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Arizona 4x4 Trails - The Big Adventure Part One

Posted in Events on March 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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As I searched for a place to pitch my tent on the steep and rocky shelf road, I reflected on how our adventure had gotten to this point. It was easy. We had violated one of my Cardinal Rules of Four-Wheeling. The rules are simple and go something like this:

Rule Number 1 - Never follow in your Jeep if Phil Collard is on foot.
Rule Number 2 - Never drive into something unless you are sure you can get back out.

We were a day's hard drive deep into the vast Arizona Strip. The notorious Mr. Collard was somewhere home in New Mexico, so we were OK on Rule Number 1. But the trail leader (yours truly) had egregiously violated Rule Number 2. We had crossed a rocky arroyo in our hasty effort to reach the top of the Grand Wash Cliffs before nightfall. Now the Comanche was thwarted by another, even larger, washout. I couldn't back down across the arroyo over which I had just dragged my rear bumper, and the road was far too narrow to turn around. It was also now well past dusk and rapidly approaching dark-thirty! So there we were, violators of one of the Cardinal Rules, paying the price and grumbling about an appalling lack of level tent sites.

The trip and the day had started out much differently. We were embarking on our third annual "Big Adventure." This yearly, week-long, autumn rite requires long distances, new country to explore, and point-to-point camping along the way. It also requires a few close friends of like mind and temperament when the itinerary calls for exploring this deep into the backcountry. This year we had chosen the three-million-plus acres of the Arizona Strip, the remote area of Arizona bounded by the Colorado River and the Utah and Nevada borders. This epic backcountry sojourn would involve four vehicles, six days, and over 400 miles between gas stops! Our trek would take us through three states and even more jurisdictions: Grand Canyon National Park, the new Parashant National Monument, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a plethora of BLM-managed land, and even a corner of the Kaibab Paiute reservation.

The adventure started benignly enough in Mesquite, Nevada, with an on-time rendezvous. We topped off our tanks, filled the last of our gas cans, and bid farewell to the "madding crowd." We left I-15 at Riverside (Exit 112), crossed the Virgin River, and followed a very decrepit paved route along the river and then down into the desert toward Lake Mead. Twenty-five miles from the four-lane, the last pavement we would see for six days disappeared in our rearview mirrors as we headed into the unknown of the Arizona Strip.

We motored along into the afternoon. The first stop was the Devil's Throat, a nearly unfathomable geologic oddity. In the middle of the valley floor is a straight-sided, gravel-bottomed sinkhole that is at least 100 feet deep. Experts have yet to provide a logical mechanism for its creation. Stay on the outside of the protective fencing, because if by some miracle you survived the drop into the hole, there would be no way out except with winch cable.

Our road slowly deteriorated until we crossed into Arizona where regular maintenance seemed to end altogether. The roads on the east side of the state line appeared to be graded only very sporadically, and the routes tended to follow gravelly wash bottoms that get flushed by nature on a more frequent basis. We eventually reached the oasis of the Tassi Ranch. Here a strong running spring gives rise to a grove of monstrous cottonwood trees, a historic set of ranch buildings, and a rare spot of lush green in the midst of the Mojave Desert. The verdant site seemed even more improbable in the oppressively hot afternoon.

After exploring the intriguing historic remains of the ranch, we headed east toward the Grand Wash Cliffs. We were following a map and directions from the only 4WD guide we could find on the region. As it was published in 1977, we would soon find its major shortcoming. The book was written long before the current administration of the Park Service started closing road sections in this part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Our chosen path soon encountered a "Route Closed" piece of Carsonite and we had no law-abiding choice but to retrace our steps back to the Tassi Ranch. We headed north, seeking an alternate route that would take us to the base of the Grand Wash Cliffs which loomed so enticingly on the eastern horizon. Our second choice gave us better results and we soon found ourselves gaining elevation as we wound our way up a shallow wash between grass-covered hills.

On topping the initial ridgeline, we faced the awesome cliffs with some trepidation. We could see our road disappearing into a narrow defile in the cliff line but could see no apparent way that a road would be able to climb the towering walls in that confined space. After all, our out-of-date guidebook had already steered us wrong once. Only one way to find out...

We drove our vehicles into the canyon, and to our delight and amazement the road wiggled this way and that, switchbacking its way up and out of the canyon on a steep, narrow, but very passable, route. Edging its way along the vertical rock, the road first swung north and then way back south around a giant spur of layered limestone. Our GPS units indicated we were nearing the Savanic Mine. The mine would then be a mere half mile from much easier two-track on the Grand Gulch Bench, a broad plateau at the top of the cliff line. The views were jaw-dropping as we wound our way across the face of nearly sheer cliffs lit with a golden glow from the lowering sun. The mine finally pulled into view and we worked our way around a short washed-out road section right in front of the workings. We hopped out for a quick exploration, keeping our examination purposely short. We could then see the remainder of the route climbing up a narrow canyon to the bench above. The light was rapidly fading and we wanted to ensure a campsite on the bench still above. There was definitely a severe shortage of tent sites anywhere in the canyon!

The mine site consisted of several vertical shafts cut deeply into the rock. While some of the ladders leading into the depths seemed sturdy enough, we all knew better than to play explorer with those perpendicular holes in the ground. The area around the mine was strewn with samples of azurite and malachite, two common forms of copper ore. Further discovery beckoned, but the fading light and the remaining half mile of road reminded us of our campsite goal.

We were soon confronted by the steep crossing of a rocky arroyo and my lead Comanche completed a major bumper dragging operation to make it safely across. As the others worked their way through, I lurched up the narrowing, steep, rocky road and was confronted by the washout described in the opening paragraph. A quick hike up the trail confirmed my growing fear. We definitely would not be traversing this section in the dark! The route got considerably more difficult as it ascended; it had washouts, big rocks, and ledges in profusion. We were facing hours of work and it had already been a long, hot day. There was simply no choice but to camp right there in the narrow, rocky road. The challenge looming ahead of us was definitely on our minds as we bedded down for the night and tried to find sleep in our less-than-ideal campsite.

The next morning dawned and the first order of business was to again scout the road to the top. Things always look better in the first light of day, right? My second trip confirmed my impressions from the night before. With a well-equipped rockcrawler, this stretch would be fun but we might well be overmatched with our small caravan of relatively mild vehicles. Years of water being channeled down this canyon had badly eroded the road, leaving behind a series of obstacles that would make this rock aficionado grin under other circumstances. In the present situation, the road left us with a strong yearning for stouter equipment. The biggest concern was the possibility of a broken component that would leave us disabled a full day from the nearest parts source. Would the vehicles and drivers be up to the challenge? The only way to know for sure was to give it a whirl, so in the morning's early shadows we started a slow journey upward.

Leaving the other three Jeeps at the bottom, all four drivers teamed up to move rock, fill holes, and generally support the push to the top with the lead vehicle. With close attention to the spotter, I ever so carefully drove the Comanche over washouts, up and around off-camber shelves, and scaled the long series of ledges. With the sun much higher in the sky and a large amount of perspiration liberated into the dry desert air, the difficulty finally relented near the mesa top. Leaving the Comanche in place, we headed back down the hill to bring up the remainder of the trucks.

Things were going smoothly until the under-geared Scrambler lurched against a rock once, twice, and POP! The noise we all dreaded rang out sharply among the rocks. A quick glance at the front axle joints confirmed that they were not the source of the telltale noise. "Please not a rear axle!" A more thorough examination revealed the front driveshaft hanging loosely, the shaft having separated from the slip-yoke at the weld - not a good thing without a handy welder in the caravan.

As a general precaution against Murphy's Law and long distance excursions, I had thrown a tube of welding rod into the Comanche before I left home. A couple of jumper cables, a pair of Optima batteries, and three pairs of sunglasses had us putting into practice welding techniques that previously had been only theories gleaned from stories around the campfire. The MacGyver-like technique worked and while the weld was not beautiful, it certainly appeared strong enough to serve its purpose.

With the repaired driveshaft back under the CJ-8, the rest of the trip to the top was relatively uneventful. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief upon finally reaching the crest of the cliffs with the last of the vehicles. It had taken us a little over five hours to travel under a half a mile! Not the usual pace for these desert exploration trips, but a segment that will long be remembered by the crew involved.

What a difference in terrain - an abrupt transition from a narrow, rock- and ledge-filled chute to miles and miles of dusty two track through the short grass and scattered trees of this broad bench land. After a few of those dusty miles, we came to a stock watering system that included a huge tank brimming with cool, clear water. We gleefully took the opportunity to shed a few of the layers of sweat and dirt we had gained during our labor to get past the Savanic Mine. When you are carrying your water needs with you in jugs, you take advantages of bathing facilities wherever you find them!

Our route next took us through twisting Pigeon Canyon. The road was well maintained and well signed, a trend that we noticed throughout much of the Parashant National Monument. The serpentine climb would take us up through the Upper Grand Wash Cliffs to the Shivwits Plateau, a major feature of the Arizona Strip and one of the centerpieces of the new monument. What a different world this high plateau of trees and meadows was from the low desert we had just left. We drove down wide, graded dirt roads toward Kelly Point, a purportedly dramatic viewpoint of the Grand Canyon. As we toured farther south, the roads got progressively smaller and rougher. We were soon reduced to a slow crawl negotiating a seemingly endless array of football-sized rocks on the narrow two track through the trees. Further review of our admittedly sketchy trail descriptions confirmed that the remaining 20 miles to Kelly Point would probably be more of the same. A quick conference to discuss potential vistas versus a literal "40 miles of bad road" and we all agreed that a change of destination was in order. As dusk was, again, nearly upon us, we looked for an appropriate place to camp. We found it nearby at the site of an old sawmill operation near Green Spring and settled in for the night.

The next morning, our plans to find an alternative viewpoint with a little less "investment" still seemed prudent. We decided on Twin Point, another high promontory just a few miles to the west. A quick backtrack and we were once again headed south toward the Grand Canyon. Ahhhh...much better. The road, while still two track, was much smoother and the distance to the end of the long peninsula was only half as long. The views of the Canyon were spectacular. We marked this spot as a strong contender for a campsite on any return trip and also encountered the first vehicles that we had seen in over two days. The Strip can be a lonely place.

The next tour stop was a supposed route (again, a 1977 description) down into the Grand Canyon drainage system via Trail and Parashant Canyons. Like any travel endeavor in the Arizona Strip, this next destination entailed many miles - first north, then nearly 20 miles east, and then back south. Five and half hours later, we were sitting on the rim of Trail Canyon, peering intently at the road leading into the depths below. The route could clearly be seen snaking down and out of view in the canyon. Just as clearly, we could see what appeared to be a major washout at the base of the first long switchback below.

A short drive into the canyon confirmed our suspicions. A pair of culverts in the old roadbed had not been sufficient to handle the flow of water and the road was badly eroded. A mere 5 feet of width remained and the only marks across the narrow strip were clearly ATV tracks. A yawning pit a full 6 feet deep and twice as long to the driver's side threatened to deter us, and a badly undercut roadway further dampened our exploratory spirits.

After so much peril to our vehicles the previous day at the Savanic Mine, was the crew up to challenges here and the adventures ahead in the unseen and unexplored canyon depths below? The answer might be obvious to long time readers but you will have to wait until part two of The Big Adventure for confirmation.

GPS COORDINATES* LATITUDE (D, MM.MMM) LONGITUDE (D, MM.MMM)
Riverside Exit on I-15 36, 46.228N 114, 14.045W
Devil’s Throat 36, 25.640N 114, 08.950W
Tassi Ranch 36, 15.364N 113, {{{57}}}.461W
Open Route to Grand Wash Cliffs 36, 18.279N 113, 55.774W
Savanic Mine 36, 16.279N 113, 48.058W
Twin Point Overlook 36, 05.584N 113, 28.550W
Old Sawmill Site at Green Spring 35, 59.144N 113, 37.814W
Trailhead for Trail Canyon 36, 18.595N 113, 20.128W

*The coordinates on this page are not part of the GeoStash Contest.

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