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Piute Pass

Posted in Events on February 20, 2004 Comment (0)
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Piute Pass

Piute Pass came hard. Some trails come easily, some less so. Some routes put up so much resistance that you would swear they defy tires purely for the sheer joy of putting a satisfied look on the face of the 'wheeler who finally completes them. From the size of the smiles we had as we finally completed the loop over Piute Pass, you could be certain that a great amount of effort had been exerted for us to complete this trail.

The trail over the pass dates from before any Anglo settlement in this part of Utah. A soldier was killed in a skirmish on the pass in 1884 and was buried a few miles away at Soldier's Crossing. The present-day roads date from the uranium mining heyday of the '50s and early '60s. By the time we noticed the old road network on maps of the area and poked our noses up the route, a rock fall had left the road closed to all but motorcycles and hiking boots for many years. Dr. Robert Telepak, amongst others, urged San Juan County to repair the road with its new trail cat, and in the fall of 2002, the impressive route up and over the notch in Wingate Mesa was once again open to motorized traffic. The Southeast Utah Land Users (SULU) added the nearby roads in Red Canyon to its route system, and ATVs started successfully making the big loop from Highway 95 to the road in Red Canyon, and back again.

One detail remained: As far as we knew, no one had taken anything wider than an ATV up the trail in the past 20 years. Dr. Bob had already taken his Cherokee and Scout onto the trail system on several occasions from both ends of the road, but had yet to link up the various pieces of the route. He reported that the trail was far too narrow in its current condition to be negotiated without some hard hand work. We now had a trail and a goal --we just needed a long weekend. We finally made an attempt in early spring 2003. A pair of stock Comanche pickups was employed as our means of transportation. We tried the trail from both ends, but left with a badly mangled bumper and three cut tires for our initial effort. We retreated back to New Mexico to plan another attempt.

For our second attempt, we brought along a bigger tool, in the form of our venerable Scrambler. A much larger workforce also accompanied us. This time, we had five modified vehicles, all manned with seasoned drivers. We brought picks, shovels, plenty of water, sunscreen, and the determination to finally make the full loop.

We met near the eastern end of the trail the evening before and camped just off Highway 95. We chose the east end as a starting point because Dr. Bob's previous trips had confirmed that we could at least get over the top of the pass without any additional road improvements. Early the next morning, we mounted our rigs, formed a line behind Bob's somewhat-crusty Scout, and headed out. Bob led us steeply upward toward the easily visible notch in the sunlit crimson wall of Wingate Mesa. As we watched the lead vehicles slowly labor up the incline, the true scale of the dugway became apparent. This was a big climb, and we knew the view at the top would be spectacular.

After watching the first several vehicles lurch their way up through the notch, we mounted up and ground our way skyward. The road was steep, but wide enough and smooth enough to be climbed with ease. The San Juan County trail cat had done a fine job. The higher we climbed, the wider the spectacular view became. Stretching away for miles to the east were the twisting, labyrinthine slits and notches of White Canyon and its tributaries. The land undulated toward the distant high ground of Elk Ridge to the east, while the thrusting sandstone monolith of Jacob's Chair dominated the northern skyline. We arrived at the top talking excitedly about the incredible views and pointed our hoods through the notch. Our eyes popped and the chatter stopped. If the view to the east over White Canyon was incredible, the panorama to the west over Red Canyon was simply unbelievable. We stood there, gazing westward, soaking it all in. We finally shook ourselves free of the vermilion spectacle and began considering our descent into the heart of the wild red below.

From our previous attempt, we knew that the "loop" is actually composed of three distinct legs on the Red Canyon side of the pass. We planned on taking the northernmost leg all the way to the main road in Red Canyon, and then return on one of the two southern routes. We dropped off the high red wall of Wingate Mesa and spent the rest of the day bouncing slowly westward through country that was as wild and spectacular as any to be seen in Southern Utah. Most of the day was spent under towering, sheer cliffs of sandstone in every hue and shade of crimson. The vertical terrain was interspersed with wildly eroded spires and hoodoos; gray, featureless expanses of bentonite; and the jagged erosional gashes that nature has wrought on this magnificent but forbidding landscape. We finally emerged onto the Red Canyon road late in the afternoon. It was a quick 5-mile trip up its relatively smooth, graded surface to the turnoff for our return trip. We camped just under the climb onto the shoulders of the Chocolate Drop, the aptly named feature that dominates the center portion of Red Canyon. Watching the setting sun play out its last light on the wildly banded terrain of the Drop was, by itself, reason enough to make the trip all the way to Utah.

The next morning, the real work started. The road up and around the flanks of the Chocolate Drop was probably plenty wide when it was created, but 40 years of occasional erosion had reduced the road to ATV-width in many places. Out came the shovels and picks, and it took considerable effort to widen the road enough to slip our larger vehicles through on the old shelf road. With plenty of sweat equity, we stubbornly moved dirt from the inside edge of the old road bed out to the eroded edges, rolled rocks and slabs into the larger holes, and then gingerly moved forward on each reclaimed section of road. It was several hours later when we finally passed the Chocolate Drop, topped the ridge, and dropped into the Blue Canyon drainage.

We chose the southernmost route back to our starting point and were rewarded with wildly varied terrain for our troubles. The roadbed was in much better shape, and we stopped only occasionally to rearrange rocks in the next dozen miles. Two segments were especially noteworthy on this south leg. The road crossed an unexpectedly deep and narrow canyon with such a tight turn in its confined space that we had to manhandle the small trailer a member of the crew was towing. There were several billboard-sized but cryptic messages painted on the rocks that were old enough to be as historical as they were mysterious. The second point of note was a very steep section of road that had replaced an earlier section that had washed out. While quite climb-able in the perfectly dry conditions we enjoyed, it would be totally impassable with even the slightest hint of moisture.

Late in the second day, we once again topped the narrow notch astride the great wall of sandstone and looked down at Highway 95 far below. We were triumphant, exhilarated, and mentally restored by our contact with this immense and stunning red land. Piute Pass and the loop through the scarlet terrain of aptly named Red Canyon is 40 miles of wonderful backcountry adventure and isolation. Piute Pass came hard, but it was worth every precious minute.

Piute Pass
GPS Coordinates
PointDescriptionLatitudeLongitudeElevation (ft.)
001Turn off of Highway 9537* 42' 10" 110* 14' 12"4,875
002Top of Piute Pass37* 41' 53"110* 15' 39" 5,922
003Junction of North and South Legs 37* 40' 18" 110* 17' 4" 5,000
004North End of Red Canyon Road Segment37* 39' 8"110* 22' 13" 4,184
005Turn off at Chocolate Drop37* 36' 9"110* 21' 3"4,154
006Junction of South Legs37* 36' 31"110* 19' 1"4,442
007Rejoining of South Legs37* 38' 50"110* 17' 19" 5,044
Huge Wingate Mesa narrows to a only a few feet wide at Piute Pass, and the road from White Canyon to Red Canyon climbs through the narrow notch visible from the highway below. Huge Wingate Mesa narrows to a only a few feet wide at Piute Pass, and the road from White Canyon to Red Canyon climbs through the narrow notch visible from the highway below.
The author's Scrambler winds its way through multi-colored badlands in the depths of Red Canyon. The author's Scrambler winds its way through multi-colored badlands in the depths of Red Canyon.
Led by Dr. Bob Telepak in his capable but aesthetically impaired Scout, our intrepid caravan consisted of five modified vehicles and a vintage camping trailer. Led by Dr. Bob Telepak in his capable but aesthetically impaired Scout, our intrepid caravan consisted of five modified vehicles and a vintage camping trailer.
Leaving the highway below us, we climbed the bench above White Canyon on a road that contained one switchback so abrupt that vehicles had to back up the following trail section. Leaving the highway below us, we climbed the bench above White Canyon on a road that contained one switchback so abrupt that vehicles had to back up the following trail section.
The spectacle of Red Canyon from the top of Piute Pass is as red, rugged, and twisted as any in the fantastic Southeastern Utah landscape. A 40-mile loop meanders its way to the road down Red Canyon and back. The spectacle of Red Canyon from the top of Piute Pass is as red, rugged, and twisted as any in the fantastic Southeastern Utah landscape. A 40-mile loop meanders its way to the road down Red Canyon and back.
Dropping from the heights of Piute Pass, we made our way down the twisting -- and at times, steep -- route, deep into the Red Canyon drainage. Dropping from the heights of Piute Pass, we made our way down the twisting -- and at times, steep -- route, deep into the Red Canyon drainage.
The Chocolate Drop is a dark-red, brilliantly banded landmark in the central portion of Red Canyon. The Chocolate Drop is a dark-red, brilliantly banded landmark in the central portion of Red Canyon.
The return leg of our loop traversed the shoulders of Chocolate Drop on very old and eroded uranium exploration roads. The return leg of our loop traversed the shoulders of Chocolate Drop on very old and eroded uranium exploration roads.

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