About 8 miles further east from the Ranch 66 Missionary Village on Hwy 220 is the Mormon Handcart Historic Site which has a visitors center and the famous Martins Cove. This area is full of history as it sits on the Mormon Pioneer Trail (and Oregon and California Trails) and is the location of the stranding of the Martin Handcart Company in November 1856 due to bad weather. This led to more than 50 deaths at this location due to starvation and freezing. All in all about 130-150 people out of almost 600 would perish as the Mormon emigrants made their journey from Iowa City to Salt Lake City. It is a tragic and heartfelt tale and is listed as the worst non-military disaster on the emigrant trails. The visitors center has a short film detailing the disaster along with many artifacts, exhibits, and information..
The entrance to the historic site is directly off highway 220 and leads you down a drive to the visitors center where you will pass Fort Seminoe and lots of handcarts. Devils Gate (a big gap in the mountains) can be seen in the distance.
The visitors center is a lovely building with a small theater and lots of information about the handcart companies and their trails, trials, and tribulations. The volunteer elders and sisters are very knowledgeable and provide interesting stories to complement the exhibit information. The area used to be the Tom Sun Cattle Ranch and there are several ranch buildings still standing.
The area offers treks to many groups to help strengthen their faith, teach the history of the area, stimulate interest to learn more about the gospel, and to help preserve historic sites. You can also just hike the trail to Martins Cove and back, which is about a 5 mile journey, to learn more about their plight. Along the way are interpretive signs which provide more insight into the Mormon Pioneer struggles and also allows you to see and feel the area where the Martin Handcart Company was stranded.
The first mile of the trek is flat and pretty straightforward with great scenery and a few handcarts along the way to try your hand at.
After about one mile there is a picnic area and restrooms before you make the climb up to the actual cove. They request no handcarts be taken up to the cove as you will eventually encounter steps.
After the cove you can return by several different trails which both eventually return you to the picnic/restroom area and then on back to the visitors center. The southern most trail leads past some rescue statues which would have been quite interesting but we noticed a trek was occurring in that area so we bypassed it and continued on to the picnic area for lunch whereby we met up with the trek.
After lunch we continued back to the Visitors Center.
Along the way we saw some deer and marmots and interesting vegetation.
Martins Cove is a beautiful historic hike with a tragic story and heroic efforts. It is well worth the time to visit such an interesting place and reflect on their situation, strength, and determination.
In the end we had to try out some of the handcarts!
Lisa and Norm try out a handcart.
Fort Seminoe is located next to the Visitor’s Center and you can walk around it and see what it was like. It was a small trading post in the mid 1800’s and was quite small so when the Martin Handcart disaster of 1856 occurred the buildings were not large enough to house the hundreds of people. Some of the building was ripped down to burn to try and keep people warm during the bad winter storms.
Devils Gate is another short trek from the visitors center and is a landmark used by the pioneers for navigation. The pioneer trail does not actually run in between the gap since the Sweetwater River runs through there but the gap was still used to determine distances and location. You can either hike to Devils Gate to get closer or drive to a spectacular viewing area further east off hwy 220.
Independence Rock is another important pioneer trail landmark further east from Devils Gate by about 8 miles. The rock, which is about 130 feet tall and 2,000 feet long, juts up in the middle of the prairie and is noticeable from quite a distance. It is an official Wyoming rest stop today where you can walk out to the rock and walk around it or climb up on it. Many pioneers would spend the night at this location on their journey and carve their names in the rock. The rock is a US National Historic Landmark and they ask you to please not deface or walk on any area with carvings on it. The main portion of the rock with names is blocked off and protected.
Here’s Norm running back to the campground (wink, wink….).