Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com’s Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — You know about Utah’s big five national parks, but historians are celebrating 50 years of the nation’s historic trails, including the four that either run through or end in the Beehive State.
While the bill signed 50 years ago didn’t immediately designate historic trails, many of the 30 national trails have historical themes, including the four in Utah. Those are the California, Mormon Pioneer, Old Spanish, and Pony Express national trails.
Each tells a different story of Utah’s and the nation’s growth. For example, the Old Spanish National Trail follows the trail traders took to move between Sante Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles, including through Utah. The Mormon Pioneer and Oregon-California trails follow the paths pioneers took west and Utah and the Pony Express National Trail follows the path of a monumental communication breakthrough in the 1850s.
They became designated national trails in the years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act in October 1968 to create the system. The Appalachian and Pacific Crest national scenic trails were approved at the time.
Ten years later, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law adding National Historic Trails as an official designation to these trails. That’s when Mormon Pioneer and Oregon trails were designated. The other two were designated within the following 15 years.
The California trail is similar to a couple of other pioneer trails, especially the Oregon trail. It follows the footsteps of more than 250,000 people who trekked for gold or farmlands during the mass migration west from 1841 through 1869, according to the National Park Service.
There are many routes these pioneers trekked, though many began in Nebraska, Kansas or Missouri. Those that ran through Utah entered from the modern-day Wyoming border near Evanston, Wyoming, or at modern-day Goose Creek near the Idaho border.
One path goes through south past Fillmore and through southern Utah, but most routes in Utah wind around the Great Salt Lake. In all, it goes through Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and California.
It’s perhaps the most recognized trail in the state because it ends in Salt Lake City. The path starts in Nauvoo, Illinois, where members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began their trek westward. It crosses Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming ending in Utah, where Mormon pioneers stopped in July 1847.
There are three major routes of this trail run through southern Utah from as north as areas near Green River in Emery County and as south as areas near St. George and Kanab. Starting in the 1800s, after Mexico gained independence from Spain, traders began on these routes, carrying all sorts of merchandise with them, according to the National Park Service.
These trades brought an economic success for those in modern-day New Mexico and united the southwestern communities. Traders traveled by mule and carried packsaddles with them. They grew dramatically in the 1820s as an array of merchandise came to New Mexico from the eastern United States and even Europe, according to the parks service.
The Pony Express expedited the communication process before the telegraph made it obsolete. It debuted in April 1860 with a relay team of horse riders carried messages from Sacramento, California to St. Joseph, Missouri (a span of 1,800 miles) in 10 days. The fastest route prior to that was 25 days, according to Dr. Joe Hatch, a historian and author of “The Pony Express in Utah.”
Back in 1860, the Pony Express Riders charged across the West Desert of Utah, braving all hazards to ensure the mail got through. The desert, mountains and plains still exist and are waiting to be explored out in Utah’s great American desert.
This kept western states in the loop with eastern states quicker than ever before as more and more people moved out west. The operation only lasted until October 1861, but it left a major imprint on transcontinental communication.
The path cuts through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. There are more than a dozen old Pony Express stops in Utah, mainly stretching across central Utah. Many of these stations are no longer standing, but there are many Civilian Conservation Corps memorials of these former stops mostly on the western side of the state, through the desert.