Westward expansion took many groups of people West in the late 1840s and 1850s. They traveled for different reasons: land, gold, religious freedom. An ill-fated group of Mormon pioneers left late in the summer of 1856 pushing handcarts. They ran into an early winter storm that stranded them on the plains of Wyoming, hundreds of miles from their final destination in Salt Lake City. Many lost their lives as they waited for help in a quiet cove called Martin’s Cove. The rest were rescued and brought by wagon on to Salt Lake City.
Mormon Handcart Historic Site
The Mormon Handcart Historic Site commemorates the journey and hardships of the Martin and Willie Handcart companies. This historic site, located in a remote area of Wyoming about one hour north of I-80 and Rawlins, is definitely worth a stop if you are interested in early American or Mormon history.
We were driving several hours the day we stopped at the Mormon Handcart Historic Site so we only had about two hours to stop at the Visitor’s Center and Independence Rock. We got a nice overview of the area and the history, but we didn’t have time to hike into Martin’s Cove. If you want to have time for the full experience, you will need 4-5 hours, water bottles, and hiking shoes.
If you have less time, be sure to stop at the Visitor’s Center for a tour. Our tour guide was an older sister missionary who spoke directly to my young children as she told the story. She carried a satchel and throughout our tour she pulled things out for the kids to touch and try. For example, when she told about how the mothers tore their petticoats to wrap strips of fabric around the kids hands to keep them warm, she gave each of my children a strip of fabric to try wrapping around to see how their fingerips would still be cold. My kids are notoriously bad at listening to tour guides, and this was one of the most interesting tours for young children that we’ve done in a long time.
If we had more time, we could have walked through the many small buildings and museums around the Visitor’s Center. Instead, we opted to try pushing a handcart. The Mormon Handcart Historic Site has many handcarts that you can push around a track to imagine what it must have been like to bring all your family’s belongings in a small handcart. My kids loved taking turns riding in and pushing the handcart. It was a great place to stretch our legs after a long journey in the car.
Martin’s Cove, where many Latter-day Saints sheltered and waited for help when they could go no further in the snow, is about a 5-mile roundtrip hike from the Visitors Center. The hike is not challenging, but you will want to bring a large water bottle and plan a few hours to walk into the cove and then hike back out. There are few trees and plenty of sagebrush in this part of Wyoming, but for someone who wants to understand the whole experience, the hike is meaningful.
The Mormon Handcart Historic Site is a significant place to me because my great-great-great Grandmother, Mary Lawsom Kirkman, came in the Martin Handcart company with her husband and six young boys. One cold night in Martin’s Cove, her husband and newborn son passed away and were buried on the Wyoming Plains. Mary and her surviving sons were rescued soon after and made it to the Salt Lake valley.
Independence Rock is a rest area with nice bathrooms and a drinking fountain just a few miles away from the Mormon Handcart Historic Site. Those interested in the journeys of those traveling West can walk out to the rock and learn about this historic marker. It was called Independence Rock as a landmark that those crossing the plains wanted to reach before July 4th, Independence Day. If you passed Independence Rock after July 4th, you ran the risk of running into winter storms before you reached your destination.
If you are visiting Independence Rock, you will want closed-toed shoes if you want to hike on the rock. It is steep and somewhat dangerous in many places, but you are allowed to climb on the rock to see the signatures of those who passed through.
We found an easier path that even my four-year-old was able to climb up the rock around to the left side of the rock on the path. We followed the path around to the back of the rock and there was a more gradual slope that we were all able to climb up.
Good to Know
Location: Martin’s Cove, 47600 West Hwy 220, Alcova, WY 82620
Hours: Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. During winter months, the visitors’ center closes at 4:00 p.m.
How long? 4-5 hours if you plan to hike into Martin’s Cove. 1-2 hours if not.