"Extreme washouts ahead. Enter at your own risk," the sign warned. Someone had even scrawled a skull and crossbones next to the hand-painted message. We were still on graded dirt, just a few miles into the famous Hole-in-the-Rock road. The route is one of our favorites, and we know it well. Why would someone (a local?) go to the trouble of planting a homemade sign with such a dire warning way out here? Extreme washouts? The southeastern Utah desert gets hammered regularly by flash floods from violent summer thunderstorms. Washouts are normal and expected, so we shrugged off the warning. The six vehicles in our party were all well-equipped for this classic red-desert adventure. We figured we could deal with any washouts. And deal with it we did when we found the reason for the ominous notice.
Hole-in-the-Rock is more than a road. It is one of the most amazing stories in Utah history. In 1879, a band of LDS (more properly, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormon) pioneers heeded their church's call to colonize a portion of southeast Utah. Heading east from the area of Escalante, Utah, their goal was to establish new settlements along the San Juan River in the area of current-day Bluff. Pull out your Utah maps and consider their route. In addition to almost 200 miles of some of the roughest desert in the United States, the route crossed the Colorado River deep in the canyon now occupied by Lake Powell. It is hard to believe now, but the planned "direct" route was considered to be most efficient at the time.
In October 1879, around 250 men, women, and children left Escalante with loaded wagons and nearly 1,000 head of livestock on the journey to their new homes. A scouting party had identified a general route and estimated the trip would take six weeks. The actual expedition took over six months, lasting all through an unusually bitter winter, and included some of the most astounding road-building feats ever completed in the American West. The caravan built its own road the entire way. The terrain the caravan traversed is almost unbelievably difficult. The single, most amazing feat involved reaching the Colorado River through a narrow cleft in the towering wall on the west side of the canyon. This "hole-in-the-rock" gave its name to the route and the brave party that created it. A detailed account of this incredible trek is the subject of an outstanding book by David E. Miller.
We encountered absolutely no one else on the entire journey.
The desert can still be difficult and unforgiving, but much of the original pioneer route is still driveable by 4WD. The particular section of the historic trail we were tracing runs east from Lake Powell. It is an "out and back" proposition covering 60 miles through big, empty country. We encountered absolutely no one else on the entire journey. Make sure you are completely self-supporting and capable of extracting yourself from whatever misadventures you find.
Our journey started at the Cal Black Memorial Airport on Highway 276. This made our direction of travel opposite that of the original pioneers. The airport is about 10 miles east of Lake Powell on the highway that branches off of Highway 95 to make the run down to Hall's Crossing on the lake. A dirt road skirts the west side of the airport and heads south into the desert. This first section of road does not follow the original alignment of the pioneer's route. It first crosses the settler's tracks about 2-1/2 miles south of the pavement.
The road turns right at a three-way intersection, and the character of the route quickly changes. The graded dirt road ends on the rim overlooking a shallow, tree-filled drainage known as the Cottonwood Branch of Lake Canyon. The route drops into the canyon, crosses the seasonal stream in the bottom, and then crawls out the other side on the trail's first extended stretch of slickrock. Slickrock is the term for the vast expanses of solid Navajo sandstone common to the Utah desert, and slick it isn't. When dry, the surface is similar to 60-grit sandpaper and offers phenomenal traction. The road here follows a route blasted and bulldozed into the canyons in the 1950s as prospectors probed for oil, gas, and uranium deposits. The road soon approaches the brink of the main branch of Lake Canyon. The descent into the canyon is seat-puckering steep for those new to slickrock. With a bit of experience, one learns to trust the traction.
Once in the bottom of the canyon, the terrain radically changes again. Lake Canyon once held a real lake - Lake Pagahrit - its waters held back by a natural dam of accumulated sand. The Mormon settlers crossed Lake Canyon on this dam and enjoyed the incongruity of the large body of water in the midst of the desert. The dam gave way in 1915 during a deluge. The lake drained, leaving behind its rich load of sediment. Now the canyon bottom is a shady oasis of cottonwood trees, bulrushes, and verdant foliage. We passed under towering, overhanging walls as we headed north down the canyon toward the gentle ramp out of the canyon. We rounded the corner and ... STOP!
We had definitely found the "extreme washout." If anything, "washout" was an understatement. The road was completely gone, terminating in a high embankment of exposed tree roots and a dangerously crumbling edge. We can easily reconstruct what happened. In the years since the dam washed out, the waters rushing periodically down the canyon have slowly eroded a gully back southward through the bottom of the former lake. Evidently, a recent rainfall of truly epic proportions greatly accelerated this slow, natural process. There used to be a sign next to the exit point of the canyon, marking and explaining the site of the former lake. Now the sign posts perch on a sheer bank hanging 100 feet above the canyon bottom. We can only imagine the surprise of the first traveler that came upon this shocking remodeling job by Mother Nature. The warning on the homemade sign was entirely justified, as the original road is no more.
The improvised exit route is much more challenging than the route it replaces. A sharp left turn is followed by a short but extremely steep climb on a sandstone fin. The new edge of the canyon is uncomfortably close to this turn and climb, especially considering the obviously unstable edge just off the passenger side. With her usual sense of humor, Mother Nature also made this climb a bit off-camber and covered the fin with a film of loose grit to compromise the traction. We eased each vehicle through the hazard with rapt attention paid to the spotters. A tumble off the rock would carry one all the way to the bottom of the canyon.
With her usual sense of humor, Mother Nature also made this climb a bit off-camber...
We sniffed out the connection back to the established route through the hills of sandstone and continued on our way. Once past Lake Canyon, the mineral-exploration road joins up with the pioneer's original road and follows it very closely for much of the remaining route. This is wild and rough country! Even with the modern joys of Low gears, fuel-injected engines, and ergonomic seats, the terrain physically beats you up. Imagine traveling on steel-rimmed wagon wheels.
We camped in Iceberg Canyon at the base of Grey Mesa. Sheltered on three sides by mounds of sandstone, the campsite is a sandy parking lot tastefully landscaped with clumps of juniper. The surrounding rock offers some protection from the frequent winds, and the wide expanse provided flat camping sites and privacy for all of us. Just a few-minute walking distance from camp is the Hole-in-the-Rock party's mind-boggling route down from Grey Mesa.
The pioneer's original hand-picked and blasted route off Grey Mesa is far too narrow and steep for our Jeeps. Calling this amazing path a "road" is a bit of a stretch. It is barely wider than a hiking trail and so steep that the pioneers were forced to hack steps into the rock for the horses to gain purchase. The descent zigzags back and forth in a desperate attempt to keep the grade merely perilous. The first-time visitors in our party frequently stopped, shook their heads, and wondered aloud how anyone could have brought wagons down through such terrain. At the top of the original route, if one knows just where to look, is an amazing artifact. The wreckage of a wagon lies slowly melting into the mesa. Since the last wagon rolled on this road in 1881, the remains have been lying undisturbed for nearly 130 years.
The next day, our slow journey resumed. We had to diverge once more from the pioneer's path and utilize the 1950s-era road scaling Grey Mesa. Prospectors dynamited and bulldozed a very primitive road up the north side of the mesa in a series of ruggedly steep dugways. Dugway is the unique Utah term for a shelf road hacked and chopped through the solid rock of the region.
The route continues past the dugways to the top of Grey Mesa, across the broad, table-flat terrain to the far side, then down the heart-pounding slickrock of The Chute. The Chute is the oft-photographed sandstone trough that the settlers used to gain the top of Grey Mesa on their slow climb up from the Colorado River. The solid-rock route today is exactly the same as it was in 1879. The technique for success is still to keep the vehicle centered in the drainage and creep right down.
Soon we were parked at the (current-day) end of the road high above Cottonwood Canyon and overlooking Lake Powell. Down the canyon and across the lake, we could just make out the narrow black slot of the actual Hole-in-the-Rock. It is a vertical gash in the cliffs on the west side of Lake Powell. The size of this country dwarfs us, and its rugged terrain still challenges a modern vehicle. Take a minute or two to think about the travelers of 1879. It would take us only a day and a half to get back to the pavement. When the Mormons reached this point, they still had three months of arduous journey ahead of them.
Driving Hole-in-the-Rock fills one with respect and admiration for the devout and tenacious pioneers who were willing to even attempt such an implausible journey. The Hole-in-the-Rock road is also a modern-day adventure for those with a yen for desert solitude, a love for the fascinating history of the route, and vehicles stout enough to brave a rough and empty desert.