Circling the Silver Island Mountains

I’m not sure why I’m so attracted to wild, desolate, barren landscapes. I think it might be the quiet, the lack of people, maybe seeing things the way they were hundreds of years ago (minus the dirt roads). When I was kid, growing up in California, we often made the drive across northern Nevada to Utah. I remember watching the landscape go by and wondering what was out there. What was it like in the mountains I could see in the distance? Was there any water out there, springs, trails, anything at all?

This is a trip I’ve had on my radar for years. The Silver Island Mountains are a relatively small, but rugged mountain range running Northeast and Southwest on the Utah side of Wendover (UT, NV). Jason and I drove out Friday afternoon and parked at the truck stop off Exit 4, on the Utah side of Wendover. We didn’t start riding until 5:00 pm, but the weather was ideal, mid 70’s with a nice soft breeze. After about 2 miles on a paved road we turned off onto the Silver Island Mountains Backcountry Byway and the beginning of the dirt, or gravel, whatever you want to call it. The Island part of the name is because they rise out of the salt flats and after a rain they look like islands in a sea.

I was immediately struck by how rugged, steep, and rocky these mountains are. They rise right out of the sagebrush and salt flats with no foothills. The riding was very pleasant on nicely graded roads.

What?
Photo by Jason White
Floating Island out past the east end of the range.

After about 25 miles of pleasant riding with a slight tailwind on occasionally rocky dirt roads, we rounded the Northeast end of the mountain range. By this time the sun had descended behind the mountains and we were a bit bummed to miss the sunset. But a surprise was awaiting.

The Northeast end of the Silver Island Mountain range.

When we turned the corner, the sun was setting off in the West.

After turning the corner and heading back Southwest.

We rode a few more miles before finding a nice place to camp at the base of a large rock formation. The sun was setting as we set up camp and it was pretty magical. Sunsets in the desert are really a wonderful thing.

We prepared dinner then climbed up onto the rocks above our camp and enjoyed the sunset.

It was a very pleasant, mild evening and night. As the sun was setting the moon was rising, nearly a full moon. It seemed to never get too dark with that bright moon. And it never got very cold, maybe mid 40’s. We both cowboy camped under the stars, which is what I prefer, unless it’s buggy. One of the reasons I enjoy camping out in Spring, Fall, and Winter, is that there are no bugs, and mosquitos love me.

It started getting light around 5:30, but I didn’t get up until about 7:00. Jason must have been up by at least 6:30. We had a nice leisurely morning hanging out, eating breakfast, and packing up. We were in no hurry. The day before we had ridden 29.2 miles with 912′ of gain. This day would be about the same mileage but a bit more climbing. We lingered it seemed, just enjoying the dead quiet and peace of the desert.

Looking North across the valley to another mountain range.

The night before we were entertained by a strange light in the night sky over those mountains, flying erratically, up, down, diagonal, left, right, that went on for a a long time. When I got up at 3:00 to pee, they were still flying around. UFO? Maybe. Certainly didn’t behave like any normal aircraft.

We headed out at about 9:00 am. This side of the range was not nearly as dramatic as the other side, but it was still starkly pretty and peaceful. In a short time we arrived at a sign marking the Hastings Cutoff.

The Hastings Cutoff was a so-called “short-cut” on the California Trail. It left the California Trail at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, cut south into Utah, skirted the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, up and around the Silver Island Mountains, then south around the Ruby Mountains in Nevada before joining back up with the original route near Elko, Nevada. Turns out it wasn’t much of a short-cut. In fact, it was much more difficult with one stretch of 80+ miles between water sources. The Donnor Party took this route, which put them a month behind schedule. You probably know the rest of that story. We couldn’t see any sign of wagon tracks, but this alternate route was not used very frequently.

Dry.

I’m amazed that anything, plant or animal, can survive out in this desert. There did not seem to be any water sources around. But there was plenty of plant life, and we saw a Pronghorn antelope, lots of antelope scat, and I think we even saw an elk. It was trotting up ahead of us. It definitely was not a Pronghorn, looked too heavy in the body to be a deer and it was nearly all black. It was just loping across the desert. This is the best photo I could get of it. Jason took a video of it and I sent it off to a friend who is a wildlife biologist and he confirmed it is an elk. Though he too was surprised it was out there. He said it was probably just passing through.

After about 15 miles we saw some interesting rock formations not too far off the road, so we headed out there to check them out. We spent some time scrambling around, climbed to the top of a tall rock outcrop and had outstanding views all around.

About the last 12 miles or so we had a gradual climb with a gentle headwind. But it never got very steep and the riding was still nice. The weather was perfect as well. We finally topped out at the Southwest end of the range and the road turned to pavement. We then had a fast 4 mile descent back to the car.

We got back to the car around 12:30 pm, packed up, then went over to the truck stop to eat. We had noticed that it was run by Indians (South Indians, not Native Americans), and there was an Indian restaurant there. They also sold lots of Indian flavored snacks. While we were there numerous Indian long haul truckers would arrive, walk into the restaurant, pick up some food, then head back out to their trucks. We ordered some Butter Chicken and Chana Masala, then went outside to some tables to eat. It wasn’t the best Indian food I’ve ever had, but it certainly beat your typical fast food. The workers at the gas station and restaurant were from Punjab.

I think it was the only Indian food in Wendover, but still a nice change from the usual gas station stuff.

This was a great trip. I was really feeling the need to get out and away, and this lonesome landscape really did me well. The weather was perfect, the riding enjoyable, the scenery spectacular. This would be a really good trip for a beginning bikepacker, though it is quite isolated and you do have to carry your own water for the whole trip. I carried about 5.5 liters and had plenty, even some leftover. It’s definitely a trip you would want to do in the Spring or Summer. There is no cover at all, no trees, and summer would be deathly hot and exposed. I highly recommend this route.

Day two we rode 30 miles with 1200′ of gain. The total trip was 60 miles with 2100′ of climbing. For this ride I rode my Rivendell Atlantis with a couple saddlebags and half frame pack and Jason was riding his Diamondback Haanjo with seat pack, frame pack, and handlebar roll.

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