Head west to discover lonely remnants of Utah’s past
By Kathleen Curry and Geoff Griffin
Why do we use the term “ghost town” to refer to what is really a collection of abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere? Part of the answer lies in imagining the souls who once lived there. We call them ghost towns because, whether or not we believe in ghosts, we can still imagine the residents who lived there and feel a connection to their history.
To get a sense of Utah’s past, consider this itinerary that touches on several ghost towns mainly in Utah’s west desert.
Keep in mind that, for some of these towns, there may still be residents who live there. Use common sense and good manners.
SLC to Iosepa to Ophir
Head west out of Salt Lake on Interstate 80. In about 40 miles, take Exit 77, leading to State Route 196. From there, it’s 15 miles south to Iosepa Cemetery in Skull Valley.
Iosepa means “Joseph” in the native Hawaiian language, named in honor of Joseph F. Smith, one of the first Hawaiian missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as for his uncle, church prophet Joseph Smith. When these early converts came to Salt Lake City from Hawaii, however, they were not warmly received but rather discriminated against. So, in 1889, with the help of church leaders, a group of about 50 residents established a Polynesian colony in the west desert. Through farming and other enterprises, the colony gradually grew to more than 200 residents in the early 20th century.
In 1917, however, church leaders announced they would build a temple in Hawaii. Many Iosepa residents chose to return to the islands to support the temple building there, and it’s said the church offered to pay boat fare for those couldn’t afford it.
The town is all but gone, plowed under by subsequent ranchers. What remains is the graveyard pavilion and 88 or so well-tended graves. There’s even a bronze bust of a Polynesian warrior dedicated in 1989 by church President Gordon B. Hinckley during Iosepa’s centennial commemoration.
Each Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of descendants and members of Utah’s Polynesian community gather for a luau at the graveyard pavilion, paying homage to the Mormon pioneers who left the islands of their birth to settle in this inhospitable stretch of Utah desert.
They made the desert bloom by diverting five Stansbury mountain streams to create a pressurized irrigation system that included fire hydrants, remnants of which can still be seen. There is also a fish pond called Kanaka Lake, where it’s believed that carp planted by Hawaiians in the warm, brackish waters can still be seen. In the Stansbury Mountain foothills above the cemetery, explorers have found images scratched into rock of sea turtles, palm trees and island life.
The land is now private, belonging to Ensign Group, so be considerate while sightseeing. But do take time to appreciate the Aloha spirit, which blows on the wind.
After leaving Iosepa, continue south on UT-196 for 16 miles, then turn left onto Lincoln Highway. In about 6 miles, it becomes State Route 199 which you’ll travel for about 19 miles before joining up with State Route 73. Once on UT-73, continue east, where you’ll find no less than five historical mining towns within a few miles of each other. Ophir, Mercur, West Dip, Sunshine and Topliff were all associated with mining or smelting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ophir to Eureka to Delta
After checking out one or more mining towns, head back the way you came on UT-73 to reach State Route 36. Head south for about 40 miles to meet up with U.S. Route 6 and drive toward Eureka.
The next “ghost” you will meet is Porter Rockwell, one of the most colorful characters in Utah history. Nicknamed “The Destroying Angel,” he was a bodyguard to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Learn more about Rockwell and dig into a 100% range-fed bison burger or bison tenderloin at Porter’s Place (321 W. Main, Eureka, 435-433-2290, PorterRockwellUtah.com), a restaurant that was in Lehi for nearly 50 years before relocating in 2018. You’ll find historical items such as a bar built in 1881 and a 1912 clock designed for Hotel Utah. The menu also features ice cream sundaes and scones with honey butter.
After dinner, get back on U.S. 6 and drive 50 miles southwest to Delta, where you’ll find a number of national hotel chains, or if you’re looking for something local, try the Budget Motel (75 S. 350 East, Delta, 435-864-4533, BudgetHotelDeltaUt.com).
Your first stop for the day is Zapata’s Mexican Restaurant (360 E. Main, Delta, 435-864-4777), where you can enjoy a breakfast burrito or a freshly made fruit smoothie—or why not both?
Delta is home to the Topaz Museum (55 W. Main, Delta 435-864-2514, TopazMuseum.org), which sheds light on a grim settlement. From 1942-1945, the Topaz relocation camp, located about 16 miles northwest of Delta, housed more than 11,000 people of Japanese ancestry (for more on this, see p. 20)
Visit the museum, and consider taking a guided tour to see the Topaz Historic Site where the camp was located.
Delta to Milford
Leaving Delta, head south on to State Route 257 for 70 miles. When you come to the town of Milford, grab dinner at Station Restaurant (425 S. 100 West, Milford, 435-387-2804), also known as Joe Yee’s Station. While noted for their Chinese food, the Station also prepares a number of American dishes. This may be the only restaurant where you can pair chop suey with a chocolate-marshmallow milkshake.
After dinner, check in at Hudson Inn (485 S. 100 West, Milford, 435-387-2481, HudsonInnMilford.com), a classic mid-20th-century motor inn that’s been updated with all the modern amenities.
In the morning, head west out of Milford on State Route 21. Just outside of town, stop for breakfast at Penny’s Diner (777 W. Utah-21, Milford, 435-387-5266), open 24/7. Order from their full breakfast menu, but since they advertise: “Your favorites served all day,” there’s no law against burgers for breakfast.
After leaving Penny’s, continue west for about 14 miles, and right along the highway, you’ll see the town of Frisco. In the late 19th century, Frisco had a population of more than 6,000, thanks to a nearby mine. While there are many remnants of the town, note that some areas are marked as private property.
In the public area, the sight of five beehive-shaped kilns used for smelting is visually arresting. If you’re hunting for ghosts, legend has it that a “Widow in White” still looks for her husband at night.
After visiting Frisco, continue 60 miles northwest toward Nevada on UT-21. Near Garrison, it intersects State Route 159, where you’ll turn right and head north. In about three hours (and 100 miles), you’ll arrive at the ghost town of Gold Hill in western Tooele County. Gold Hill reached its peak of over 3,000 people in 1917 when World War I created a huge demand for arsenic. When the fighting stopped, the arsenic market crashed. While Gold Hill is considered a ghost town, there are still homes in this unincorporated area that may be occupied at various times during the year.
Gold Hill to Wendover
After visiting Gold Hill, it’s a one-hour drive across the state line to West Wendover, Nev. Continue northwest on Ibapah Road until it intersects with U.S. 93 Alternate. Head north to West Wendover, where you’ll find numerous casinos and hotels. To stay at a Peppermill property (Montego Bay, Peppermill and Rainbow, visit WendoverFun.com). As for dinner, Pancho and Willie’s (Peppermill, 680 Wendover Blvd., West Wendover, Nev., 800-217-0049) has $3 margaritas at any time to go with grilled seafood served in a variety of traditional Mexican dishes.
Wendover to Lucin
For breakfast, it’s hard to beat the huevos rancheros at the Salt Flats Café (85 Skyhawk Dr., Wendover, UT, 435-665-7550) but you can also choose chorizo and eggs or biscuits and gravy. It’s a cash-only eatery, but you won’t need much in your wallet, because the prices are truly affordable.
When you’ve had your fill, travel west on Interstate 80 for 30 miles where it connects with Nevada Highway 233 that travels northeast toward the Utah border. The road turns into Utah State Route 30 at the state line.
Stay on it a few miles before turning right at Grouse Creek Road. Travel south about 6 miles to find the ghost town of Lucin. This former railroad town was abandoned in 1936. Not long after, a group of railroad employees moved back and raised their children before again leaving the town, which then sat vacant until 1997 when Ivo Zdarsky, an inventor originally from the Czech Republic, purchased the entire town and is still its lone resident.
Entering the area on UT-30, you’ll first see a clump of lush green trees, described by some as an “oasis in the desert,” about three miles to the south/southwest. A pipe originating in the Pilot Mountain Range supplies water to the area. Originally the ponds were reservoirs for the steam locomotives. The area is littered with remnants of its previous occupants and industries. Keep an eye out for birds of prey, antelope, migratory songbirds (more than 100 species), mice, rats and bats. Treasure hunters might find variscite, topaz and red beryl.
Environmental artwork by Nancy Holt known as the “Sun Tunnels,” completed in 1976, can be seen not far from Lucin.
Lucin to Corinne
From Lucin, head back up to UT-30 and follow it northwest as it runs just below the Idaho border. About 80 miles into the drive, you’ll merge onto Interstate 84, which runs southeast, then merges with Interstate 15 near Tremonton. Stay on I-15 until Exit 365 and travel west about 3 miles to the town of Corinne.
Founded in 1869 by non-LDS people who wanted a separate town from the predominant faith, the “Gentile Capital of Utah” eventually grew to more than 1,000 people but began to empty in 1877 after the Latter-day Saints built the narrow gauge Utah Northern Railroad from Ogden to Franklin, Idaho, which led to rail traffic bypassing Corinne.
Afterward, Corinne became a ghost town for decades until church members began moving in to farm the region; there are still 700 residents in the area today. Nevertheless, you can still find remnants from the original town, along with interpretive markers.
The Gentile spirit lives on in Corinne with a bar that’s open on Sundays. Mim’s Bar and Grill (4020 N. State Route 13, Corinne, 435-744-2206) may be the perfect place to grab a burger and beverage of your choice to end the trip.