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Jeep Cherokee - Rags To Riches

Posted in Features on July 1, 2003
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Fiftieth anniversaries are typically considered golden, but where Southwestern four-wheelers are concerned, gold came in another form: uranium. During the 1950s, uranium became the most sought after treasure in the country, and its patron saint was a maverick geologist named Charles Steen. His contemporaries thought he was nuts and that his theories were off-the-wall. Yet his theories ultimately brought him rags-to-riches fame and resulted in the many mining roads that today still take four-wheelers deep into the Utah backcountry.

As a trained geologist, Steen had a hunch that concentrations of uranium existed a few hundred feet below the southwestern flank of the faulted Lisbon Valley anticline. This is an area southeast of Moab where the earth's surface uplifted eons ago and is now bordered by Big Indian and Lisbon valleys. Other prospectors and geologists scoffed at this theory and chose to look elsewhere for sources of ore. As the Cold War was becoming a major issue at that time, and atomic energy held great promise for inexpensive, plentiful electric power, the government was anxious for all the uranium it could get its hands on.

In July 1952, Charlie examined core samples taken from his Mi Vida claim, which shortly became one of the biggest and richest deposits of high-grade ore ever found in this country! Convincing the government that his discovery was real and obtaining sufficient financial backing took some time, but his UTEX Exploration Company finally began shipping this treasure in December 1952. The ore was so pure that it assayed at as much as 87 percent uranium. With the spread of this news, the mineral rush escalated, and the search for additional sources throughout southeastern Utah resulted in the creation of multitudes of new roads. Both Charlie Steen and the sleepy town of Moab would be forever changed. Uranium fever hit its peak in early 1953 when thousands of prospectors poured into town to seek their fortunes. Following closely came investors, promoters, loan sharks, miners, and their families Moab had become the uranium capitol of the world.

Not far from the Lisbon Valley Gas Refinery, Steen Road starts up a canyon through the anticline. While no longer mined for uranium, this area is presently a valuable resource for oil and gas. After a couple of miles, a large steel structure marks the site of the Mi Vida Mine. The engine and several cars from an electric ore train are still parked at the entrance to the mine shaft. This is actually the location of the third and last incline tunnel that was dug into the ore body, and it was known as the McCormick Portal. The tracks continued past the steel structure so that ore could be dumped from each car and stored until it was hauled to the mill. Remnants of the track and poles that supported the overhead electrical wires can still be observed. Further up the canyon, other abandoned mine sites can be found, too. For safety, all the mine shafts in the region have been filled in or sealed shut.

A friend of ours, Dr. Bob Telepak, and the 4WDSU staff were curious about the route up the next canyon to the north in the anticline. While it is marked 4WD on the topographical map, we were probably the first with fullsize vehicles to drive the entire trail in many years. Even so, the route was easy to follow. After about a mile, we passed a mine shaft that had been sealed shut with large steel plates. Further along this old mine road, we discovered that it had been washed out. Due to the forces of rushing water from summertime thunderstorms, it was deeply cut. For insurance, we attached a tow strap to the upper side of our 4x4's rear bumper, and then we inched our Cherokees forward. As we progressed to the bottom of the wash, the tail end kicked up in the air much more until the strap worked as planned. Needless to say, we did some additional road work and rock stacking before Dr. Bob could attempt his solo crossing! Other evidence of mine activity and colorful rockfalls are plentiful. The route exits the canyon at an intersection with the road that parallels Big Indian Valley, seen several hundred feet below. Taken to the north, other routes and abandoned mine sites can still be visited.

The southern end of another 4WD trail begins at Sandstone Draw and San Juan 114. Past a colorful butte exhibiting pinkish hues, the route begins to climb the anticline in a northerly direction. This area has been posted recently with many numbered trail signs. These were erected by an ATV club and the routes have no relation to the Canyon Rims Recreation Area on the west side of U.S. highway 191. At this point, no map is available to the public that details these numbered trails. A treat for those driving this trail are the striking chromatic cliff views westward toward Hook and Ladder Gulch. Suddenly, the route drops steeply off a hillside. Frankly, it is very spooky as you crawl down this slippery slope. For those whose 4x4s are equipped with lockers, the challenge of the climb back up this hill is just too tempting to pass up. Ultimately, this trail ends at a plateau area with a choice of driving San Juan 116 or other interconnecting routes.

Another 4WD ridge trail is accessible 1 mile north of the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and San Juan 114. This road branches to the north at the "Y" one-quarter mile east of U.S. 191. At Hook and Ladder Gulch, the route begins a climb onto the slickrock; although faint in places, it is easily followed. The views are spectacular as you drive in a northerly direction past Dragon Rock. Soon, the trail squeezes across a narrow spot with an unsettling, deep canyon drop-off at the side. This 4WD road ends at San Juan 181, about 1-1/4 miles past an unusually square outcrop known as Yak Rock.

Further to the north in this land of multi-colored cliffs and buttes are other backcountry 4x4 roads worth taking. Dramatic cliff-edge overlooks abound from such routes as those to Agate Point and Wilson Point. There are unique views of Wilson Arch from the end of Wilson Point. Here, looking down at the arch in the distance below, light and shadow play across the landscape. Trucks and cars on the highway are framed by the arch, and reciprocally, the view of our Jeeps parked high above.

Terry Rust, an environmental scientist and motorized recreation access advocate, joined us in exploring the region north of La Sal Junction and south of Kane Springs Canyon. The road up Muleshoe Canyon is a secret spot that folks whizzing by on the highway are sure to miss. While only a couple of miles long, this route and a short branch leads visitors past colorful canyon walls and across Muleshoe Creek at three points. Melted snow and summer thunderstorms in the nearby mountains, plus a number of springs, allow the stream to flow most of the year in this part of the canyon. From here, there are various hiking opportunities.

Browns Hole Road leads to some very interesting four-wheeling adventures on old uranium mining roads. The intersection of this big county road with Highway 191 is just south of the gas pipeline pumping station. After following Browns Hole Road about 3/4-mile east, a 4WD route to the left leads to some overlooks of Muleshoe Canyon. They're all short, easy trails but still worth driving. If you are a rock hound, you will be amazed at what you will find after following a trace trail to a point that overlooks the confluence of the two major branches of Muleshoe Canyon. Sure agates abound throughout the Moab region, but these are the mother of all agates. There are huge outcrops of the colorful rocks that have been exposed by eons of erosion. Some are as big as Jeeps!

About 3 miles east of highway 191 on Browns Hole Road, just after it crosses over Muleshoe Creek, a branch road to the left is an absolute must-do as you explore this region. Here, too, evidence of past mine activity is noticeable on the hillsides nearby. This trail leads to the northwest for some 5 miles across benchland terrain. We do recommend you take the branch route to the left after having driven about a mile. Honestly, this particular road is very hard to find. What you will be looking for is a conspicuous connecting route that branches to the right. Then, just a few dozen yards past that, a cattle watering tank is visible to the left. That is the way to go, just westward across the meadow. Shortly, the road becomes much more distinct as it heads across the benchland.

Now, just when you think this road has come to an end, look carefully. The route continues ahead right over a ledge, around a bend, and down a moderately eroded hill. From there, take a short hike to the north and you will find more agate outcrops, as well as scenic views of the La Sal Mountains. The main trail across the benchland takes a detour around a portion of Black Canyon. A hike down from here is reportedly a treat as the canyon becomes very narrow and deep, where it's eventually impassable at the water carved grottoes.

The seemingly endless flatness takes a sudden, interesting change after driving 2 more miles. Uranium prospectors cut a steep road along the side of Black Ridge, hundreds of feet above the valley floor. The views are some of the most awe-inspiring in the region southeast of Moab. Colorful cliff walls, layered sandstone domes, and Canyonlands National Park fill the horizon.

From here, the road continues to climb in a series of switchbacks. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographical map confirms that more mining activity took place farther above. Unfortunately, erosion and rockfalls discourage further travel by 4x4s on this and other nearby branch trails.

By retracing your steps back to the benchland connecting trails, you can meander on other 4WD routes and branches, eventually reaching a county road known as Highline Road. After a few miles on this route, generally driving to the northwest, it ends at a "T" with Black Ridge Road, which will take you back to civilization.

We recommend four-wheelers celebrate the 50th anniversary of the uranium frenzy by checking out many of the little traveled remnant mine roads in this exciting, historical region of colorful cliffs and buttes. It is a richly rewarding backcountry four-wheeling experience.

GPS COORDINATES (Map Datum WGS84)
POINT DESCRIPTION LATITUDE (North) LONGITUDE (West)
Mi Vida Mine site on Steen Rd. 38 11' 24.7" 109 15' 32.8"
Start of 4x4 road through anticline in mining district 38 11' 11.0" 109 16' {{{57}}}.0"
Intersection with road at Big Indian Valley overlook 38 12' 17.2" 109 15' 28.4"
Turn-off from San Juan 114 onto ridge trail at Sandstone Draw 38 11' 11.6" 109 20' 48.4"
Steep Hill. Difficult climb when traveling south 38 13' 02.9" 109 19' 03.3"
Roads at "Y" lead to intersecting trails or SJ 116 on plateau area 38 14' 13.8" 109 18' 42.8"
Left at "Y" 1/4 mile east of U.S. Hwy. 191 to start of ridge trail 38 13' 00.5" 109 22' 05.1"
Slickrock climb out of Hook and Ladder Gulch at old corral 38 13' 40.1" 109 21' 27.1"
Route squeezes past cliff-edge near Dragon Rock 38 14' 37.2" 109 20' 09.7"
North of Yak Rock, end of ridge trail at intersection 38 15' 59.5" 109 19' 43.5"
Wilson Arch overlook from Wilson Point 38 16' 04.8" 109 22' 10.7"
Turn-off from U.S. Hwy. 191 into Muleshoe Canyon 38 21' 41.1" 109 26' 03.2"
End of trail in Muleshoe Canyon at Guano Cave 38 21' 11.9" 109 24' 48.4"
Location of agates off Browns Hole Road 38 20' 49.1" 109 24' 15.6"
Intersection of Browns Hole Road and trail across benchland 38 20' 47.0" 109 22' 53.9"
Intersection with branch road to Muleshoe Canyon overlook 38 21' 21.6" 109 23' 47.5"
Cliff-edge views at end of the benchland 38 22' 56.4" 109 26' 21.5"

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