Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Golden Spike National Historic Site (Blog Hike #357)

Trail: Big Fill Trail
Hike Location: Golden Spike National Historic Site
Geographic Location: northwest of Brigham City, UT (41.63729, -112.49155)
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2011
Overview: A sunny hike on historic railroad beds.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the north and west, take I-84 to SR 83 (exit 26).  Exit and go south on SR 83 14.1 miles to Golden Spike Drive.  To reach Golden Spike Drive from the south or east, take I-15/84 to SR 13 (exit 365).  Exit and go west on SR 13.  In the town of Corinne, continue straight on SR 83 17.4 miles to Golden Spike Drive.  Turn onto Golden Spike Drive and continue 3.7 miles to the signed trail parking area on the right.

The hike: The year was 1869 when Promontory, Utah became the center of America’s railroad universe.  The transcontinental railroad had its origins in the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which regulated certain aspects of the railroad’s construction.  Shortly thereafter, the Central Pacific Railroad, organized in Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific Railroad, headquartered in Missouri, began building railroad toward each other.
            Railroad building occurs in several stages.  First surveyors arrive to find a workable route for the railroad.  Next the railroad bed is graded using blasting powder, picks, shovels, and scrapers as needed.  Next tunnels and trestles are constructed where needed, and finally the track is laid.  The two railroad companies were uncertain where they would meet, and each company wanted to own as much of the transcontinental track as possible to maximize their land subsidies.  Thus, the two surveying and grading teams constructed parallel railroad beds for over 200 miles before the two companies agreed to set the transfer point at Promontory, Utah.
            For the next 36 years Promontory bustled with activity.  People and goods traveling from east to west rode the Union Pacific to Promontory and later to Ogden before walking across the railroad yard to the Central Pacific.  In 1905, a new trestle over a southern arm of the Great Salt Lake reduced a train’s travel time through Utah by 2 hours and cut Promontory out of the main railroad line for good.
            Travelers today reach Promontory via a narrow, sparsely traveled asphalt road.  A Visitor Center contains an interesting film and exhibits about railroad construction, and visitors can drive down gravel roads that occupy the beds of their railroad ancestors.  Interestingly, this area is still on the frontier of transportation: the ATK facility you drove past on your way in makes parts for the United States space program. 
For hikers, the Big Fill Trail described here is the only hiking trail in the park, but it’s a good one allowing you to walk on both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad grades.  One word of caution: unlike many other hiking trails, there is absolutely no shade to be found on the Big Fill Trail.  Despite the short length, you should prepare for the elements by wearing a hat to protect you from the sun and bringing plenty of water.
Trailhead: Big Fill Trail
            Begin at the rear of the parking area; an excellent interpretive guide published by the Western National Parks Association may be available for purchase.  The single-track gravel path lined with rocks descends gently to reach the Central Pacific grade.  Where you intersect the grade, a sign commemorates the Orange Special train wreck of 1888.  The east slope of Promontory Summit was one of the steepest grades on the entire transcontinental railroad, and on this occasion a train carrying oranges derailed, sending crates of oranges tumbling down the mountain.  Turn left here to begin your hike along the Central Pacific railroad bed.
Central Pacific Railroad grade
            The wide two-track gravel railroad bed makes for easy hiking as you descend gently with rocky, grassy mountain rising to your left and falling to your right.  Most of the vegetation here consists of dry, yellow prairie grass, but a few pockets of sagebrush add variety to the landscape.  At 0.3 mile, you pass a spoils pile on the right created from rock debris blasted during the railroad’s construction.
Deep rock cut on Big Fill Trail
            After passing through a deep rock cut, you reach the Big Fill at 0.7 miles.  When building the railroad, engineers faced the challenge of how to cross 500-foot Spring Creek Ravine, which lies before you here.  The Central Pacific chose to build a fill by hauling rock and dirt to the ravine by mule-drawn dump cart.  2 months of this hauling led to the structure you see today.  A side trail leads across the fill, so take a minute to examine the fill’s construction.  Also, looking downhill from the fill gives a great view of salt flats around the Great Salt Lake.
The Big Fill
            The trail going across the fill leads to a dead end, so to continue the hike you need to take the narrow gravel trail that leaves the Central Pacific grade and heads downhill.  About half way down the hill, a sign to your right points out an area of rock that was blasted by accident during railroad construction.  Railroad building in the wilderness was not an exact science, and this area has come to be known as the False Cut.
Very quickly the narrow gravel trail intersects the Union Pacific grade.  We will eventually turn right to begin heading back to the trailhead, but first turn left and see the Union Pacific’s solution to crossing Spring Creek Ravine, or at least what is left of it.  While the Central Pacific chose to build a fill, the Union Pacific chose to build a wooden trestle.  The flimsy wooden structure was intended to be temporary and hence was built in only 36 days.  When the transfer point was moved to Ogden, the Central Pacific made the obvious choice to use the fill rather than the trestle, and the trestle was disassembled.  Today, only the gravel trestle abutments remain of the original structure.  You can walk out on the abutment, but keep children firmly in tow: there are no railings at the edge of the loose gravel, and the drop-off is steep and long.
Abutment for Union Pacific Railroad trestle
            The Big Fill Trail continues by following the Union Pacific grade westbound and uphill.  Not only is the Union Pacific grade narrower, but trail conditions are significantly poorer here compared to the Central Pacific grade because the former was abandoned 36 years earlier than the latter.  1 mile into the hike, you pass a small rock shelter on your right, one of many such natural structures found in these mountains.  Also in this area lies the remnant of an old telegraph pole.  Telegraphs provided instant communication from coast to coast; their routes frequently followed railroad routes to make for easy-access maintenance.
Union Pacific Railroad grade
            At 1.2 miles, a sign directs you to leave the Union Pacific grade by turning right and hiking the short distance back to the Central Pacific grade.  Turn left on the Central Pacific grade to head back to the trailhead.  At 1.45 miles, the original entry trail exits to the right just before you reach a vehicle gate, thus signaling the end of the hike.

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