As yet another mid-September day dawned bright and clear, we marveled at the fantastic country along our very extended backcountry route. We were driving from Big Water, Utah, on the west shore of Lake Powell, all the way to Moab. We were doing it the fun way, avoiding as much pavement as possible and spending the maximum amount of time in the dirt. We were about 10 miles from Utah Highway 95, deep in Poison Spring Canyon, and getting ready to start our fourth day on the road.
The first order of business was to replenish the gas in our tanks from the extra cans we were carrying. It had been 170 miles since our last refueling stop, and we still had another 70 miles to our next (and last) refill at Hite Marina. When venturing so far off the beaten track, it is extremely important to understand that slow dirt-road travel cuts into normal gas mileage considerably. So you must make plans accordingly. With the gas cans emptied into the tanks, we continued our trek east, down this spectacular canyon system.
Unlike some of the earlier legs of this journey, the remainder of our trip covered ground with which we were quite familiar. In fact, this way had been specifically chosen because we considered the remaining route to have some of the finest red rock backcountry roads to be found in all of southern Utah.
Poison Spring Canyon grows impressively as the watercourse cuts deeper into the sandstone strata and draws closer to the Dirty Devil River. Towering walls of red Wingate sandstone enclose the winding canyon. The road is typically graded, but it suffers from constant rearrangement by Mother Nature as it repeatedly crosses the water's path.
We emerged at the canyon's mouth and were confronted by the ford of the Dirty Devil River itself. Great caution needs to be exercised here as the ford is completely unimproved, varies dramatically with water level, and is a long, long way from any assistance if trouble is encountered. The water level was actually quite low, but the ford showed no new tracks since the last instance of high water. The latest surge of water had also left a rather high and abrupt wall of sand on the far side of the river.
We elected Bob's relatively heavy Scout as the vehicle most suitable for breaking down enough sand that we could follow in the smaller and lighter pair of Jeep trucks. Bob easily crested the bank, but it took him several tries to emerge from the deep, soft, and muddy hole just beyond. The two Comanches easily scaled the breach left by the Scout and had a much easier time besting the mudhole.
Once on the other side of the Dirty Devil, one is truly immersed in some of Utah's most spectacular backcountry. We climbed up toward the long protrusion of Buckacre Point, greatly enjoying the elusive antics of a small herd of desert bighorn sheep. Once we reached the top of the climb, we left the vehicles to admire the view. The view from the road below the point is our nomination as one of the most rugged panoramas anywhere in Utah. Far below and stretching away south toward Lake Powell is the Dirty Devil River Canyon. The river doubles back on itself so tightly and so often that it's nearly impossible to discern which direction the river is flowing. The high cliffs of Cedar Point to the west, the towering arm of Buckacre Point to the north, and distant Fiddler Butte and the Block to the south frame the entire sinuous spectacle. We've seen it several times before, but we still marvel at its wonder each and every time. This spot is truly special.
We continued up the long North Hatch Canyon. The road lies directly at the base of the cliffs that make up the south face of the Big Ridge, and the constantly changing red-and-orange pallet in the brilliant sunshine always pleases us immensely. North Hatch Canyon also contains one of our favorite examples of "desert engineering" in the form of a Hudson automobile that was transformed into a travel trailer and then abandoned in this remote location. We crested the pass between North and South Hatch Canyons, dropped into the wash below, and started the Low-range climb toward Gunsight Butte and Sunset Pass. We paused at Sunset Pass to eat lunch and reminisce about previous trips to the area.
On reaching the intersection at Waterhole Flat, we reluctantly turned south toward Hite and away from all the nearby wonders of the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. While fondly thinking of all the good fun to the north, we always enjoy the drive between Waterhole Flat and the highway at Hite. The route runs along a veritable smorgasbord for the eyes with numerous brilliantly banded cliffs, spires, and canyons to enjoy. We reached the highway and headed into the marina area at Hite to refill our gas tanks and cans for the remaining 180 miles to Moab.
We immediately dropped off the pavement just beyond the Hite intersection and headed out through the relatively open desert between the Colorado River and Highway 95. Rising from the river crossing at Hite, it is an almost imperceptibly slow but very steady climb as the road heads east. By the time we pulled up for our fourth camp, we were about 30 miles beyond Hite. We had climbed nearly 3,000 feet from the river and were once again in a dense pinon and juniper forest instead of the red rock lowlands around the river.
Another beautiful morning arrived and we quickly packed up and resumed our trek. In addition to the thick trees on both sides of the road, we were treated to occasional glimpses into some of the incredibly deep side canyons of Dark Canyon. The road traverses a very narrow neck of land, literally only a few yards wide, between the depths of Woodenshoe Canyon on the north and Cheesebox Canyon on the south. The view in both directions is spectacular.
We continued climbing toward the heights of Elk Ridge, where we turned north on the main road. The Elk Ridge area was thick with early season hunters; by far the most people we had seen since we left Big Water five days before. We flew north, enjoying our third and final brush with altitude and its associated aspen and pine trees. We dropped off the north end of Elk Ridge into the wildly eroded country around House Park and the upper Salt Creek drainage, took a hard right turn at the Beef Basin intersection, and entered some of our favorite country.
We stopped for lunch at one of the many ancient dwellings in Ruin Park. We always marvel at the skill of the ancient masons and the resourcefulness of the people who lived in this colorful land thousands of years before. Soon after, we were slowly dropping down the rough dugway into aptly named Bobby's Hole. Bobby's Hole is the first in the series of grabens we were to traverse on our entry through the unpaved back door to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The grabens are a series of narrow rock-walled valleys created when underlying salt layers were displaced by the weight of the overlying strata, or so the geologists tell us. To the layman, grabens are excitingly beautiful green lanes between fantastically eroded rock walls on the way to the even more outlandish erosion of the needles around Chesler Park.
Next up was SOB Hill, a reminder of why we were driving 4WD vehicles even though we were in a national park. SOB Hill can be relatively easy or very difficult depending on the size and capability of the vehicle you are driving, but we wiggled through with little trouble. We eased our way down the steep slickrock of the Silver Stairs and were soon heading up the canyon toward Elephant Hill. Elephant Hill was the centerpiece of my very first Utah backcountry excursion almost 20 years ago. Other than the Park Service's attempts at road stabilization with asphalt and concrete, it has changed very little in the intervening years. Still steep, narrow, and tight, it was fun taking the lightly modified vehicles through its turns and grades.
We dropped into the parking lot at the base of the hill and were soon back on the dreaded pavement. Checking our fuel gauges, we bypassed the expensive-but-necessary-in-an-emergency gas at Needles Outpost and turned off of Highway 211 toward Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin. The road is regularly maintained into Lockhart Basin, but when the route split at Lockhart Canyon, we took the very ungraded road away from the river and up onto the benchlands above. It was once again time to look for a suitable place to spend the night, and the choice of stunning views was plentiful. We sat around, watching the sun recede on the western skyline, and contemplated our return to a busier life the next day.
We headed north toward Moab the next morning, sandwiched between the high cliffs of Hatch Point to the east and the river canyons to the west. Only 1 mile out of camp, we had our first mechanical difficulty of the whole trip. After hearing a sudden, unhappy sound, a quick examination yielded the grease seal and the bearing cage from the rear alternator bearing sitting in our hand. Still 50 miles and a long six-hour bounce from Moab, we decided to pull the offending unit for a little field fix rather than fetching another alternator. After repacking the bearing and carefully pushing the cage and seal back into place, we crossed our fingers and headed north again.
We kept listening for the telltale screech, but heard nothing as we slowly worked our way toward the last four-wheeling challenge of the trip. We arrived at the head of the 1-mile-long canyon that would take us from the bench back down toward river level. The canyon is full of rocks and rubble, and depending on how long it has been since a heavy rain, can take some careful maneuvering and rock stacking to traverse.
Stopping at one abrupt drop-off, we walked forward to check out the ledge and the necessary wheel placement. Returning to the Comanche, we promptly missed the desired line by a good foot and dropped the whole truck sideways into a hole. Literally less than a mile from the end of the last non-graded section of the whole trip, and the Comanche was now sitting with its unprotected rocker panel firmly wedged against an offending rock. So much for getting overly confident.
We jacked and stacked and eventually had the truck free with no further metal rearrangement. Rocker guards are in order before the next trip. From the bottom of the canyon, it's a short drive to the banks of the Colorado and the climb up Hurrah Pass just beyond. We stopped for our last panorama at the top of the pass, gazing appreciatively at the rugged country along the river through which we had just passed.
The road down from the top of the pass became progressively more improved as we descended. Soon we were bouncing down Kane Creek on graded gravel, and then pavement popped into sight. A few brief but smooth miles later, we hit Main Street in Moab. It had been six days and 493 miles since leaving the gas station in Big Water, but we were finished.
Hot showers, a restaurant meal, and some rest in soft beds awaited us, but we were leaving behind the red rocks, long vistas, and dirt roads that we love so much. The parting caused us to linger, but we were taking away fond memories of traversing some of Utah's most unforgettable terrain with good friends, good trucks, and a zest for the long way home.