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!

Retro Ramble: Part I

Retro Ramble was born of a desire to have an event specific to the awesome vehicles of the 1980’s. Relic Run caters to those who have a fondness for 1970’s and earlier vehicles, but the 80’s and their particular strain of uniqueness were intentionally left out of that.

So finally, after five years of Relic Running, the vehicles of the ‘80’s roared to life on a early June afternoon. It was a small, but relatively eclectic group for the first outing. Kurt with his rare in the US ’86 BJ74 Toyota Land Cruiser, Mike in his supped up ’84 FJ60 Cruiser, Spencer and his two kids in his ’83 Mitsubishi Turbo Diesel Pickup, and me in my beloved ’86 Samurai.

So a little background here is necessary I feel. The vehicle you see above is in many ways a lifelong labor of love. For automotive enthusiasts, they’ll get it, for others perhaps not. It’s square, slow, rusty, loud, bouncy, antiquated… the antitheses of what many feel exemplifies beauty. But to me, it’s everything I love. You see, my dad came home with a Samurai in the spring of 1990 and though I was still mourning the loss of his 1976 Renault 5, I was immediately smitten with the Samurai. And then came the 4-wheeling. From the first trip to the dunes, to the picnics in the mountains, and then conquering trials in Moab. My dad’s Samurai was unstoppable. Mix all that in with long nights in the driveway putting on a lift, swapping in transfer case gears and lockers, and you quickly have a recipe to make a young boy obsessed.

By the time I turned 16 I was determined to own a Samurai of my own. So when I found an ’86 hardtop in the classifieds, it was game on. That was June of 1999. Fast forward 15 years and I still have it. It’s been through several iterations, different lifts, two motors, a new front clip; but it’s still my Samurai.

After several years of chasing down gremlins associated with an EFI swap, I finally got it running solidly in time to participate in the inaugural Retro Ramble. And I couldn’t have been happier. My Isuzu Trooper has become the primary vehicle for backcountry exploration. And compared to the Samurai, it’s luxurious; but to get the Samurai back out on a trip just made me giddy.

So our little band met up in Delle along I-80 before venturing along the dusty, silty, Dead Cow Point Road (yes, that’s really it’s name) squeezed between the Lakeside Mountains and the Great Salt Lake. Our ultimate destination, the Lakeside Cave and the 1980’s.

The soft sand of Dead Cow Point Road eventually dumps you off on the main road between the Union Pacific quarry at Lakeside and I-80. This road also happens to pierce the United States Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range for a dozen miles or so. As you enter the range, and every few miles there are large, imposing signs warning you not to stop for any reason. Not to leave the road for fear for unexploded ordnance. We abided diligently, with the Samurai happily zooming along the smooth dirt road until we came over the final rise and dipped into the dark, almost dystopian scene that is the Lakeside quarry. The mountainside stripped of all vegetation, industrial equipment in various stages of repair strewn about. And empty. I’ve been through Lakeside a dozen times, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone actually working there. It’s eerie, but that can be said about much of the area west of the Great Salt Lake.

We eventually found our way through the quarry and to the cave west of it. As the sun slowly dipped into the warm spring night, we settled in for an evening of chatting around the fire, delicious burnt end’s provided by Spence and a reading of the inaugural Retro Ramble newspaper!

The early morning sun roused us all excitedly to get the day underway. Our plan was simple, a quick breakfast and then blast down the Transcontinental Railroad grade to the Hogup Pumping Station and then north to the City of Rocks in southern Idaho.

I led the group out along the railroad grade, cruising along enjoying the stark vistas across the salt flats and reveling in how well the Samurai was running. And then… I lost all power. I quickly pulled over at a wide spot on the grade and hopped out.

I immediately suspected my EFI gremlins had returned, but after pulling the air box out and seeing the milky residue inside, I knew it was something more sinister. By this time Kurt, Mike and Spence had caught up. Kurt’s cool head and mechanical expertise immediately suspected a blown head gasket, which would explain the mixing of oil and coolant along with the sudden loss of power. Mike and Spence volunteered to make the drive all the way back into Tooele for a new gasket while Kurt and I tore the head off.

We managed to get the head torn down in about an hour, which gave us plenty of time to relax.

At least we can clam this; few people have probably spent several hours on the side of the Union Pacific railroad grade who didn’t work on it. Not sure if I would recommend it for your next romantic vacation destination, but certainly unique.

After about two hours, Mike and Spence returned with a brand new head gasket and we set about buttoning the whole thing back up. I was in a chipper mood as we tightened the last bolts on the valve cover and started to refill the motor with oil and coolant. Right up to the point that we realized that the coolant just kept on going in and eventually finding its way back out the oil check tube. What we were faced with was a cracked block, and the Samurai, which had performed so admirably just a few hours earlier, was out for the count.

Dejected, I threw a strap to the back of Kurt’s Cruiser and we proceeded to tow the Samurai back to Delle while Mike and Spence continued along the railroad grade to Lucin.

Once Kurt and I arrived at Delle I managed to get ahold of our friend Bryson to utilize his trailer and get me the rest of the way to Salt Lake. As we sat there in Delle waiting, Kurt, who was less than 24 hours away from hopping on a plane to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime driving around Terra de Fuego, was in his typical high spirits. “Its all part of the fun.” He said. I can’t tell you how many times in my life Kurt has lifted me out of the doldrums with his damnable positive attitude. He’s truly one of the happiest guys I know, and I feel fortunate to have found myself, once again, in a shitty situation with him telling me to buck up and look on the bright side.

Bryson got to Delle with his truck and trailer around 5pm and we loaded the Samurai up, wished Kurt luck in the southern hemisphere and headed back on the highway to Salt Lake. Bryson, also one of those damn happy people, encouraged me to look on the bright side and roll with the punches. So by the time we got to my parents house (the default storage location for my non-running Samurai) I was feeling pretty good about myself.

After thanking Bryson for the tow, my dad hurried me back to my place so I could swap vehicles for my 1994 Isuzu Trooper and begin the third phase of this adventure. In the space of an hour I was back on I-80 heading west again, fast. I’ve been told I’m a fast driver. I blame being raised on healthy doses of Formula 1, Le Mans, and WRC. All of which came in handy as I blasted along I-80, stopping at the Speedway gas station just long enough to top off my tank before heading north along TL Bar Ranch Road to Lucin.

I flew along the miserable washboardy road, drifting around corners in a way that would have made Stig Blomqvist proud; and generally rallying as fast as I could along the 50 miles between I-80 and Lucin. Finally, I reached my destination around 11pm, much to Mike’s surprise. Apparently, both he and Spence figured that I wouldn’t show up until the morning. I proved them wrong as I pulled into the Lucin “parking lot” to find Mike cheering my arrival.

After standing around chatting about Mike’s much more leisurely day for a few minutes, my allergies from the towering cottonwood trees got the best of me and I climbed into the passenger seat, threw a sheet over my head and drifted pleasantly to sleep.

Aside from the train roaring by several times through the night, I slept quite well and awoke in the morning refreshed from the previous days travails. The wind had kicked up and was fortunately blowing the pollen from the cottonwood trees away from our camp, which afforded Mike an I a chance to go wander around the old ghost town of Lucin for a bit. An interesting place, for sure. Built to serve as a watering point for train heading to and just finishing making the journey over the Great Salt Lake causeway, it was eventually made redundant as locomotives switched from steam power to diesel. Mostly abandoned by the mid-1930’s, it was finally cleaned out in the 1950’s. All that’s left are a few foundations and an impressive artificial lake fed by a spring.

After wandering for a bit, we returned to camp to find Spence and his kids out of their tent and enjoying a light breakfast. We consulted our maps and planned out our journey for the day, which would eventually find us at the City of Rocks in southern Idaho. After packing our gear, which for Spence in his tiny Mitsubishi was quite the game of Tetris, I led our group north to the small town of Grouse Creek.

Grouse Creek is an anomaly. A small farming community that is not only not a ghost town in the making, but actually growing! After bombing along the arrow straight gravel road all the way from Lucin we hit pavement at the outskirts of town and found our way to the general store at the heart of the town. The chipper proprietor of the shop talked enthusiastically about her little corner of Utah as we looked over the well-stocked shelves.

We availed ourselves to a few items and a couple tanks of gas before we decided to head to the north edge of town to check out the cemetery.

I’ve always found that the best way to get an understanding of a town’s history is to make a stop to the cemetery. Grouse Creek was settled by polygamous Mormons (surprise, I know!) so lots of graves of large families with one patriarch. Lots of Pioneers that had made the trek across the pains were there, with the oldest dates of birth being from the late 18th century! Quite amazing.

In the peace and quite of the cemetery we pulled out the trusty Benchmark and plotted out a few roads to explore east of town. There was one big loop that looked most appealing, so we headed out past several well-appointed farmhouses and through big fields until we found our road and began to slowly climb up from the valley floor.

As we ascended you could start to see smoke off in the distance. As we continued on the road, we kept getting closer and closer to the smoke.

Eventually we found a Chevy pickup parked in a field, but no one around. The smoke was getting thicker and we cautiously continued along the road until we saw the actual flames in the brush close by, at which point we wisely decided to turn around and head back down to the main road. Judging from the fact that there were no news reports about a fire around Grouse Creek, I assume that this was a prescribed burn of sorts.

Back on the main road we continued north into the Goose Creek Mountains. Having never been into this part of the state before, I was stunned by the vast beauty of the mountains. Rolling green hills accented by patches of brown and red all reaching for the fluffy clouds and bright blue sky. We stood atop one of the passes for a while and just took it all in.

As hard as it may be for us in the 21st century to believe, for most of its history the United States was still what we would now consider a “developing country”. Mostly rural with a few urban centers. The vast majority of the population lived in small towns like Grouse Creek. That all started to change around 100 years ago and there was a dramatic migration to urban centers. But there is an interesting period right around the turn of the 20th century where the population was still largely dispersed, but transportation was allowing for people to travel great distances in relatively short periods of time. In order to accommodate this, local and state governments built impressive road networks to connect everyone. As the migration to urban centers accelerated these roads began to see less use, then the national highway system was established in the late 1920’s, bypassing many of these towns, and finally the Interstate highways being built starting in the 50’s sealed the fate for many of the small towns and roads that connected them. Sad, yes, but for us backcountry explorers, this has left us with tens of thousands of roads to traverse and all sorts of “modern” ruins to find, such as this bridge over the Raft River:

Which stands as a testament to how much traffic this seemingly lonely dirt road once saw.

Several hours of winding our way through the Goose and Grouse Creek Mountains eventually found us in the town of Almo, Idaho, the gateway to City of Rocks National Reserve. We stopped into the old farmhouse in town that serves as the Ranger Station to find out about camping in the Reserve. We had been advised by a reliable source that we could just show up and get a spot without much issue. That turned out to be far from the truth! The Rangers informed us that all campsites within the Reserve were booked solid every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But we were told in the National Forest just outside of the Reserve we could camp without the need for a permit wherever we wanted. Being the hearty, self-sufficient explorers that we where, that worked out just fine for us. We hopped back into our vehicles and made our way through to the Reserves western edge and the up the forest access road. And up. And up. All the way to 10,000 feet when we finally crossed into the Sawtooth National Forest. We took the first spur road and immediately found a clearing that surpassed any and all of the prepared campsites within the Reserve. We quickly went about setting up for the most radical night of Retro Ramble. What made it so rad, you ask? Megaplex Sawtooth, that’s what!

Since we were “back” in the 1980’s, it was only appropriate to have a movie night. So we set up our screen, backed up Mike’s Cruiser and connected a VCR to his power inverter and got set up to watch one of the towering classics of the era, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Mix that with an absolutely amazing potluck of ribs and steak, and it was basically a perfect night in the mountains.

We woke the next day, packed up for the last time and made our way back down into the Reserve to do a little hiking. Now, I have heard people talk about City of Rocks in the past, but I had never really known what it was all about. Maybe a small grouping of rocks, an interesting outcropping, a place where people trekking west in the 19th century had stopped and given it a peculiar name. How about all of the above and more? It is truly a spectacular natural wonder of rock formations packed into a very small area. It is well worth the journey.

We hiked around at a couple of the upper sites for a while before we made our way to a rock that pioneers had written their names on.

At this point, Spencer and his kids decided it was time to take off and get back home at a reasonable hour. Mike and I bid them adieu before we too said goodbye to the City of Rocks and headed back into the town of Almo for a quick lunch.

One of my favorite things about exploring is finding diners and other quirky eating establishments in small towns. Almo did not disappoint with Rock City, a restaurant/gift shop/beer store that serves up a mean pizza. As Mike and I sat on the patio enjoying the afternoon sun we waxed poetical about the adventures of the past few days, both good and bad, and discussed our plans for Retro Ramble: Part II. If you think Part one sounded fun, Part II totally tubular!