Pucker On The Piute Pass
Sweat and Steady Nerves Yield Passage on One of Utah’s Best
Oh, we hate that feeling. The feeling one gets when the uphill tire is tight against the sheer rock face but raised as it runs over the rocks and silt left behind from the last storm. Why is it that these dugways always tilt to the outside? The downhill tire? The downhill tire is the one that is less than a tread width from dropping over the edge into the great red "nothing" below. Ah…the pucker of Piute Pass. It was great to be back! There is nothing like red dirt and adrenaline to make one truly appreciate the Utah back country.
Piute Pass is one of our favorite Utah backcountry roads. Piute Pass has it all: forever views, incredible solitude, and the jaw-dropping palette of reds that only southwestern Utah can provide. It also seems that Piute Pass often provides more challenge than we anticipated.
We were in southwestern Utah for a laid-back week of camping and backcountry exploring. All three vehicles in our group were piloted by drivers seasoned with literally thousands of Utah dirt miles. We returned to the Highway 95 corridor between Blanding and Lake Powell because we believe it offers the absolute finest in Utah backcountry 4WD adventures. The day started out with a superlative sunrise at a backcountry campsite. We returned to the highway, topped off our tanks at the Hite general store, and held a quick conference.
"Where to next?"
"How about Piute Pass? It is one of my favorites."
"Bob, what condition is the road in?"
Bob Telepak, AKA Dr. Moab, is our resident guide and local condition guru.
"I don't know, it has been a while since I have been over it. All of the recent tracks at the trailhead look like ATVs so it may be blocked by rock fall again."
"What do you think, Terry?"
Terry Rust is our long-time friend and fellow Utah aficionado.
"Let's go. We have moved rocks there before and we can move them again."
Terry is always ready to toss rocks in holes.
It was settled, Piute Pass it was. San Juan County tries to keep it and many other roads passable to ATVs and 4WDs. More than once, the county's "trail-cat" has been used to reclaim the Piute Pass route after erosion or rock fall has blocked it. We knew from previous history that any rock fall would be near the top of the pass. Since the spot is relatively close to the highway, we would simply turn around and try another destination if it was blocked.
It was already mid-morning by the time we reached the trailhead. We all needed to be pointed toward home the following morning. We planned to camp somewhere that afforded us a quick and easy return to the highway for the long trip home. From our previous experience, we thought we could easily reach the end of the trail at the graded dirt road in Red Canyon before nightfall. Any number of campsites along the road would provide us an easy and efficient exit the next morning.
Off the highway, hubs locked in, and up the wash we went. Almost immediately we came to a section that had apparently dissuaded most Jeep-sized rides. The rain the previous year had carved away a large section of a dirt ramp, resulting in an ATV-width portion of the road remaining. We spent 30 minutes moving loose rock into the hole. It still didn't look very good.
After some thought we figured if we pulled onto the slickrock, descended steeply to the wash, and negotiated the squeeze between those two big rocks, we could bypass the washout and rejoin the route. We wouldn't even leave any tire tracks! It was a bit easier said than done, however. The slopes always feel a little steeper and the squeezes a little tighter when one puts an actual vehicle into the equation. It took some time but we carefully wiggled all three vehicles through without a scratch.
We scouted the next section on foot before we recommenced our upward climb. The trail section facing us next had a fun set of switchbacks. They are so tight that each driver must pull into the first corner and then back up the road to the next switchback. We know of only two other routes that require this somewhat unconventional approach: Elephant Hill in Canyonlands National Park, and Middle Fork Lake Road outside of Red River, New Mexico. We still saw no rock fall and we passed this time without incident. The switchbacks can be daunting. Ask us around a campfire some evening what is required to negotiate them pulling a trailer!
Soon we were poised below the long, steep dugway that leads to the top of the pass. If we were to find rock fall blocking the trail, history told us that this is where we would find it. We crept upward but the path appeared clear. We worked our way around a few big boulders in the road. While they were undoubtedly a tight squeeze, careful tire placement was all that was needed to pass around them. Had the washout below been the only "filter" that was keeping out everything bigger than an ATV? It seemed unlikely.
We reached the top of the pass. Wow! The panorama in both directions from the top of Piute Pass is always breathtaking. To the east lies the serpentine labyrinth of White Canyon framed by Elk Ridge and the sandstone monolith of Jacobs Chair. To the west is the incredible badlands of Red Canyon displaying the full array of reds, pinks, oranges, and ochre endemic to this area of Utah. We paused for lunch and to soak in the view from one of our very favorite spots in all of Utah.
After lunch, we headed down the other side of the pass. We hadn't gone far when Bob called back to us on the CB. He had skittered sideways on the descending dugway and was sitting with his right rear wheel hazardously close to a large washout. Dropping a wheel could mean a quick roll and a roll-over in that spot would be fatal. The road was narrow, off camber, and covered with a fine red powder that had sifted down from the cliff above. The gravity and the slope of the road had combined to pull the Cherokee way too close to the edge for comfort.
The first step was to stabilize the vehicle. A few deftly placed rocks wedged against the rear tire ensured it wouldn't slide any further. A winch line was run out from behind to carefully pull driver and vehicle back away from the edge. Once again, we found ourselves doing road repair in the form of large nearby rocks. We filled the upper end of the wash-out but the road still looked hazardous. Out came the shovels and we laboriously cut a groove for the uphill set of tires. It doesn't take much of a trench to hold a tire but it was slow, hot, sweaty work.
It was time to put our handiwork to the test. Bob slowly, gingerly, eased his Cherokee down the dugway, carefully keeping the uphill tire in the groove cut for that purpose. Then it was our turn. The Comanche always felt bigger than our Scrambler in spots like this one. We know they are essentially the same size but it never feels that way. With our uphill tires pressed against the left-side cliff and squarely in the groove, we knew our downhill tire was well within the roadway but the feeling was unsettling. Maybe Piute Pass should have been named "Pucker Pass." After we successfully passed the narrow spot, we watched Terry slowly ease his Scrambler down the same route. We were glad that was over and hoped we wouldn't find any more of the same on the rest of the route. But it was not to be…
We completed the same shovel exercise several more times in the next quarter of a mile. Two hours pass quickly when progress is measured in feet and a late October sunset is coming early. By the time we reached "the fork" at the bottom of the descent from the pass, shadows were already lengthening. Thinking that travel would be faster now, we turned north and headed for the graded dirt road a little over 10 miles away.
Around the first corner and…another wash out in the road that needed some rock fill before we could proceed. Another corner and another hole to fill. Then another. And another. None of these individual gaps signaled the end of the line but the cumulative effect was wearing on us. Our backs and arms were getting tired, the sun was sliding toward the top of Mancos Mesa on the western skyline and the holes in the road bed seemed to appear around every corner. No wonder there was a dearth of Jeep-width tracks. The Piute Pass route had essentially been reduced to ATV width by last year's series of storms!
Soon we had two tasks: 1. Fill the next hole and 2. Find an area flat enough to throw down a few tents. Neither one was easy. There was always another hole to fill and Red Canyon's eroded badland depths didn't lend itself to much of a campsite. We nervously started making jokes about camping in the middle of the road. We have been forced to take refuge in our tents on the roadbed itself more than once. Come to think of it, it seems to happen only when we are accompanying Dr. Moab. Even this "no traffic" roadbed wasn't going to offer much in the way of tent sites - it was rocky, rutted, and definitely didn't offer pillow-top comfort!
Eventually, our headlights were needed. After dusk, we finally spotted a suitable flat area just off the road. Not wanting to add the additional risk of continuing in the dark, we tossed in the towel for the day and made a hasty camp. The night was crisp but calm and the night sky was spectacular. When the largest source of light pollution is the "metropolis" of Moab nearly 80 miles away, the stars are magnificent to behold.
As luck would have it, the first hole to be filled the next morning was really the only remaining roadwork that needed to be completed. Even so, it was still a long, slow bounce down to the graded dirt of the Red Canyon Road. In spite of our early start, it was nearly noon when we finally reached the pavement of Utah 263. We turned east toward home with another Utah adventure under our belts.
Piute Pass is still one of the most spectacular routes in southeastern Utah's canyon country. San Juan County does an excellent job of trying to keep as many routes open to ATVs and 4WDs as their limited budget can accommodate. As our recent experience shows, Mother Nature occasionally conspires to add a little challenge to the route. A successful traverse sometimes means more than a little sweat equity and some steady nerves. Know your limits and those of your vehicle. If a little pucker factor on a exposed side hill doesn't dissuade you, Piute Pass is a unforgettable route through memorable backcountry.
|Waypoint Description||Latitude N||Longitude W|
|Trailhead at Highway 95||37 42.154||110 14.203|
|Top of Piute Pass||37 41.891||110 15.648|
|The "Junction" (turn right)||37 40.298||110 17.067|
|Trailhead at graded County Road in Red Canyon||37 40.426||110 18.563|