Southern Utah Adventure Done Right
Enter the city of Blanding, Utah, and you'll see a sign that welcomes you to the "Base Camp to Adventure." Located at an elevation of 6,000 feet in the region known as the Four Corners area, Blanding is a funky watering-hole-in-the-road situated along southeastern Utah's Highway 95, where herds of deer and elk - and an occasional antelope - dot the landscape. Sporting dinosaur sculptures and a dinosaur museum, Blanding feels more like a small town than a city, and it actually looks a bit like a set for a dust-bowl Western, with few locals in sight on the broad avenue of its main street. But when we parked our '08 Jeep Liberty at Blanding's Gateway Inn, all that really mattered to us was that we had arrived at the jumping-off point for two of the most historic, fun, and scenic 4WD trails in the country.
Jeep Jamboree USA recently held its 18th annual Arch Canyon Jeep Jamboree in the canyonland country that the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians once called home. In addition to driving two very diverse trails with different degrees of challenge, 102 participants from 19 states were able to view the ancient dwellings and inscriptions left on the red rock walls, as well as get up close and personal with Mark A. Smith, the founder of Jeep Jamboree USA on this "signature" event.
On the first day, my driving partner Adam Wright of Adams, Massachusetts, and I teamed up with the Jeepers who signed up for lodging in Blanding. From there, we joined the Jeepers who camped at Cottonwood Camp near the trailhead, located about 17 miles southwest of Blanding along Route 95, just past the Comb Ridge rock cut. Motoring along the 2-mile-long dry-wash entrance to the Arch Canyon trails, we spotted a large flock of turkeys and learned that the canyonlands area is also home to deer, elk, rabbits, squirrels, and raptors. We saw all but elk during our two days of four-wheeling.
We took the picturesque Arch Canyon trail that sets out along the sand-wash bottomlands, where ponderosa pine, cottonwood, juniper, and cedar shade the landscape, and rushes and sedges thrive along the Arch Creek. A storm that happened four years ago has now nearly doubled the number of creek crossings to 57 since the last time we were here. It also moved rocks and small boulders along the bottomlands, where the ancient Pueblo people built their homes and farmed the fertile bottom area of the canyon, protected from the region's harsh winter weather and searing summer temperatures. Estimates are that nearly 250,000 Anasazi or Pueblo lived in this San Juan County area. Remains show that a large concentration of these prehistoric Native Americans lived in Arch Canyon, as they left behind archeological clues that paint a picture of their lifestyle.
Because this area is maintained and protected by the BLM, the Jeep Jamboree was limited to a permit of 50 Jeeps, and we were accompanied by BLM archeologist Marie Low and BLM law enforcement official Marie Tuxhorn. They shared their knowledge of Arch Canyon and their passion to keep the trails protected but also open for 4WD travel. This is an issue that has become controversial with land-ethics groups due to the sensitive nature of the ruins.
Our lunch stop was approximately 6 miles in along the serpentine trail. The trail requires low range to climb out of the stream beds and the eagle eyes of a spotter to keep your vehicle free of damage. The entire trail is awe-inspiring and scenic and should be traveled over the course of a day to fully appreciate the many ruins tucked into the towering cliff walls. A short hike at the terminus of the 4WD trail brings the reward of viewing the Cathedral Arch and the 100-foot-tall Angel Arch that spans 40 feet.
Our day came to a close as we sat around a campfire with entertainment provided by local Ute Native Americans who told stories about their culture and sang, drummed, and played flutes. A dinner of Indian tacos capped the evening.