Northwest Railroad Trail Expedition
Discover welcoming small towns, Great Basin terrain and railroad history from Snowville to Grouse Creek to Golden Spike to Corinne
Location: Northwestern Utah.
Overview: A long excursion into the desert and grasslands of Utah’s neglected northwest corner.
Travel Season: Year-round, though drifting snow can be a winter problem.
Special Attractions: Great Basin views, remote ranching communities, old Central Pacific rail line, Golden Spike National Historic Site, rocket display at ATK, Corinne, monumental art.
GPS of Start: 41.962676, -112.710603 (Snowville)
GPS of End: 41.551714, -112.112742 (Corinne)
Drive Route Numbers & Name: Highway 30, Highway 83, Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway (also known as Central Pacific Railroad Trail Scenic Backway).
Camping: Limited. There are no developed campsites along this route, but primitive camping is allowed along much of it.
Services: Basic services at Snowville and Corinne; gas and groceries at Montello, Nevada. There are no services along the 88-mile Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway.
Nearby Attractions: City of Rocks, Sawtooth National Forest, Bear River Bird Refuge.
– The Road Trip –
While God may not necessarily have forsaken this corner of Utah, man certainly has. Apart from a handful of isolated ranch communities, the entire northwest corner of the state, from the Great Salt Lake to the Idaho and Nevada borders, is a vast, empty quarter.
For about 40 years, from 1869 until just after the turn of the century, the main track of the transcontinental rail line passed through this remote desert grassland. In a peculiar way, the lifeline of as many as 10 trains per day, supporting and supported by railroad towns along the way, meant this empty land was more populous, more lively, and much less lonely 100 years ago than it is today. Today only the landscape and a few relics remain, but it makes for a fascinating road trip.
This drive begins at the Snowville exit on I-84, a truck-stop town and the best place to fill your tank before embarking on this long desert drive. A logistical warning is in order here: If you have a large-capacity tank (or if you plan only to go to Grouse Creek and back on Highway 30), you can easily do this entire trip on one tank. If you intend to drive the length of the old railroad grade, carry gas just to be safe or plan to drive across the Nevada border to Montello to refuel. The truck stop at Snowville is open all night, and there is a small motel. Snowville also has a classic western cafe: Mollie’s Cafe is just past the couple of gas stations that make up the greater Snowville commercial district.
From Snowville, follow I-84 west about 2 miles to the first exit, marked Highway 30 and signed for Park Valley. You cross back over the highway on the twolane, signed here also for Elko, and you are on your way to a driving adventure.
The road runs west, straight as an arrow, toward the Raft River Mountains. The first 10 miles pass through fairly monotonous irrigated farmland that gradually turns to dry sagebrush prairie. It is fascinating to contemplate the vastness of this land and the scarcity of people here. About 15 miles from the interstate, you will reach the point shown on the map as Curlew Junction. There is no town here, just a fork in the road. Straight ahead is Highway 42; left is the continuation of Highway 30. Take this left, signed for Park Valley, Montello, and Elko.
Small Towns, Big Hearts
Here the road strikes out to the southwest, and the land becomes increasingly more remote.
This is Great Basin desert — much rougher and less “scenic” in conventional terms than the sandstone plateau country and rugged alpine terrain to the south and east. This is one of the most unpopulated regions in America, precisely because the land is so uninviting. The few folks who inhabit the region are, however, anything but inhospitable. As in other remote ranching districts of the American West, passing motorists still wave to one another out here, a tradition that hopefully will endure.
A few miles past the major direction change at Curlew Junction, if you look off ahead and to the left you may just catch a glimpse of the sun glinting off the Great Salt Lake. Also note that off to the left/south is approximately the route of the return option along the old railroad bed. About 10 miles past Curlew Junction is the turnoff on the left for Kelton, a good dirt road leading down to the ghost town described in the rail-bed return option. (If you plan on missing the rail line return, you may want to make a side trip here to see the site of Kelton.) In another few miles, note the occasional field under cultivation, indicating that you are approaching the ranching community of Park Valley. Park Valley has a gas station, a motel, and a cafe, all of which may or may not be open, and not much else other than a cute little LDS church.
It is 4 more miles to the tiny hamlet of Rosette, home to more horses than people and without services. As you drive south/southwest from Rosette, look straight ahead in the distance to see the extremely remote Silver Island Mountains, far to the south near the Bonneville Salt Flats. A designated scenic backway (on dirt roads) encircles these fascinating peaks, but this drive is best accessed from I-80, west of Salt Lake, just before the Nevada state line at Wendover. Driving south from Lucin is not advised unless you are prepared for rough conditions.
Forty-six miles west of Park Valley is the obvious intersection with the good gravel road: north to Grouse Creek, south to Lucin.
It is 20 miles of good gravel road to Grouse Creek. The land to the east of this road is mostly public (at least for the first 12 miles), where you may camp, provided you are self-sufficient and practice no-impact camping techniques. (This area, especially north of Grouse Creek, is more pleasant than camping along the totally treeless railroad grade, your other option on this trip.) The land on the west side of the road is almost entirely private property. A couple local ranches rent out rooms or cabins, especially during hunting season. Go to the town’s homespun website — or just ask anyone you meet in town.
Grouse Creek is an attractive town in a pretty, relatively well-watered valley. There is an imposing stone elementary school, a large LDS church, and one of the most picturesque little rodeo arenas in all of Utah, with old-style (and soon to be extinct) wooden bucking chutes. If you happen to be here the weekend of or before July Fourth, stay for the community rodeo that has a long tradition in this traditional ranch country.
From Grouse Creek, the 34-mile drive up to Almo, Idaho, is scenic and leads to the stone jumble at City of Rocks National Reserve. Almo also has services, including a hotel. Ask in Grouse Creek about the condition of the road, which can be difficult when wet. To return to the intersection with Highway 30, one option is the loop through neighboring Etna from Grouse Creek. While well maintained, this gravel road is narrow, so RVs and trailers should probably return south on the main gravel road. This alternate return doesn’t look much different from the main road (Etna is just a handful of ranches and a closed school), but it does give a slight change of scenery.
At the intersection with Highway 30, you must decide whether to do the railbed drive or return to Snowville on Highway 30. A third option, which, like the drive here, is about 4 hours to Salt Lake City — is to continue west on Highway 30 to Montello, Nevada, then 24 desolate miles southwest on Nevada Highway 233 to intersect with I-80, 59 miles west of Wendover. If you do return to Snowville on Highway 30, by all means rejoin this drive at Golden Spike National Historic Site. The easiest way to get there from Snowville is to take I-84 to exit 26 (Howell/ Highway 83) and follow Highway 83 south for 14 miles to the well-marked turn on the right (just past the ATK rocket display).
For those game to drive the rail line (or for those who want to see the remnants of Lucin before rejoining Highway 30), cross Highway 30 and drive 5 miles south to the start of the Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway. Note: The Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway’s Utah state designation is Central Pacific Railroad Trail Scenic Backway. It includes both the little bit of the Union Pacific line in Golden Spike (see below) and the Central Pacific line.
Set your odometer to zero: mileages here are from the start of the backway.
One of the most significant events in the history of American transportation took place on May 10, 1869, 88 miles east of here at Promontory, when the driving of the Golden Spike joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines and completed the nation’s first transcontinental line. It was, at the time, an event of the same magnitude and public interest as that which took place almost exactly a century later: the landing of a man on the moon. The two stops at the end of this drive — the Golden Spike site and the ATK rocket-building plant—symbolize these two eras nicely.
This drive runs right along the old railroad grade, the final stretch of the Transcontinental’s 800-mile line from California. You may wonder why there is no longer a rail line here today (nor is there a town of Lucin, for that matter). In 1904 the Lucin Cutoff, still in use, was completed south of here, crossing the lake by trestle. This shortened the route to Ogden by 40 miles and eliminated some of the difficult grades you will see later along the old line.
As soon as the main line shifted south, the old towns along the original line began to die, and many buildings were taken down and moved to more important sites in the lumber-poor desert. Regular traffic ceased completely in 1938, and in 1942 the rails were removed so the steel could be used in the war effort.
At one time there were vibrant railroad towns strung along this nowabandoned line. Today nothing remains from that epic era but desert, a very few building foundations, and the occasional human artifact from the trash piles that remained when the towns disappeared. That, and one more thing: the old trace of the railroad bed, which gives us this level surface on which to drive across the desert.
The deserted (even ignored) character of this region made it a perfect setting for monumental art pieces created by two prominent figures in the 1970s arts movement sometimes referred to as earthworks. These artists created pieces in outdoor settings to engage the landscape and to comment on our relationship to physical environments. One of these grand-scale pieces lies at the very western end of the old railroad grade, the other close to the eastern terminus. It is also of some interest that each was produced, separately, by husband and wife.
Sun Tunnels was created between 1973 and 1976 by Nancy Holt on the barren desert floor 4 miles from Lucin. The “tunnels” are actually four huge concrete pipes laid out to mark sunrises and sunsets at the winter and summer solstices. To find the artwork (hard to miss in this empty plain), cross the rail line at the deceased town of Lucin and follow the dirt road 4 miles to the southeast. You can see the piece from the site of Lucin.
The site inspires some viewers to contemplate the complexity of these open, empty spaces; others may find these terse concrete pipes as evocative as highway construction debris. At the far end of the rail line, you will have the opportunity to see the somewhat more famous Spiral Jetty, created by Holt’s husband, Robert Smithson.
Spaced along the old rail bed are very nice brown BLM historical markers describing important places along the old line. It is impossible to miss these markers in this treeless landscape.
Watch your speed along the old grade: 25 mph is about right for most vehicles. The road is smooth enough in places that you may want to speed up— but you will be sorry when you hit the inevitable rut or railroad spike, many of which have been sharpened over time by the elements. Keep your eyes on the road. There are also numerous creek beds to cross on old wooden bridges and many small deviations around bridges deemed too weak to support vehicle traffic.
The old rail line, just barely wider than your vehicle, is elevated slightly, giving you a heightened sense of being out in the middle of the desert — which, in fact, you are. No-impact camping is permitted along the railroad grade, though no facilities, water, or shade are available anywhere.
At mile 22 you reach the site of Terrace, the largest of the Central Pacific towns built in Utah, which lasted from 1869 until around 1910. With the completion of the Lucin Cutoff, most of the buildings were transported to Carlin, Nevada, and the town of Terrace died. Not much remains of the town, but if you stroll around, you can find brick foundations and traces of the old railyard. From the town site, note on the right that the old ties (without the track) are still in place.
At mile 25 is a good escape route up to Highway 30 (8 miles north), at a wellmarked intersection. This might also be a good place to start the railroad-bed drive, avoiding many of the hazards on the Lucin end of the road. At just under mile 27 the road begins to climb up into the hills, becoming more rocky.
At about mile 40 there is a view off to the left and down onto where Dove Creek forms either a pond or a mudflat, depending on the season. Also here is the rough road on the right to the very remote Hogup Mountains (artifacts found in a cave there are from the Desert Archaic period of proto-Indian culture, dating back 10,000 years). At just under mile 45 there is a nice view ahead and to the right of the lake, which has been elusive to this point.
At just past mile 45, the railroad grade takes a jog to the left. Here there are a couple of the by-now familiar signs for deviations from the grade. There is also here a prominent road descending on the right, signed for Kelton. Take this road, as the road along the grade dies shortly past here. The dirt road drops down onto the desert flat, while the rail line clings to the rocky hillside, clearly visible above and to the left. Drive slowly down on these flats, as there may be occasional washed-out sections. At just under mile 49, you will intersect a major dirt road, signed for Kelton, to the left. Take this obvious left, continuing in the same general northeast direction as the rail line, visible on the hillside to your left.
At just past mile 50, you will re-cross the old grade, which has been closed off. At mile 52, intersect another good dirt road and trend to the right (northeast), signed for Kelton. Two and a half miles farther, note on the right the Kelton cemetery, which served the residents of Kelton until it was abandoned in 1942. Sadly, this picturesque old graveyard has been badly vandalized.
Continue on to the prominent historic markers for the town of Kelton, clearly visible to the northeast. Kelton (also known as Indian Creek) survived until 1942, partly due to its importance as a transportation hub.
At this point you can rejoin the railroad grade, which is better maintained from here east and signed for Golden Spike National Historic Site. If you are completely tired of the desert driving, you can also follow the good road north to rejoin Highway 30, although at this point that option provides no real advantage. In fact, the route east from Kelton has been so heavily traveled (this is obviously a popular excursion from the east) that it seems like a normal desert road.
At mile 65 is the important intersection with the good road north to Snowville (again, no point taking this unless your tank is close to empty). Also here is Locomotive Springs, a series of springs and ponds that serve as a bird refuge. It makes a decent place to camp, provided you need no facilities and the bugs aren’t too vicious.
The railroad bed continues to Golden Spike (mileages from here are taken from Locomotive Springs). East of Locomotive Springs, the road can be pretty rough; at any rate, at mile 3.5 you will have to exit to the good dirt road on the left. You’re best off getting on this road right from Locomotive Springs: It runs parallel to the rail line, about 30 yards to its left. At just under 8 miles from Locomotive Springs take the prominent right fork (signs around here may be missing or badly shot-up, but the route is obvious — just stay on the main road, avoiding deviations to the left).
At mile 13 is a good opportunity to return to the railroad grade. The only real advantages to driving the old grade from here are the better views of the lake, off to the right, along with a few more historical markers.
A prominent BLM backcountry drive sign indicates your arrival at Golden Spike National Historic Site. At this sign, go left about 10 yards, then turn right to drive along the designated West Grade Auto Tour. It is about 5 miles from here on paved road to the visitor center.
Exhibits, films, and literature at the visitor center describe both the momentous Golden Spike event and its profound impact on the subsequent history of the American West. A short section of track has been re-laid at precisely the spot where the two lines met, and exact replicas of the Transcontinental’s “Jupiter” and the Union Pacific’s “119” make scheduled appearances during the summer season. There are also two very nice short driving tours with interpretive signs— which will probably seem rather tame to those who have just finished the old railbed drive from Lucin. For those who opted not to drive east along the old rail bed, this is a fine opportunity for an abbreviated introduction to this fascinating and important slice of American history. The 14-mile west tour loop passes the spot where Union Pacific workers, rushing to keep on schedule, laid 10 miles of track in one day. The 2-mile east loop passes a couple trailheads for short hikes to the railroad grade and lets you drive on the steepest mile of railroad grade in Utah.
No camping or services are available at Golden Spike.
Now for the second installment on the Northwest Utah Arts Tour. Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s odd embellishment of the salty shores of the Great Salt Lake, is a 15-mile drive on uneven dirt roads from Golden Spike. It is definitely worth a visit, but check first with the folks at Golden Spike on the status of the road into the site and get directions (the route, through private property, is not well marked). It gets interestingly rough as you near the lake (the determined can park and walk the last bit if necessary). The jetty is past an old commercial venture of some sort that has its own (straight) jetty. Spiral Jetty has a genuinely archaeological look to it, as if it somehow belongs there or might have performed some arcane function, either nautical or spiritual, in the distant past. Constructed in 1970, it disappeared under the rising waters of the lake two years later. It remained submerged in the briny depths until 1994, when the lake receded.
It is precisely what the name suggests: a grand spiral jetty winding its way offshore. Built of earth and rock, like some sort of monumental hippie-era hallucinogenic road-building scheme, it will surely cause you to ponder deeply significant questions like: Why?
To continue on to Corinne from Golden Spike, follow the paved road about 8 miles to the intersection with Highway 83. As you near the intersection, note the extensive research, testing, and production facilities of ATK (formerly Thiokol Corporation). To visit the company’s very nice outdoor rocket display, turn left/north and drive just under 2 miles. This is definitely worth the quick detour, especially if you have kids with you.
It is 17 miles from the Highway 83 intersection to Corinne. This attractive but rough landscape — alkali salt flats to the right, rough scrub hills to the left — serves as a final reminder that this is land upon which humanity cannot impose its will. Tracts of marshland along the road are home to myriad forms of bird life.
The final 6 miles to Corinne pass through peaceful, productive farmland that belies the town’s roughneck past. As the two rail lines pushed toward this area from east and west, non-Mormon speculators rushed in to promote the rowdy shanty town and freight relay station of Corinne as the future transportation hub of the Intermountain West.
Corinne’s first disappointment came when Promontory was selected for the joining of the lines, and her bubble ultimately burst when Ogden was chosen for the regional rail center. One lasting reminder of its non-Mormon character is the Corinne Methodist-Episcopal Church (dedicated in 1870), the oldest existing Protestant church building in Utah. The town also has a couple of restaurants and at least one bar.
It is 2.5 miles from Corinne to I-15 and another 4 miles to Brigham City.
Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.