Living History On The Mormon Emigrant Trail
The conveyances squeaked and groaned as they slowly made their way over the seemingly endless progression of sandstone hummocks, ledges, and broken terrain along the trail. People shouted advice to one another as each of nature's obstacles were slowly conquered. The people were tired, and their bodies and faces showed it. Wheels went airborne, and the vehicles teetered dangerously before slowly coming back to earth and continuing the long, difficult journey.
Is the year 1879 or 2003? It is hard to tell in this sometimes forbidding red land. The Mormon Emigrant Trail has changed very little since that first band of incredibly hardy Mormon pioneers slowly trudged across southeastern Utah. The trail still crosses terrain that looks all but impassable to the untrained eye. But the year is 2003 and we have the advantage of sure-footed vehicles, GPS navigation, the knowledge that the trail is indeed passable, and the ability to travel 30 or more miles a day. We also know we can return to civilization in just a few days. For those early settlers, this was truly an unknown, unproven, and uncharted route.
The Mormon Emigrant Trail, or Hole-in-the-Rock as it is more commonly known, is one of the most genuinely memorable routes available to the modern four-wheeler with an adventuresome spirit. To really appreciate this rugged trail, it is appropriate to hear the incredible history of its inception.
In 1879, the members of the Mormon Church had already settled much of modern day Utah. There was one area, however, that had resisted permanent settlement, although Navajo herders had been using the area sporadically for centuries. The area was the southeastern corner of the present-day state, roughly bounded by the San Juan River on the south and the Colorado River on the west. The area had a long-standing reputation as a refuge for brigands, rustlers, and other undesirables who ventured from its rugged canyons to prey upon the Mormon settlements at its edges. The church leaders decided the best way to deal with the continual raids was to colonize the area, so they elected to send an expedition to settle several sites along the San Juan River.
In the fall of 1879, 70 families comprising 250 people gathered 83 wagons and a large herd of loose livestock in Escalante for the push through the uncharted land to the east. Several scouting parties had been sent to map out possible routes to the sites of present-day Bluff and Montezuma. Although these scouting reports were not very encouraging, the decision was made to create a new shortcut that would take a more or less direct route to the intended destination. The crossing point chosen on the Colorado River was called Hole-in-the-Rock, and it consisted of a narrow crack in the high, sheer rim above the river. The crack was so narrow that a wagon could not negotiate it. It would have to be widened before it was passable. Incredible as it may seem today, the 2,000-foot drop down to the river was thought to be the best and fastest route.