A Western RoadTrip Part 2

28 minute read

Day 2 of our adventure in Moab dawned sunny and warm, and we packed up and headed south out of Moab on Highway 191. Our destination was Beef Basin via the Bridger Jack Mesa.

As we drove down 191, redrock on one side, the La Sal mountain range on the other, we decided to do some research and find out how two vastly different geographies could be in such close proximity to each other. Apparently the La Sal Mountain range and the Henry Mountain range (which we’ll see near Capitol Reef later) present a mystery to scientists and geologist as to how and when they formed. Something to do with unusual magma activity under such stable crust. Either way, we’d like to explore some of the La Sal Range next time we go to Moab.

There are 3 ways to access the Beef Basin. The first is the way we came, via the Bridger Jack. The second is the Beef Basin Road (San Juan County Road (CR)104, Forest Service Road (FS)093) which enters Beef Basin from the south descending the slopes of Horse Mountain. This road is closed during the winter months (November-April). The third is perhaps the most challenging and can be accessed coming through the Needles District (Canyonlands) over the Elephant Hill Trail. Some of you may have heard of this route as the Bobby’s Hole hill ascent can be extremely challenging to navigate and is recommended by other offroaders to attempt only with a buddy for rescue purposes. Canyonlands itself says the road is frequently impassable for any vehicle. The Elephant Hill Switchbacks can also be challenging as that they are almost parallel, force you to take 8-point turns, and hope you make it up over the slick rock on the final ascent.

So, all that said about that section, who here would like to go with us next time?? :)

The Beef Basin is extremely sandy in some areas and pretty rocky and rutted in other areas. Overall though the trail was in good repair and we had fun exploring the area. Perhaps the most amazing feature to us was how green everything was among the mesas. Dry desert on top the mesas, green fertile valleys below. I’m sure it has to do a lot with irrigation, and I also know that I would not mind buying one of the working farms in the Beef Basin! A slice of peaceful heaven on earth in my opinion.

We found a makeshift camp area here at the tip of the Cathedral Butte, and absolutely loved the view looking into the valley. Using binoculars, you could see the the 22.5 mile Salt Creek trail footpath in the valley. Crazy to think people hike that….

Mike soon got a little bored with the Beef Basin’s easier trails, so we headed back out to the Bridger Jack and into the Needles district. There were a few trails there, and he was ready to get back to some serious off-roading after the fun we had in Island in the Sky the day before. I was almost tempted to recommend that we take the Elephant Hill trail out of Needles and into the Beef Basin, finishing at the campsite we had found earlier that morning at Cathedral, but we were didn’t have a complete recovery kit with us. So we headed for the Colorado Scenic Overlook trail instead.

This trail starts in sand, sometimes pretty deep, with a good view of your surroundings through the tall grass. The aired down General Grabber AT’s performed flawlessly.

Although Needles is in the same park as Island in the Sky and they are only separated by the Colorado River, this part of Needles is an entirely different landscape than Island in the Sky. Gone are the giant mesas and deep valleys. Gone is dark redrock and impressive rock formations. Instead you get “needles” or spires of rock that rise 10-50 feet in height and are clumped together in such a way that they look like giant, overgrown cacti plants.

As we followed the trail, we came across a newer model Suburban coming the other way. Thankfully we met as a the one-way trail crossed a dry riverbed, so Mike was able to back up. It’s my opinion that the Spidr (rear-diff guard) came in handy here because I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been in guiding Mike and he hit a pretty sharp rock. Granted, he’s probably right and the diff would have been fine, but still, I was glad he had bought the guard.

Seeing the Suburban, we wondered if this trail was really as difficult as it was made out to be. We continued on for another mile or so before we came to an elevated area wide enough to park a vehicle or two and turn around. According to our guide book, this is where many people park and hike the rest of the 3 or so mile trail. I could see why as we would be climbing up what appeared to be naturally formed rock “steps” or “shelves”, at least 30 feet of it.

I hopped out at this point, walkie-talkie and iphone in hand and hiked up the hill, guiding Mike vocally and with hand signals. We pretty much spent the next 2.5 miles doing this. Definitely got my workout in, that’s for sure.

Finally we came to a spot that was impassable for the Trailblazer, about a 2 foot drop off a rock “shelf” 30 feet long or so. There was no way around it unless you had higher clearance, and we didn’t want to push our luck. So we got out and hiked for a bit.

This is when the heat really started to get to us. Somehow, even though the temperature was the same as yesterday, being out in a seemingly more arid, desert like place really sapped one’s energy. (That and the fact that I had spent a good chunk walking/hiking/climbing that trail to guide Mike.) Definitely thankful we were well supplied on water and nutritional bars to keep us going.

As we started to head back down the trail, we came across an older couple who had parked their Subaru at the dried up river bed and hiked their way in. They looked hot, tired, and I’m pretty sure if we had the room for passengers, the wife would have made the husband get in and take them back. We did offer some of our water to replenish their little water bottles, which they refused, more content to just hear from us that they were close to their goal. Sometimes I wonder how they fared getting back…

The drive back was just as fun to navigate for Mike, I’m sure. I spent most of it guiding him, usually walking the path the Trailblazer should take with Mike following some 10 feet behind. It wasn’t too hard to figure out, just look for the path with the least damage from scraping some poor vehicle’s underside. At one point I found a couple bolt heads, and another 100 feet or so found a scrap of metal that was probably someone’s stock skid plate at one point.

As we came to the last part of the trail before the vehicle turnaround. I came across a family hiking up the natural stone steps. The son stopped me to ask in broken English how our vehicle had fared and if I thought their SUV would make it. I asked what type of car they had, and was told a Chevy SUV that was about the same height/clearance as ours. I was pretty skeptical since ours is lifted and these folks were definitely from France or French Canada (we came across a lot of them the evening before in Moab). I told them they could try it, but I would not recommend bringing anything up here if you didn’t have experience.

Mike and I were pretty amused when we reached the turnaround and saw they had a rented Chevy Traverse. I hope they took my advice and left it.

We made our way back to the visitor center parking lot at the head of the trail and aired up our tires. Unfortunately it was so dang hot out the compressor kept overheating, so we turned on the AC in the truck, full blast to the floor boards, and stuck the thing in there and partially closed the door. It helped, but it took approximately 45 mins to air up the tires. At this point we were hot, sweaty, and I had a brutal headache from not drinking nearly enough water while acting as guide.

We toyed around with what we should do next. Hit another trail? Head back down into the Beef Basin and the campsite? I don’t remember how, but we came to the decision that we should head out of Canyonlands, back up 211 to 191, through Moab to I-70 and then down 24 into Torrey, just outside Capitol Reef. It was late enough in the day that we felt we’d get to Torrey just as night fell (4 hour drive), grab a hotel, and have a full day to explore Capitol Reef.

So we did.

The drive on I-70 was dull and flat. The drive down CR-24 was mostly dull and flat until you hit Goblin Valley State Park. And let me tell you, the name does the park justice. It is creepy looking as all get out from the road, and the images that pop up in a Google search show what looks like fields of giant petrified mushrooms…..definitely something that Hollywood could use as a set for a strange, alien world.

As was becoming the norm, we soon found ourselves back in redrock and canyons with some random gray granite mountain range close by. However, the colors here were completely different than Moab. In fact, the biggest difference was the colors of the layers of rock. It was absolutely stunning!

We stopped in the park and took a look around. Capitol Reef is in the middle of Fruita’s Mormon historical area. Buildings, way of life– all were captured and maintained against time. Even the campground, as public as it was, was very peaceful and in tune with nature. Deer freely wandered among the fruit trees, horses entertained campers, and time generally did not seem to exist.

It was here that we discovered that our sunroof had broken. Apparently the offroading from earlier in the day or a combination over the last few days had been enough to cause the rods in the track to snap. Either way, it was kindof a bummer. Thankfully Mike knew a good trick to get it to close at least. Still haven’t fixed that. Seems almost a crime to not have a working sunroof when it’s 70+ here right now…..hey honey! :)

Back to Utah….

On the Western side of Capitol Reef there was an elevated area with a lot of signage, and the view was absolutely amazing. So we pulled over and hiked up just as the sun began to set behind us. Apparently this was some of the cleanest, clearest air around and offered a spectacular view into the distance. The colors from the setting sun along with the shadows created an almost surreal landscape before us.

We pushed on just a bit more though and checked in at a hotel in Torrey. Torrey is an extremely small town, a few hotels, a couple restaurants, two gas stations, and lots of grazing land. I enjoyed watching the horses prance around and play just 75 feet from my hotel window. We even had the chance to do some laundry! Yay for clean clothes! I’m pretty sure Mike’s favorite part was the hot tub. Nothing to melt away the stress and exhaustion of the trails like a nice soak in the hot tub……

All in all, it was a nice end to an exhausting day, which was a blessing in disguise, since tomorrow would present some unexpected and difficult challenges.

]The next day dawned beautiful and bright. We fueled up, appreciating the fact of knowing how much we were paying in taxes, and then headed for Capitol Reef.

Up until now, ‘we’ had done little hiking (pretty sure all the guiding I did yesterday could qualify as ‘hiking’) and Mike wanted to get out and stretch his legs. So we did some exploring in Capitol Reef, checked out the mine claims, hieroglyphs, and old mines.

It really was a pleasant hike.

Having satisfied his need to stretch his legs, Mike suggested we do some more trails. On the map that they give you for Capitol Reef, there’s the usual dotted line indicating “4×4 recommended” trail. We didn’t think too much of it after the adventures of the day before, especially considering the name of the trail was “Pleasant Creek”, so we headed out.

The rock formations in Capitol Reef are absolutely stunning in their colors.

The trail officially starts at an abandoned ranch aptly called the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch. It was pretty cool to get out and explore the different buildings and the ranch house itself.

The first trek of the trail begins by crossing Pleasant Creek. We came across a park ranger here and had to back up almost back to the ranch as both sides of the trail were covered with overgrowth taller than the truck. Once we crossed the stream, we enjoyed the view as we drove down a narrow dirt road, fairly well maintained. It wasn’t too long before we noticed the landscape changing, and it seemed like we were driving in a sunken, dried up river bed. Apparently the snows on the higher elevations are heavy enough to create a pretty deep runoff, which we were in. It was here that we came across a large rock in the middle of the path. Apparently this is where the trail “ends” and becomes “South Draw Road”, which is half on BLM land and half in Capitol Reef. However, it is not maintained in any way and is closed during the winter and spring months due to deep snows and heavy runoff.

Who knew? We certainly didn’t. All I could see from the map is that the trail ended at Boulder Mountain.

We were feeling adventurous and thought nothing of it. There were a few points the banks were above the Trailblazer, but overall the going wasn’t too bad. In many places the “trail” for better lack of term branched off as the runoffs had formed small islands in the dry bed. There you had a choice of the “easy way” some rock, lots of sand, and dry rotted wood, or you could take the “hard way” big rocks, a little sand, and lots of dry rotted wood. Knowing how well the tires handled sand, we went the “easy” way.

As we continued on, we crossed some flat terrain, another creek, and then noticed we started to go up.

And up. And there was a really big drop off forming as we hugged the cliff face.

At this point we were starting to lose sight of the trail/tire tracks. A huge portion of it was in the side of the cliffs, formed and rutted by water runoff, but there was no discernable path other than the fact that there seemed to be fewer plants. The rocks were sharp and jutted out in the most random places. A few times you’d lose sight of the road entirely and I’d have to get out and scout ahead.

There was a real sense of being serious here. We were in very rough terrain, guided by a map of dotted lines, and we didn’t even know how long the trail was exactly. There were a few areas that we both focused on the difficulty of the road and did not take pictures, but I actually found a person who had posted a few of the areas we didn’t take. So their photos are here as well and noted as not being our own. ***

At one point I was guiding Mike as well as recording him bringing the Trailblazer down a very steep curve. I figured we’ve already conquered a couple of difficult tracks, might as well capture this one as proof to the forum that we did it. Unfortunately, I was paying more attention to recording and where I was as opposed to where the vehicle was. Mind you, I was a half foot from the edge and an 800 foot fall, and the Trailblazer would pass me within half a foot with no room to spare.

I had guided Mike to hug the cliff face a little bit more so that the driver’s side tires would be riding up the middle hump created by the runoff, giving the Trailblazer more clearance over some huge rocks that we sticking out sharply on the right side of the middle hump. Well, had I been paying attention I would have seen that just 2 feet behind me on the cliff face there was a pretty huge outcropping of dirt and rock that was hard to discern from the rest of the path from Mike’s perspective. Before I know it, I’m telling him to stop, the Trailblazer is sitting at such an angle next to me that Mike is leaning halfway into the passenger seat, and we need to do something quick because we’re about to flip the truck on it’s side and potentially over the cliff’s edge.

I quickly suggested to Mike to turn the wheel all the way to the left and ease off the brake while I got out of the way as the truck slid sideways towards the edge of the cliff. Mike expertly turned the wheels just enough to guide the front end of the vehicle forward and down into the rut created by the runoff in order to clear the rest of the outcropping. As he did, I watched in amazement as the front Grabber AT on the driver’s side pinched under the rim and then nearly disappeared as the truck continued to slide to the left. I thought for sure the driver’s side front tire had been pulled off the rim! At the same time, I could hear the sound of the rock from the outcropping rubbing against the frame of the truck on the passenger side.

Suddenly this trail had become a nightmare.

After what seemed like an eternity, the truck leveled into the “middle” on the trail, the underside of the truck almost scraping on the rocks. Mike continued to ease the truck down, and I walked behind since the trail was too narrow for me to get back in the truck.

Some 500 feet later the trail itself leveled out and the cliff disappeared. We had reached the bottom of a small valley. We inspected the front tire, and I was amazed to see the thing still on the rim and still at 18psi. Unreal in my opinion. I thought the tire had come off for sure. Never had I been so happy to have a husband who does his homework on everything that goes on our rigg. :)

So, here we are in the bottom of a small valley, on a trail we knew nothing about, wondering what else lay ahead for us. We took a few minutes to get some water and food, and then we pressed on.

At this point this section of the trail turned right into the valley and we continued on over some very uneven terrain.

The valley seemed to widen out and the trail turned back into a dirt road. Our next problem presented itself as the road split in two directions, both running parallel to the mountain in front of us. We took a gamble and went left, only to discover the way was blocked and rusted private property signs were posted. So we turned around and went back the other way.

Up until today’s adventures, we had understood the fire restrictions due to drought conditions. However, there was certainly no sign of drought where we were. The trail itself was covered with deep water holes in several places and we had to skirt around a few lest we get stuck in the muck, much of which we were already driving through.

At this point, I was ready for this adventure to be over. We had been on this trail for 3 ½ hours, faced more challenges than we expected, and we still had no indication of how much further we had to go.

Finally we hit an “oasis” with a wide creek running through extremely tail grass. For a moment I felt like we were on an African Safari, except greener…..Anyways, the creek was definitely swollen from some recent rains, and the banks on either side were rutted where a few vehicles had gotten stuck before. I jumped out of the Trailblazer and walked ahead, sinking with each step I took, deeper and deeper the closer I got to the creek.

Mike radioed, asking how it looked, and I advised him of the situation. Well, I guess he was getting a little impatient with this trail and decided to just go for it. I wish I had been recording. It was a regular old scene out of the Dukes of Hazzard the way the Trailblazer bounced up out of the creek, front tires catching some air…..epic to say the least. I know Mike had fun with it.

It would have been even better if I was on the other side of the creek too……Much like the creek we crossed earlier in the day, I played the dutiful wife and waded through the icy waters (which actually felt really great in the heat) and got back in the truck. (Noticed, I’ve not complained once about not having driven, at all, in the last day and a half. That’s gotta be a record.)

After crossing the creek, we looked ahead and realized that the trail seemed to suddenly end, which made absolutely no sense! Sure we were surrouded on 3 sides by grass that came up to my window and redrock that soared above us, but there had to be a way out of there! It turns out that the trail, just past a large tree, disappeared into the grass by making a near 180 degree turn right and taking a steep climb up the cliff face for a few hundred feet. And this was one of those points that you prayed no one was coming the other way because with dense grass all around you and the tracks barely visible, there was no way to let anyone pass.

Finally we made it to the top, curved left and were back in a field again. We could see a dirt road some several hundred feet away, and between us lay more mud and boggy swamp than we had seen before. There was no way around this time, so Mike just said “F*** it and went.

This is the point I pause and say THANK YOU!!!!! to MDB Fab for getting us the radiator skid plate 5 days before our trip. It saved our hides here. I’d also like to thank my mom for always making me drink my milk and get lots of calcium for healthy teeth and bones.

Apparently the tail grass was also hiding some really deep ruts, ruts big enough that when the truck came down, it landed on that skid plate and it was only forward momentum and the read traction that pushed us up out. We continued rocking and bouncing, tossing mud and water every which way, until we finally came to the dirt road. I was really over this trail now after that bone-jarring, teeth-clanking jolt we received.

And this actually was the end of the worst parts of the trail in the sense of unpredictability. A few more miles down it turned into a graded road. A really graded road. As in rumble strip graded. As in I felt like the truck was going to rattle apart. The fact that we were now out of the water fold and red rock and climbing up the gray granite of Boulder mountain was lost on us. We didn’t care that we were suddenly seeing pine trees and mountainous-type terrain (such a far cry different from the red rock canyons. Nope, all we cared about was the fact that we had seen our first sign! Six more miles until a paved road and smooth driving!