Circumnavigating Jacob's Chair In San Juan County
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.