Transcontinental Railroad Back Country Byway - Utah Scenic Drives

The Transcontinental Railroad Back Country Byway rolls over the railroad grade that represents an epic achievement in American history, linking East to West in the new nation. Today the landscape looks much the same as it did in 1869, but the rails, the towns, and even the lonely rail sidings are gone. Now the visitor can only imagine the vision and effort of those who struggled to build the nation's first transcontinental railroad.

The Central Pacific Railroad began laying track east from Sacramento in 1863. After tackling the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and crossing the Great Basin, the railroad reached Utah in March 1869. The Byway follows the last 90 miles of grade laid by the Central Pacific before their rails met the Union Pacific's at Promontory Summit.

As you bike or drive west from Golden Spike National Historic Site, you can see two parallel grades. In an effort to reap greater government subsidies, the two competing railroads laid grade along side each other for over 200 miles. The byway is interpreted at over 30 sites along the grade.

On April 28, 1869, the Central Pacific crews laid 10 miles of track in one day, a record that resulted from a bet between the two railroads. The Central Pacific crews rested at Camp Victory (Rozel), just west of the backcountry byway information site.

After the rails were joined on May 10, 1869, the new railroad had to be operated and maintained. Along the Promontory Branch, 28 sidings, stations, and associated towns were built to service up to ten trains a day. From Kelton, with a population of about 700, a major stagecoach line and mail and freight route supplied Idaho, Oregon, and the Intermountain North. Terrace, with nearly 1,000 residents, was the largest community and served as the maintenance headquarters for the Salt Lake Division. The town included a roundhouse, a machine shop, and an eight-track switch yard, along with hotels, a saloon/justice of the peace, a library/bathhouse, and many other thriving businesses.

The Promontory Branch of the railroad was replaced in 1904 by the Lucin Cutoff, a shorter route built on pilings across the Great Salt Lake. The original grade saw only local use afterwards, and railroad facilities and dependent towns were soon abandoned. The rails were removed in 1942 for use in the war effort.

Today cattle graze where once thousands labored to open the West to industry and commerce.

The Transcontinental Railroad National Back Country Byway is administered by the Bureau of Land Management for public use and enjoyment. Due to its unique history and scenic beauty, the Transcontinental Railroad Grade is a designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

OHV Regulations
Off-highway vehicle use is limited to the Byway corridor and other existing roads. Driving even one vehicle over the side of the grade and on untouched terrain can leave a scar that will last decades.

Respect adjacent private lands.

Chasing or harassing wildlife or livestock is illegal. (And asinine.)

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 17 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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