WHEELING THE RED ROCK Trip Report by Rich Beard, Esprit de Four Adventurer
A couple of boobs with five hundred cubes, flatbed trailer and Rubicon in tow, my friend, Anton Morec, and myself set off for the red rock environs of southern Utah and Arizona on April 14, 2009. We hooked up with a nasty black storm front on Highway 80 at Auburn, California that from the onset spit little snow stonelets at us to show us we’d have to really EARN our desert wheeling fun this year. We overnighted in Reno, and found the next day that the storm had awaited our travel east with a vengeance---sort of like it resented the comfort of warmth and friends we had enjoyed over the night.
In a blizzard we drove, winds whipping at us like we’d done something wrong. Country gold music from radio KHWG 750 AM out of Fallon, Nevada and my trusty four wheel drive Dodge eased our way. At times, snow flurries of sand-like snow substance whirled atop the blacktop in eddies as if orchestrated by the unseen hand of mother nature, the puppeteer. Snow fell all the way to Wendover, Nevada where, when we stopped, a layer of snow/sand looking like sprayed on gunnite covering the front of the Jeep fell off nearly intact onto the portico of the Montego Bay Hotel, clearly showing the negative shape of the Jeep front from which it had fallen. (Literally cool!!!)
Along the arrow straight freeway we went enroute to Salt Lake City, and thence on to Moab, Utah. Although the two feet of predicted snowfall did NOT materialize, the entire landscape and adjacent hills were covered with a blanket of white until we were well out into the desert along Highway 70 in Utah.
Friday found us heading out of Moab on Highway 128 along the Colorado River in a northeasterly direction until we turned east onto Castle Valley Road. Our journey today was past the Priest and Nun rock formations on a lower ridge, and up and over the La Sal Mountains on the Castle Valley (Utah) to Gateway (Colorado) road. Signs warned against poachers and poaching of deer in the hills. Invigorated by the winy tang of the conifer (pinon pine) forests and the cleansing cold mountain air, we ascended the mountain in four wheel drive. About three inches of new snow had fallen overnight atop an icy prior snow, making traction dicey, particularly on the downslopes travel. After cresting the mountain at 8,500 feet elevation, we headed down and into Colorado. A quarter mile of the slimiest, slipperiest mud road that could only be negotiated because of four wheel drive, managed to deposit mud chunks ALL over the Jeep---sides, front and back windows included. Then we entered Colorado. A sign warned us of an old nearby uranium mine we weren’t to enter; seemed prudent to us not to do so, so we didn’t. The Colorado side of the mountain road was graded nicely because of logging back up the slopes. Besides a well shot up old black car lying on its top, the only vehicle we saw the rest of the trip was a road grader. Miles of beautiful scenery later, we entered Gateway, Colorado.
We passed on gas in Gateway, a mistake. Going south on Colorado Hwy 141 along the Delores River, we found, stopped, and photographed a delightful all stone igloo? kiva? residence. Built by native Americans?! Just past this dwelling, we stopped at an overlook where the river lay 500 feet or so below us. Along the vertical cliff on one side of the river were remains of an ancient flume someone had somehow built along a level of the vertical cliff wall. Absolutely amazing! There was no gas in Uravan, Vancorum, or Nucla; we finally found gas in Naturia, Colorado. Whew!!! We turned west onto Colo Hwy 90 that took us through Bedrock, a one building town (didn’t see either Fred or Barney) and Paradox, a bucolic little community (didn’t see either one). In Paradox, however, I saw a perfectly preserved, well oxidized, roof rack whole and in place, 1961 Dodge Pioneer white over red car that’d make any restorer happy. Colorado 90 became Utah 46, and from it we took Utah 191 north back to Moab. We passed in view of Mt. Peale, 12,721 and through the towns of old La Sal and new La Sal as we neared Utah Hwy 191.
Saturday’s run took us out Kane Creek Road (more first come first served tent campsites along this road than anywhere in the Moab area) and over Hurrah pass, 4780 feet and mild wheeling, to Chicken Corners and the Catacombs along the Colorado River south of Moab. The jump off point for Thelma and Louise in the movie is right across the river from one point along the Chicken Corners trail.
Chicken Corner is a place in the trail (near its end) where a large boulder is on the inside and a 500 foot vertical drop is on the off side of the trail. There is an extra foot or so of trail outside one’s vehicle as you drive this corner. The REAL Chicken Corner, in my opinion, is at about a hundred yards of trail from the very end of the road turnaround on the hiking trail along a level of the cliff. That trail goes around a corner of the cliff with NOOOOO room for error and only a foot wide to walk upon. The photo Anton took of me at this corner reflects my terror, the jelly in my knees, and shows me hanging onto the rock wall so as to not be blown off the 500 foot cliff by the 30 to 40 MPH winds that were gusting at the moment!!!
The Catacombs are halfway along the trail, and are a round mountain of rocks leaning together like a mishmash of cupcakes in a pile. Delightful caves, big caves, connected caves, riddle the mountain. It is refreshingly cool within the caves, and was, I’m certain, a summer refuge for Native Americans who inhabited the area in centuries past.
On Sunday, we met up with FELLOW ESPRIT DE FOUR FOLKS Mike Cline and his Dad, Herb. It was rewarding to see their reactions to scenery they couldn’t have imagined existed before arriving in the Moab area. Mike had his air suspension maroon JK, and we set off on the Spring Canyon Bottom trail at which trail’s end the Hey Joe Mine trail began. North from Moab on 191, southwest on 313, and west onto Dubinsky Well Road across nine miles of the flat plateau we went. Range cattle are watered by scattered large, round plastic tubs supplied by a water tanker truck. Trees are rare and small.
THEN we came to the edge of the world, to THE precipice, a face so steep it is vertical or undercut in places, and is ten miles deep (oh well, 800 actual feet of elevation to the bottom). Of red rock, the road would be very slippery when wet. We passed a gate, the point of no return, reclosed the gate, and got out for some photos. It takes one’s breath away, puts jelly in one’s knees, and makes one wonder how in the world anyone ever got the idea to carve a road across the cliff and zig zag it down the face to the canyon bottom far below. The Andes in Peru have little on Utah’s canyons! I could see where in the timeless past, great chunks of the high cliff had split off and fallen into a giant’s rubble heap on the valley floor. Down the escarpment we went with low gears for braking. Switchbacks! No place to pass or to turn around. You ARE committed. The road is a vehicle and a quarter wide most of the way, however a few places where waster drains over the edge put one’s outside wheels harrowingly near to the edge. I expected to see eagles’ nests on protruding ledges of the canyon’s walls, but alas, we saw only buzzards---knowing buzzards watching us, patiently soaring on air thermals, and awaiting our demise. Once off the cliff, the road followed the delightful stream in the canyon bottom to the banks of the Green River.
The HEY JOE TRAIL followed the Green River 7.9 miles along the riverbank. Some tippy places over piles of rock with very little room from your outside tires to the dropoff gave you the thought of rolling into the river. Narrow places on the trail along high spots in the bank, and tunnels of tamarack trees challenged us. Those mutant, evil tamaracks ripped and tore at the sides and tops of our vehicles! I really felt bad for Mike and his new, unmarked Rubicon JK. He said of the scratches, “I cried over the first ones, but now, what the heck?”
We came to an abandoned rusting old Caterpillar where the trail turns up into Hey Joe canyon. Six tenths of a mile of rough, narrow road, cut into the shoulder of the mountain, and fraught with boulders to negotiate brought us to the old mine works. No buildings remain, and the twin entrance tunnels of the old uranium mine had been blasted closed. An old donkey engine used to hoist ore from a shaft and a delightful orange colored early 40s flatbed pickup truck slowly being buried in the gravel of the wash bear mute reminder of activity that once had the canyon walls echoing with activity. Another adventurer’s Geiger counter ticked away rapidly, a testimony to the still active nature of the mine. Fools of a sort had dug arclike tunnels at the top of the blasted shut adits so as to be able to slither inside the mine. Guess they wanted to be radiation-cooked while dying at the bottom of the vertical shaft into which they could fall (that drops a mere 50 feet from the entrance per the guy with the Geiger counter).
Monday found the four of us off to the Dellenbaugh Tunnel off the Dubinsky well road area. Directions in our guidebook (Guide to Moab, Utah Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails by Charles A. Wells) led us via slickrock and sand to the tunnel, a nature-carved passage, water worn, through the spine of a small granite ridge. The exiting stream, when it has water flowing through it, falls hundreds of feet down into a canyon a short distance later. An ancient giant desert juniper tree stood in the lee of the ridge through which the Dellenbaugh tunnel was formed. Sheltered by the ridge from winds, and nourished by the soil of the decomposing granite stone of the ridge, it has grown three or four times as large and tall as any other juniper tree. About 18 to 20 feet tall and with a trunk four feet or more in diameter, this behemoth was truly amazing. Of course, a photo of me and this desert father had to be taken. Next we traveled to the Secret Spire rock column a short distance away. Amazing! A twenty foot high rock spire standing atop a rounded granite ridge in the shape of an ice cream cone (narrow bottom and wide, rounded top), it bore witness to the fact that the ENTIRE surrounding ground used to be at the height of the top of the spire or higher, but all has eroded away over the millennia. Thirteen miles of very forgettable plateau road later, we came to the Spring Canyon Point overlook over the Green River. Skip it! No river view without a hike, and a road we jokingly termed the “Mafia Road Building Project” since it wound here and there to make it as long as they could make it while soaking the taxpaying county citizens, yet taking you nowhere. We did, however, find the actual Dubinsky Well for which the road had been named. An abandoned old windmill with three large stone tanks that once were the only water source in the area. A length of 150 feet of watering trough for cattle to use had been filled by the AERMOTOR windmill from Chicago, Illinois. One dessicated dead black cow and no water. Sad. Poignant.
Our day, and our wheeling with Mike and Herb ended as we tried to get to Tower Arch near Arches National Monument via Willow Springs Road. Failure of one of Mike’s air shocks led to our limping back to Moab. It was a lot of fun sharing with Mike and his father. Perhaps again next year!
OFF TO THE GRAND CANYON! Anton and I spent two nights and one full day before leaving the South rim of the canyon. We toured via the free shuttle to Hermit’s Nest and dined in the El Tovar Hotel; first class! I saw two huge condors who soared at my level and within fifty yards of me on an overlook. What a treat! I hope they live free forever. Gorgeous views! I had been there 38 years previously, but it was new all over again. Saw a road sign with a mountain lion symbol announcing mountain lion crossing the next 10 miles! Photos taken!
OFF TO WHEEL IN SEDONA, ARIZONA! Through the southwest we went, through the Navajo Nation listening to radio KGHR, voice of the Navajo Nation out of Tuba City, Arizona. Sweet station! 50s, 60s, and country music. Soul food if ever I had any. What a Dream I had Last Night, Peggy Sue, Bee Bop a Lula, I Can’t Help Myself, Soldier Boy, Walk Like A Man, etcetera! We lost it going into Flagstaff.
We entered Sedona via the Oak Creek Canyon and highway 89A. Towing at LOW gear coming down the canyon. Lots of water and abundant trees in the canyon. Red rocks and dry desert terrain as we neared Sedona.
On Friday, we got to four wheeling! We took FR525 to the Diamondback Loop Trail that is FR152A that we dubbed Pipeline Road because most of it follows a gas pipeline route, and we found some challenging road areas. Used lockers to get out of a deep canyon in which we had fun. Next, we drove FR525 to FR795 to the Polatki Red Cliffs Native American Heritage Park. We took a mild hike to cliff dwellings there, and saw rock art as old as 10,000 years according to the docent with whom we spoke. From there, we drove onto FR525 to the Honanki Native American Heritage Park. We hiked a mile long loop trail that took us to cliff dwellings along the base of a red rock massif. These ruins had been built by the Sinagua people, ancestors of the Hopi. We returned to town via FR9551, the Outlaw Trail to where it rejoins FR525.
Back in Sedona, we next took Soldier Pass Road. It led through a residential area to a gate warning against street vehicles use. We drove about two miles up this road to its end. This is a real four wheeling trail, replete with ledges, cliffs, sand, narrow turns of the road through trees, and very few places to pass another vehicle. Features along its length were the Devil’s Kitchen, a sinkhole, Sphinx Rock, and the Seven Sacred Pools in the creek bed. Soldier Pass Road capped our day magnificently—easily the most fun wheeling in Sedona that we had. Two locals we met on the Soldier Pass trail liked my Jeep. They recommended we do Cliff Hanger, Broken Arrow, and the Schnebley Hill trails when next we’re in Sedona. I believe we will do just that!
We had dinner in Sedona with friends we had met a month earlier when we scouted Sedona for jeeping while between Giants spring training games in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mark and Julie operate the SEDONA OFF ROAD CENTER, 928-282-5599 at 211 Highway 179, Sedona Arizona. They were very helpful to we who were interested in wheeling in the area (gave us maps, advice, and friendship) while two other Jeep rental places wouldn’t give us the time of day if we weren’t going to rent a vehicle from them.
RETURNING HOME via Flagstaff, Hwy 40 and 93 enroute to Las Vegas to visit a retired friend of ours, we crossed over HOOVER DAM. What a sight! The traffic now goes across the top of the dam. Every vehicle, ours included, was searched by the Hoover Dam Police. (Good for them!) BUT-----a new freeway will soon span the gorge below the dam and far higher above it. Arcing parts of the support arch are half finished, and are reaching for one another at present, supported by cables to pillars back atop the canyon’s banks. It will be finished in a year or so, but it is spectacular at present to see. PHOTOS!! After visiting our friend in Henderson, Nevada, we returned tired, but very satisfied with our vacation trip.
KEEP ON WHEELING!