Utah History Encyclopedia


By Stanley Kimball
The Utah portion of the Old Mormon Trail remains the best-known and most famous section of the several emigrant trails (which total more than 10,000 miles) used by the Mormons in their migrations during the nineteenth century.

This Utah trail is a seventy-mile-long natural highway, a chain of defiles commencing just west of The Needles at the mouth of Coyote Creek Canyon at the Wyoming state line, and including Cache Cave Creek Draw, Echo Canyon, Weber River Valley, Main Canyon, East Canyon, Little Emigration Canyon, and Emigration Canyon. These natural features form a passage that meanders through the forbidding Wasatch Range of the Rockies, the last barrier to the new Mormon Zion in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake,.

The route of the pioneers is easy to follow, except for a four-mile hike up Little Emigration Canyon. Unfortunately, however, few of the original wagon ruts have been preserved. The longest single section of this trail is in the twenty-five-mile-long Echo Canyon; with all of the subsequent road and rail widenings, however, the original track is long gone.

In 1846 the trail essentially was blazed by the Donner-Reed party to what is now known as Donner Hill near the mouth of Emigration Canyon. The Mormons of 1847 actually blazed only about one mile of the entire trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City--the remaining mile from Donner Hill into the valley.

Along this trail travelers may wish to note and visit many of the twenty-four historic sites and/or markers. These include the famous rendezvous place of Cache Cave (on private land and usually closed off by locked ranch gates); pioneer defense fortifications from the "Utah War" of 1857-58 along the eastern face of Echo Canyon about three miles from the canyon mouth or exactly one mile east of the visitors' center on Interstate 80 (look for about a dozen sets of breastworks about halfway up the sheer cliffs); the Weber River-crossing at present Henefer; the Hogs Back summit of Main Canyon west of Henefer (where the pioneers got their first dismaying view of the Wasatch Range yet to be crossed); more breastworks from 1857-58 at the mouth of presently unmarked Little Emigration Canyon; the 4,700-foot-high Big Mountain crest marking the eastern boundary of the Great Basin, where the Valley of the Great Salt Lake was first seen by the pioneers and many thousands of subsequent emigrants (and where, most likely, Brigham Young made his famous pronouncement "This is the place, drive on"); the ascent over Little Mountain; the last campsite in Emigration Canyon where Young camped on 23 July 1847; and, finally, the "This Is the Place" monument in 500-acre Pioneer Trail State Park at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. The best places to see trail ruts are just north of the Hogs Back crest; south of Henefer; to the west of Highway 65; and on Little Mountain, just west of Highway 133. The trail has also been marked by the National Park Service with Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail signs every ten miles along all-weather roads.

While the majority of the more than 60,000 Mormon immigrants (up to the coming of the railroad in 1869), the `49ers, Johnston's Army, and the Pony Express followed the pioneers of 1847 into the Great Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Trail was not the only route through the Wasatch Range. By 1850 Parley P. Pratt had opened his "Golden Pass Road." This forty-two-mile-long variant of the pioneer route broke off from the original trail at the mouth of Echo Canyon, turned south via present Coalville, Hoytsville, and Wanship, traveled up Three Mile Canyon to the present Silver Creek Junction on I-80, then went pretty much west along the route of present-day I-80, through Parleys Canyon, and into the valley. By 1862 the Golden Road had become the preferred route into the valley, which U.S. 40 and I-80 later followed. There are markers along this trail at Hoytsville and Wanship, a well-preserved overland station from 1862 near the Kimball Junction on I-80, and another marker on the grounds of the Sons of Utah Pioneers headquarters in Salt Lake City.