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Utah Mountains - Mysterious Sentinels

Posted in Features on March 1, 2003
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As we have meandered through the stunning red rock backcountry around Lake Powell, we have often found our gaze drawn to the Henry Mountains. These mysterious peaks, springing up in sharp, dark contrast to the surrounding desert, anchor one of the most remote areas of Utah. While exploring the desert, we have often considered these dark sentinels, their hidden places, and their secrets. After feeling their pull and pondering the road network that entwines them, it was time to quit wondering and start wandering.

With an urgent need to get some red dirt under the fingernails and in the sleeping bag, we headed to Hite, Utah, to meet up with our fellow travelers for this trip. This outing was planned as an exploratory foray with easy to mild four-wheeling, and the four vehicles we took along reflected it. The caravan consisted of a mildly built Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, a bone-stock Comanche pickup, and, of course, our ubiquitous yellow Scrambler. After everyone topped off their fuel and water at the little store at Hite, we headed out for a much-needed backcountry fix.

It is always useful to understand the general layout of the land when going someplace new. The area called the Henry Mountains consists of five main peaks and a number of smaller hills, crests, and outcroppings. The Henrys lie in the remote and lightly populated area between Lake Powell and the Waterpocket Fold, south of the San Rafael Swell. The Henry Mountains can be further broken down into three areas. Old-timers called the two northernmost mountains, Mount Ellen and Mount Pennell, the Raggys or the Northern Mountains. The next mountain south, Mount Hillers, was simply Middle Mountain. The two southernmost peaks, Mount Ellsworth and Mount Homes, were often called the Southern Mountains or Little Rockies.

Our well-worn geology book explains that the Henrys are fine examples of laccolith mountains. The applied term means these mountains were formed when semi-molten rock from the Earth's interior forced up large domes in the overlaying sedimentary rock. Over the ages, the sandstone and shale have eroded, exposing the harder, darker core mineral of these domes. On some of the mountains' flanks, large sections of the fractured and uplifted sandstone can still be seen. To enthusiasts of Utah's backcountry, the geologic oddity of the Henry Mountains means isolated peaks reaching far into the blue sky spring directly from the red rock desert we all love so much.

Our first night's destination was the BLM campground at Starr Spring, where some very special guests would be meeting us the next day. The campground is located on the southeast flank of Mt. Hillers and is literally an oasis in the desert. A strong running spring has created a dense thicket of some of the largest scrub oak we have ever seen and provides water for various livestock operations. Our first night out was spent on a carpet of oak leaves and acorn hulls instead of the familiar red sand!

The first full day was a real treat. Our guests for the day were Bob and Joyce Marsing, who showed up in their CJ-7. Bob's personal history is closely intertwined with the Henry Mountains. He lived at the base of the Henrys as a boy and later spent a good many years ranching and mining in the area. From our camp at the base of Mt. Hillers, we took off on a clockwise circuit of the mountain. Our first stop was Mud Spring, where we explored one of the old mining operations. The Henrys are unusual in that both gold and uranium have been mined in the area. As we wound our way up and over a saddle between Mt. Hillers and Mt. Pennell, the road turned a bit greasy from the remains of the first snowfall of the year. Mounts Hillers, Pennell, and Ellen are all more than 11,000 feet, and it was a bit of a surprise to see the fresh snow in the trees and feel a sharp nip in the air.

After cresting the pass and heading down the east slopes, Bob and Joyce led our group up a small side road through some of the largest aspens we have ever seen. Our destination was the site of the Wolverton Mill. This famous water-powered mill was moved to Hanksville for preservation in the mid-'70s. It has been restored, and its new location offers a fascinating glimpse into the technology and just plain genius of some of the area's early inhabitants. While the mill has been removed, some historic cabins and other relics still remain at the site. After a leisurely lunch, we headed toward lower elevations while Bob regaled us with snippets of history and his early exploits in the area. Leaving the Wolverton site, it was a nearly constant drop down the east slope of the Henrys toward the Trachyte Ranch.

Near the ranch, Bob took us to an area that contains some the largest petrified trees we had ever seen! Whole trees, many yards long, lay scattered across the landscape. We learned that geologic layers that contain uranium often have large amounts of petrified wood associated with them. One of the mine tunnels in the area, now covered over, actually had cross sections of petrified wood embedded in the walls and ceiling.

It was getting late in the day, but Bob had one more stop for us. Bob took us to gate of the nearby Cat Ranch. Privately owned and now gated off, Bob had spent time as a young lad on the Cat Ranch and told us a hair-raising tale of a close encounter with a cat of the large, mountain lion variety. After our goodbyes to the Marsings, we gathered around the map on the hood of the Scrambler to plot our next move. We decided to check out the southernmost point of the range, Mount Ellsworth, and camp at a special spot one of the groups had previously used.

Mount Ellsworth and its nearby neighbor, Mt. Holmes, are shorter and more rugged than their northern siblings. Their jumbled summits, devoid of most vegetation, are easily visible from the base. The stunning beauty of the canyons of Lake Powell bound the mountains directly on the east, making for some amazing contrasts in topography. We sat high on a huge sandstone dome watching the sun light up the red rock terrain, producing brilliant shades of yellow, red, and pink as the sun slid slowly behind the horizon.

The next morning, the color show was reversed as the early morning sunlight bathed the nearby summit of Ellsworth. What a way to start the day! After exploring a side road to peer down into the canyons, we bounced back to the pavement and headed north. Turning west onto the dirt at the intersection of highways 95 and 276, we set our sights on Mount Ellen, the tallest of the Henrys. We followed Crescent Creek up through a canyon, past some rather extensive placer mining operations, onto the benches, and then upward into Bromide Basin. As the road rose at a steady clip, the desert gave way to juniper and pinon, then to aspen and tall pines.

Bromide Basin continues to be the site of active gold mining, and we edged our way past heavy equipment that had been parked for the season. Our goal was the high ridge that stretches south from Mt. Ellen, but we were to be denied this day by a road made too steep by the accumulated snow and ice. That's right, snow and ice. Our usual autumn trip to the Utah desert was a bit higher and wetter this year! We ate lunch parked in the snow at one of the mine structures and absorbed the quiet, early winter beauty around us.

Retracing our tracks down the hill to a main intersection, we turned up the Bull Creek Pass road. As we moved higher up the mountain, we strained to see if snow would block the summit. We made a final turn onto a north-facing slope. Snow, unsullied by any tracks, lay before us on a narrow shelf road. The snow had melted back just far enough to expose the outside shoulder. With this faint bit of traction to keep us from crabbing sideways, we pressed on up the narrow shelf. We finally made out tracks from the other side in sharp turn. If we could reach the turn, it would be a clear shot to the top.

We finally broke free of the untracked snow and quickly made our way to the summit of the pass. The view was stunning! In the hazy distance to the west lay the Waterpocket Fold, Boulder Mountain, and Capital Reef National Park. Mount Ellen lay to north, hiding the wondrous landscape of the San Rafael Swell. Back to the east lay an almost never-ending red landscape. What a vision!

We reluctantly headed off down the west side of the pass, knowing we needed to cover quite a few more miles if we wanted to camp at a lower, warmer altitude. We drove counterclockwise around the high ground and eventually came back again to the intersection that had led up into Bromide Basin. We turned east back down the mountain, shedding altitude and gaining warmth. By the time we returned to the pavement, it was nearing dinnertime, so we hightailed it back toward Hite. We sought out a suitable spot in the gorgeous red desert east of the river and set up our final sleeping spot for the trip.

The sun slowly set behind the Henry Mountains as we gathered around our campfire. Once more, these wondrous sentinels guarded our evening. No more would we have to wonder about the Henrys and their remote secrets. While our trip was far too short to fully explore the five mountains and all their hidden delights, it was more than enough to whet our appetite and ensure a return trip!

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