I love cars and aircraft, but those that have known me for a long time know, my first mechanical love was trains. Specifically, I loved and still do love steam trains. So when I was told I was going to Northern Utah, I immediately thought of the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
What is the Golden Spike National Historic Site?
When I talk to people about the Golden Spike National Historic Site, almost no one seems to know what the place is. And I suppose that’s fair, as it isn’t a traditional National Park. Especially since it’s the park’s main focus is railroads, and not many people I know have any interest in railroads.
So, for those of you that don’t know, the Golden Spike National Historic Site commemorates the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad. And that railroad, the first to connect our great nation from end-to-end, was completed on May 10, 1869. That’s 150 years ago come May 10, 2019!
Today, the park maintains a portion of the railroad’s original right-of-way as driving and walking paths, as well as a short segment of resorted track. And, yes, there ate steam locomotives at the museum as well. In fact, the National Park Service commissioned exact replicas of Union Pacific’s No. 119 and Central Pacific’s Jupiter back in the 70s. Both are fired up regularly during the summer, and during the offseason, visitors can visit them in the engine house.
The Golden Spike National Historic Site is located in the middle of nowhere in Northern Utah. Specifically, as most railfans know, the park is at Promontory Summit, Utah. And, yes, the park is FAR from the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek. How far? Well, just under 87 miles, which took me an hour and a half each way to drive.
Being administered by the National Park Service, there is an entry fee for Golden Spike National Historic Site. That fee is $10 for private vehicles, $10 for motorcycles, and $5 for pedestrians (who would walk here?!) or bicyclists. As far as operating hours go, the park is open from 9am to 5pm daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
The park consits of a lot of wide, open space. It is, after all, primarily made up of old railroad right of way. As a result, the only two buildings you’ll find at the Golden Spike National Historic Site are the visitor center and the engine house.
The visitor center (pictured above) houses a gift shop, a small theater, and a few displays. It’s here you’ll pay the park entry fee, which is interesting. I guess they’re trusting visitors to pay rather than requiring payment on-entry. For the record, I did pay mt $10 entry fee. You can also watch a short film on the transcontinental railroad in the theater at the visitor center.
The main draw of the park, though, is the site of the driving of the last spike. Visitors will find this area immediately behind the visitor center, complete with log benches, telegraph poles, and a period-correct American flag.
And in the trackbed is a replica of the California Laurel tie used for the comemorative last spikes.
Unfortunately, since my visit took place in October, the steam locomotives were already stored away for the winter. So while I got to see the historic sights, I didn’t get to see the locomotives operating. But, visitors can still see the locomotives during the offseason.
While the history is of interest to me, the main draw for me at the Golden Spike National Historic Site is the locomotives. And while I didn’t get to see them running, I got to see them nonetheless. To get to them during the offseason, though, you’ll need to head over to the engine house via a gravel road.
Once at the engine house, you’ll need to park outside and can walk in through the side door.
And once inside the engine house, the locomotives are right there.
As I mentioned before, these locomotives are replicas. The originals were scrapped back in the early 1900s, as historical preservation wasn’t even thought of. So, these locomotives were engineered and built by O’Connor Engineering Laboratories in Costa Mesa, California in the 1970s.
They did an excellent job with the replicas given how little information was available. Especially regarding the colors of the locomotives.
But, O’Connor Engineering didn’t do everything on their own. For the fine, artistic details, they had assistance from non-other than Ward Kimball. Perhaps you know him from his work with Walt Disney?
Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to see when the engines are parked. You can’t walk completely around them and it’s hard to take a peek into the cab. But it’s nice to see the engines nonetheless.
Beyond the trains, the ceremony sites, and the visitor center, there are miles of driving and hiking trails at the park as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to explore these sites in-depth during this visit, but I’d like to in the future. On my way out of the park, though, I did take a quick drive over the East Grade Auto Tour.
As you can see, these “auto tour” trails are one-way gravel roads. This one is the shorter of the two and was recommended by the Ranger since I had time to only do one. And the Ranger’s recommendation was a great one, as this tour includes views of The Last Cut, the Chinese Arch, and The Big Fill. However, the Big Fill/Big Trestle’s viewpoint is on the footpath that continues on beyond the auto tour trail. Here’s a few photos I snapped from the auto trail.
Golden Spike National Historic Site, Final Thoughts
Though the Golden Spike National Historic Site is someplace I’ve always wanted to see, I never looked into it that much. As a result, I hadn’t realized how much there is to see and do here. And so, beyond seeing the trains running, I’d want to return to do some hiking and drive the West Auto Tour trail too.
You know what else I didn’t realize about the Golden Spike National Historic Site? While it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s right next to Orbital ATK’s facility.
For space nuts, you’ll immediately recognize this site as the one that is used to test the Space Launch System’s solid rocket boosters. Can you imagine being in the area during a booster test?! That would be so cool! Of course, Orbital ATK is now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.
But anyway, back to the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Is it worth the hour and a half drive from Salt Lake City? Yes! Even if you aren’t a railfan. The scenery, while desolate, it is interesting! And for those that are railfans, the Golden Spike National Historic Site is hallowed ground. It’s worth visiting even when the locomotives aren’t running.
Oh, and if you’re wondering if the real golden spike still exists, it does. It’s on display at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Why Stanford University? Because the University’s founder is Leland Stanford, who is the first president of the Central Pacific Railroad.