The Way It Looks Today: Sites on the Trail West


In the Ensign’s continuing tour of Church history sites, we follow the Saints in the transcontinental trek that, for many, was the second leg of a journey begun at European ports. Stanley B. Kimball, historian of the Mormon Pioneer Trail Foundation and faculty member at Southern Illinois University, guided photographers Eldon Linschoten (ground photos) and Jed Clark (air photos) over the terrain. Brother Kimball also provided information for the captions; Terry Roylance piloted the plane.

The Saints endured the 1,400-mile trail experience from 1846 until the arrival of the railroad in Utah in 1869. As many as 80,000 Saints and 10,000 vehicles passed over it; perhaps 6,000 pioneers were laid to rest beside it. It became a rite of passage, not only for these 80,000 Latter-day Saints but also, symbolically, for their descendants.

Nauvoo was the departure point for the Saints’ first wagons west

Nauvoo was the departure point for the Saints’ first wagons west.

The trail west of Sugar Creek

A typical sunset on the trail west of Sugar Creek. Here, six miles west of the Mississippi shore at Montrose, Iowa, the pioneers made their staging ground in an area formerly part of the Ambrosia Branch of the Zarahemla Iowa Stake. They camped here from 4 February to 1 March 1846 in bitter cold and rain.

Sugar Creek

Sugar Creek from the air.

Garden Grove

Early fall colors mark Garden Grove, looking west, the first “permanent” camp on the trail across Iowa. Located about halfway across the state, it was designed to serve the needs of Saints who would follow. It lasted until 1852. The view is from an LDS Cemetery just west of the modern community.

Mt. Pisgah

Mt. Pisgah, which also lasted until 1852, was the second “permanent” camp, named by Parley P. Pratt (see Deut. 3:27). Here the Saints built log cabins where today’s cornfields silently parade, and here many members of the Mormon Battalion were sworn in.

Locust Creek

Locust Creek, looking eastward, near Sewal, Iowa. On this approximate site, William Clayton penned the stirring words to “Come, Come Ye Saints,” 15 April 1846. Trees marching across the middle ground and the bridge mark the course of this otherwise insignificant creek.

Council Bluffs

Council Bluffs looking south. Known to the Indians for centuries and to the white men since the Lewis and Clark expeditions, these Missouri River Bluffs were a rendezvous point. Latter-day Saints called the first settlement there Miller’s Hollow, then Kanesville. Now a modern city, in 1847 it saw the sustaining of Brigham Young as Joseph Smith’s successor. Saints lived here until the 1850s.

Winter Quarters

Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge at Winter Quarters, looking east. Dedicated 1853, it spans the Missouri River approximately where the early Saints propelled a ferry between Council Bluffs and their 1846 Winter Quarters, located north of Omaha in Indian Territory.

Ruins Bluff, west of Lisco, Nebraska

Ancient Ruins Bluff, west of Lisco, Nebraska. This formation was one of the most dramatic topographical features in this bland section of the Mormon Trail. On 23 May 1847, Brigham Young and most of the Quorum of the Twelve climbed the center bluff, held a council meeting, wrote their names on a buffalo skull, and placed it on the southwest corner of the bluff. Pioneers claimed that from here they could “look farther and see less” than from any other site on the trail.

Platte River

The Platte River. The Saints followed its shallow, gentle valley for over 600 miles through Nebraska and Wyoming. It furnished fish, turtles, fowl, protection from prairie fire, and, above all, water. Still a lazy, unnavigable, braided stream full of quicksand, its frontier reputation has always been “a mile wide, six inches deep, too thick to drink, too thin to plow, and maybe a pretty good river if it hadn’t flowed upside down.”

Sand Hills

Sand Hills, looking east. Here, near Sutherland, Nebraska, the sand hills reached to the Platte, forcing the Saints to pass over them. Some of the old ruts are clearly visible to this day.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock, framed by fog and sunflowers, was 425 miles west of Winter Quarters, a reminder in weathered stone of factory-town smokestacks. No one is known to have climbed its fragile slopes and pinnacles.

Mexican Hill

Looking west down Mexican Hill on the Platte River near Guernsey, Wyoming. The Saints who drove their wagons down this precipitous groove through solid rock later claimed that if a tin cup fell out of a wagon on the way down, it would land in front of the oxen.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak from the air, looking west. This 10,000-foot pyramid forty-five miles west of Fort Laramie signaled the beginning of the western mountains, both an obstacle to and a promise of the Saints’ home in Zion. At Fort Laramie, the Saints picked up the Oregon Trail and followed it to Fort Bridger 397 miles west.

Heber Springs

Heber Springs near Horse Shoe Creek west of Glendo, Wyoming. Its lush green meadows were a favorite camping ground for the Saints. Heber C. Kimball, a superb horseman and frequently a scout, was the first Latter-day Saint to come upon them.

Deer Creek

Walking up Deer Creek, near Glenrock, Wyoming, in September 1847, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and a few others returning from the Salt Lake Valley to Winter Quarters flushed a mother grizzly and escaped her charge only by clambering up these rocky cliffs.

Platte Ferry

Twilight view of Platte Ferry at present-day Casper, Wyoming. Here at “Last Crossing,” the northernmost point on the trail, the Mormons left the Platte River for good; for several years they maintained a ferry here that transported not only Latter-day Saints but many California goldseekers across the river.

Devil’s Gate

Looking east through Devil’s Gate near Independence Rock. This chasm attracted Latter-day Saint boys who tried to follow the Sweetwater River through its 1500-foot length (and couldn’t) or climb its 370-foot crest (and could). According to an Indian legend, the gap was ripped out by the tusks of a trapped monster gouging his way to freedom.

Devil’s Gate and the Sweetwater River

From the air looking west we see another view of Devil’s Gate and the Sweetwater River. The Mormons followed this beneficent river for 109 miles; with the Platte, it made it possible to reach the Great Basin in one traveling season rather than wintering in hostile country. The Mormon Trail passes to the gate’s left. The Sweetwater may have been so named because of the sugar-loaded mules that once fell into it, or perhaps because most other water in this area is brackish.

Emigrant Gap

Emigrant Gap looking west. One of several “Emigrant Gaps” along the western trail, this one is near Devil’s Gate. Every westering Mormon passed through it.

Independence Rock

Independence Rock, looking west. At this famous camping site, Mormon children climbed the rock’s sides and many adults painted or carved names and initials on it. The modern road in the foreground suggests the old trail. Some Astorian fur traders camped here on a July 4, probably giving the rock its name.

Martin’s Cove
Martin’s Cove

Martin’s Cove, looking west (above) and from the air (below). Only one group of Mormons ever camped in this hidden cove somewhat off the regular trail in an elbow of Wyoming’s Rattlesnake Mountains. The Martin Handcart Company of 1856, desperately seeking shelter from an early blizzard, huddled in this cove where many of the fifty-six who eventually froze to death perished. In the aerial view, the Sweetwater River is visible, top left of photograph; the Saints sheltered to the right.

The Sweetwater

All but one company of Saints—the Willie Handcart Company—traveled this lovely, lonely stretch of the Sweetwater in peace.

Rock Creek.

The Willie Handcart Company of 1856 was caught in a blizzard near here on Rock Creek. Just below the road, to the right of the creek, is a collective grave of many of the sixty-seven who perished in that company, in death as well as life a companion to the Martin Company.

South Pass

South Pass looking west. Here the Saints crossed the continental divide over a pass so flat Orson Pratt could hardly locate the line with a barometer, and entered the vaguely defined Oregon Territory. Their future home was about 200 miles away.

 The confluence of the Green River and Sandy Creek

The 1847 pioneers built a ferry here near the confluence of the Green River and Sandy Creek; here Samuel Brannan met Brigham Young and unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to settle in California.

Church Butte

Church Butte from the air looking west, possibly named from LDS services held here on Sundays. Located on Highway 30, west of Granger, Wyoming, it neighbors Black Fork River, right edge of photograph, which the Saints were following.

Pacific Springs

Pacific Springs’ water flows west, not east, since it is located just west of South Pass. An important rendezvous point, it saw the meeting between the returning 1847 pioneers and the second 1847 company.

Coyote Creek Canyon

Coyote Creek Canyon, between the Bear River and Echo Canyon, about one and one-half miles east of the Utah border, looking east. Here Brigham Young was stricken with mountain fever for two weeks, making him trail the vanguard into the valley by two days.

The Needles

The Needles, looking east from Utah, at the mouth of Coyote Creek Canyon. A famous topographic feature on the Mormon Trail, they are located about a half-mile east of the Utah line. Heber C. Kimball climbed them in July 1847 to pray for Brigham Young’s recovery.

Echo Canyon

Echo Canyon, looking east. This major link in a ninety-mile-long series of natural breaks that led the Saints from Wyoming’s Bear River into the Valley is now traversed by Interstate 80.

Henefer, Utah

Looking west from the hogsback out of Henefer, Utah, the heart-breaking summit of Main Canyon, over which the Saints had to painfully maneuver their wagons.

Little Emigration Canyon

Aerial view to the west showing Little Emigration Canyon in the foreground, cresting atop Big Mountain. To the right lies the original route into the Valley; left is Parley’s Canyon, named for Parley P. Pratt, who blazed it in 1848 in an attempt to find an easier way into the Valley. By 1862 his new route (Highway 40) had become the preferred road.

The floor of the Salt Lake Valley

Now dense with homes and businesses instead of sagebrush and willows, the floor of the Salt Lake Valley still opens out in a welcoming vista for the traveler.

“This is the Place” Monument

Hazed by sunset, Salt Lake City’s “This is the Place” Monument memorializes the LDS migration in granite. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff serenely gaze over their Zion in the tops of the mountains.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten and Jed Clark