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Utah 4Wheeler Trails - Looping The Chair

Posted in Events on June 1, 2006
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We love our backcountry explorations! When the trials and perils of corporate life start to weigh heavily on our urban 21st-century psyches, nothing rejuvenates us better, faster, and more satisfyingly than heading deep into the southern Utah backcountry with a couple of friends of like persuasion. Over the years, we have been fortunate enough to have explored a vast array of extraordinary places and unforgettable trails in the red sandstone canyon country. For every road we check off our running list, we add several more as we almost always see some new and interesting side road, faint spur, or remains of a relic road that calls to our exploratory spirit. The backcountry loop around Jacob's Chair off Utah 95 was one such addition that has been luring us with its siren song for a considerable time.

Utah Highway 95 from Blanding to Hanksville is our favorite length of pavement in the state of Utah. Crossing some of the most scenic lands in the Southwest, the red sandstone assault of your visual senses reaches its climax in the 40-mile stretch centered on the Colorado River. Almost every dirt road leading off the highway in the area beckons us to four-wheeling adventure, but we had a specific destination in mind for our November weekend trip.

When we explored the area of Piute Pass (see "Piute Pass - Hard Work Yields a Spectacular Loop," Apr. '04), we stood at the top of the pass and pondered the desert road network across the highway. Some subsequent detective work yielded an intriguing set of maps distributed by San Juan County, Utah. A map entitled "Jacob's Chair" was the one that caught our eye. It detailed the routes available in the convoluted terrain surrounding the prominent sandstone monolith known as Jacob's Chair.

San Juan County is a four-wheeling paradise for enthusiasts who enjoy a quality backcountry discovery experience. It is a rare and wondrous entity: an area government-dedicated to actively promoting, enhancing, and protecting its motorized recreational opportunities. Working with local enthusiasts, the county has identified, mapped, and touted several high-quality loop trails among the 500-plus miles of routes available in the county. These loops penetrate deep into the brilliantly red sandstone canyon country on historic mining and ranching access routes. While many trails are specifically targeted at the ATV segment, the nature of these old roads makes some of them perfectly suited to 4WD vehicles.

Jacob's Chair is a towering remnant of the same formation that forms the high cliff line penetrated by Piute Pass. Southwest of the highway, these high mesas are defined by miles and miles of sheer Wingate Formation sandstone cliffs, but the northeast side of the pavement sports only the single remaining relic. This makes Jacob's Chair the focal point and navigation landmark for many miles around. Our intent was to circumnavigate the giant monolith using San Juan County's identified route, soak in the majesty of the Utah backcountry, and purge away our corporate cares.

The loop can be run in either direction, but we ran it counterclockwise to maximize the scenic vistas with a flat sun on a short November day. The eastern end of the loop starts at Gravel Crossing. The twisting labyrinth that is White Canyon separates Jacob's Chair from the highway, and there are only a few places to cross the narrow, deep canyon. After about 2 miles, the loop passes a location that we have affectionately dubbed the "Car Park." Covered with a deep sun-baked patina, several vehicles lie abandoned a short distance from the road and are worth the short detour. If these desert relics could talk, they would undoubtedly tell a story of being pressed into a second life of service at this remote mining location. A harsh and all-too-brief stint satiating the '50s-era lust for uranium ore was followed by the long subsequent years of slowly decaying into the red dirt.

Immediately after the Car Park, the road climbs abruptly to reach an elevated bench land. Roped along a series of "dugways" and upward-tilting strata, the trail calls for careful work in Low range. It slips by ravines nipping at the deteriorating shoulders and dodges rocks that have tumbled to the roadbed from rocky slopes above. The going was slow as the trucks grinded along the side of the escarpment. This portion of the loop passes the closest to the towering heights of Jacob's Chair itself, and its colorful slopes displayed their full range of colors in the bright morning sun. We paused to check out some of the old tunnels and digs in the layer once suspected of harboring the elusive radioactive ore.

Scenic vistas beckon at every twist and turn of the trail. Almost the entire 30-mile-long loop travels along a high, narrow ridge of land that encircles Jacob's Chair and Long Canyon, a major tributary of White Canyon. This lofty perch for the roadbed ensures fantastic views - first to the east across Gravel Canyon and later to the west down the long slopes leading to the Colorado River. Throughout it all looms towering Jacob's Chair - at first near and orange and overwhelming; later, more distant, mystical, and mysterious in the faded blues and purples of the deepening twilight shadows.

We slowly crawled along, stopping frequently to take in the incredible views and to look for a good campsite for the evening. We settled on a previously used spot shoehorned in among the pion trees and perched on a high promontory. Our field of view encompassed a full 360 degrees, promising a delightful color show both at sunset and sunrise. We were not disappointed. We watched the subtle chromatic changes as the sun slipped below the Henry Mountains to the west and then enjoyed the bonhomie around a crackling fire of aromatic wood. By the time we were wordlessly contemplating the glowing embers of the dying fire, our cluttered minds were emptied, purified, and freed.

The day dawned bright and crisp with the first rays of the morning painting the tips of the distant peaks a brilliant pink. It took a long time to pack, even for the camping minimalists among us - partly because of the early morning chill that numbed our fingertips, and partly from genuine reluctance to climb back into the trucks that we knew would necessarily take us back toward the pavement and civilization.

We stopped at a flimsy, abandoned structure thrown up rapidly during the uranium boom. The desert is hard at work reclaiming the site - it already had a decidedly forlorn feel to it as it slowly melted back into the eternal red rocks and dirt. We continued our travels along a narrowing spit of land with incredible views in all directions. Suddenly, we ran out of room and the road dove off the constricting peninsula and dropped steeply down a huge dugway blasted and bladed down the side of the cliff. Once again, our 4WD attributes and skills were needed as the road threaded its way down and around erosional challenges left by the infrequent rains. Soon we were back at pavement level and crossing under the highway via the culvert at Ducket Crossing.

Wow... pavement! The spell this desert always casts on us was broken as we pulled onto the shoulder of the pavement with our hoods pointed toward home. We had come to our favorite part of Utah to lose ourselves in the hugeness and splendor that is southeastern Utah. The loop circling Jacob's Chair had brought us another quality backcountry experience. We had come seeking renewal, and once again we had found that and more.

  Latitude (D, MM.MMM) Longitude (D, MM.MMM)
Gravel Crossing 37,42.317 110,14.400
The Car Park 37,43.{{{300}}} 110,13.283
Intersection w/cut-off to Indian Head Pass Rd. 37,44.650 110,06.017
Ducket Crossing 37,44.567 110,16.833
*These coordinates are not part of the GeoStash contest.

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