Part II: The San Juan Mission
On January 26, 1880, the first wagon rolled off the raft on the east bank of the Colorado River after descending 1,000 feet through Hole in the Rock. Most of the pioneers breathed a sigh of relief thinking the worst was over. On the other hand, there were no smiles on the faces of the scouts who had seen the trail ahead. They knew the river crossing was only a small step toward their final destination.
A ferry was used to get the wagons across the Colorado River. Its construction began at the sawmill in Escalante. Each piece of timber was cut and shaped to fit tightly together and form a solid foundation. The pieces were then hauled 70 miles by wagon to the top of Hole in the Rock and lowered to the river where the ferry was assembled.
Two wagons and their teams were loaded on the ferry for each crossing. There were 83 wagons so getting everything across took several days. Freezing temperatures caused ice to form on the surface of the water and interfered with navigating the ferry.
The road up the east bank of the river was lost when Lake Powell was constructed. (The book Hole in the Rock by David E. Miller has some excellent photos and drawings if you are interested in learning more about the river crossing.)
This story is told in the order first traveled by the original pioneers. It begins at the river and travels east. If you drove in from Halls Crossing, you will have already seen everything described here. The official end of the 4x4 road coming in from Halls Crossing is a wide flat area on Cottonwood Hill.
The wagons left the river and followed Cottonwood Creek to the top of Cottonwood Hill. A hiking path still exists along that route to the edge of the lake but a much easier way to get there is to rent a boat from the marina in Bull Frog.
As the wagons lumbered along at a slow pace, the drovers became restless. Those on horseback and the cattle they cared for could move at a faster pace. They argued that if they went ahead more of the scant vegetation would be left for the teams pulling the wagons. The decision was made to split the herds from the wagons and let them travel at their own pace.
From Cottonwood Hill, the road quickly turns into a gear jamming, axle grinding, off-camber, off-roader’s delight. It is difficult to determine how much of the current road follows the path of the original wagons and how much of it was constructed by uranium miners in the 1950s. In either case this road should be attempted only by expert off-roaders.
The potential for vehicle damage, including rollover, is always present. Even though the Nissan Xterra Pro-4X was not modified, it comes equipped from the factory with an electric locker, BFG tires, and more ground clearance than most other brands. We were pleased at how well it handled one obstacle after another without incurring any damage.
The pioneers had an easy ride across Grey Mesa but it had taken them a month to get there since crossing the river. It was on that mesa, during a blinding blizzard, with a foot of snow on the ground, that a pioneer woman in a tent gave birth to a baby boy. That baby was born on Feb. 21, 1880.
It only took about a day to cross Grey Mesa but once they reached the edge, everything came to a halt. It was a long way down. They used dynamite, picks, and shovels to carve a path out of solid rock. The only way to follow that pioneer path off Grey Mesa is to do so on foot.