Mother's Day was fast approaching. What should I get for Mom this year? Flowers? Flowers are always nice, but they have been done to death. Chocolates? The same. How about a day of jeeping on one of my favorite trails? It may not work for everyone, but for my Mother (and Father), a trip to southeastern Utah for a little spring 'wheeling was just the ticket. With the parental units retired and RVing full-time, making sure a suitable weekend was available was the first challenge. No one is busier than an actively retired person. After a phone call to Mom, their schedule was modified to allow a meeting at the Hite Marina on Lake Powell. The Mother's Day trip was on!
I owe my passion for Jeeps and backcountry roads to my parents. Growing up on the farm in Nebraska, our annual family vacation usually meant packing the kids up and heading for the mountains of Colorado. My mother worked at a resort in the Rockies during her college years. A weekly trip she hosted for guests had introduced her to the idea of roads less traveled. A subsequent marriage and family didn't diminish the call of high-country back roads. In those early years, our family explored the back roads of Colorado in whatever four-door sedan we had in service at the time. Yes, my four-wheeling bug actually started in a '62 Impala! We eventually made the move to a CJ in the mid-1970s. Mom and Dad have been 'wheeling an '89 Cherokee since it was purchased new and had long since expanded their trail repertoire to include every terrain found in the western U.S.
With this family history, it wasn't so unusual to propose a Mother's Day spent prowling the back roads of Utah. The trip needed to follow a few simple rules. The trip couldn't be too taxing, as my parent's days of enjoying 4WD challenge is in the rear-view mirror. The route also needed to be completed in a single day, so they could return to the comforts of their RV in the evening. Their love of roughing it on the trails doesn't extend beyond nightfall (although, we did talk them into camping on Mt. Blanca and the Hole-in-the-Rock trail on past trips). With these parameters in mind, I confidently made the selection. This trip has remained one of my personal favorites for many years. My Mother's Day gift would be the long and beautiful loop from Hite Marina on Lake Powell through the Wingate sandstone wonderland of North Hatch Canyon.
Hite Marina is located where Highway 95 crosses both the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers at the north end of Lake Powell. With the current lake far below full-pool level, there isn't a lot of boating activity at Hite (the permanent boat ramp has been high and dry for years). But it is still a great place to use as a base of operations in southeast Utah. Surrounded by some of the most spectacular red rock terrain in the whole state, Hite offers gas 24 hours a day and has plentiful campsites exposed by the low lake level. We parked the RVs, enjoyed the sunset on the surrounding rocks, and headed to bed early in preparation for the long loop the following day.
The first leg of the loop heads north from Hite toward the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The turn off the pavement is between the two bridges on Highway 95. This road is in much better shape than the first time I traveled it almost 25 years ago. Although it sees a grader much more often than it used to, it is still a slow trip due to stretches of solid sandstone roadbed and its meandering path as it skirts numerous side canyons of the Colorado. Speed isn't desirable anyway as the towering rock formations and distant views to the Lasal Mountains elicit numerous photo stops.
The view to the west is framed by The Block. Just as the name implies, The Block is a huge chunk of eroded sandstone that stretches nearly 10 miles. Composed of the typical and various sedimentary layers that make up this portion of the Colorado Plateau, this wall of rock is dominated by towering vertical sandstone faces of Wingate sandstone. Along with the accompanying Kayenta and Navajo sandstone, these almost sheer walls can reach 1,500 feet in places. The Sewing Machine is the whimsical but aptly named formation dominating the south end of this high wall of towering Wingate sandstone.
To the east, the vistas are nearly non-stop. Stretching across the Colorado River canyon, the panorama sweeps from the snow-covered Las Sal range down to the nearer Abajo Mountains. If you haven't driven this part of Utah before, this non-stop optical onslaught is unforgettable. It can also be distracting. The road, while much more refined than in previous decades, is not without its hazards. Deep drops into White Rim sandstone-framed canyons yawn only a few feet off the roadbed in places. Eyes on the road!
After about 30 miles of wandering northwest through this visual wonderland, travelers come to a major intersection in a large, open area called Waterhole Flat. Here one can choose the more traveled route north toward the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park or do as we did and turn west.
The road soon climbs to a notch in the sandstone wall that makes up the western horizon. This gap in the rocks is Sunset Pass, the gateway to the marvelous Hatch Canyon area. The view from the top of Sunset Pass is staggering. The huge bowl of South Hatch Canyon stretches away toward the Dirty Devil River to the west. The northern rim is enclosed by the long Wingate cliffs of The Big Ridge. The south rim of the bowl is encircled by the back side of The Block. On the far horizon, 40 miles away, loom the jagged outlines of the Henry Mountains. The road can be seen disappearing through a second notch in the ridge that separates the north arm of the canyon from the south. We stopped to soak in the view. On a more intimate scale, the desert plants around us were in full bloom. I had given Mom flowers for Mother's Day after all!
The road drops downs into South Hatch Canyon briefly and makes the climb toward the second pass. We again stopped at the top to soak in the magnificence of the views all around us. Now, North Hatch Canyon streams toward the western horizon in all its glory. The road runs close along the base of the soaring Wingate cliffs for miles and miles. We stopped for lunch at the site of one of my very favorite icons of desert engineering—a Hudson that had been converted into a small camper. Probably used as a sort of moveable line camp, its audacious ingenuity and backcountry execution tickles me every time I see it.
The road continues tightly along the base of the cliffs. Multihued in all of the best of southeastern Utah's palette, the colors and shadows shift in a never-ending lightshow of changing hues and patterns. Eventually the route winds around Buckacre Point, the western end of the long cliff line. Here it is possible to look down into the incredibly convoluted and sinuous confines of the Dirty Devil River canyon. At one point, it is possible to see five separate and distinct stretches of the river and not know which direction any one point is flowing.
The road continues down to the (potentially) single most challenging section of the entire loop: the ford on the Dirty Devil River. Completely opaque water flows between soft sand banks, making it a challenge to determine the depth of the crossing and the composition of the bottom. With its desert locale, the flow is usually relatively meager and the crossing easily accomplished. Beware the depth if the river is flowing from snowmelt from high above or if it's transporting the remains of the occasional thunderstorm.
Once past the ford, the route continues up Poison Spring Canyon all the way out to Highway 95. Much wetter and beautiful in its own right, Poison Spring Canyon suffers second place only because we tend to run it directly after the visual lavishness of Hatch Canyon. On reaching Highway 95 once again, a left turn takes one back to Lake Powell and the starting point at Hite.
My Mother's Day gift was a success. Mom (and Dad, too!) loved the trip, and I had managed to return them safely to the comforts of RV life before nightfall. We grilled our dinner watching the evening light show as the sun set across the still waters of Lake Powell. Cherished family memories had been created. Hmm, Father's Day is coming…