Islands in the Desert

It all started in December. Guiding the few people who decided that after shivering all night during Freeze Your Tail Off 8, braving more cold to drive around the Silver Island Mountains was a good idea. As we skated about on the ice, snow, and mud I thought, “Why don’t I ever come out here when it’s warm?”

Mid-May, when it is supposed to be warm (though this year has disagreed with that standard) and the Silver Island Mountains Exploration trip got underway. We met at the Speedway Gas Station to top off tanks and grab our last provisions before venturing off into what was, for all intensive purposes, the unknown for many of us. The Silver Island’s, while close to home, are generally not regarded as a destination. To the casual observer, they are surrounded in salt, have no trees, and generally look like a miserable place to visit. After years of touring the loop road post FYTO, I finally did some digging and found that it is crisscrossed with dozens of old roads, mine sites, caves, and all sorts of other points of interest.

Our first destination on Friday was to find a suitable camp. We wound our way along a barely discernable two-track road up to a saddle between two ridges and were greeted with a fantastic camp spot.

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Not only was it a great place to pitch a tent and have a campfire, it also had magnificent views to the south of the Salt Flats and Wendover Airfield.

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And to the north of the stunning Rishel Peak.

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One thing that I noticed right away that was different about other trips around the Silver Island Mountains (aside from the lack of snow), and all the pictures that you find of them, is just how green everything was. It was almost surreal to stand there looking north at Rishel Peak and this lush, green valley spread out in front of it. It almost seemed like it would be fertile land if you didn’t know it’s true nature. But with all the water we’ve had this year, it’s made the desert bloom in spectacular fashion!

As the light faded we were greeted with beautiful cloud formations floating over us.

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After an enjoyable night around the campfire, I drug myself out of my warm comfortable sleeping bag at 5:15 in the morning (much to Kit’s chagrin I’m sure) to catch the sunrise, which was beautiful!

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Once the day began for the late risers, we packed up camp and headed out. A short drive and hike later we were at a small cave looking out over the expansive Salt Flats.

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The centuries old soot marking the roof of the cave bare evidence to the ancient inhabitants.

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One can’t help that they chose the cave for the view. Even back then, real estate was all about location, location, location!

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Another short drive later and we were at another cave. This one a bit larger and with a small amount of water dripping in the back.

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From the second cave we made our way up a faded spur road in the next canyon over which eventually found us at the base of a network of small mines.

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One of the more interesting aspects of these mines was a road that was built up to them. It looked like it was done by hand. Not my idea of a good time in the summer heat, but impressive.

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After exploring these mines for a bit we meandered our way to another set of mines at the base of Tetzlaff Peak and enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the cool breeze.

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After lunch we started making our way towards the Floating Island Mountain to the south-east. Along the way we came upon a building foundation just off the main loop road. Not sure what it was for. Perhaps an observation point for the Army Air Force out of Wendover during the war? A store house of some sort? Not sure, but in 1970 the USGS thought it was a good spot to place a survey marker.

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We found our way to the causeway that leads to the Floating Island Mountain and cruised along as it got larger and larger on the horizon. It’s an odd looking mountain with a large rock jutting out of it like a diving platform.

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We continued on along the east side of the mountain, skirting the edge of the salt flats until the ring road just seemed to vanish! To the south the road continued along an arrow straight causeway that ultimately ended at I-80, but the route to the west that showed on our maps was gone from what appeared to be the quarrying efforts to construct the causeway!

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But with the map saying it was there and that it ultimately led us back to where we began, we embarked upon some cross country travel. Picking our way through the brush and loose rocks. Unfortunately for Brian in his Colorado, this meant a puncture to the sidewall of one of his tires. But with a quick patch and some air, he was back on his way shortly.

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Eventually we made our way to the west side of the mountain and were confronted with the vast expanse of mud flats near the end of the Bonneville Speedway. Hard and flat, we did our best to imitate the racers and sped our way back to the causeway that led us in.

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We reconnected with the Silver Island Mountain loop road and hurriedly made our way to our next point of interested, the Crater Island Mountains. Here we were greeted by an oncoming storm front which gave us beautiful vistas, strong wind and some welcome rain to keep the dust down.

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As we worked our way east we were met with our first bit of mine ruins. What looked like some sort of loading dock. And below that, the overturned cab of a truck.

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Onward we went in search to more mine ruins and we soon greeted with a small canyon full of relics. A test kiln with fired bricks labeled “golden”, what looked to be the foundation of a generator plant, and a shaft that led to a rather deep hole!

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It was fast approaching o’beer-thirty at this point and we’d yet to come across an acceptable campsite. So the search was on as we made our way farther east along the Crater Island Mountain road. After inspecting a few potential spots, we finally found one high up on the crest of a hill that offered some spectacular views. As we were going through the motions of setting up camp, we were treated with some light rain and wind and beautiful clouds marching across the sky.

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After a bit the storm moved on and we were able to get a nice fire going and started making dinner. But then the wind kicked up again. And boy, was it blustery! I’d set my trust Coleman stove up behind the Trooper and was boiling some brats and sauerkraut for dinner when a huge gust whipped over the hill. And that was the end of the planned dinner! The brats were salvageable (eating a bit of dirt never hurt anyone), but the sauerkraut was gone, and sadly my 1980 425E is going to have to go through a bit of a rebuild after it came crashing down.

The wind passed again for a few hours and we enjoyed sitting at a nice campfire, but eventually it came back with vengeance; forcing many of us to retreat to our tents. Kit and I had made the calculated decision to leave the rainfly off of ours, surmising that any rain that we might have would quickly move on. By about 11:30 that night, we’d found that was a pretty poor decision and I was sent out into the storm to batten down the hatches. With the wind ripping by at 40mph and the rain lashing at my face I struggle mightily to get the fly into place. But doing my best Horatio Hornblower impression, I got everything into place and dove back into the tent. And, as always seems to be the case, just as I got back into the sleeping bag; everything died down.

I awoke the next morning less than rested and in some ways just looking to get the day done with because I was so damn tired from the night. Breakfast was a solemn affair until I got a cup of coffee brewed. As I finally started to wake up with the aid of our friend caffeine, I looked to the north and wanted to see how far we could get on the road that stretched out from our camp. A few other decided to make the trek with me, while others opted to stay at camp. Our first stop was the beginnings of what looked to be designs for a mighty mining operation. The entrance tunnel was impressive, but quickly bottomed out.

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From the mine it was a short jaunt down to the mud flats where the road more or less end. Theoretically you could hop on the flats and make your way along the north edge of Crater Island and connect back to the Silver Island Mountains loop road. But with the rain we’d had the night before, I felt that risking getting stuck wasn’t worth the adventure. So after enjoying the sights for a minute, we headed back up to camp to join the others.

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Once everyone was saddled up and ready to go, we started heading back towards the Silver Island Mountain loop road. We took a quick detour to inspect another abandoned mine site. It was nothing more than a small hole in the ground, but judging from the amount of tailings, it went down a ways!

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We stopped again near the first abandoned mine site on Crater Island and headed up to see is we could find the actual shaft. At the mouth of the small canyon there was clear evidence of heavy use, so we surmised that there much be something up there of note.

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As we clambered around, there wasn’t any evidence that we could find of a mine shaft. Just interesting geology and beautiful vistas.

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But on our way back down we stumbled upon the reason for all the equipment further down. A spring that looked to have been dug out for better access. With fresh water so rare out here, clearly a valuable find!

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From here our party split. A hand full decided to head back to Floating Island and take the causeway from the south end of that to I-80, and a few more decided to complete the Silver Island Mountain loop road to the north. The rest of us headed into Silver Canyon, and I have to say; the other missed out!

Not long after entering the canyon it was clear that is was the most beautiful area of our trip. There is clearly more water in the canyon that the rest of the area as the juniper grew large and it just had a much more lush and cool feeling.

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We wound our way up the two track stopping a few times at the scars of several aborted mining attempts.

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As we got higher up the canyon we were greeted by the imposing tower of Graham Peak.

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Eventually we took a spur that promised to deliver us to another former mine site. The road got narrower and narrower and more technical, which made the journey worth it in itself!

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But it didn’t disappoint in the mine either. There we several horizontal shafts and one deep vertical shaft with a precarious looking ladder heading down into it.

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We contemplated heading down into it, but without rappelling gear, we opted to stay topside.

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From here we headed back out to the loop road and split up again. With a few wanting to go and complete the loop to the north and the rest of us heading back along the south side. All told it was a very interesting trip into one of the less traveled areas of the state. Certainly whetted the appetite for further exploring!

Exploring the Middle Ground

I have made the drive to and from St. George, Utah along I-15 hundreds of times. Generally, I stop in Fillmore because its pretty much half way and makes for a good place to stretch you legs and top off on fuel and food. I’ve always looked at the mountains to the east and thought, “I wonder what roads are up there?” But I’ve never taken the time to find out.

Mid October that changed. One of my oldest friends, Spencer, who is generally the reason that I make that drive to St. George, and I decided to meet in the middle and do a little exploring and camping. The middle was Fillmore and the Pavant Range to the east.

Our meeting place in Fillmore was the old Territorial State House.

It’s easily been 20 years since the last time I went to the State House (god, that sad that I can actually remember 20 years ago…), so it was interesting to stop off at the museum again. In reality, though, nothing much had changed. An interesting, if trivial, piece of Utah history and I would recommend anyone going, but mostly pretty staid exhibits.

From the State House, we decided to grab a bite to eat before hitting the trail. Like so many small towns that have been bypassed by the freeway, there isn’t much left on Main Street, which is really sad. But there was one burger joint called Cluff’s Car Hop, and it’s fantastic. In all these years blazing past Fillmore, I never came here. Totally worth it.

After enjoying a delicious cheese burger and fresh raspberry shake, it was time to leave pavement and head east into the Pavant Range. We decided to start our journey along the Chalk Creek Canyon road. A fairly major gravel and dirt trail that winds its way higher and higher into the mountains offering some stunning views of the valley below and magnificent fall colors.

As we climbed and climbed it became apparent that we were not going to be finding any flat areas to camp until we reached the summit. So we powered on until the light started to fade a bit and we reached a cattle corral at the top. It was flat, already had a fire ring, but… was next to a cattle corral and the associated material. There were spur roads heading off in either direction so we split up to find a more suitable spot.

I wandered an aspen shrouded trail called “Bear Hollow”. With leaves so thick on the road, it seemed like I was the first traveler into a forbidden land. But then, there about half a mile in was the perfect camp spot. Off the road a ways, guarded from the wind by tall aspens and low bushes, a flat spot with plenty of room for our two vehicles and a coupe of tents. Exactly the kind of spot you dream of. I radioed back up to Spence about the choice spot I had found, and he quickly headed back down.

We quickly staked our camp as the last rays of light departed and then stoked a roaring fire to sit around and enjoy for the rest of the night.

The next morning we woke with the sun. Well, Spencer did any way, the joyously thick canvas of my Skydome blocked the sun out until about 8:00, which was glorious! After a quick breaky we packed up and headed on out. We had no destination other than exploring and finding another suitable camping location for the evening. As we glided along the surprisingly smooth main road we saw a sign for “Hans Ridge” and a rocky ledge. Never one to turn down the chance to pop it into 4-Lo for some adventure, I turned off.

The trail led us along the afore mentioned ridge via a narrow two track, but not much more. When the trail finally squeezed itself down to ATV size, we stopped for a moment to enjoy the view and wax poetical about Jason Statham’s fine acting career.

After reflecting on such fine works as Safe and The Feather Men, we pulled out the trusty Benchmark Atlas and surveyed our surrounds. The next point on interest along the main road was called White Pine Point. Sounded like a logical place to head to.

As we wound our way up the mountain, I started to notice terracing leading up the peak. It reminded me of the anti-erosion terracing that you see in American Fork Canyon that was completed by the CCC. But my research thus far has not indicated that this was done at the same time.

Eventually we found our way to White Pine Peak, which is dominated by radio and cellular towers.

Which would explain why I had maximum cell signal all throughout the Pavant Range! So, while we sat there at 10,200 feet getting fried by various microwave signals, we also took in the absolutely spectacular views!

From here, Spencer and I ran into a problem. The roads were in great shape, and both of us are notoriously fast drivers. So where we reached at noon, was where we had planned to be by five. So we decided that rather than munch on ham and cheese sandwiches, we’d head into Richfield for lunch.

I’ve passed through Richfield a handful of times over the years, and I’ve always been amazed at how vibrant the little town feels. I think it’s in large part due to Snow College being there, which is good. I’m always saddened when I pass through a town that is well past its prime, like Fillmore. So finding a Main Street with life is always pleasant.

We parked in front of the post office, which proudly shows it’s cornerstone marked “1917” and began wandering. Our first stop was the Liquor Store. I had brought plenty of beer to help make the evenings by the fire go a little smoother, but Spencer has a slightly more sensitive pallet than I. So he bought himself some hard cider for the evening ahead. We then made our way up to the restaurant district. A whole two, right across the street from each other. One, the mainstay of Richfield, Little Wonder Café, is your classic Diner. In business for 70 some odd years, it’s definite stood the test of time. Our next option was the brand new Main Street Grille.

We decided to try out luck and give the Main Street Grille a try. Totally worth it. A delicious Ruben and some fish and chips were much more filling than the ham and cheese sitting in the fridge.

Our next order of business was to improve our communication set up. Spencer, not being a seasoned 4-wheeler, lacked a CB in his Dodge and we’d been relying on FRS radios. So we headed to the local Radio Shack and bought the bargain basement CB model. After setting this up and rolling out of town, we quickly learned why it was so cheap. While he could hear me fine, his transmissions sounded more like the adults from a Charley Brown cartoon. After fiddling with is a bit, Spencer decided he’d just deal with it for the time being.

It was time to head back into the mountains. We decided to tack southwest a bit on I-70 and head back into the Pavant Range just outside of Elsinore. It was about 3pm, so we wanted to find a nice camp spot and set up for some target shooting before it got to dark.

Looking at the maps, we decided to give Forest Road 496 a try.

It was a spectacular two-track road with a few fun little spurs, that were often a bit of a tight fit for the Trooper, and subsequently the big Dodge!

After a few hours of poking our noses down every spur road looking for a suitable camp spot, we found one up on FR439 just a little ways away from Joseph Peak nestled beneath a grove of bright yellow aspen trees. We set up Spencer’s dueling tree and plinked away with our .22’s for a good long while.

That night was windy. Very windy. And it boded poorly for Sunday. As morning broke, cold weather and ominous looking clouds crowding the horizon greeted us. Our initial plan was to heads south and cross I-70 and head into the Tushar Mountains. But the brewing weather and Spencer’s general dislike of all things cold prompted us to change our plans and turn west for the desert.

First, we made our way out of the Pavant Range towards Kanosh through the absolutely spectacular fall colors.

We made a quick stop in Meadow for gas and had some of the worst gas station coffee ever before we decided to make our way out to a place on the map called Clear Lake. As we passed through Flowell, we could see this long black strip on the horizon. Having never been out here before, neither of us were sure what it was. But as we got closer, we saw that it was a huge lava flow.

On the map, it’s simply referred to as “The Lava”, which was apt enough. Easily a quarter mile wide and several miles long, it was an impressive site to see with the farmland butting up against it.

After poking around on the lava for a minute, we continued towards Clear Lake, which really wasn’t much to talk about. A waterfowl management area, it reminded me of Fish Springs along the Pony Express Trail, but less grand.

Being disappointed with Clear Lake, we again consulted the map and decided to head back to Fillmore. As we drove, ahead of us stood Pahvant Butte (yes, with an “h”), atop it I could make out structures that looked very familiar to me. Something I’d read about before, but I swore it was further west. So we detoured off the main road to head up the butte and check it out.

As we neared, I was positive that this was the structure I was thinking of, but first there appeared to be only one road getting up to it. A rather steep climb on loose gravel with a rough patch in the middle. I wasn’t phased, dropping the Trooper in 4-low and hitting the gas I abled up it with nary a wheel spin.

Spencer, on the other hand, had a bit of a struggle. Getting stuck in the middle and having to back down a bit before he could get the lumbering Dodge the entire way up.

And there we were, atop Pahvant Butte and one of the oddities of Utah.

Back in the early 1920’s a gentleman by the name of A.H. Hood came to Millard County and proposed building a wind turbine power plant on the top of the butte. He managed to get some investors and construction began in 1923. It was never completed.

Supposedly the project went bankrupt and Hood was eventually convicted of mail fraud and sent to prison. As far as anyone has been able to find, there are no remaining photos, plans, or blueprints. So we can just wonder what it would have looked like.

For having sat abandoned on the top of this windy butte for 91 years, it’s in remarkable condition. Only one tower has collapsed and the main building, which I assume would have held the generator, still stands.

And surprisingly, has very little graffiti. Likely due to it’s remoteness.

Just an odd, fascinating place. The type of place that you can only hide in the vast emptiness of the desert.

We poked around the very windy butte for a bit before we decided it was time to make our way back to the interstate and home. It turned out that the steep climb we had made was not the only way up. And on the other side of the butte was a road that had been cut in no doubt for the construction of the wind turbine. We ambled down that and then blasted along the desert roads until we connected with US 50 and ultimately I-15.

Spencer and I parted ways, him south to sunny St. George and me to less sunny Salt Lake. It was a great trip to go and explore a part of the state that so many of us just fly through to other points. It definitely merits further exploration on my part and I look forward to coming back!