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Utah 4Wheeler Trails - Incredible Journey

Posted in Events on June 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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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.

The pioneers staged on the west side of the river and divided into three work groups. One was tasked with building a road up from the river on the east side; one was responsible for connecting the Hole-in-the-Rock with the river; the other had to widen the hole itself. The church elders thought the journey would last no more than six weeks, and the caravan had brought the appropriate amount of food. By the time the roadwork at the river was completed, some of the wagons had already been on the trail for four months. The people survived by eating the seeds and herd stock they had brought along for the new settlements. One of the biggest challenges was finding suitable grazing for the 1,800 head of livestock they had brought with them. At one point, livestock foraged as far as 50 miles away in an effort to find sufficient grazing.

By the end of January, the roadwork down through the hole and up the other side was far enough along to make an attempt to cross the Colorado with the wagons. All the wagons were driven down through the terrifying hole and most ferried across the frigid river in a single day, a feat accomplished without the loss of a single animal. From the ferry landing on the east side of the river, the road scaled the 250-foot cliff in a series of perilous dugways the work crews had laboriously cut into the solid sandstone. Here the party stopped to regroup and rest up for the hard climb out of the river canyon. They still had weeks of the most back-breaking labor imaginable ahead, but after Hole-in-the-Rock, the coming obstacles seemed merely difficult and wearisome, not impossible.

After an incredibly hard winter, the lead teams pulled into the San Juan Valley near present day Bluff, Utah, on April 6, 1880. The six-week journey had taken more than six months. The settlers had averaged only 1.7 miles a day, the slowest and most arduous trek ever undertaken in the settlement of the American West. The entire expedition had been accomplished without the loss of a single human life. The party had, in fact, seen three infants born during the journey.

Today, four-wheelers with adventurous spirits and dependable vehicles can travel through the same country in their modern rigs. While portions of the present day 4WD route follow later roads blazed by mineral search activities, most of the length follows the very same tracks and dugways cut by the pioneers 120 years ago. The trip remains one of our very favorites, and it had been far too long since we had last enjoyed its isolation, wonderful history, and unbelievable scenery. This particular foray consisted of five vehicles from the New Mexico Four Wheelers based in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, area. Most were veterans of this trail and other southern Utah explorations, so the group was extremely well suited for this excursion.

The trailhead for this incredible journey starts about 10 miles east of Hall's Crossing on Utah State Highway 276. Hall's Crossing is on the eastern shore of Lake Powell and is the ideal place to gas up, fill the water cans, and stock up on any last-minute provisions before venturing out into the desert. The trip off pavement is about a 60-mile round trip through completely empty countryside. Travelers need to be entirely self-sufficient!

The most easily traveled route (and most easily located trailhead) leaves the highway just west of the airport serving the recreational areas along the lake. About four miles south into the desert, the trail forks. The left fork connects to the road leading to Nokai Dome and other points south and east. The right fork is the road that provides access to the wild country first crossed by the settler's wagons.

After a couple of miles traversing terrain that becomes increasingly rough, the trail drops down into a cottonwood-studded arm of Lake Canyon. There is a large rock structure of unknown origin perched on the very edge of the canyon rim. While it is often referred to as the Spanish Fort or Indian Fort, it was most likely a corral for livestock used by early herders.

After crossing the creek bottom, the trail climbs steeply out to bounce and crawl over Navajo sandstone to the main branch of Lake Canyon. The canyon is so named because of a large natural impoundment that once filled the canyon. Imagine the surprise and delight the settlers felt when they drove their wagons across the natural dam forming a clear, cold lake in the middle of the parched wilderness. Three consecutive days of deluge in 1915 washed out the dam, and only the unusually verdant vegetation in the canyon bottom offers a clue to the lake's existence. The canyon bottom contains an ideal campsite under a large sheltering alcove. In several places, the trail is barely wide enough for a vehicle to pass between the trees and the canyon wall.

From Lake Canyon, the path winds southwest through sandstone terrain that is as rough and primitive as anything you are likely to encounter on this planet. Shortly after leaving the canyon, the trail intersects the original settler's route and follows it very closely for most of the remaining length of the trail. Even with the modern amenities of pneumatic tires, performance shocks, and ergonomic seats, the route wears on travelers with its constant pounding. This road is rough! We were all seasoned four-wheelers, and we still felt the effects of the jouncing ride. One can barely imagine riding across terrain this punishing in iron-wheeled wagons. Those people were really tough! So why did we come? The trail is as beautiful as it is rough. The scope of the scenery is simply staggering. The rugged Henry Mountains dominate the horizon to the north with the deep blue waters of Lake Powell to the west. The seemingly endless expanse of sandstone in every hue and shade of red and orange left us feeling very small but somehow at peace.

The trail slowly climbs a dividing ridge with a great panorama south toward the Straight Cliffs across the Colorado and the dark brooding presence of Navajo Mountain. The trail bounces and jounces along, eventually dropping down into Iceberg Canyon, one of hundreds of canyons that drain into Lake Powell. The track follows the wash bottom for a short time. It is from this canyon that the original wagon road climbs the bare sandstone leading to Grey Mesa. Directly behind the Park Service sign that briefly describes some of the emigrants' ordeals, the original wagon road climbs upward.

Soon we were trodding along a series of dugways scratched into the sandstone by the pioneers themselves. Pick marks still scar the sandstone. We climbed shallow stair steps that had been laboriously cut into the rock so the settlers' horses could find purchase. On reaching the top of the steep ascent, we walked across the mesa to a truly rare treat. Incredible as it may seem, the ruins of one of the settlers' wagons still reside in a field of sagebrush. Preserved by the dry desert climate, and saved from vandals by its remote location, the wreckage of the wagon has slowly been bleached by the elements for more than 120 years. Nearby tree stumps also show scars from the same era as the settlers struggled to find enough fuel in the barren desert to survive. We stood around in silence, contemplating the tremendous difficulties the early travelers had endured.

Returning to our vehicles, the next challenge was scaling the north side of Grey Mesa. Uranium miners carved this long, steep, treacherously rough dugway earlier in this century, but the route has always been difficult. The Mormons were stymied in their attempt to find a route off of Grey Mesa until they discovered a path used by a herd of bighorn sheep.

On topping the mesa, the terrain changes to sandy two-track across terrain so flat that everyone shifted their transfer cases to high range. After the previous 20 miles of rockcrawling, 20 miles an hour felt like flying. The trail across the mesa passes only a few feet from the San Juan River gorge, and everyone stopped to take in the myriad of colors and shapes in the canyon far below.

The trail drops off Grey Mesa and traverses a portion of Wilson Mesa. The most famous feature of this trail (at least from a four-wheeling perspective) lies just ahead. Over the eons, water collecting on Wilson Mesa has slowly scoured a huge sandstone trough at the edge overlooking the canyon below. This 1,000-foot-long natural gutter is known as The Chute and is still the route up and down Wilson Mesa, just as it was when the pioneers first blazed this trail. The trick to successfully descending this steep avenue of solid rock is to keep the front wheels straddling the bottom of the trough and go slow. If your speedometer is off its lower peg, you are going way too fast. With the incredible traction inherent to sandstone, and the sage advice of the experienced in their ears, the entire group made it down without incident and pressed onward.

A few short but interesting miles later we all stood at trail's end at the head of Cottonwood Canyon and gazed westward at Lake Powell far below. Barely visible in the line of cliffs across the azure blue waters of the lake was Hole-in-the-Rock. At our feet was the top of the long, steep passage that the pioneers had christened Little Hole-in-the-Rock. Even with the most impressive parts of the road having long since been drowned by the lake, it seemed impossible for horse drawn wagons to have made the passage to the canyon below us.

We set up camp, savored our various trail delicacies, and then gathered round the communal campfire. This is four-wheeling at its finest, a gathering of widely diverse individuals, far from the crush of civilization, bonded by their common interest in stout 4WD vehicles and their love of the incredibly beautiful terrain we had crossed. Although the fraternity could have lasted far into the night, everyone realized the next day would be a long one and headed back toward sleeping bags at reasonable hours. With no nearby light sources for many, many miles, the stars were incredible against the black velvet of the Utah sky.

The next morning saw the group head slowly back out to the highway, glad for the hot showers that beckoned but hesitant to leave the magnificent scenery around us. It is always an exquisite privilege to travel a route as historic, beautiful, and challenging as the road to Hole-in-the-Rock. An unforgettable backcountry sojourn, the Mormon Emigrant Trail remains as it has been for the last 120 years, a fitting memorial to those incredibly hardy pioneers who first pointed their wagons west across the Colorado.

HOLE IN THE ROCK TRAIL
Description Mileage Latitude (North) Longitude (West)
Gas at Hall's Crossing 0.0 37 27' 22.8" 110 42' 50.8"
Turn off highway (@ airport) 8.9 37 26' 46.9" 110 33' 37.7"
Junction (go right) 12.9 37 23' 30.0" 110 34' 14.7"
Cottonwood Branch of Lake Canyon 15.0 37 22' 31.9" 110 36' 13.3"
Lake Canyon 16.2 37 22' 9.4" 110 36' 48.0"
NPS Boundary 23.6 37 18' 8.3" 110 41' 19.1"
Top of Grey Mesa 24.7 37 17' 35.9" 110 41' {{{57}}}.8"
Junction of Rincon Trail (stay left) 30.1 37 14' 44.0" 110 46' 2.8"
Drop off of Grey Mesa 30.8 37 14' 30.0" 110 46' 38.2"
The Chute 32.3 37 13' 41.5" 110 47' 12.8"
Top of Cottonwood Canyon 34.9 37 13' 4.4" 110 49' 20.8"

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