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Delta Utah - Unknown Utah

Posted in Features on December 1, 2000
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There are a lot of strange things off the pavement, and it's our job to tell you how to find them. This month, we're taking a look at the land surrounding the high desert town of Delta, Utah. Almost everyone with a 4x4, or even a mountain bike, has heard of Moab, but what local Utah off-roaders have kept secret is their winter playground. During years when the snow isn't too bad, many sport utility vehicle owners from the population centers along the Wasatch Mountains head into the high desert of western Utah. The following are some of the Great Basin's best destinations and side trips.

On Pavant Butte, 800 feet above the desert floor, stands one of the most mysterious ruins we've ever come across. We stumbled onto Stonehenge while exploring the area southeast of Delta. We were using a DeLorme atlas, and it showed some ruins outside of town. Anyone who has chased ruins in the Southwest knows that most of the time you only find old foundations or some dead trees. This time we were surprised. Two circles of giant columns surround a concrete bunker. The tops of the columns have bolts sticking out for who knows what to be attached.

To get to Stonehenge, we traveled on I-15 to the small town of Holden where we headed west on Route 50 until we reached the junction of routes 50 and 100. We took the dirt trail that follows the power lines and set off toward the Butte. The trail is smooth with a patch of deep sand that stops all cars. There are also several areas with gravel crossings over hardpan, so this route is passable even in winter.

The first time we saw the ruins and started the climb up the butte, a thunderstorm rolled in, and lighting struck about a mile away. We made a hasty retreat. The last place you want to be during a thunder storm is on top of a butte. Two weeks later we tried again. This time the weather was clear and hot. The sand and cinder lining the slopes of the Butte had been easy to climb in wet weather, but they were more of a challenge when dry. One steep run near the bottom of the Butte required three tries before our open-differential rig could find a line with enough traction to make it up.

There is a clear trail up to the ruins, although parts are off camber, so drive with care. The surface around the ruins is loose, and there are hundreds of rodent tunnels causing you to sink when you walk. The last time we were there, the sun was so hot on the south-facing slope of a dark cinder pile, we could feel the heat through our hiking boots. Take plenty of water.

We drove around the giant columns and looked inside the bunker. A lone, gray jackrabbit startled us and then left us alone at what felt like the top of the world. From the butte, you can look out over hundreds of miles of nearly empty land. To the southeast is the town of Holden, and to the southwest are the wetlands of Clear Lake.

We tried to learn more about the ruins at Stonehenge, but no one knew anything about them, not even the old-timers. We went to the nearest university and poked around the library. We were about to give up when we stumbled on an old book entitled Life in the Black Rock Desert by Veneeta Bond Kelsey. There, in black and white, was a picture of the ruins, only they weren't ruins at the time the picture was taken. The place was still a construction site. As it turns out, the locals used to call Pavant Butte Sugar Loaf. The ruins are what is left of an attempt to build a giant windmill to supply power to local towns.

The windmill project went bust, but it was no joke. People lived on the butte for two years measuring the wind, and officials from as far away as Telluride, Colorado, came to look at it. The work stopped in 1923. What is left is a tribute to the hard work of the people who worked there and one of the best ghost towns we've ever found.

Clear Lake
Heading west from Sugar Loaf you'll run across Clear Lake. Much of the land in this area is bone dry, but the springs at Clear Lake provide a constant source of fresh water. In the early part of the 20th century, there were a couple of small towns around Clear Lake, but the water proved unreliable for farming, and the people moved on. Today, the water is reserved for wildlife.

The water supports egrets, harriers, and all kinds of ducks. A causeway crosses the area, and there is a station for government workers. This can be a good place to stop for a break, unless the mosquitoes are in season.

Another way to get to Clear Lake is to take Route 257 south from Delta. The turnoff is well marked, though there is a chance you will have to wait for a train. The road crosses a set of tracks and a siding. They won't move a train to let you through. On the slim chance you do have to wait, you can look at all the art that graffiti artists have painted on the rail cars. Trains are rare, and the longest we've ever waited was only a few minutes.

Great Stone Face
Other oddities along Route 257 include Sunset Knoll, a hunting ground for rock hounds, and the Great Stone Face. Both locations have signs off the paved road. The Great Stone Face is several miles west of the pavement. The access road serves as the driveway for several ranches, so watch your speed. Much of it is smooth and well graded so the temptation is to race along, which is fun until you come up fast on a back hoe at work or a slow tractor towing a mean-looking farm implement.

We were never really sure if we saw the Great Stone Face, but then we probably just lack imagination. Regardless, at the end of the trail is a huge boulder on the side of a hill. We're calling the boulder The Face, and that's good enough for us. What surprised us was the beautiful set of petroglyphs at the end of the trail. Some of us are suckers for rock art and we love any chance we get to travel into the mountains and deserts to see these ancient works.

Fort Deseret
The last stop on Route 257 isn't an off-road adventure at all, but rather the reconstructed ruins of Fort Deseret, built in the 1800s. Every school kid in Utah learns that the European settlers and Native Americans got along great - as long as you don't count all those wars. At one point, the local settlers were feeling threatened, and they ran out and dug up tons of sod and built a pretty impressive fort. It's good for a stop and a look around because there are some big trees to shade a tailgate lunch.

Topaz & Topaz Mountain
Topaz Mountain, northwest of Delta, is a good destination for trail runners. Rock hounds, prospectors, and miners have left a huge web of trails all over the area. With the exception of large snow storms, this area is accessible year round. The trails range from smooth and flat runs across the empty desert to steep, rocky climbs in and out of the washes and gullies of the mountains. The rock hounds enjoy looking for topaz and other crystals that have been washed out of the mountains during the winter

When snow closes the rocky mountain trails and the days get shorter, we can still find new places to play on this mountain. To get there, follow Route 174 west and be sure to let someone know when you're heading out and when you expect to return. Take a lot of food and warm clothes in the winter. There are thousands of little gullies and canyons out there, and it would take a long time to find you if you got lost or broke down.

While in the Topaz area, history buffs might want to detour south and visit the World War II detention camp named after the mountain. All that is left are some foundations, but there is a monument to the citizens who were interned there in the middle of nowhere for years. It's a sobering place. If you take your kids off-roading, this would be a good place to go for an interesting history lesson.

Baker Hot Springs
Also off Route 174 is Baker Hot Springs. We had heard about the springs for years but had never made the drive out there. With a good map and some free time, we set out to find the springs. The turnoff to the springs heads north about 18 miles west of the junction of 174 and Highway 6. The road to the springs is smooth dirt, the type that turns to slimy mud when rain soaks in. We noticed serious tracks left from trucks that had driven through after the last storm, and farther up the road there were still mud holes from a storm days before. Unless you really love mud, avoid this road after the rain.

At the springs, there is a narrow channel that funnels water into some small cement tanks. Just north of the springs are a number of old buildings. The area is clearly marked with no trespassing signs and is surrounded by a serious fence. This is not a good place to play. The people who own the buildings really do not want you poking around, and you are a long way from help if anything happens. This far out, it is common sense to respect others.

What Moab is to slickrock, Delta is to desert adventure. There are fewer new-agers and art gallery owners in Delta and more rock hounds and places to get hunting supplies. For those who love taking their rigs into the back-country, Delta makes a good base of operations. You can get food and fuel as well as find lodging or a place to park your RV. The locals are nice people, and if you find the right old-timer, you might hear a good story or two - whether you want to or not. Overall, it is still a small American town that locals can be proud of.

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