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Register Rock - Hole-In-The-Rock Part II

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on July 1, 2006
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On January 26, 1880, twenty-six wagons camped at the top of Hole-in-the-Rock were lowered through it to the river's edge. They were ferried across the Colorado River and then up the east bank and past Register Rock to a camp near a waterfall.

The raft (let's call it a ferry) used to get the wagons across the river must have been quite an amazing creation for those times. It was built (or at least designed) by a man named Charles Hall. He and his sons were skilled at building watercraft, but some accounts claim he enlisted the help of nearly everyone he could find in getting the actual work done. Most of that work involved using the machinery at the sawmill in Escalante to cut and shape every piece of timber. Each piece had to be carefully shaped so as to fit snugly against the piece beside it. Once all the pieces were finished, they had to be hauled nearly 70 miles then lowered 1,000 feet to the river where the final assembly took place. Once it was finished, the ferry was capable of holding two wagons and their teams. Twenty-six wagons crossed the river on the first day. It would take several days to get all eighty-three wagons across.

Because the water level of Lake Powell is much higher than the original Colorado River, much of the road down to the river's edge is below the surface today. All of the road up the east bank is below water now, however, when the pioneers crossed, it was a long climb up that east bank to Register Rock.

Register Rock was named by David E. Miller, the author of the book entitled Hole in the Rock. That book, first published in 1959, contains some terrific photos taken when more of the original trail still existed. Among those treasures now lost are pioneer signatures on Register Rock. Those signatures are now below the lake's surface and most likely eroded by the water.

Getting all the people, wagons, and animals across the Colorado River took a lot of effort. One major obstacle was ice. The river kept freezing over, especially near the banks, causing problems for the ferry.

As the pioneers stood on the east bank near Register Rock looking back, they must have been proud of what they had accomplished. The route through Hole-in-the-Rock would be used by travelers going in both directions for nearly two years after the original journey was completed.

On the other hand, those same pioneers must have felt apprehensive about what lay ahead. Two scouting parties had already declared the route to be impassible. One scouting party, led by Hobbs, had been through but warned the larger caravan that extensive road-building would be required. The spring planting season was only a few months away, and they were nowhere near the farmlands where that planting was to take place.

The first major obstacle was not far away. The wagons rolled past Register Rock and up Cottonwood Creek. They made camp near a clear spring and sent the road builders up Cottonwood Hill to lay out a path. The section up the sand hills caused the most trouble as it is difficult to build anything on shifting sands. Once past the sand, the rest of the trip up Cottonwood Hill is across solid rock. At this point, the road had to be carved into the sides of that rock and the results of the party's work are still apparent after nearly 120 years.

The wagons sustained a lot of damage getting to the top of Cottonwood Hill. At least one rolled over, and others required axle, hub, and wheel repairs. A camp was established about a mile from Cottonwood Hill in an open area. While at that location, supplies caught up to the convoy from behind. Among those supplies were 40 pounds of cheese. With 250 people eager to get a share of the cheese, an auction was held. Because of the excitement and entertainment the cheese auction created, that camp was to be forever known as Cheese Camp.

The pioneers spent several days based at Cheese Camp making necessary repairs and resting. Multiple teams had been required to get each wagon up the steep grades, so most of the animals had made the trip many times and were worn and bruised. Winter weather with heavy snowstorms battered the camp, and preventing frostbite was a constant concern.

With Hole-in-the-Rock and Cottonwood Hill behind them, some members of the convoy became restless. They were unhappy with the slow pace of the wagons. The decision was made to split up. Those who were restless would charge ahead with the huge herds of cattle, getting them to the Ft. Montezuma area as soon as possible. The rest would stay with the convoy and get the wagons through. It must have been tempting for all of them to leave the wagons behind and just get the trip over with, yet they were still on their church mission and that included building the road all the way to the new settlement.

For those of you who are on a mission of your own, Cottonwood Hill is the point where you meet up with the rest of your team. As mentioned in Part I of this story, a group of friends could work together for a through-trip. The most difficult part will be deciding who goes through and who works as the support team. You would also want to pick members for that support team who have been to Cottonwood Hill before. Otherwise, they may decide the road is too threatening and you may arrive at the top of Cottonwood Hill to a cold camp.

Those who are going through would have hiked down Hole-in-the-Rock and met with a prearranged boat at the water's edge. They would have taken the boat across to Register Rock then hiked out of Cottonwood Canyon to the top of Cottonwood Hill.

In the meantime, the rest of the team would have driven in from the east and would have the steaks cooking when the hikers arrived at the top. If enough people were interested in doing such a trip as a tour, we would apply to Glenwood Canyon for permits to arrange one; however, we cannot predict if those permits would be granted.

From Cottonwood Hill, the road passes through a small canyon and meanders along on a gradual uphill climb. Don't be fooled by this mild-mannered beginning. The road quickly turns into a gear-jamming, axle-grinding, off-camber, off-roader delight. It is difficult to determine how much of the current road follows the path of the original wagons and how much of it was constructed by uranium miners in the '50s. In either case, this road should only be attempted by expert off-roaders. The potential for vehicle damage, including rollover, is always present.

One of the least threatening but most famous obstacles along the route is one called "the Chute." The pioneers must have been very happy to find the Chute. This natural formation undoubtedly saved them many days of work. It is best described by its name since that is exactly how it is shaped. The grade up the Chute is steep, however by running the wheels along the sides and straddling the center, getting to the top is simply a matter of horsepower. Slip a wheel off the side and let it fall into the crack... well, that could cost some paint.

Beyond the Chute, the pioneers had an easy ride across "Grey Mesa." It had taken almost a month to cross the 11 miles from the Colorado River to the top of Grey Mesa. No doubt, they were happy to the see the top of Grey Mesa where they could travel another 6 miles in less than a day. Unfortunately, that pace only lasted one day. At the edge of Grey Mesa they set up another basecamp, parking the wagons for an entire week. The only way to get off Grey Mesa was to blast, pick, and shovel a path into solid rock.

Many travelers do not realize that the road used today off Grey Mesa was built by uranium miners during the '50s. Most of them never notice the wagon road branching off the main road mainly because it is difficult to believe that the vertical path is actually a road. At the bottom of the mesa, a sign has been posted to mark the location where the two roads come together. Even so, I had been to Hole-in-the-Rock twice before I noticed that the marker was not for the road I was on, but for the one the pioneers used.

The story of the route off Grey Mesa goes back to when Hobbs was sent with his friends to find a route for the wagons. According to Hobbs, he found the route by following llamas off the mesa. According to the sign, the llamas were actually mountain goats.

The only way to travel the original path off Grey Mesa today is to do so on foot. It is easy to lose the trail is some places. In others, the path is marked by the way the road was carved into the rock. At the edge of the mesa where the road begins its descent, the remains of an abandoned wagon lie in the brush. Each year more of it disappears. There is nothing left but a few broken boards and some iron. Please don't move it or touch it. It lies as testimony to a fading historic event.

Once the pioneers were off Grey Mesa, they followed the current road about 6 miles then branched off to the north and came to a stop at Lake Pagahrit. Getting to the other side of the lake was not the problem; they simply drove across the dam. It had been two months since they left the Colorado River, and they had not seen a body of water since. That part of the country has a lot of warm days in late February, and no doubt they experienced a few. To be able to take a bath, wash clothing, and just be able to feel clean again must have seemed like a gift from God.

The wagons became very strung out. By the first week of March, some of them had reached Clay Hills Pass nearly 20 miles away, while others were still at the lake. No doubt some of them considered staying there permanently.

It took work crews an entire week to construct a road over Clay Hills. A marker now stands at the top of Clay Hills Pass alongside Highway 276. If you have followed the San Juan Mission all the way from Escalante, that sign will have much more meaning to you than if you just stop by on the way to a hotel. There is no way to imagine the country those pioneers crossed. The only way to really understand is to see it for yourself.

The pioneer wagon train left Clay Hills Pass on Saturday, March 13, 1880. Nearly two months had passed since the first wagons descended Hole-in-the-Rock. The pioneers and their animals were exhausted. Some animals were no longer able to move on, and a few wagons had to be left behind to be picked up later in the season.

The wagon train had left desert country and entered low-level mountains. They were in elevations of 6,000 to 7,000 feet where snow continued to fall, even in March. The road had to be chopped through the forest, leaving piles of scrap, some of which are still visible today. It was late March when the wagons reached Comb Ridge.

At first, the pioneers feared Comb Ridge could not be crossed. The scouts had crossed using an old cliff-dweller trail (which has since become Highway 163), but for some reason, the pioneers felt wagons could not be taken that way. Considering what they had accomplished already, it is impossible to believe that was true. It is more likely they were just too tired and did not want to do it. A few miles to the south, the San Juan River cuts a natural path through Comb Ridge and it is likely they expected to cross it using the banks of the river. Unfortunately, the banks of the river are vertical walls of solid rock and there is no room for a wagon. When they arrived at the river and sized up the situation, they probably just wanted the shortest route out of there and going back to the cliff-dweller trail was too far away. Instead, they decided to make a road to the top of Comb Ridge from near the river. They named the climb San Juan Hill.

From San Juan Hill, the wagon road goes north along the top of the ridge all the way back to the cliff-dweller trail (Highway 163). It crosses the highway and continues another couple of miles before crossing Butler Wash and heading east to Bluff. The original wagon road up San Juan Hill to Highway 163 can be followed today on foot. If the support team is still in place, those on a mission of their own may decide to make that journey.

The pioneer wagons were spread out, but most of them rolled into Bluff during the first week of April. Ft. Montezuma was only 20 miles away, but as one lady put it, "I had no desire to be anywhere except where I was." As far as they were concerned, the San Juan Mission was complete. They were home.

Larry E. Heck is the author of numerous guidebooks, including one on the San Juan Mission. Larry is also planning guided trips along the Outlaw Trail in 2006. The trips will begin at locations where Butch Cassidy and other outlaws robbed banks and trains. They follow getaway paths to hideouts once used by those outlaws. These trips follow mostly graded dirt roads and can vary in length from a few days to more than two weeks if the Outlaw Trail is followed all the way from Canada to Mexico.

For more information, contact OutbackUSA at (303) 910-7647 or check out the website at

Trip Latitude Longitude
Meter Position N Position W Landmarks & Other Locations
0.0 37 13 05 110 49 20 Cottonwood Hill parking and campsite.
1.4 37 12 59 110 48 13 We believe this was Cheese Camp.
2.7 37 13 43 110 47 08 Top of the Chute.
5.0 37 14 45 110 46 03 Intersection. North leg goes to Rincon. Road closed.
5.5 37 14 40 110 45 41 Top of Grey Mesa
10.6/0 37 17 30 110 41 56 Where grass ends at edge of the mesa, turn right to hike original wagon road.
0.8 37 17 55 110 41 31 Interpretive sign. Road up hill is original wagon road.
0.1/0 37 17 59 110 41 21 Campsite up road on right. Reset meter.
2.8 37 19 45 110 39 36 Campsite.
6.1 37 21 56 110 37 52 Original wagon road left the current road at this point going northwest about1 mile to dam for Lake Pagahrit.
7.1/0 37 22 25 110 37 11 Intersection. Left goes to location of where dam crossed the canyonReset meter. .
0.1 37 22 27 110 37 06 Lake Pagahrit interpretive sign. This was once the bottom of the lake.
1.7/0 37 22 27 110 36 05 Intersection. Right are campsites. Fort is at top of hill. Left goes to Halls Crossing. Reset meter.
2.2 37 23 30 110 34 16 Left.
2.7 37 23 56 110 34 21 Left.
3.8/0 37 24 42 110 34 39 Left goes to Halls Crossing intersection, dam, and wagon wheel by way of the original wagon road. Wagon road going to the right has completely faded into history. It continued northeast and connected to Highway 276 between Mile Posts 59 and 60.
0.2 37 24 54 110 34 34 Intersection. Left.
2.6/0.0 37 26 47 110 33 38 Highway 276 at the west fence for the airport. Left is Halls Crossing. San Juan Mission goes right. Fuel is available at the airport or at the Halls Crossing store. Showers are available at the store. The intersection above is the first dirt road west of the airport entrance.
0.0 37 26 47 110 33 38 Highway 276 at the west fence for the airport where the road for Hole-in-the-Rock connects to highway.
4.1 37 25 01 110 29 37 This is where original wagon road connects with Highway 276 between Mile Posts 59 and 60. Nothing is left of it now.
37 25 06
110 21 20 Castle Ruin is at Mile Post 68. The original exploring party stayed here.
14.9 37 25 10 110 18 47 Monument for Clay Hills Pass between Mile Posts 70 and 71.
29.4/ 0
37 30 50
110 06 02 Between Mile Posts 85 and 86, original wagon road went west from this point. Note signs in case road is closed. If not, it goes through.
0.7 37 30 25 110 05 27 Left. Road goes to wash and crosses it.
1.1 37 30 22 110 05 14 After wash, road climbs rocky area bearing left.
1.7 37 30 14 110 04 39
Right at intersection.
2.3 37 30 18 110 03 58 Crossroad. Bear left, then right. Cow Tank is the left fork.
3.9 37 30 33 110 02 38 This intersection is tricky. Make a switchback left, then a right down the rocks and across wash. Watch for cairns.
37 30 34
110 02 27 The road continues on other side of wash. Very well defined at this point.
5.5 37 30 59 110 01 17 Right at intersection.
6.2 37 30 {{{57}}} 110 00 38 Road splits. Stay to left.
6.7 37 31 05 110 00 18 At the top of the nasty rock, road follows the cliff to the right. The one going left is a dead end.
7.0 37 30 59 110 00 14 Turn left and you will be on the graded county road.
9.7 37 32 15
109 58 07
Campsites on left.
10.0/0 37 32 26 109 57 52 Road connects to Highway 95 between Mile Posts 87 and 88. Turn right and reset trip meter.
0.0 37 44 47 109 54 58 Go south on Highway 261.
2.7 37 33 57 109 53 19 0.3 mile south of Mile Post 32 is approximately where original road connects to Highway 261.5.6/0 Kane Gulch {{{Ranger}}} Station for Grand Gulch. Stop in for a visit, then reset meter.
1.9/0 37 29 45 109 53 42 Between Mile Posts 26 and 27, notice pole on left side of highway out in the brush with a wagon painted on it. Just past pole, turn left on dirt two-track road. This is the route the pioneers took across Snow Flat. Check at ranger station. This section may be closed. Reset trip meter.
5.9/0 37 26 06 109 50 45 The old road connects to the new Snow Flat road. Go left. Reset meter.
4.8 37 24 05 109 46 34 Right. Left goes to Spring Cave.
14.4 37 19 51 109 39 48 Right. Left goes north on Comb Wash Road.
16.9 37 17 50 109 39 40 Right. Left goes north on Comb Wash Road.
19.2 37 16 25 109 40 37 The dirt road connects to Highway 163 at Mile Post 38. Turn left onto highway for 1/10 mile.
19.3/0 37 16 20 109 40 35 Take first right onto dirt road.
0.5 37 15 55 109 40 35
Follow road around corral.
0.6 37 15 51
109 40 35

Right at intersection.
0.7 37 15 49 109 40 34 Right.
1.0     Enter wash and follow road, going in and out of wash all the way to San Juan Hill. Take left fork to top of San Juan Hill and across cattleguard. Watch for the faint trail going up San Juan Hill. The roads along base of hill lead to cliff dwelling.

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