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The Old Old Road

I’d heard about the route the early homesteaders and miners took into my valley.  Dead Indian Hill, the only way to get to Sunlight from the plains below, is an 8800’ pass.  It took a good two days to negotiate the trail, essentially an old Indian and game route.

The drainage beginning at lower right of photo and moving up to upper left marks the Old Old road.

The pass at Dead Indian forms a huge windswept meadow.  During the winter, up until quite recently, this area was impassible.  I just recently read a book about a forest service ranger in 1956 living in the valley year round with his family.  On valentine’s day they decided to brave the drive over Dead Indian pass for a get-together dance with other forest service employees.  It took them over 12 hours to get to Cody.   At the pass, they repeatedly had to hook up their come-along to wooden fence posts that weren’t covered by snow, and pull their car out of a drift.

At the top of the pass looking down into the valley, its’ a 2000’ drop, pretty much straight down.  The homesteaders would fell a tree at the top as heavy as their horses could drag, with all its limbs and branches, and chain it to the wagon axle before starting the descent.  This kept the wagon from running away.  I heard you could still see the old logs piled at the bottom of the hill.   Indian hunting parties also used this trail.  In those days thousands of pony tracks and travois marks were still visible.

The timeline was still sketchy for me as to all the road improvements, but I understood that around 1905 some of the residents living north of Dead Indian asked the county to help with improvements on the road.  The spring muds made for a treacherous ride.  The money was approved and a passable upgrade, an actual dirt road instead of a trail, was built, mostly by the residents in the valley.  Painter Ranch pitched in with a four-horse team, a breaking plow, and one man, and Al Beam did the same.  Miners who had claims in the Valley helped blast rocks.  By 1909 the new grade was completed, with a series of switchbacks especially on the lower end of Dead Indian.  This dirt road (with improvements added in the 1930’s) was used for the next 80 years until the early 1990’s when a paved road was constructed.

View of improved 1909 old road

I wanted to walk the old old road.  (I began calling the original game trail ‘the old old road’, while the 1909 road was the ‘old road’) The old 1909 road is easy to find.  It’s still in fair condition.  But the trail is a lot more difficult.  Its been over 100 years since it was used.  A good game trail still runs through the creek drainage and you can see the old old road follows it.  But then the game trail turns southwest up into another drainage.  At that point I couldn’t see where or even how a team of horses could go up the steep hillside.  I decided to head up to the old road.   I had to marvel at all the work.  It really was a pretty good road that required cutting into the hillside some, and all by hand and horsepower.

The old road is now what the game use.  The ‘ponies’ of today was the evidence of hundreds of elk and deer tracks.  I rounded a corner and found an old cow elk winter kill.

I hiked up to a large meadow where the road petered out.  This probably was the end of the 1909 improvements.  From here the old road may have hugged close to the paved road of today.  I headed back down, keeping an eye out for where a wagon might have veered off.  Pretty soon, I came to a gently sloping meadow and followed it, leaving the old road.

The meadow ended by a fairly steep slope, but I could see a series of young trees marking the width of a wagon.  Old ruts were even somewhat visible at times.  This was ‘the beaver slide’, where it got so steep they had to use the logs.

Notice the young trees. This is the view looking up of the beaver slide. Imagine a wagon pulled by a horse team, fully loaded, coming down this steep grade, especially in mud!

I hiked down, following a trail of young trees hugged on either side by mature trees.  Wow, I could barely imagine going down this grade with a team of horses.  At the bottom of the slide, a small meadow opened up above a fork in a dry stream.  This was the fork I missed before, where the drainage splits.  I had read descriptions of taking a drink from a crystal clear stream after the beaver slide, where the logs were unloaded.  This must have been that stream, now gone and dried up.  Lots of old dead trees were scattered around the open area.  I wouldn’t say they were piled, but upon closer inspection you could see they’d been chopped with an ax.  Here it was, the logs that had been cut by those old timers to prevent run-away wagons.

Logs cut with an ax to keep wagons from sliding down hillside

I was surprised how much of an impression this hike made upon me.  I felt the history of the place enacted before me…the cut logs holding back the wagons from tumbling down the hillside; the herculean efforts of these men to build a better and safer road with only man and horse power; the old trail used for thousands of years by Indians on foot and later with their ponies.  Though I was the only one walking these trails today, the stories and ghosts of the past walked beside me.

2 Responses

  1. Wow, that’s really cool.


  2. If they would have told us about things like this in school, I would have liked history. How very interesting that the traces are still there.


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