Islands in the Desert

It all started in December. Guiding the few people who decided that after shivering all night during Freeze Your Tail Off 8, braving more cold to drive around the Silver Island Mountains was a good idea. As we skated about on the ice, snow, and mud I thought, “Why don’t I ever come out here when it’s warm?”

Mid-May, when it is supposed to be warm (though this year has disagreed with that standard) and the Silver Island Mountains Exploration trip got underway. We met at the Speedway Gas Station to top off tanks and grab our last provisions before venturing off into what was, for all intensive purposes, the unknown for many of us. The Silver Island’s, while close to home, are generally not regarded as a destination. To the casual observer, they are surrounded in salt, have no trees, and generally look like a miserable place to visit. After years of touring the loop road post FYTO, I finally did some digging and found that it is crisscrossed with dozens of old roads, mine sites, caves, and all sorts of other points of interest.

Our first destination on Friday was to find a suitable camp. We wound our way along a barely discernable two-track road up to a saddle between two ridges and were greeted with a fantastic camp spot.

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Not only was it a great place to pitch a tent and have a campfire, it also had magnificent views to the south of the Salt Flats and Wendover Airfield.

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And to the north of the stunning Rishel Peak.

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One thing that I noticed right away that was different about other trips around the Silver Island Mountains (aside from the lack of snow), and all the pictures that you find of them, is just how green everything was. It was almost surreal to stand there looking north at Rishel Peak and this lush, green valley spread out in front of it. It almost seemed like it would be fertile land if you didn’t know it’s true nature. But with all the water we’ve had this year, it’s made the desert bloom in spectacular fashion!

As the light faded we were greeted with beautiful cloud formations floating over us.

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After an enjoyable night around the campfire, I drug myself out of my warm comfortable sleeping bag at 5:15 in the morning (much to Kit’s chagrin I’m sure) to catch the sunrise, which was beautiful!

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Once the day began for the late risers, we packed up camp and headed out. A short drive and hike later we were at a small cave looking out over the expansive Salt Flats.

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The centuries old soot marking the roof of the cave bare evidence to the ancient inhabitants.

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One can’t help that they chose the cave for the view. Even back then, real estate was all about location, location, location!

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Another short drive later and we were at another cave. This one a bit larger and with a small amount of water dripping in the back.

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From the second cave we made our way up a faded spur road in the next canyon over which eventually found us at the base of a network of small mines.

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One of the more interesting aspects of these mines was a road that was built up to them. It looked like it was done by hand. Not my idea of a good time in the summer heat, but impressive.

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After exploring these mines for a bit we meandered our way to another set of mines at the base of Tetzlaff Peak and enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the cool breeze.

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After lunch we started making our way towards the Floating Island Mountain to the south-east. Along the way we came upon a building foundation just off the main loop road. Not sure what it was for. Perhaps an observation point for the Army Air Force out of Wendover during the war? A store house of some sort? Not sure, but in 1970 the USGS thought it was a good spot to place a survey marker.

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We found our way to the causeway that leads to the Floating Island Mountain and cruised along as it got larger and larger on the horizon. It’s an odd looking mountain with a large rock jutting out of it like a diving platform.

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We continued on along the east side of the mountain, skirting the edge of the salt flats until the ring road just seemed to vanish! To the south the road continued along an arrow straight causeway that ultimately ended at I-80, but the route to the west that showed on our maps was gone from what appeared to be the quarrying efforts to construct the causeway!

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But with the map saying it was there and that it ultimately led us back to where we began, we embarked upon some cross country travel. Picking our way through the brush and loose rocks. Unfortunately for Brian in his Colorado, this meant a puncture to the sidewall of one of his tires. But with a quick patch and some air, he was back on his way shortly.

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Eventually we made our way to the west side of the mountain and were confronted with the vast expanse of mud flats near the end of the Bonneville Speedway. Hard and flat, we did our best to imitate the racers and sped our way back to the causeway that led us in.

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We reconnected with the Silver Island Mountain loop road and hurriedly made our way to our next point of interested, the Crater Island Mountains. Here we were greeted by an oncoming storm front which gave us beautiful vistas, strong wind and some welcome rain to keep the dust down.

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As we worked our way east we were met with our first bit of mine ruins. What looked like some sort of loading dock. And below that, the overturned cab of a truck.

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Onward we went in search to more mine ruins and we soon greeted with a small canyon full of relics. A test kiln with fired bricks labeled “golden”, what looked to be the foundation of a generator plant, and a shaft that led to a rather deep hole!

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It was fast approaching o’beer-thirty at this point and we’d yet to come across an acceptable campsite. So the search was on as we made our way farther east along the Crater Island Mountain road. After inspecting a few potential spots, we finally found one high up on the crest of a hill that offered some spectacular views. As we were going through the motions of setting up camp, we were treated with some light rain and wind and beautiful clouds marching across the sky.

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After a bit the storm moved on and we were able to get a nice fire going and started making dinner. But then the wind kicked up again. And boy, was it blustery! I’d set my trust Coleman stove up behind the Trooper and was boiling some brats and sauerkraut for dinner when a huge gust whipped over the hill. And that was the end of the planned dinner! The brats were salvageable (eating a bit of dirt never hurt anyone), but the sauerkraut was gone, and sadly my 1980 425E is going to have to go through a bit of a rebuild after it came crashing down.

The wind passed again for a few hours and we enjoyed sitting at a nice campfire, but eventually it came back with vengeance; forcing many of us to retreat to our tents. Kit and I had made the calculated decision to leave the rainfly off of ours, surmising that any rain that we might have would quickly move on. By about 11:30 that night, we’d found that was a pretty poor decision and I was sent out into the storm to batten down the hatches. With the wind ripping by at 40mph and the rain lashing at my face I struggle mightily to get the fly into place. But doing my best Horatio Hornblower impression, I got everything into place and dove back into the tent. And, as always seems to be the case, just as I got back into the sleeping bag; everything died down.

I awoke the next morning less than rested and in some ways just looking to get the day done with because I was so damn tired from the night. Breakfast was a solemn affair until I got a cup of coffee brewed. As I finally started to wake up with the aid of our friend caffeine, I looked to the north and wanted to see how far we could get on the road that stretched out from our camp. A few other decided to make the trek with me, while others opted to stay at camp. Our first stop was the beginnings of what looked to be designs for a mighty mining operation. The entrance tunnel was impressive, but quickly bottomed out.

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From the mine it was a short jaunt down to the mud flats where the road more or less end. Theoretically you could hop on the flats and make your way along the north edge of Crater Island and connect back to the Silver Island Mountains loop road. But with the rain we’d had the night before, I felt that risking getting stuck wasn’t worth the adventure. So after enjoying the sights for a minute, we headed back up to camp to join the others.

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Once everyone was saddled up and ready to go, we started heading back towards the Silver Island Mountain loop road. We took a quick detour to inspect another abandoned mine site. It was nothing more than a small hole in the ground, but judging from the amount of tailings, it went down a ways!

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We stopped again near the first abandoned mine site on Crater Island and headed up to see is we could find the actual shaft. At the mouth of the small canyon there was clear evidence of heavy use, so we surmised that there much be something up there of note.

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As we clambered around, there wasn’t any evidence that we could find of a mine shaft. Just interesting geology and beautiful vistas.

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But on our way back down we stumbled upon the reason for all the equipment further down. A spring that looked to have been dug out for better access. With fresh water so rare out here, clearly a valuable find!

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From here our party split. A hand full decided to head back to Floating Island and take the causeway from the south end of that to I-80, and a few more decided to complete the Silver Island Mountain loop road to the north. The rest of us headed into Silver Canyon, and I have to say; the other missed out!

Not long after entering the canyon it was clear that is was the most beautiful area of our trip. There is clearly more water in the canyon that the rest of the area as the juniper grew large and it just had a much more lush and cool feeling.

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We wound our way up the two track stopping a few times at the scars of several aborted mining attempts.

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As we got higher up the canyon we were greeted by the imposing tower of Graham Peak.

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Eventually we took a spur that promised to deliver us to another former mine site. The road got narrower and narrower and more technical, which made the journey worth it in itself!

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But it didn’t disappoint in the mine either. There we several horizontal shafts and one deep vertical shaft with a precarious looking ladder heading down into it.

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We contemplated heading down into it, but without rappelling gear, we opted to stay topside.

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From here we headed back out to the loop road and split up again. With a few wanting to go and complete the loop to the north and the rest of us heading back along the south side. All told it was a very interesting trip into one of the less traveled areas of the state. Certainly whetted the appetite for further exploring!

West Desert Wanderings

After meeting up at the Camp Floyd Cemetery and chatting for a moment about where we should head it was decided by consensus to trek out along the Pony Express Trail to Simpson Springs and camp there for the night.

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Camp Floyd Cemetery

So off we went chasing the sun west along the PET. I’ve driven this route so many time that I’ve lost count, but I never get tired of it, even the more frequently traveled eastern side leading to Simpson Springs. And it is particularly enjoyable while the sun is slowly setting along that distant horizon.

After a dusty ride we arrived at Simpson Springs not long after dark to find that the campground had been cut in half by a deep, impassable trench. So we continued down the PET a few miles until we got to the spur road to Death Canyon. A few more miles up there and we found a nice clearing, pitched tent’s, started the fire and chatted to the wee hours.

The next morning we awoke to a crisp, beautiful blue sky.

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After some fine breakfast and coffee we broke camp and decided to make our way back to the PET and then down to the Riverbed Station were we stopped for a moment to reflect upon how these intrepid riders had managed to endure along the Pony Express all those years ago.

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From here we took the spur road south that connects with the Weiss Highway. We cut through some striking and rugged country. Hard to believe that people were out there with their sheep herds, let alone to think of how hard it was a century ago.

Eventually we connected with the Weiss Highway and turned west again to get to the Topaz Mountain Geode Beds.

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After poking around the geode beds for a bit and unfortunately not finding anything, we decided to head east towards Delta and the site of the Topaz Internment Camp.

For those that are not familiar with the Topaz Internment Camp, I recommend doing some research about it. It is by far not the brightest spot in our nations history, but an interesting one none the less. What these people had to endure for no reason other than their ethnicity is tragic. But they endured, and many ended up making the ultimate sacrifice to this country. Their country. Hundreds volunteered to join the military, many ended up in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated infantry regiment in US Army history.

We reflected upon the hardships that these innocent people had to endure for awhile before we decided it was time to re-embark upon our journey.

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Our next stop was Delle for fuel. We’d done about 150 miles from Camp Floyd at this point and some of the less efficient (Jeep) vehicle needed to top up to keep going.

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Across from the gas station was a machine shop with an interesting collection of dilapidated Farmall tractors.

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Once everyone’s tank fas full, and some quick lunches were prepped we bid Delle adieu and headed west once more along the Weiss Highway. Our ultimate destination was the Deep Creek Mountains along the Utah/Nevada border, but along the way we made a stop at the Honeycombs.

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This is a very strange rock formation. Porous, yet sharp and craggy. Almost all a milky color. Just another strange place in the West Desert!

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As we poked around the Honeycombs we could see the weather starting gather ominously to the west.

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So off we went again, but we decided to take a detour through the “town” of Trout Creek. Ok, so I hate to speak ill of anyones home, but this place is just creepy. Deliverance creepy if you know what I mean. There is just something unwelcoming and eery about this little place. From the haunted forestesq trees that line the road right out side both sides of town, to the junk yard of old busses (including one with “Into the Wild” painted on the side” and agricultural equipment) to the brand spanking new church with 50 yards of fresh pavement on the otherwise dirt road in front of it. Just weird. I wish I had pictures to post, but I feel like eyes are watching me and I might get shot every time I go through the town, so needless to say, I didn’t stop.

After out detour through the Twilight Zone, we made our way north along the foot hills of the Deep Creeks until we finally turned up Granite Creek Canyon. Recently the road up this canyon was reopened all the way over the top to the other side. Unfortunately just about a mile up the canyon, the winter gate was still closed, so we turned back and found a nice camp a little closer to the mouth.

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Skydome!

Our camp spot was perfectly nestled among the trees just above a babbling Granite Creek. We spent the night discussing the art of pie iron cooking and lighting marshmallows on fire with swapping stories. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend a Saturday evening. Finally we all turned in and slept with the find and weather howled to great effect above our heads.

We awoke to another crisp morning and clear evidence that a story was approaching. After breakfast we hit the road and made our way further north to the Callao Civilian Conservation Corp Camp. The CCC at this location helped build aqueducts out of the Deep Creeks for irrigation, helped improve the old Pony Express Trail and Weiss Highway for vehicle traffic and placed historical markers along the PET. All that is left is a few foundations and the rock work of along the creek they diverted through the camp. Even still, its always a nice place to stop for a minute.

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We decided to start making our way back east along the PET from here. We passed through the small town of Callao, and then blasted along until we hit the Boyd Station. This is one of the most complete remains of a station along the PET in western Utah. A crumbling stone cabin and corral, there is also a very well documented interpretive station set up there. As we looked around, we could see the storm chasing us to the west.

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Out plan from here was to make for Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and then turn sound and explore the Black Rock Hills. But when we reached Fish Springs, the temperature had dropped 15 degrees, the wind had turned from a pleasant spring breeze to a driving gale. We decided there that it was best just to make for home. So that we did, and bombed out along the PET through every increasing wind, rain, sleet and finally hail, all the way back to Faust and pavement.

It was a great trip with a great group of people and certainly whetted my appetite for further trips to explore this very unique and remote area of Utah.

Expedition Utah Tour of Wendover Historic Airfield

A little background on Wendover Airbase, during the Second World War this was one of the primary locations for training heavy bomber crews that served in the war. Thousands of personnel came through the base to train in B-17’s, B-24’s and finally, the B-29’s of the 509th Composite Group; who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to ultimately end the war. Wendover is unique in that having been so far away from a major population center, after the war ended it was more or less abandoned in place. It wasn’t converted into a municipal airport, and it wasn’t seen as a logical place to maintain a large, peacetime airbase. So it sat.

Over the decades the weather has eaten away at its buildings. Its been used on and off by the military for various training exercises and experiments. Movies such as Con Air and Independence Day had parts shot here, but by in large, it was ignored and forgotten. This may sound sad, but it now provides us with a rare opportunity to see the most intact example of a WWII era airbase anywhere in the world. A group of dedicated individuals called the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation headed by the father and son team of Jim and Tom Petersen have been working diligently at piecing together the history of the base and restoring many of the buildings that are left.

Expedition Utah’s tour of the Wendover Historic Airfield on June 2nd started with what anyone planning on spending several hours out in the desert hopes for: mild weather! The sky was mostly clear and the temperature was perfect for being outdoors. We had about 30 people show up for this very unique opportunity to tour all of this historic base.

We began with a short movie giving an overview of the bases history in the museum before we headed into the under restoration Officers Club just across the parking lot. Tom acted as our tour guide for the whole day and was quite passionate about the base and the work going on. The Officers Club is going to get a full restoration and will have a café in it and will be rented out for events. It’s quite an impressive building, and the work that is happening is top notch.

From here we loaded up into what many people said was the coolest part of the tour, a fully restored 1942 Ford GPW and a GMC CCKW, or Deuce and a Half… and a Ford tour van… but lets focus on the first two!

From the Officers Club we bounced around until we made a tailgate jump at one of the enlisted mess halls. During the height of the war there were four of these to serve the 20,000 or so enlisted personnel on the base, this is the last surviving one. It was abandoned at the end of the war, but then renovated slightly in the 1980’s to be used by the US Air Force’s Aggressor Squadron. All along the walls are the painted insignia’s of the various detachments that were based here during that period.


Updated Kitchen!

We then ventured into one of the old barrack buildings, which is now being used by the Center for Land Use Interpretation as a gallery.

We remounted our rigs and headed over to what is left of the base hospital and got to look around at what had been the surgical ward, and then wandered around looking at what is stored there now.

After the hospital we made for what was one of the more interesting buildings on the base, the bombsight storage building. During the war one of the most closely guarded secrets was the Norden bombsight. So before and after each training flight the bombsights were checked out and into this building, which had large concrete reinforced safes, air conditioning and heaters to keeps the bombsights in perfect condition. And a nifty 7up vending machine!

From here we stopped off at a hanger on the flight line to see a F-86 Super Saber that the base recently acquired and is slowly working on restoring. And you know how in most museums they tell you to not touch anything? Well here Jim and Tom encouraged us to hop on the wings for a group photo! Awesome!

After the hanger we went back to the museum for lunch and then took off for the most exciting part of the tour. The south side of the base where all the munitions were stored, and the secret components were for the 509th. To get there we had to cross the active runways and traverse several miles of dirt roads. As you approach you get the feeling of how desolate this part of the base really is now. Nothing appears to really have been touched in more than half a century. The observation tower still stands stoically over the compound, watching; making sure nothing that isn’t supposed to get in does.

Inside the barbed wire fence behind Tom is where the prototype atomic bombs were constructed. These were inert bombs designed to test the ballistics of the actual atomic weapons, but their design was so secret that the crews building them and the flight crews dropping them never interacted. After the war all the buildings associated with the 509th, including the ones here, we broken down to the foundations and shipped to Los Alamos.

Down the road from where the prototype bombs were constructed are the munitions bunkers. Large concrete vaults covered in tons of dirt. Impressive, imposing structure to say the least. And very cool inside, both temperature and otherwise.

From the bunkers we headed out to part of the bases more modern history. During the Apollo program in the 1960’s, NASA used Wendover to test the capsules for resistance to direct lightning strikes. They did this by mounting a capsule nose piece packed with electronics on a dolly and suspending a large wire grid above it. They then electrified the grid and simulated a lightning strike. Very fascinating and the dolly and one of the nose cones are still sitting out there. Ironically, this was the only part of the trip that it rained!

Not far from the Apollo test site sits what looks like an unassuming hole in the ground. In fact, this hole has significant historical value. This is a bomb pit. Since the atomic bombs of the day were so heavy, and so large, they couldn’t be loaded the way conventional bombs were. So this special pit was dug and the bombs we first loaded into the pit with a hoist, then a B-29 was backed over the pit and a hydraulic lift moved to bomb into the bomb bay. There are only two such pits uncovered in the world. This one in Wendover, and the one in Tinian that actually loaded the bombs for the attacks on Japan.

After reflecting on the importance that that hole in the ground represented, the tour found us at what is referred to as the “Enola Gay” hanger, the hanger built specifically to house the larger B-29’s, such as the famous Enola Gay. It was a impressive building. Large enough to fit two B-29’s if need be. But rather than those old warbirds, it had a beautiful T-33 done up in Blue Angel livery and a prototype de Havilland jet.

After poking around the hanger for a bit, we completed out loop back at the museum and up in the beautifully restored control tower.

It was an amazing tour. Such history to behold, and we are so lucky that so much of it is still around and that there are people like the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation working to preserve it. Wendover Airbase truly is a national treasure.

Thanks to all who made it out! We look forward to seeing you at the next summit!

All photos courtesy of Stephen Nielson and Jason Goates