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Pucker On The Piute Pass

Jeep Cherokee
Mark Werkmeister | Writer
Posted September 1, 2012
Photographers: Joanne Spivack

Sweat and Steady Nerves Yield Passage on One of Utah’s Best

Oh, we hate that feeling. The feeling one gets when the uphill tire is tight against the sheer rock face but raised as it runs over the rocks and silt left behind from the last storm. Why is it that these dugways always tilt to the outside? The downhill tire? The downhill tire is the one that is less than a tread width from dropping over the edge into the great red "nothing" below. Ah…the pucker of Piute Pass. It was great to be back! There is nothing like red dirt and adrenaline to make one truly appreciate the Utah back country.

Piute Pass is one of our favorite Utah backcountry roads. Piute Pass has it all: forever views, incredible solitude, and the jaw-dropping palette of reds that only southwestern Utah can provide. It also seems that Piute Pass often provides more challenge than we anticipated.

We were in southwestern Utah for a laid-back week of camping and backcountry exploring. All three vehicles in our group were piloted by drivers seasoned with literally thousands of Utah dirt miles. We returned to the Highway 95 corridor between Blanding and Lake Powell because we believe it offers the absolute finest in Utah backcountry 4WD adventures. The day started out with a superlative sunrise at a backcountry campsite. We returned to the highway, topped off our tanks at the Hite general store, and held a quick conference.

"Where to next?"
"How about Piute Pass? It is one of my favorites."
"Bob, what condition is the road in?"
Bob Telepak, AKA Dr. Moab, is our resident guide and local condition guru.
"I don't know, it has been a while since I have been over it. All of the recent tracks at the trailhead look like ATVs so it may be blocked by rock fall again."
"What do you think, Terry?"
Terry Rust is our long-time friend and fellow Utah aficionado.
"Let's go. We have moved rocks there before and we can move them again."
Terry is always ready to toss rocks in holes.

It was settled, Piute Pass it was. San Juan County tries to keep it and many other roads passable to ATVs and 4WDs. More than once, the county's "trail-cat" has been used to reclaim the Piute Pass route after erosion or rock fall has blocked it. We knew from previous history that any rock fall would be near the top of the pass. Since the spot is relatively close to the highway, we would simply turn around and try another destination if it was blocked.

It was already mid-morning by the time we reached the trailhead. We all needed to be pointed toward home the following morning. We planned to camp somewhere that afforded us a quick and easy return to the highway for the long trip home. From our previous experience, we thought we could easily reach the end of the trail at the graded dirt road in Red Canyon before nightfall. Any number of campsites along the road would provide us an easy and efficient exit the next morning.

Off the highway, hubs locked in, and up the wash we went. Almost immediately we came to a section that had apparently dissuaded most Jeep-sized rides. The rain the previous year had carved away a large section of a dirt ramp, resulting in an ATV-width portion of the road remaining. We spent 30 minutes moving loose rock into the hole. It still didn't look very good.

After some thought we figured if we pulled onto the slickrock, descended steeply to the wash, and negotiated the squeeze between those two big rocks, we could bypass the washout and rejoin the route. We wouldn't even leave any tire tracks! It was a bit easier said than done, however. The slopes always feel a little steeper and the squeezes a little tighter when one puts an actual vehicle into the equation. It took some time but we carefully wiggled all three vehicles through without a scratch.

Bob Telepak (AKA Dr. Moab) points his hood at the gap in the Wingate cliff that is Piute Pass. Dr. Telepak has spent the last 20 years exploring every nook and cranny of Utah’s red rock country and has led us to many an unforgettable locale.

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