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Pony Express Trail

Updated: Jan 9

The famed Pony Express Trail operated from 1860-61, carrying mail to and from San Francisco to St Joseph, Missouri. Those looking to explore the trail will be happy to learn that OTG's rendition of the Pony Express Historic Trail is the most complete and well researched vehicle-assisted route that has been published to date. The GPX file features nearly 200 historical sites and markers along the way.

Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Dakar

Trip Length: 2,255 miles / 4 - 8 weeks

Additional Details: The Pony Express Trail is broken into two distinct segments. The more popular "West" segment runs from Salt Lake City to Oakland, while the "East" segment runs from St Joseph, Missouri to Salt Lake City. Be sure to read up the detailed information for each segment, as the West segment tends to be more remote and rugged.


 

Pony Express West Segment Overview


Trip Length: 843 miles / 2 - 4 weeks

Season: Late April to mid-October, but may vary depending on snowpack at higher elevations. Be prepared for triple digit heat through western Utah and Nevada during the summer.

Avg Technical Rating: 2-3

Peak Technical Rating: 4

Typical Terrain: Wide gravel and dirt roads, rugged and rocky jeep tracks especially through mountain passes, and pavement. Conditions through Nevada may vary dramatically from one season to the next. The entire section from Lake Tahoe to Oakland is on pavement.

Recommended Vehicle: Stock 4x4 Recommended Gear: n/a

Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s should be able to manage much of the route, but there are certain mountain passes and lesser maintained roads, particularly through Nevada that may be impassable for a Sprinter 4x4. But good news, pavement and detours are never far away!

Alternative Routes: Permits: n/a Fuel: Be prepared to travel extended distances between fuel stops, especially in Nevada. The section from western Utah to eastern Nevada is incredibly desolate. Fuel is approximately 250 miles between Dugway, UT and Ely, NV.

 

Route Details / West Segment


Despite being in operation for just 18 months (1860-61), the Pony Express Trail has gained a place in the lore of the American West (and achieved the prestigious status of being designated as a National Historical Trail). And one can easily see why, it's easy to envision a 20 year old cowboy and his horse galloping at breakneck speed through a cloud of dust in an attempt to reach the next mail drop (Pony Express Station) in record time. Riders were able to deliver mail from St Joseph to Sacrament in a record 10 days. The Pony Express delivered 35,000 pieces of mile during its brief existence. As fast and ingenious as the idea was at the time, it was no match for modern technology, and specifically the telegraph. However, it wasn't the telegraph that ultimately caused the Pony Express to cease operations, but rather the advent of the Civil War.


The West Segment is easily the more popular of the two segments. But popularity is relatively, and you can expect to travel days at a time without seeing another person in the backcountry. The high desert of the Great Basin is a brutal and unforgiving landscape, yet it's also sublimely peaceful and beautiful. Some have trouble finding the beauty in the sagebrush of the high desert, while others yearn for the freedom of the closest thing you'll find to the American outback in the lower 48. Mid-summer temperatures can be brutal, and mid-Spring mud from snowmelt can be equally tortuous. Yet people take on the section of the Pony Express from Salt Lake to Carson City every year.


You'll be passing through the center of the Basin and Range Province. Desert plains are regularly interrupted by rugged mountain ranges that seem to arise from nowhere into the sky. And the higher elevation passes come to life with a variety of flora and fauna and evergreen forests. Nevada is not nearly as desolate and lifeless as many believe, and it's filled with remnants of the old west. But under this rugged and wild landscape lay riches in the earth, specifically minerals. Nevada lays the claim to the most active mining claims in the United States (nearly 200,000), and remnants of its mining past are all around. With the amount of old mines, one wonders how many people lived in the Silver states during the 19th and early 20 centuries.


Given the remoteness for much of the route in Nevada, it's important that you come well prepared. That means packing at least an extra 2-3 days of food and water, a full size tire (two would be better), appropriate tools and recovery gear, and of course a surplus of fuel t get you to the next fuel stop (a Satellite communicator like a Garmin InReach or SpotX is also recommended). Many of the roads and trails along the route may only see dozens of visitors for a given season. This also means that local LEOs like BLM seldom maintain these roads, which means their conditions can be extremely variable from one season to the next-- but hey, isn't that part of the fun?


As you follow the pavement of Highway 50 into the rugged Toiyabe Range, Austin is the first real town to be encountered over the last several hundreds. It's temping to explore the Toiyabes (and there's said to be some awesome trails in these mountains), but you'll need keep pushing west! Austin acts as the mid-way point through the Nevada portion of the Pony Express Trail. But paralleling and then following Highway 50, civilization is never that far away compared to the section from Salt Lake to Austin. Fallon is the next town you'll pass through, at which point you're starting to close in on the mighty Sierra Nevada and greater Reno area. Virginia City is infamous within the old west, and stopping at least for a few hours at the old historic mining town is highly recommended (we'd recommend spending the day and night there!). The final stretch follows the state highways and Interstate up and through the Sierra Nevada and around Lake Tahoe, past the California state capitol building, through old town Sacramento and across the Sacramento River, until finally arriving at the waterfront of Oakland where the most western Pony Express Historical marker can be found, only a few blocks from Jack London Square.


Camping Recommendations

The West segment of the Pony Express is surrounded by public lands (except the section from Lake Tahoe to Oakland, which is all pavement). Locating dispersed camp sites along this segment shouldn't be an issue once you get outside of greater Salt Lake City.

 

Pony Express East Segment Overview


Season: Late April to mid-October (higher elevation trails in Wyoming may not be snow free until July during years of heavy snowfall).

Avg Technical Rating: 2

Peak Technical Rating: 3-4

Typical Terrain: Wide gravel and dirt county and BLM roads, a few rugged and rocky jeep tracks in Wyoming, and pavement. Most of the roads/trails east of Wyoming and relatively tame in nature (except when muddy/wet).

Recommended Vehicle: Stock 4x4 Recommended Gear: n/a

Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s will fare much better on the East segment. You may encounter some more rugged trails in Wyoming that are challenging for Sprinters, but pavement and detours are never far away.

Alternative Routes: n/a Permits: n/a Fuel: Fuel and amenities are much more prevalent on the east segment. Most fuel stops are within 50 miles apart, but the section from Jeffrey City to Farson is approximately 100 miles between fuel stations.


Route Details / East Segment


The East Segment runs from St Joseph, Missouri to Salt Lake City. This section is definitely lesser traveled than the west, and particularly the section from Salt Lake to great Reno, which is popular among overlanders, dual sport and adventure bikes, and bikepackers. While the West Segment is more "popular", the east segment doesn't quite venture off as far into the American outback. In many cases, you're never more than 10-20 miles from the nearest town when traveling through Kansas and Nebraska. The East segment also gives the traveler and idea what it was like to be a pioneer moving westward across the old and wide open American landscapes.


The East segment begins/ends in the city of St Joseph, Missouri. Immediately you'll cross the Missouri River into the state of Nebraska. Now, your fourth grade social studies class may have given you the impression that Kansas and the surrounding great plains are flat as a flap jack. That's hardly the case! You'll be traveling through miles upon miles of dirt and gravel county roads through rolling hills that bisect the surrounding farmland. Nebraska is more of the same, except you get the sense that you're closing in on the West. Small eroded buttes and mesas begin to appear, and the small hills get just a bit taller. And while much of the surrounding area is private farmland, there are a number of wildlife refuges and a few state parks and recreation areas scattered about, many of which offer developed and dispersed camping.


For many portions of the route, you'll retrace the footsteps of some of the 19th century's most well travelled overland emigrant trails, including the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails. After all, what's the point of blazing your own trail if one already exists with a proven track record of safe passage? As you enter Wyoming, expect wide open landscapes, conifer forests, and snowcapped peaks in the not-so-far distance. Private land also begins to give way to government managed land, mostly BLM but some National Forest land as well-- which means dispersed camping! The manicured dirt and gravel roads of Nebraska and Kansas become a bit more rugged moving through Wyoming and Utah. That doesn't mean you need a Jeep Rubicon on 37s, it simply means the trails at the start can be easily driven with a Honda Civic.


Independence Rock was a famous marker for Pony Express riders and emigrants traveling west. The iconic rock outcropping can be seen from miles away, and marks the gateway to the south pass, leading you into the high desert and sagebrush steppe of the Great Basin. The wide openness and immensity of the high desert plains can be sublime and overwhelming, all at the same time. Here, one feels completely at the mercy of mother nature, yet completely free. It's no wonder so many have moved westward seeking out adventure, beautify, peace, and/or riches along the way! You'll soon find your way into the thriving and sprawling metropolis of Salt Lake City, which marks the unofficial mid-way point and separator between the East and West Segments.


Camping Recommendations

Dispersed camping is limited in Missouri, Nebraska, and parts of Wyoming. Wildlife Refuges, state and county parks, and recreation areas tend to be your best bet for camping. Be sure to pay attention to the campsites listed within the GPX file, as you'll want to take advantage of these. Once you reach Casper, more dispersed camping opportunities arise due to the increase in public lands, primarily BLM and to a lesser extent US Forest Service lands. Dispersed camping is typically allowed on most BLM and USFS managed lands.


 

Maps + Navigation


Digital Mapping Files


 

Resources


Land Managers

  • n/a (too many to list!)

Other Resources

 

Gallery



Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on Overlandtrailguides.com, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by Overland Trail Guides, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.



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For more insights for your travels, I would encourage you to visit the Oregon-California Trails Association YouTube channel.

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