Category Archives: BUDS

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2008, edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

by Clint Thomsen

Tyler parked his car near the old Iosepa cemetery. After the half-hour ride, the engine’s abrupt hush amplified a profound silence. A crescent moon hung over the Stansburys and the stars began to fade with the morning’s twilight. The range’s western slopes still hid from the half-light, stifling any attempt to visualize our unmarked route. Even by this early hour, a diffuse heat had rested upon the valley.

We stopped on a foothill and gazed down at the abandoned Hawaiian town site, where overgrown sidewalks fade to dust and a lone, tall tree marks the corner of a vanished town square. The buildings themselves are gone, but a certain inscrutable feeling lingers. It’s a feeling characteristic of historically rich places — but in this case it’s mixed with reverent undertones of aloha.

I fell in love with Iosepa a decade ago. Curious at an unexpected cluster of vehicles on the hillside, some friends and I investigated. We were greeted warmly by a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei who told us how his Mormon ancestors came from Hawaii and built a town there called Iosepa.

He talked about the town — the traditions, the hardships. And though the tidy community died out in 1917, its spirit lived on it its settlers’ family lines. We had stumbled upon their annual celebration, and they invited us to stay for dinner.

Attempting to grasp the irony of a tropical, sea-loving people settling an arid, landlocked desert, I queried our hosts long into the evening. One mentioned a rock high in the mountains, into which Iosepa’s settlers had carved images of boats, turtles and palm trees in memory of their homeland.

The paradise/desert contrast is literary gold, and most writers mine it liberally when addressing Iosepa. But our mountains and Great Salt Lake sunsets actually reminded at least one Hawaiian of his island home: “It’s the pseudo-ocean, the islands on the lake,” my friend Alan Serrao once told me. “The clouds that hang low and heavy on the mountains with peaks popping through them — it looks a lot like home. The Hawaiians that came here must have noticed this.”

Early Hawaiian Latter-day Saints weren’t unfamiliar with arid mountains and remote locales. Iosepa, Utah, is actually the second LDS Hawaiian settlement to bear the name. The original Iosepa, located on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, was the first gathering place for Hawaiian LDS in 1854. The isle is much more desert-like than its lush neighbors. It’s still only sparsely populated today.

Like Utah’s Iosepa, the Lanai settlement faced many hardships. Water scarcity and crop failures contributed to the eventual decision to abandon Lanai for Laie, Oahu. Some of Lanai’s settlers also ended up in Skull Valley.

But as similar as some aspects are, a pseudo ocean isn’t an ocean, and Skull Valley isn’t Hawaii. So wistful tales of ocean-scene petroglyphs didn’t surprise me. I had to find that rock.

“Unless you’ve been there before, it’s hard to find,” a man at Iosepa once told me. “But it’s there.”

I’ve recalled that first statement many times since that evening, as I’ve sometimes casually, sometimes seriously tried to locate what he called “Story Rock.” My quest to find the elusive rock art was the subject of my first column in this newspaper. I spent a day scouring the mountainside, but my search proved fruitless.

Eight months later, I sat in a hotel lobby with Dr. Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam, who was conducting a field study of the Iosepa town site. I had stopped in to help him wash some of the artifacts he had unearthed that day. Pykles handed me a toothbrush and a bag full of glass shards, then joined me at a water basin.

On the floor were several crates filled with artifacts. To Pykles and team, each glass fragment was a priceless clue into Iosepa’s past.

“Ah, the tedium of archaeology,” Pykles remarked, hoping that brushing clay off glass wasn’t boring me. It wasn’t.

Pykles and I had discussed Story Rock at the Iosepa celebration last May. He had heard the stories but hadn’t yet gone looking. I had all but given up. Then after a luau, a familiar face greeted me and scrawled a crude map on a scrap of paper.

It would be July before I would have time to test out that map. Tyler had been with me there 10 years ago and was eager to share the discovery. The sun was starting to peek over the Stansburys and our route was becoming clear. So far, my unpretentious little map had been dead-on.

A few ridges and a couple cheatgrass fields later, it stood before us. Walking toward the limestone slab, the petroglyphs seemed to jump right out at us. First an island scene complete with a palm tree and birds. Then a sun. Then a circle of figures holding hands. And those were just the obvious examples. Nearby was a figure in a boat, a jellyfish, and what looked like whales or sea lions. Even further were a deer, a lizard and a picture-perfect sea turtle.

The carvings had a definite turn-of-the-century look, and were carved several centimeters deep into some of the sharpest, hardest rock I’ve ever felt. The complicated locations of some of the petroglyphs had us puzzled over how the artists could have positioned themselves to make the etchings. We waited for the sun to fully rise, then I photographed each figure, hardly able to contain my elation.

Scanning our surroundings, it was easy to see why I hadn’t found this spot before. I thought of the Hawaiian pioneers who trekked to the top of this mountain to carve their island memories in this rock. Did they do it in memoriam? Or was it more like when I carve my wife’s name on a tree trunk? We may never know.

All I know is that unless you’ve been there before, Story Rock is hard to find.

But it’s there.


Author’s note:  I receive several emails every week from geocachers and explorers who have read this article and want directions or waypoints to Story Rock.  For various reasons, including anthropologic and cultural concerns, I am not at liberty to disclose the location of the Iosepa petroglyphs.

I’m certain that at some point, word will trickle out to the public.  Sadly, once this happens, I give this site a year, tops, until it’s tagged, otherwise defaced,  or completely destroyed.

I know there are many respectful and responsible people who would love to see the petroglyphs.  But don’t ask me– I’m not going to tell you.  No offense intended.  If you do happen to locate the petroglyphs in your own travels, do me a favor:  keep the details to yourself.  Thanks for understanding.  –ct


Recreating childhood’s happiest memories means passing on details from father to son

Left to right: Uncle Josh, Uncle Tom, Cousin Tommy, Dad;
Front: me, circa who knows when.

“The ‘good old days’ of outdoor adventure are often defined in my mind by very specific images — the shag carpet and felt curtains in our old camping van, Richard’s blue early-model dome tent arching with a sharp wind in the west desert, Poppy’s wise old smile as he cracks a joke by a campfire.

“Sometimes they’re expressed in sounds, like bacon frying, the leaves of a quaking aspen tinkling in the breeze, or a fish fighting as somebody — usually not me — pulls it from the water.

“More often, however, those times are defined by random but meaningful moments, like the time I was sleeping in our van along the Mirror Lake Highway. I woke up sometime during the night, opened a window and spent at least an hour listening to the powerful Upper Provo River course down the canyon.”

The above is an excerpt.  Click over to the Transcript Bulletin to read the full story.

Campin’ Cousins, circa a long time ago. I’m the toddler on Josh’s lap.

Iosepa ghost town finally sees much deserved media attention

Iosepa cemetery, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)

I’ve written several pieces about the Skull Valley ghost town named for LDS leader Joseph F. Smith and settled by Mormon Hawaiians from 1889-1917. Five years ago, a Google search on the term ‘Iosepa’ would return scant results- my early (and frankly, crappy) writings being the first two or three on the list. That was back when the ghost town- along with it’s history, it’s location, and annual celebration- was one of Tooele County’s best-kept secrets.

The north end of Skull Valley is heavily visited by campers, ATV-riders, and people who shoot cows for fun. But few people venture far enough south to the old town site, which is pretty barren 361 days of the year, and has been for almost a century. Passing by, the only readily visible evidence of Iosepa is the cemetery and pavilion area, which lie 2/3 mile east of the road at the base of Salt Mountain.

Had a couple of the BUDS and I not been passing by on Memorial Day weekend 9 years ago, we would have never given the place a second glance. Curious about the swath of parked cars, trailers, and tents on the hill (an extremely unusual sight in Skull Valley), we turned off on the ranch road to investigate.

We parked and walked right into what turned out to be a huge Hawaiian luau. We were greeted warmly and invited to join the crowd for dinner later that evening. The people there, we discovered, were descendants of the town’s original Hawaiian settlers, and we had stumbled upon their yearly celebration.

Few outsiders attended the festivities that day, and I saw no journalists there. In subsequent days I found only one brief mention of the 4-day celebration in the Deseret News. Those of us that returned for dinner that night and were treated so kindly that we came back the next year. My family has attended the celebration almost every year since.

But only recently, it seems, has the local media discovered this special place. In fact, an archive search of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin returns only 13 results since 1997 (I’ve written two of them). Only one mention pre-dates 2006. I was surprised Monday evening when I saw a story about Iosepa on the KSL news.

I suspect the ghost town owes some of its new found media popularity to the recent announcement of a thorough archaeological study of the site. Dr. Benjamin Pykles of the State University of New York at Potsdam and his team began studying the site last summer, and will spend the month of July tracing the town’s streets and water system, and investigating as many buried remnants as possible.

Sidewalk to nowhere, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Dr. Pykles addressed the gathering last weekend to outline the study and ask Iosepa descendants to help record oral histories. I spoke briefly with him about the project, and I’m excited to see what he uncovers. Expect to see more pieces on Iosepa in the greater Salt Lake area media this summer. Locally, my colleague Sarah Miley will be on top of the news developments, and I’ll bring you the outdoor adventure and deep history angles.

Previous Iosepa stories on


Forgotten ghost town of Clifton reminds visitors of mining’s boom-and-bust times

Oliver Young’s cabin, Clifton, Utah (Photo by Tyler Slack)

This article originally appeared in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin on May 2, 2008.

“We can probably turn off the GPS to save battery life. These maps will get us there just fine.”

Famous last words for my friend Tyler and I.

It would have been a viable plan — if we would have had a compass and a decent map, and if that old Boy Scout orienteering merit badge was more than just a fleeting memory.

But neither of us had handled a compass since our scouting days and our maps were generic Internet printouts. Still, the directions seemed clear enough. According to Yahoo, the remote ghost town of Clifton in southwestern Tooele County was just down the road. With the resting GPS receiver tucked away in Tyler’s camera bag, we strapped on our Camelbaks and hiked toward what we thought were the Clifton Hills.

As trail-savvy as Tyler and I like to think we are, a quick skim through our journals and my articles in this newspaper are evidence that we’ve more than mastered the art of inadvertent wandering. Even using GPS, we tend to take the roundabout way of reaching most destinations. I usually don’t mind, however, because the most rewarding adventures often result from choosing the wrong fork in the trail.

We merrily hiked two miles through a canyon to a low summit before we recognized that something was off — before we turned on the GPS and found ourselves 4 miles off-target, and realized that we had been reading our unlabeled Internet map upside down.

We turned back, a little embarrassed but not defeated. After all, despite that morning’s series of unfortunate decisions, the trip so far had been near perfect.

We had set out the previous afternoon along the Pony Express trail. Tyler had been without his Jeep for over a year now, but he was still in full Jeep mentality, piloting casually over dips and rock piles, taking his little Chevy Prism places a Chevy Prism was probably never meant to go. We stopped occasionally to explore old station sites and film reports of each leg of the trip.

We reached the Deep Creek Mountains as night fell and coasted slowly through the small town of Gold Hill. This “living,” or “almost” ghost town boasts a handful of full-time residents and is replete with original buildings from its various boom periods. Most of Gold Hill is private property and we had read that its residents were wary of visitors. As nearby Clifton was our real target for this trip, we quietly passed through, promising to return some time to explore the town in daylight.

We made a roadside camp in a small canyon near the Clifton Flats. After a dinner of ramen noodles and green olives, we spread a tarp and laid our mummy bags out under a star-decked sky. Tired as we were, the surreal nocturnal terrain overrode our lethargy. We remained awake for most of the night discussing life’s mysteries and imagining our grand arrival on Main Street Clifton.

Our small 2-mile detour the next morning was but a negligible distraction. With our GPS receiver trained on Clifton’s waypoints, we quickly located the correct road and drove right into town.

Clifton is a lesser-known site that is usually overshadowed in ghost-town lore by Gold Hill’s notoriety. While the latter’s impressive buildings certainly fit the image of a classic ghost town, the former’s quiet isolation makes it an equally charming destination.

Gold Hill was first discovered in the Clifton area by employees of stage and Pony Express superintendent Major Howard Egan around 1857. Silver was also found around 1865, and the Clifton Mining District was organized in 1869. Hotels, stores, and saloons sprung up as the town boomed. A small mill and smelter were built in 1872, allowing ore to be processed on-site — a welcome addition, as Clifton would no longer have to ship its ore 125 miles east to Stockton.

Like so many mining towns in that period, Clifton’s heyday was short-lived. As the mines declined, so did Clifton’s population. Gold Hill became the new hot spot, and in the mid-1870s Clifton became a ghost town. Only two residents remained in the town proper: Brigham H. and Oliver Young, nephews of LDS leader Brigham Young. According to Ronald Bateman’s “Deep Creek Reflections,” Brigham’s cabin stood for over a century until it was burned down by hunters.

Oliver’s log cabin remains intact with a more recent porch addition, and was the first structure we saw as we walked down Main Street Clifton. A storage dugout in decent shape for its age stood behind the cabin, and several other unidentifiable structures lined the road. Across the way was a wooden outhouse that had been attached to another building. The adjoining building was collapsed, but the outhouse remained intact.

Multiple mines surrounded the ruins and other buildings stood higher in the hills. Tyler’s GPS receiver led us to the small, overgrown cemetery hidden in the brush. A bleached headstone stood above the only marked grave — that of William R. Sheldon, who died on Christmas Day 1889. Clifton Mining District historical records show that Sheldon worked as a district recorder from January of that year until his death.

Before leaving the cemetery, we pulled a few tumbleweeds and cleaned up some of the grave sites and watched a small charcoal-colored lizard do push-ups on a nearby rock. As far as Old West towns go, Clifton wasn’t anything special. Yet it remains one of my favorite Utah ghost towns, both for the area’s remote beauty and the site’s very simple human history.


Clifton is one of my favorite Utah ghost towns, and this trip was a classic. The ghost town was only one leg of our trip along the Pony Express loop.

Thanks to Randy “Mr. Prospector” Lewis for telling me about Clifton in the first place. Thanks also to Dr. Bill Moeller of the Clifton Mining Company for giving me a history run-down.

A word of caution about old mining towns: They’re dangerous. They’re riddled with deep, unstable mines. Unless you’re a professional, stay out, no matter how tempting they may be.

Headstone of W.H. Sheldon, Clifton Cemetery (Photo by Tyler Slack)

Outhouse, seat still intact (Photo by Tyler Slack)


Visiting ghost towns invites reflection on the ‘ghosts’ who once lived there

This article originally appeared in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin on April 25, 2008.

I had to blink my eyes to relieve the pressure. Hours of tracing tumbleweed-strewn back roads- intently checking each curve against our topo maps- had made my eyeballs feel like overfilled basketballs. We had reached what I call the “blur point,” where all scenery seems to blend confusingly together into an boundless abstract vista.

To be sure, the ghost town of Frisco in western Beaver County is much easier to find in daylight. But for reasons I may never comprehend, my friends and I rarely reach a destination before nightfall. This night was no exception. John navigated his jeep over craggy trails as Tyler studied our maps with his headlamp. I poured through the information I had compiled, reading aloud the parts referring to Frisco as “Utah’s Dodge City”- about the daily violence that plagued the boom town- about the Nevada sheriff who was called in to clean things up and shot 6 men dead his first night on the job.

John backtracked and tried another offshoot from SR-21. His headlights illuminated a weathered picket fence, and behind it the old Frisco graveyard. Some of the graves were marked with crumbling headstones, the rest with simple wooden crosses. Other plots were visible but unmarked. Shreds of some kind of material hung from many of the crosses, waving silently in the breeze. Nearly illegible names and dates from the late 1800’s evoked thoughts of the people who lived and died in this forgotten town.

Utah is home to a healthy share of ghost towns. Some were railroad towns- glorified pitstops along travel or shipping routes. Many were elaborate mining camps, like Ophir and Mercur in the Oquirrhs. When travel routes changed or mines stopped producing, the towns died out. Some sites, like the Benson Grist Mill, died but were preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” Some coded but were revived by new mining operations or tourism. Most, however, died and were forgotten- skeletons of rock and wood- still standing only because they’re so far isolated from modern life. The bulk of Tooele County’s ghost towns fit this description.

The term “ghost town” is a loose classification. The generally accepted definition of a ghost town is any place that is a shadow of its past glory. Under this definition, a town can have an active population and still be considered a legitimate ghost town. The sparsely populated town of Gold Hill in western Tooele County is an example of what ghost town buffs classify as an “almost ghost.” The nearby town of Clifton is completely abandoned and is thus considered a “true ghost.”

When most people think of ghost towns, they imagine a western movie set, complete with false front buildings, spooky cemeteries, and saloon doors creaking in the wind. Indeed, that Hollywood image is based in truth, and most of the more established Old West towns did more or less fit that mold. In reality, ghosttowns range from collections of preserved buildings (like Ophir) to scant ruins hardly identifiable without a history book (like West Dip).

My passion for ghost towns was sparked in college when my history professor mentioned exploring ghosttowns in the Nevada desert. My mind filled with images of dusty Main Streets, so I asked him to tell me more. Later, Tyler, John, and I sat around Professor Case’s table and studied brittle maps. Equipped only with wide-eyed excitement, we drove west and located several ghost towns in central Nevada.

That first trip inspired a long-term quest to locate and visit as many Utah ghost towns as possible. Because most remote parts of Tooele County remain undeveloped, our neck of the wilderness is an explorer’s paradise. One of the county’s most unique ghost towns is Iosepa in Skull Valley.

Settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the Mormon faith, the town was laid out in classic Mormon grid style in the shape of the state of Utah. Settlers diverted water from nearby canyons to supply each home with clean water, and in 1911 the town was named the state’s “best kept and most progressive city.”

Unfortunately, the town was beset by economic difficulties, disease, and the harsh desert environment. When the LDS Church announced plans in 1915 for a temple in Hawaii, most of Iosepa’s residents returned to the islands and the rest relocated to Salt Lake City.

Today, all that remains of town proper are overgrown streets, debris piles and concrete stairways leading nowhere. Large trees and foundations mark the old home sites. The property is privately owned and will be the subject of an archaeological study this summer.

Some dreams die, but they need not be forgotten. The preserved cemetery is in pristine condition and is accessible to the public. Descendents of the town’s original residents gather there each Memorial Day Weekend to celebrate Iosepa’s heritage.

The remains of lesser-known ghost towns and historical sites pepper the county. What interests me more than timelines or mine production statistics is a ghost town’s human history.

Next time you see a pile of wooden planks where a house once stood, consider that every board was cut or imported by the industrious people who built these towns from scratch. Children were born there. People worked and spent their lives there. They died there and their bones still lie there under the dirt. The beauty of a ghost town lies not just in what buildings remain, but in the history that saturates its half-standing walls and scattered bricks.


Many historical sites lie on private property or require traversing private property to gain access. While access restrictions can be frustrating, consider that most of the best preserved sites owe their continued existence to private ownership. Because ghost town ruins are often abused and vandalized, I don’t widely advertise their locations. Interested parties should check the ownership of a site and if needed obtain permission before visiting. It takes some legwork, but exploring ghost towns legally is an unforgettable experience. A good place to start is

NOTE: Many historical sites lie on private property or require traversing private property to gain access. Because ghost town ruins are often abused and vandalized, I don’t widely advertise details about their locations. Interested parties should check the ownership of a site and if needed obtain permission before visiting. It takes some legwork, but exploring ghost towns legally is an unforgettable experience. A good place to start is


Winter camping can quickly become an exercise in survival

“I’ve never felt closer to death than I felt that night. My extremities were numb and the rest of my body stung like a second-degree burn. We talked as much as we could, trying to laugh about our predicament. After a while, Chan and Tyler were silent. The psychological trauma was almost worse than the cold itself. I didn’t want to fall asleep for fear my life would slip away, but the thought of laying awake and counting the seconds until morning was almost a more horrifying prospect. I slipped in and out, checking my watch sometimes several times per minute.”

This week’s article is a refined version of the story I submitted to Rock and Ice Magazine’s writing contest, adapted for newspaper format. If you’ve already read that one, don’t worry. This version is different enough to be interesting.

Go to the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s website to read the full story.


Strange Food Concoctions Always Taste Better When Roughin’ It

Me, Tyler, and Chan enjoying a late-night snow cave meal
(photo by Chandler Blake)

“Entering the backcountry is like crossing into an alien world. The synapses seem to fire differently and the subconscious mind regresses to the primitive instincts it’s been craving, revealing new perspectives on life…and food.

Certainly I’m not the only one who sees the irony in our approach to food when we’re roughing it as opposed to our home kitchen. If you’ve done much camping, you know what I’m talking about. Raw nature has a magic ability to transform powdered drink packets into fine beverages and MRE’s into feasts fit for kings. What is it that makes Malt-O-Meal and Cup-O-Soup so amazingly delicious in the mountains? What is it about the open air that turns a culinary novice into an Iron Chef?”

Head over to the Transcript Bulletin’s website to read the full article.