Travel Features

Wild Bunch Territory

A Utah road trip to Butch Cassidy & the Wild Bunch, the ill-fated Donner Party and Chinese rail workers.


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Larry Clarkson, a native Utahn, born and raised in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. He stills lives, with his wife, in the shadow of Mount Olympus.

A professor of art and design at Weber State University, Clarkson is also the graphic designer of the Official Utah Travel Guide for the Utah Office of Tourism and has worked for more than 30 years as a graphic designer and visual communications consultant.

He spends his winters skiing the majestic Utah powder in northern Utah and his summers hiking the red rock canyons of southern Utah, and he always has his sketchbook or paint box on hand. His writing and painting have recently been highlighted in the book Painters of Utah’s Canyons and Deserts.

Clarkson takes us on a tour of some of Utah’s historic railroad and mining towns, on a loop that begins at the hub of Salt Lake City.

This mountain-rimmed sagebrush valley adjacent to the Great Salt Lake was first traversed by trappers and pathfinders from Jim Bridger to John C. Fremont, but most notably, by the ill-fated Donner-Reed party in 1846. The emigrants’ untimely winter sojourn in the high Sierras made cannibals of these god-fearing pioneers. A 45-minute drive west of Utah’s capital city on I-80 to the Delle exit will hook you up to a dirt road leading to the Hastings Pass Trail that dictated the emigrants’ grisly fate.

A side trip into Grantsville to visit the Donner-Reed Museum is worth your time to see artifacts pioneers discarded from wagons to lighten their load as they ran out of water and their oxen died. It was this same track, but on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley through East Canyon, that  Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers took to enter the Valley one year later.

In Salt Lake City, Mormons still get baptized and married inside the imposing, but beautiful, granite temple fortress at Temple Square. East of the square are the Beehive House and the Lion House—homes of early Mormon Church president Brigham Young and his 50-plus wives and abundant children.

The Salt Lake Valley was actually Mexican territory when the pioneers entered on July 24, 1847. You can contemplate this little-known fact while eating the best “mole” outside of Mexico at the Red Iguana restaurant, just seven blocks west of the square on North Temple street. The line getting in often winds around the building like a wagon train, but the food is worth the wait.

“This is the Place” Heritage Park houses Old Deseret Village, a living history museum that re-creates a typical 1850s Mormon community. For lunch, head down the Old Mormon Trail (now Emigration Canyon Road) about two miles east to Ruth’s Diner. Sip a local brewed beer and chow down on “Grandma Claire’s Baked Mac & Cheese” on the restaurant’s huge outdoor patio.

The Pioneer Memorial Museum, known among the locals as the DUP, offers the world’s largest collection of Mormon pioneer artifacts, from a Conestoga wagon to Victorian hair art made into wreaths.

If you are looking to add a rare book on Mormonism to your Western history collection, visit Ken Sanders Rare Books. Ken could pass for a member of Z Z Top, but while he can’t sing a note, he is a treasure chest of Western lore.

Ogden, named after Hudson’s Bay Company mountain man Peter Skene Ogden, claims to be Utah’s oldest non-native settlement with the building of Fort Buenaventura in 1845 by mountain man Miles Goodyear. Even though it was more a small picket enclosure than a fort, Goodyear pulled a sneaky and sold his claim to the Mormons two years later in 1847; it became known as Brown’s Fort. Today, you can visit a replica of the fort on the original site, along with a visitor center. Stop by on Labor Day and participate in a blackpowder pistol shoot or compete in the tall tales competition at the Fort Buenaventura Rendezvous.

With the completion of the nation’s Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, Ogden became the junction for rail travel in the Intermountain West. Its Ogden Union Station houses three museums: Utah State Railroad Museum (learn about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad); John M. Browning Firearms Museum (my favorite firearm is the 1911 Colt .45, the U.S. military sidearm for more than 75 years); and the Browning-Kimball Classic Car Museum (houses a 1901 single-cylinder Olds to a 1930 16-cylinder Cadillac, but no Porsches).

Take a stroll up Historic 25th Street, due east of Union Station, where the buildings and storefronts still retain the atmosphere of Ogden during its heyday as “Junction City.” Housed in an 1890 building that was once a house of ill repute is Roosters Brewing Company. Its well-known Polygamy Pale Ale goes great with a Naughty Brewhouse Burger.

The joining of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads on May 10, 1869, to become the Transcontinental Railroad took place 50 miles northwest of Ogden at Promontory Summit. At the Golden Spike site, you can view replica steam locomotives “Jupiter” and “119” and participate in re-enactments of the Golden Spike ceremony.

Next up, take a driving tour on the original Transcontinental Railroad grades. A great side trip is the hike to Chinaman’s Arch, named in honor of the Chinese rail workers. Art fans may want to drive a short 16 miles away, on a dirt road, to see Spiral Jetty, the monumental earthwork by Robert Smithson located on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

Originally inhabited by the Northwest Band of the Shoshone, Cache Valley was named by mountain men who used it for trapping and caching hides, and as a rendezvous site in 1826.

A Mormon settlement founded in 1859, Logan was named after fur trapper Ephraim Logan. The valley is a prime agricultural area, and Logan is home to Utah State University, Utah’s original 1888 land grant college.

Logan’s downtown features many turn-of-the-20th-century homes and buildings. The Logan Utah Temple, built from 1877-84, rests on a terrace of ancient Lake Bonneville, precursor to the Great Salt Lake. The 1891 Logan Tabernacle is an excellent example of an early...

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