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Driving the Sunset Pass Loop

Sunset Pass
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted December 19, 2013

Sunset Pass

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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