain East or West for any great distance out of the Sierra Nevada. My favorite routes in the world are North and South along the Sierra Crestline. I prefer hikes down the Sierra Crest to hikes across the Sierra.

But history is not too concerned with the Sierra, except initially as an obstacle to obtaining economic resources, then finally as an  economic resource itself. Me, I want to stay in the Sierra as long as possible.

Two of the most famous observers and participants contemporary with the Pony Express Trail were Samuel Clemens and William Cody, respectively known by their "trail names" of Mark Twain and Buffalo Bill.

 

Gross Sale, Oct., 2018.
Pony Express, envelopes, franks, and stamps, 1860-61.

 

A Contemporary View

Clemens traveled West by classic Stagecoach along much the same route as The Pony Express galloped along when both were operating during 1861.
Twain describes his fleeting encounter with The Pony Express during this stage ride West in his compliation of classic tales of the Old West, and everything else, in his classic accounting of the "Wild West," Roughing It.

 Frederick Remington "Coming and going of the Pony Express," 1900.
 Frederick Remington, Coming and going of the Pony Express, 1900.

Twain describes a series of jockeys racing fifty mile segments between race horse replacements during a 1900 mile horse race across wild country during eight continious days of riding.

Buffalo Bill began riding the Pony Express at age 15, and began his ride to fame setting riding records for both time and distance before going on to become an Army Scout, and eventually riding the myth and reality of the "Wild West" into the very center of civilization through his riding, shooting, and Indian war shows. 

Ironically, as with the Remington art above, Buffalo Bill romantacized and cherished the very thing the movement of Western culture was simultanously crushing. Clemens made good-natured fun of the greed and cupidity sweeping across the country that was centered in the discovery of silver in Sierra Nevada Mountains during the late 1850s.

The importance and high cost of Pony Express communication was a function of the tremendous value of the resources being rapidly exploited. A race to strip the West of resources was underway, and the Pony Express was its most potent expression in the era of horse power.

Wikipedia states that Pony Express horses were changed at stations established about every ten miles, depending on the terrain and the company's ability to locate Pony Express Stations, which put stations between 5 and 25 miles apart.

Pony Express History offers a vast amount of information about The Pony Express. Check out the home page for a full index of this site's deep resources.

The Contemporary Pony Express Trail

I understand that the contemporary Pony Express Trail is today a work in progress, and does not have anything near a continuous route from Saint Jo, Missori to Sacramento, California. It may be that the route cannot be resurrected.

Much of The Pony Express followed the best route through the terrain, which was subsequently the best route for the modern road and rail development that followed. The roads and rails brought yet more development, and  I imagine that towns, cities, and eventually our expansive suburbs have subsequently covered much of the route that was not subsumed into modern road and rail routes.

Those are what I am hiking away from.

The Historical Context of 1861
 To find the lost character of our people and our terrain on the East and West flanks of the Sierra Nevada during the Civil War you should check out Twain's accounts in Roughing It. Especially of  the stagecoach ride out to Carson City, Nevada, his descriptions of Lake Tahoe in 1861, and his participation in every element of the massive Silver Boom and even bigger wave of speculation that swept out of the Eastern Sierra and reverberated around the country during the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Mark Twain's High Sierra

Roughing it is a treasure of cultural and physical observations of the Sierra Nevada during the Silver Boom, including Virginia City, San Francisco, and Hawaii too. Twain covered as much territory as the Pony Express but more quickly, but the terrain Twain was most interested in was internal, being concerned with the character of the times and the perceptions and attitudes of his fellow fortune-seekers.

Our Southbound trail along both the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails will bring us through terrain that has been well combed-over by prospectors, miners, and financial speculators from the Gold Rush through the Silver Boom, with its preservation made possible in contemporary times by those visitors able to weild some small degree of restraint in the face of almost overwhelming greed and commonplace corruption. 

  A Short Hike on The Pony Express Trail

After encountering the Pony Express Trail we will shortly arrive at Echo Summit, where the Pony Express Trail's East-West route breaks off from our North-South line to descend into the Tahoe Basin via the Hawley Grade Trail. 
 We will continue South, following our three famous trails around the rim of the Tahoe Basin towards Carson Pass while the PET descends into the Tahoe Basin.

The Pony Express Trail runs East and West through Echo Summit.

                                 Pony Express Trail East and West of Echo Summit
    I know that the Pony Express Trail tracks West from it's Western junction with the TYT-PCT-TRT down to Strawberry, a community along Highway 50  8.4 miles down the highway. The Pony Express Trail West down to Strawberry should be a bit shorter than the distance along Highway 50. 
How the route proceeds West from Strawberry is beyond my scope. I presume it roughly follows the modern course of Highway 50 to Sacramento. The historical maps linked to above and below lay out the stations along the route.

   To the East the PET drops down into the Lake Tahoe Basin and appears to end for all practical hiking purposes at the base of the Hawley Grade trailhead in Meyers. The only way to follow the Pony Express Trail East from the bottom of Hawley Grade is to follow Highway 50 East to Salt Lake City on the Lincoln Highway.

The South Upper Truckee Trailhead leading South towards Round Lake and Meiss Meadow is the only trail leading into natural terrain near the base of the Hawley Grade Trail.

   It appears that the Lincoln Highway was and is the subsequent automotive successor to the premium most direct route the Pony Express Trail blazed across this remote terrain as autos supplanted the trains that replaced the horses that once carried people between Sacramento and Salt Lake City, Utah.

If you have any good backpacking routes, stories, or pictures about hiking the Pony Express National Historic Trail, you should post them here through the comments link below, contact me with the information, or register as a member and post up an article in the High Sierra History forum.

I like trails, history, and horses.

More Information

Trail Guide
Highway 50 to Echo Summit

 

Historical Information
National Postal Museum 
Pony Express Information 

 

Gross Sale, Oct., 2018.
Pony Express, envelopes, franks, and stamps, 1860-61.

 

Historical Information 
Pony Express Trail

 

National Park Service 
The Pony Express National Historic Trail
 

Big National Park Service
 Map

 

Wikipedia
Pony Express

 

BLM Information 
Pony Express Trail

 

General Sierra Nevada History and Monument Information 
Sierra Nevada History & Monuments

 

Post your questions, comments, knowledge, information, or your experiences on the Pony Express Trail through the comments link below.

 

Originally Published
2010-01-14 21:37:42

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