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Driving the Sunset Pass Loop

Posted in Events on December 19, 2013
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The last time Lone Writer traveled over Sunset Pass was in 2006. This time it was planned as a day trip and that plan worked out fine. In the January issue of this magazine, we covered the first part of what we call the Sunset Pass Loop. We were camped near Temple Mountain north of Hanksville, Utah. As usual, we were out of camp about 9 in the morning. We filled the gas tanks in Hanksville and drove to Poison Spring Canyon. Since the previous day had been spent exploring the canyon, we didn't repeat those stops. We crossed the Dirty Devil River and began working our way toward Sunset Pass.

The trail to Sunset Pass is also part of the border-to-border Outlaw Trail we will be doing in 2014. Sunset Pass is only a small piece of the Outlaw Trail series, and we will be going in the opposite direction. (For more info on that trip, visit the website or just stay tuned to this magazine and follow the upcoming series.)

Once we crossed the river, the road began following a series of turns along narrow cliffs that rose quickly in elevation. The views of the canyons carved out by the Dirty Devil River over millions of years is nothing short of spectacular. The various layers of colors in the plateau walls tell a story about a land that had once been part of a water-covered swamp, and eventually, transformed into the desert we see today. To Lone Writer's untrained eye, the stories this landscape could tell have been reduced to beautiful layers of colored dirt, sand, and rock.

The crossing of the Dirty Devil River is usually an easy one. Rainy weather can change that and turn the river into a raging killer.

There are many theories as to how such changes in the planet came to be. The one Lone Writer likes best is the theory that the world was tilted away from its current axis. Some say the dinosaurs were killed off when a meteor struck the planet and tilted it to where it is today. In that scenario, the equator was located partially across Utah. A historic marker telling that story stands near a petrified forest in Utah. (The Outlaw Trail we will be doing in 2014 passes that marker, and you can learn more about it later.)

During the 1890s, rustlers and other outlaws used trails like the one we were on to get onto Robbers' Roost. A much more difficult path called the Angel Trail was also used, but that route took a high toll on horses and cattle, which slipped off the narrow ledges and fell to their deaths. That trail can be hiked by those who are young and fit. Lone Writer did many times in his younger years but is now confined to routes wide enough for a 4x4.

Driving from the river to Sunset Pass does not require shifting to four-wheel drive, but the lower gears come in handy for a few steep climbs and when you need to go slower through the rough areas. Take care in some of the washed-out areas to keep from getting hung up or slipping into a hole carved out by rushing waters during previous floods. Definitely stay off this road during wet weather.

A short distance west of Sunset Pass, the route crosses into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. That part of the recreation area is managed by Canyonlands National Park, which sets lots of rules to follow. The most common problem travelers face is having a pet in the car and finding out pets are not allowed in the backcountry. Check the websites for Canyonlands and Glen Canyon first to be sure you won't be turned away.

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Lone Writer pulled into the camping area at the top of Sunset Pass. Since the campsite was not occupied, the group used it as a late lunch stop.

A short distance east of Sunset Pass is a four-way intersection. Continuing straight you follow a dead-end road to the Doll House with an overlook of the Colorado River. All of that trail is within Canyonlands National Park, and reservations are required for the campsites.

Hiking down to the river is the only way to access the crossing called Spanish Bottom. It was a common crossing for outlaws who were headed to Telluride or anywhere in the Four Corners area. If you decide to swim across, you will leave the Maze District of Canyonlands and enter the Needles District. Lone Writer made that trip a few times in his younger years.

The road is normally an easy drive, but we recommend doing it in dry weather.

Making a left turn at the intersection east of Sunset Pass leads to the Flint Trail, at the top of which you'll find the edge of Robbers' Roost. Lone Writer and those with him were not going to Robbers' Roost or the Doll House that day. (Again, we will cover the Flint next year as part of the Outlaw Trail.)

They made a right turn at the intersection to complete a loop back to Hanksville by way of Hite. It is a long drive that involves long drives to get around the canyons. Depending on the time of year when you make that journey, the road can be a rather smooth-graded surface or it could be a washboard-like surface carved out by water running off the mesas.

The route connected to Highway 95 near the point where the Colorado River and the Dirty Devil River join together and help to form Lake Powell. Turn right and drive out of the canyon on the winding switchbacks. Pullouts along the way allow scenic views of the canyon floor. We got back to Hanksville in time for dinner.

Now, we are preparing for our journey along the Outlaw Trail in 2014. During that trip, our progress will be posted daily or as often as Internet connections are available. A new website will act as our primary conduit of information, but we will be posting updates in other places, too. Direct questions and comments to Larry E. Heck at

Navigation: GPS Positions This trip begins at the Chevron gas station in Hanksville, Utah.
Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 38.22.2256 110 42.2319 Hanksville, Utah. Go south out of town.
16.8/0 38 8.5047 110 36.6057 At mile post 17, turn left on Poison Spring Canyon Road.
5.8 38 7.8121 110 32.5286 First rock art stop. This a place to park, not the exact location of the rock art.
6.0 38 7.7560 110 32.3427 The canyon on the left is a hike to Poison Spring Cave.
7.2 38 7.5744 110 31.1726 Second rock art stop. This a place to park, not the exact location of the rock art.
9.3 38 7.5392 110 29. 4574 Walled Off Spring is on the left. It is named for the wall that was built to protect it.
9.5 38 7.4509 110 29.2656 Cassidy Camp. The Butch Cassidy signature is on the back of huge rock.
11.0 38 7.0351 110 27.9400 Take the right fork at this point.
16.3 38 5.8063 110 24.4099 Dirty Devil River crossing.
19.0 38 5.0102 110 13.1585 This is the top of an unnamed pass.
22.9 38 4.1000 110 10.8010 Sunset Pass. There is a campsite here managed by Canyonlands National Park Maze District.
2.4 38 3.5168 110 8.4861 Crossroads: Turn right for Hite. Straight goes to the Doll House, and left goes to the Flint Trail.

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