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Hole In The Rock Trail Part 3

Posted in Events on February 1, 2012
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Lake Pagahrit was formed when, over a period of many years, floods and erosion formed a sandy dam across Lake Canyon. Subsequent rains and natural springs filled the canyon behind the dam and the lake was formed. The pioneers used the dam as a bridge to cross the canyon and set up camps on both sides.

In March 1880, Lake Pagahrit was a welcomed oasis in the desert for 200 pioneers. They had not seen a body of water that size since leaving the Colorado River more than a month earlier. When they arrived at the lake, all 83 wagons came to a halt. The pioneers were blessed with a few warm days, providing pleasant temperatures for bathing, washing, and relaxing. Many of them were physically ill from the horrible conditions they had endured. Time for healing was badly needed.

The dam was washed away during a flood in the early 20th century. Since the dam and the lake no longer exist, the quickest way to cross the canyon is on foot. For those of us who have lived beyond their years when a strenuous hike like this would have been possible, the long drive to the other side is the preferred way. Even when you get to the other side, a hike is still required to reach the rim of the canyon.

We took the new access road on its roundabout course headed toward the airport near Halls Crossing. Along the way we turned onto a faint two-track path through thick brush and deep sand. Many years ago, that path was the main road leading to the ferry crossing for the Colorado River. At the point where the path connects to the pioneer road, like a flagpole, a BLM sign stood alone in the desert marking the remains of a wagon. The sign has since fallen down and the only thing left of the wagon is part of its wheel anchored to a concrete pad. Inconsiderate travelers have long since carried away the rest of the wagon.

While some pioneers stayed at the lake repairing their equipment and resting others formed a work crew and headed for Clay Hills Pass. A road had to be built down the east side of the pass as it makes a quick descent of about 1,000 feet. Due to the clay surface, road building was easier than the other sections where they had to blast their way through solid rock. On the other hand, their teams of animals were weak and exhausted. The long grades at Clay Hills Pass added to the deterioration of their health.

Our group crossed over the Pass on a paved road that was cracked, broken, and buckled in huge waves of concrete. We had to travel slowly but the crossing was not difficult. We turned off the pavement at the Cow Tank road and began a very scenic trail through a forest of cedar trees. The trail crossed numerous gulches with sharp rocks that tested the tough sidewalls of the BFG All-Terrain tires on our vehicles.

Small piles of trees were stacked on both sides of the trail. They looked as if they might have been there since 1880 but more likely found their final resting place as a result of the road being reopened after many years of neglect. During the 1950s, Uranium miners opened roads all across Utah in an effort to find new pockets of the valuable ore.

The Cow Tank road is rocky and passes through a forest of cedar trees.

The pioneers traveled in groups spread out over many miles. Each group was limited by the condition of their teams. All teams were exhausted from the many months of dragging the wagons across hostile terrain, but some were in worse condition than others. In an effort to keep the wagons rolling, exhausted animals were replaced by ones that still had some strength. Teams consisted of a mixture including cattle, horses, and mules. Stronger teams led the way while weaker teams lagged behind.

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The trail through Grand Gulch is only open to hikers so we passed by and picked the trail up again on Snow Flats. One land formation is especially rocky and has been named “The Twist.” The higher clearance of the Nissan Pro-4X was tested in some places but most of the trail was crossed without devoting a lot of attention to it.

As the wagons approached Comb Ridge ahead, they had to be wondering how it was possible to get to the other side.

The lead wagons reached Comb Ridge near the end of March 1880. They were looking at a 1,000-foot high rock wall with no visible route where a wagon road could be built. They turned south and followed the base of Comb Ridge to the point where the San Juan River passes through a huge opening. They used that opening to get around the end to the east side but found that side was against the banks of the river. The only choice they had was to build a road to the top of the wall that formed Comb Ridge.

Once again, the pioneers were faced with carving a road out of solid rock. When the carving was finished, animals had to be selected carefully to get the strongest ones to pull the wagons to the top. As many as eight animals were hitched together for each wagon so if one animal fell to its knees, the others could hold the load. The best teams were used repeatedly, pulling the wagons to the top one at a time. After reaching the top, they ran north along its ridge until they reached a slope where they could descend away from the river.

By following the base of Comb Ridge, the wagons reached the San Juan River that passed through a huge opening in the wall. They were able to get to the other side of Comb Ridge but found the river flowed against a wall on that side.

Our group used the road to get around the wall, but there is no accessible path that follows the original wagon road, except on foot. A really nice cliff dwelling on the east side of Comb Ridge is well worth a visit. The river still flows against the wall in places so the only way out is the way we came in.

Once the wagons were over Comb Ridge, the caravan was unwilling to proceed. The animals were in seriously bad condition and the pioneers were exhausted. The original plan had been to settle near Fort Montezuma but they huddled together in a wide-open area and declared it to be their new home. Bluff was the name of the settlement they built. A visitor park in town has several log cabins that are used to depict what life was like for the settlers who built there in April 1880.

The pioneers had to carve a path up the side of Comb Ridge so they could travel across its top. They named the ascent San Juan Hill.

Join us next month for part one of the Neemepoo (Nez Perce) Trail. Their flight for survival took them from Joseph, Oregon, across Idaho, through Yellowstone Park and into Montana.

Navigation: GPS Positions
Latitude Longitude Landmarks, Intersections, and Other Locations
37 24.5289 110 34.9763 Wagon wheel at crossroads for Halls Crossing.
37 22.5401 110 32.3525 Remains of an abandoned halftrack vehicle.
On the east side of Clay Hills Pass, the Cow Tank road can be taken on the northwest side of milepost 84. Turn right on the two-track trail going east.

Trip Latitude Longitude Landmarks, Intersections, and Other Locations
1.6 37 30.2309 110 4.6925 Take the right fork. There are no signs.
2.2 37 30.2917 110 4.0039 Take the right fork on Route 1.
2.7 37 30.3753 110 3.5069 Left fork is the old trail. Right is a bypass.
5.2 37 30.9745 110 1.3195 Take the right fork.
9.6 37 32.4283 109 57.9100 At this point, the road connects to Highway 95 between mileposts 87 and 88. To continue, turn right.
At the intersection for Highway 95 and Highway 261, go south on 261. It will pass a ranger station for Grand Gulch. A short distance past that intersection is a two-track road going east. That is the original route taken by the pioneers. The trail is very abusive to a vehicle’s paint and is recommended for ATVs only.
0.0 37 29.7465 109 53.7485 South on Highway 261 past milepost 32.
At the intersection for Hightway 95 and Hightway 261, go south on 261. It will pass a ranger station for Grand Gulch. Snow Flat Road is a left turn between mileposts 23 and 22.
0.3 37 26.3591 109 55.0061 Follow the left fork.
4.8 37 26.0885 109 50.7796 The original trail comes in from the left. It is recommended for ATVs onlydue to heavy brush that is abusive to paint.
19.3 37 19.8543 109 39.8468 Take the right fork. Left follows Comb Wash back to Highway 95.
21.9 37 17.8216 109 39.7496 Take the right fork. Left follows Comb Wash back to Highway 95.
24.2 37 16.4177 109 40.6709 Turn left on Highway 163. Cross the bridge and turn on th e dirt road. Follow it around the ridge staying left at all intersections.
  37 13.3071 109 41.8529 San Jaun Hill where the wagons climbed the wall.

In their diaries, the pioneers mentioned using cliff dwellings like this one for shelter.

Much of the information used in this story was obtained from the book Hole in the Rock, by David E Miller. Other sources were found on the Internet. The Xterra Pro-4X driven by Lone Writer is provided by Nissan. Tires are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS and Mapping software is provided by DeLorme. For more information, check out

An outdoor park in Bluff has wagons and log cabins on display to introduce the visitor to the way of life the pioneers built. The visitor center has a variety of information and souvenirs.

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