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Adventure / September 17, 2017

Experience America’s newest bikepacking route

Written by: Jan Bennett

Most children in the U.S. learn about the Pony Express in grade school, but the lesson is usually short. We generally learn that it was a sort of horse-driven postal service, that it happened a long time ago in the Western U.S., and that it involved a lot of hard work.

That doesn’t give the Pony Express its due. Founded in 1860, the short-lived institution was a crucial part of America’s communication infrastructure. Pony Express riders brought Civil War news to California and other western territories, which could have meant the difference between keeping the union strong and intact or having it splinter into smaller factions. These men and women endured some of the harshest conditions faced by westward emigrants, yet they persevered and delivered critical documents from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA in an average of just 10 days.

As a long distance cyclist, I have long been interested in the potential of the Pony Express Trail as a bikepacking route. And this August, after about eight months of reading National Historic Trail Association overlay maps and drawing up GPX files, I was finally able to put wheels to the ground.

My goal was to stay as true as possible to the known Pony Express route. To achieve that, I drew a route that follows current roads and (in some places) singletrack, linking known Pony Express stations and following historical markers. I did deviate from the original route a few times, but only to avoid pavement and heavy traffic areas.

West of Glendo, Wyoming, the original Pony Express route now follows a dirt road. Photo by Jan Bennett.

The Pony Express followed other routes of westward expansion, many of which are also now National Historical Trails. Photo by Jan Bennett.

The resulting route is mostly off road, passes through six states, covers over 2,200 miles, climbs 85,000+ feet, crosses at least 16 mountain ranges, and takes the rider through large chunks of public lands. It passes hundreds of historical markers, monuments, sites, and geocaches. Camping is plentiful, both on public and private lands (most landowners I spoke with are proud of their connection to the route, more than happy to allow passage to respectful cyclists).

The route tours some of America’s most isolated areas, climbing through aspen forests and winding alongside spring-fed creeks. In places, it offers views that stretch for 30 miles across sagebrush and desert. Riders will often go without seeing another soul for days, unless they count antelope, jack rabbits, coyotes, or elk.

There’s plenty of history and sightseeing along the way, but riders should be wary of dabbling too long as resupply options can be limited out west. Water can be collected from natural springs and hand pumps on public lands, but food is not as plentiful. Out here, one section stretches almost 400 miles without any food resupply points. It’s a challenge, but the settlers who passed through these places centuries ago came with far less and generally took around eight months to complete the trip in their wagons.

Scouting the Pony Express Trail has given me the opportunity to dive into the history of the great western migration. I have seen parts of this country that most people probably don’t even know exist. I have hiked my bike up a pass that was clearly only ever a cattle trail, but that the Pony Express followed. I have come across the ruins of old ranches, settlements, Pony Express stations, overland stage coach stations, unmarked graves, abandoned mines, and even an original covered wagon that fell apart and has been left untouched (except by mother nature, of course).

Now I need some feedback. I’m currently looking for some adventure seekers to ride the route and share their thoughts.

Riders should bring plus bikes, as the terrain west of Salt Lake City is peppered with deep sand and rocky descents. They should ride in the late spring or early fall—temperatures climb well above 100 F in the summer months, and much of the trail will be covered by snow in the winter.

Historical markers dot the route, providing information about stations and locations. Photo by Jan Bennett.

Vast expanses of uninhabited land are plentiful along the route. Photo by Jan Bennett.

Chimney Rock, a Pony Express station and visual marker for emigrants, outside of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Photo by Jan Bennett.

The original Pony Express stables in St. Joseph, Missouri. Photo by Jan Bennett.

Interested in riding the Pony Express Trail? Send your info to [email protected], and we’ll put you in touch with Jan. 

about the author

Jan Bennett

An adventure seeker at her core, Jan Bennett has always been drawn to the outdoors and being active. Completing three different wilderness expeditions before graduating high school, Jan has always been at home in the wilderness. Even though she has a degree in Technology Management and a minor in Business, Jan took the leap and left corporate America in 2015 in order to persue her cycling passions. On any given day, you can find Jan in Dallas, Texas preparing her mind and body for the next outdoor adventure.

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