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"Only 10 days to deliver mail from Missouri to California?"

Some folks didn't believe it back in April 1860, when the new Pony Express service was inaugurated between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, the new capital of the nation's westernmost state. Although the service lasted only until November 1861, it was a stunning new development in the westward growth of the country and has been credited by some historians as having played a major role in keeping California in the Union.

Ads looking for young men -- "preferably orphans" and offering a $50 monthly wage -- attracted some of the best and bravest. The service remained wildly popular until the stringing of telegraph wires across the deserts finally brought an even faster form of communication. But the daring men and their 19-month claim to fame made a big dent in the nation's collective memory, and the exploits of the Pony Express live on even today.

You can trace the route in your car using the National Park Service's Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guides, maps, and directions. The route is nearly 1,900 miles long, covering eight states, moving westward from St. Joseph through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada before reaching the Golden State. The original mileage estimate was 2,005 miles, but by car, it is slightly less than 1,900 miles.

The old trail is not really a trail that you can hike now; many parts of it are privately owned, and you would have to get permission to cross. Some segments are open to the public for hiking and other means of recreation, but others are not.

The Park Service says short pristine segments believed to be traces of the original trail can be seen only in Utah and California. But there will eventually be 120 historic sites available to the public, including 50 existing Pony Express stations or station ruins.

Highlights of the Pony Express National Historic Trail

If you want to start following the trail at its beginning in St. Joseph, Missouri, check out the Patee House Hotel there. This hotel served as the general office for the Pony Express and lodged the riders who carried the mail when they were in town. (The official name of the service was the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company, by the way.) The old hotel is now a museum (www.ponyexpressjessejames.com; $5 admission for adults) and is St. Joseph's only National Historic Landmark. It's just one block away from the home of Jesse James, where he was shot and killed. After his death, the James family stayed in the hotel.

Nearby is the Pony Express Museum (tel. 816/279-5059; www.ponyexpress.org; $5 admission for adults). Back then, it was known as the Pikes Peak Stables, or where the riders left to begin their journey across the West with U.S. mail was tucked into their saddlebags.

There are two museums in Nebraska: one in Bridgeport at the Chimney Rock National Historic Site, the other in Gering at the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Finally, there is the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyo.

You can join in a ride each year along the route with members of the National Pony Express Association (NPEA), which rides west one year and east the next -- on ponies, of course. Last year, the 1,966-mile journey rode from California to Missouri from June 6 to June 26 (www.xphomestation.com).

There are no camping sites along the trail, but you can take short hikes (usually less than 300 yards to trail ruts or historic sites) at about 10 spots listed on the official website in Nebraska and Wyoming. There are three places where you can take longer hikes, with access to extensive trail segments (one of 125 miles, another of 4 ½ miles). About five sites are listed that you can access by four-wheel drive and horse.

Admission and Hours

As the route now is a highway system, entrance and parking fees are only charged at some locations en route. Hours vary at the discretion of site administrators.

More Info

The NPS office in Salt Lake City (tel. 801/741-1012; www.nps.gov/poex) takes care of the National Trails in the Intermountain Regions.

Other partners with the Park Service along the trail include the Oregon-California Trails Association and the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, MO.