Hole In The Rock Trail

Part II: The San Juan Mission

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

On January 26, 1880, the first wagon rolled off the raft on the east bank of the Colorado River after descending 1,000 feet through Hole in the Rock. Most of the pioneers breathed a sigh of relief thinking the worst was over. On the other hand, there were no smiles on the faces of the scouts who had seen the trail ahead. They knew the river crossing was only a small step toward their final destination.

A ferry was used to get the wagons across the Colorado River. Its construction began at the sawmill in Escalante. Each piece of timber was cut and shaped to fit tightly together and form a solid foundation. The pieces were then hauled 70 miles by wagon to the top of Hole in the Rock and lowered to the river where the ferry was assembled.

Two wagons and their teams were loaded on the ferry for each crossing. There were 83 wagons so getting everything across took several days. Freezing temperatures caused ice to form on the surface of the water and interfered with navigating the ferry.

The road up the east bank of the river was lost when Lake Powell was constructed. (The book Hole in the Rock by David E. Miller has some excellent photos and drawings if you are interested in learning more about the river crossing.)

This story is told in the order first traveled by the original pioneers. It begins at the river and travels east. If you drove in from Halls Crossing, you will have already seen everything described here. The official end of the 4x4 road coming in from Halls Crossing is a wide flat area on Cottonwood Hill.

The wagons left the river and followed Cottonwood Creek to the top of Cottonwood Hill. A hiking path still exists along that route to the edge of the lake but a much easier way to get there is to rent a boat from the marina in Bull Frog.

As the wagons lumbered along at a slow pace, the drovers became restless. Those on horseback and the cattle they cared for could move at a faster pace. They argued that if they went ahead more of the scant vegetation would be left for the teams pulling the wagons. The decision was made to split the herds from the wagons and let them travel at their own pace.

From Cottonwood Hill, the road quickly turns into a gear jamming, axle grinding, off-camber, off-roader’s 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 1950s. In either case this road should be attempted only by expert off-roaders.

The potential for vehicle damage, including rollover, is always present. Even though the Nissan Xterra Pro-4X was not modified, it comes equipped from the factory with an electric locker, BFG tires, and more ground clearance than most other brands. We were pleased at how well it handled one obstacle after another without incurring any damage.

The pioneers had an easy ride across Grey Mesa but it had taken them a month to get there since crossing the river. It was on that mesa, during a blinding blizzard, with a foot of snow on the ground, that a pioneer woman in a tent gave birth to a baby boy. That baby was born on Feb. 21, 1880.

It only took about a day to cross Grey Mesa but once they reached the edge, everything came to a halt. It was a long way down. They used dynamite, picks, and shovels to carve a path out of solid rock. The only way to follow that pioneer path off Grey Mesa is to do so on foot.

The road used today off Grey Mesa was built by uranium miners during the 1950s. At the bottom of the Mesa, a sign has been placed to mark the location where the two roads come together. When you look at the narrow steep path beside that sign, you may be tempted to say, “No way!” Take the time to explore that path and you will soon realize that was the “way” the pioneers came down.

After leaving Grey Mesa, the current access route to Halls Crossing stays with the pioneer trail for about five miles. It then turns east while the original route continues north. A sign marks the location where the original route splits from the current access road. It is possible to stay with the original route to the point where the pioneers used a naturally formed dam to cross Lake Pagahrit. That dam was washed away by a flood in 1915 and the lake drained.

Once the pioneers were off Grey Mesa, they traveled on a northeast course for about six miles, then turned due north and set up camp near the dam that provided a crossing of Lake Pagahrit. That part of the country has a lot of warm days in late February. They had not seen any substantial water since leaving the river and were excited with the opportunity for washing and relaxing.

Getting to the other side of the lake was not a problem for the pioneers but building motivation to leave the water was. Using the dam for a road, they were camped on both sides in small groups. Some were in a hurry to move on and others were content to stay at the lake. Those who were weak or in poor health were the last to leave. Wagons became strung out from the lake to Comb Ridge.

For us modern explorers getting to the other side of the dry lakebed can be done in a couple different ways. The most obvious is to simply climb down and walk across. We chose to drive around using the designated access road. Near the airport north of the lake, a designated 4x4 path leads toward the north bank of the lake. It ends a short distance past the remains of a wagon. Join us next month as we pick up the trail from the lake and follow it all the way to Bluff, Utah.

Lone Writer’s Nissan Xterra Pro-4X is equipped with BFGoodrich tires and GPS/mapping software from DeLorme. For more information, check out www.lone-writer.com.

Navigation: GPS Positions
Latitude Longitude Comments
N37 24.5289 W110 34.9763 Wagon wheel near the airport
N37.22.4656 W110 36.0637 The Fort located near the Lake Canyon

Trip Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 N37 25.267 W110 30.322 HITR sign on Highway 176 east of Halls Crossing.
1.8 N37 24.167 W110 28.906 Turn right. Left goes back to the highway.
11.4 N37 18.775 W110 35.133 Turn right on the access route to HITR
14.0 N37 19.969 W110 36.246 Take the left work
17.2 N37 21.027 W110 38.315 The new access road connects to the original route at this point.
22.9/0 N37 17.488 W110 41.933 Top of Grey Mesa here it comes grassy. Trail going left leads to original wagon descent off Grey Mesa
5.6 N37 14.750 W110 46.050 Left. Right goes to Rincon
10.6 N37 13.083 W110 49.333 Cottonwood Hill. End of road.

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