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.
On the second day, Adam and I parked our Liberty and jumped in with Jeep Jamboree guide Rick Sparks for the Hotel Rock trail. This 9-rated trail ascends into the high country and winds upward over rockfaces on the way to Hotel Rock, the summer hunting grounds of the prehistoric Native Americans known for the construction style of their dwellings and their distinctive pottery. Here, there are bountiful pinyon pines that produce the nut harvested each summer by the Pueblo hunter-gathers.
Although shorter than the Arch Canyon trail, this 4WD track requires low range and is best completed with experienced guides and a vehicle with lockers and towhooks in the event that you high-center or need a tug up and over some of the steep rock ledges. Shortly after the start of the trail, the driving becomes fun and technical and offers panoramic vistas of the canyon and the surrounding countryside. There are a number of lookout spots, but the best is at Hotel Rock, where cliff dwellings were built into the lower layers of the rockface, and you can see interior rooms with mud-plastered walls. You can even see the hand imprints of the Anasazi natives who crafted these structures more than 1,000 years ago. From here, you can see for hundreds of miles, with a backdrop of the snow-covered ranges of the Abajos and La Sals.
The highlight of Hotel Rock is the angular, steep rockface that has received a number of monikers over the years, including "The Hill," "S.O.B. Hill," and "Bo Derek Hill" (because it is "a perfect 10"). This rough rockface is the most challenging obstacle on the trail, and not surprisingly, gives you one experience when ascending and a completely different experience when descending, which typically makes it difficult to keep all four rubber contact patches on the rock!
At the end of the day, as we sat around the Cottonwood campground fire ring, it was easy to understand why the Ancient Ones made this beautiful location their home. It was also easy to understand why many consider the pair of Arch Canyon trails some of the best with the most scenic and historic four-wheeling in the country. It was fun to wax poetic about what it might have been like to have lived here during the period it was inhabited by the prehistoric Native Americans. But it was even more enjoyable to say a quick thanks to trail organizer Chris Timmes, of Littleton, Colorado, and his crew; to sup on charbroiled steaks and halibut flown in from Alaska that was prepared by Scott Laws and his staff of the local Lamplight Restaurant; and head to our motel-room beds in Blanding, the "Base Camp to Adventure."
There are numerous other Jamborees throughout 2008, including trips across the famed Rubicon Trail, located in the high Sierras of California. In addition to more than 30 different backcountry excursions taking place in the U.S., new for this year is the 2008 Jeep Jamboree Challenge. This event, scheduled to take place November 1-2, 2008, will be at the rugged Tire Vehicle Test Center near San Antonio, Texas, and is expected to draw close to 1,000 Jeep enthusiasts to compete in a variety of off-road challenges.
The Arch Canyon Jeep Jamboree was held as a Mark A. Smith "Signature" Jeep Jamboree, with Mark participating in the event. Mark, a member of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Explorer's Club, also led the 1978-79 Expedicin de las Amricas - a 20,000-mile odyssey from the southernmost tip of South America to the top of North America, crossing the infamous Darin Gap. He also headed the 1987 Camel Trophy in Madagascar. He founded Jeep Jamboree USA in 1982 and has since become a Jeep brand consultant. Mark has also conducted intensive training for the U.S. Army Special Forces and various law-enforcement agencies. Today, JJUSA is the world's largest Jeep-adventure company.
For more information about JJUSA and the dates and locations for this year's trips, go to www.jeepjamboreeusa.com or call (530) 333-4777. When you register for a JJUSA trip, you'll receive a gift certificate for a free copy of Mark A. Smith's Guide to Safe, Common-Sense Off-Road Driving. For copies of Mark's instructional booklet, you can order through the JJUSA website.