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!

A Maze, Poisoned Spring, and a Black Dragon

National Parks are generally marked by boring roads, bland views, closed roads, prepared campsites not allowing fires, signs telling you what not to do, and east coast tourists on an “adventure”. So in other words, places to be avoided at all costs. So when my good friend Joseph said that he was returning to Utah briefly from his exile in Florida to go to the Maze district of Canyonlands, I initially was non-committal leaning towards a firm no.

My Dad on the other hand, wanted to go. You see, the Maze district is probably the most remote area in the National Park system, you need a permit to stay there, and it is actually supposed to be a challenging drive to get to the bottom called The Dollhouse. My Dad had always wanted to drive this road, and with Joseph having the permit, here was his chance. But he wanted me to go, because, you know, who wouldn’t want me along?

While it’s remoteness appealed to me because that meant no east coast tourists (aside from Joseph), all the other detracting factors still existed. But, it’s my Dad, so I begrudgingly agreed to go along.

The plans for the main group was to head down on Wednesday night and camp outside of the park, then head in Thursday morning, camp along the supposedly challenging Flint Trail and then finally reach The Dollhouse Friday. My dad was going to join them Thursday morning, and because I’d used the last of my vacation time at work the weekend before in the Pavant Range, I was going to blast down Friday night and meet them at The Dollhouse.

The main groups plan went off without a hitch, and they moseyed on down to The Dollhouse at a leisurely pace. My Dad decided the week before that he’d rather accompany me down on Friday night. I had a very reliable person tell me, “Oh yeah, you can make it from Salt Lake to The Dollhouse in six hours. No problem!” So I figured I’d be able to leave work at 2:30pm and I’d be at The Dollhouse by 8:30-9:00pm no problem.

My Dad and I took off promptly at 2:30 Friday afternoon and cruised the familiar highways to Green River where we topped off out tanks and grabbed some Subway sandwiches for dinner. We left Green River about 5:00pm and found our way to the turn off for the Hans Flat road along UT 24. This is the 40 some odd mile road that takes us to the Hans Flat Ranger Station at the edge of the Maze District of Canyonlands. All reports said it was a well-maintained, high speed dirt road. Everyone was wrong.

Aside from Maybe the TL Bar Ranch Road north of Wendover, this was the most washboardy road I’ve ever encountered. Just miserable. In addition, frequent washouts and ruts from the recent storms slowed our pace considerably. But we still made decent time and arrived at the Ranger Station just after dusk around 7:15. As we aired down our tires, I concluded that reaching The Dollhouse by 8:30 or 9:00 was a bit optimistic at this point, but we’d probably still make it by 10:00.

We took off from the Ranger Station and found the notoriously challenging Flint Trail in much better condition than Hans Flat road. There was an occasional dip to worry about, but aside from that, easy 2-wheel drive cruising at 40 miles per hour. At this rate, we’d cover the 40 miles in no time!

We then hit the first “challenging” section. A series of tight, rocky, steep switchbacks. With only our headlights to guide us, we dropped into 4-low and slowly descended. Nothing seriously hard, but not knowing what was ahead of you, or off the edge of the trail, made it a bit interesting.

After a few miles of maybe moving at 10-15 MPH tops, the road straightened and flattened out enough again to take it out of 4WD and start cruising again. If that was the roughest we were to expect, we’d still make it to The Dollhouse in short order.

The next eight miles or so were uneventful. Marked by a few small rocky parts, but otherwise much like the road before the switchbacks, fast and smooth. We were rapidly approaching what the Park Service called the hardest section, a twelve-mile stretch of road between Teapot Rock and Standing Rock. We figured that if the road were like the switchbacks before, it wouldn’t be any bother.

And then we hit the first ledge. From Teapot rock to The Dollhouse took us nearly four hours. That’s how bad it was. Not that anything was terribly difficult, simply that it was rocky, technical driving made all the worse by being pitch black everywhere except in our headlights.

For twelve miles we lumbered, mostly in 4-low. At one point, I heard a tingling noise from my left rear. I hopped out, and there hanging down was my sway bar. A bolt didn’t break, the link didn’t snap. No, the sway bar itself had sheared off inside it’s bushing on the frame mount. This was ¾ inch steel that had just sheared. We quickly pulled the offending part of the sway bar off and continued, slowly, on our way.

At one point we saw headlights high up in the distance. We knew that was the rest of our group! But alas, due to the winding nature of the trail, it was still hours before we reached The Dollhouse.

When we did, it was 12:05am. Nine and a half hours after we left Salt Lake, in case you’re counting. It was, in 21 years of being involved with 4-wheeling, undoubtedly the most arduous trip I’ve had yet. But we had made it! The Dollhouse was ahead of us, and it was time to meet up with our friends… who were all asleep. We roared into campsites one and two to find all the lights out and all the available tent spots taken. So we turned around and made for the third campsite, which was a ways away and up a little rocky climb. Clearly a place where only Isuzu’s dare as there were no Jeeps or Toyota’s around.

Finally out of our vehicles, my Dad and I quickly pitched our tents and set up camp. We sat around our Coleman lantern (no fires allowed in National Parks) for a few minutes eating the remaining halves of our Subway sandwiches and sipping some cola to unwind for our long journey. Finally, though, sleep overpowered us and we turned in.

Saturday morning dawned at some point. Again, the thick canvas of my Skydome allowed me an extra hour or so.

Fortunately for me, my Dad is an early riser and his clomping around taking pictures awoke me. Or is that fortunate? I don’t know. Regardless, I finally struggled out of my sleeping bag and unzipped the Skydome to be greeted by this spectacular sight:

It’s these moments that remind me why I do this. Why I drive nine and a half hours, break stuff on my rig at 10pm and keep going. Why I love this state, and why I’m so happy that 24 years ago my Dad brought home a Suzuki Samurai and started me down this journey.

Despite the view, I was still groggy and stumbled about desperate to get the kettle on the boil so I could have some much-needed coffee. As I stood there watching the kettle, I could hear the sound of a motor coming closer and closer. Eventually, a KJ Liberty appeared from around the bend and struggled up the ledges to getting to our campsite. Once it arrived, Joseph hopped out of the passenger seat and proclaimed, “It’s a little sketch getting up here!”

“Only for Jeeps!” was my reply.

Joseph, the organizer of this grand adventure as well as the only east coast tourist of the bunch, and the KJ driver, Gary, chatted with us for a bit while my Dad and I ate breakfast. Joseph was surprised that we made it all the way in Friday night. He figured that we’d either head down on Saturday or camp somewhere along the way. Apparently another member of the party, Derek, corrected Joseph by saying something like, “No way, Stephen’s the fastest guy I’ve ever seen on a dirt road. He’s hardcore.” He was right, obviously.

Apparently the plan for the day was to hang out in camp, maybe do a little hiking, but that was about it. Joseph and Gary mounted the KJ again and scampered back to their camp. As my Dad and I finished up breaky, we discussed the day. Initially we had planned to drive more of the roads in the Maze district, but after last night’s harrowing experience, we figured that it might be more prudent to not to do that. Sitting in camp didn’t really sound all that exciting. And hiking is, on the whole, boring to us. We drive roads, that’s our form of entertainment. So we decided that we would hang out in camp with everyone for a bit and then head out via Poison Springs Road and camp somewhere along the way that night.

We finished breakfast, packed up and headed into Camp 1. We got there to find everyone gathered around also discussing the plans for the day. Derek and his co-pilot Brian were already planning on heading out as well. Everyone else was in a “whatever” kind of mood. So with a fancy sales pitch (Adventure! Excitement!), I managed to convince the whole crew to roll out with Derek, my Dad and I rather than sit around camp with the mice (apparently the mice were quite bad the night before).

Everyone quickly gathered their gear up and we headed out.

In the daylight, places that we only knew we were at because of mileage on the map or signs came into view.

We were able to make much better time along the Flint Trail in the day. Its amazing how when you don’t think you’re on the edge of a cliff and can see more than just a couple dozen yards ahead of you how much more confident you become.

We managed to traverse the section of the trail from the Dollhouse to the turn off to Poison Springs Road in two and a half hours as opposed to the nearly six hours of the night before!

We made the turn onto Poison Springs Road and quickly left Park Service land. The road was a fun, high-speed trail surrounded by beautiful vistas.

One of the more interesting things we came across was an old, abandoned trailer. Not the strangest thing to find out in the desert, but this one was definitely unique.

Apparently an enterprising individual had decided to turn the old family Hudson into what looks like a sheep trailer. Points for ingenuity! And apparently they had an early ARB fridge inside, as that was also abandoned nearby. Quite the luxurious setup!

After a poking around the old Hudson for a few minutes, we mounted up again. The clouds were looking ever more ominous and we wanted to make it to the fording point on the Dirty Devil before any rain might come.

From the river bed where the Hudson rested, the road climbed out of the canyon until we were finally hugging the walls high up and presented with spectacular views. I’ve been to New England, Chicago, Florida, all over the West. I traveled to the other side of the planet. I’ve seen beautiful works of art, exotic wildlife, amazing architecture, but this.

This is home. The grandeur. The vastness. I once had a man in New York City ask me if I agreed that it was the center of the known Universe. I laughed and said, “Go west, young man.”

Eventually the road, and its expansive views dropped back down to the Dirty Devil River where we were faced with fording its muddy waters. We piled out of the vehicles and started inspecting the banks.

Even though the water looked low and relatively slow, we still wanted to be cautious and make sure there were no surprises waiting for us. So Derek “volunteered” (he was the only one in shorts and sandals) to check the riverbed for us.

After confirming that it was solid, I eased the front wheels of my Trooper into the brown water and powered myself across. One by one the rest of our little band followed to the far shore.

Our goal for the day had been to get across the Dirty Devil so that we wouldn’t have to face it in the rain that was threatening for Sunday. And now that we had succeeded in that goal, our task was now to find a suitable campsite before sunset. This proved to be more of an imposing task that we had initially thought. All around us was beautiful redrock cliffs, sloping, rocky escarpment, and creek beds. There was nary a flat spot that wasn’t associated with some sort of drainage, and with rain possible that wasn’t terribly appealing.

Finally, as the last gasps of sunlight filtered down the canyon walls, we found a high part of the riverbed that likely only ever saw water during the most torrent parts of spring runoff.

After pitching tents and gathering some firewood, we congregated around the crackling fire pit to swap barbs and stories. I sincerely believe that sitting around a fire pit out in the desert could solve all the worlds’ ills.

The next morning I was again awoken not by the sun, but rather the sounds of others rustling about. I had fully expected it to rain the night before and to be greeted with a wet, gloomy Sunday morning. Rather, it was dry and warm with blue skies.

We prepared breakfast and packed our lovely campsite before heading out on the road again.

In our quest to find a suitable spot the night before; we had made it much further along Poison Springs Road than we had initially anticipated. So it was a fairly quick 10 mile jaunt to Highway 95 and pavement.

At this point, we bid adieu Mark in his JK who was returning home to New Mexico via Hite. The rest of us turned north and made for Hanksville for gas and to determine what the rest of our day was going to shape up like.

After topping off our tanks in Hanksville, Derek, Brian, my Dad, and I decided that we were going to head home via Black Dragon Canyon and the northern part of the San Rafael Swell. Mike and Joseph, unfortunately, decided that Hanksville was the end of their off road adventures. We said our good byes, wished Joseph luck in the flat, boring, humid land of Florida and the took off along Highway 24.

A little ways before reaching the I-70 onramp we turned onto old Utah Highway 24. Abandoned decades ago, this road leads to a pheasant farm, a dead end gate and eventually, the road to Black Dragon Canyon. But not long off the new road, was an old bridge crossing the San Rafael River.

The bridge, a mostly wooden structure that had been topped long ago with asphalt and a few steel plates, was in reasonable shape if you discounted the fire damage on the eastern approach.

Next to this bridge, were the remains of its predecessor, the pylons from a cable-stay bridge.

We wandered the bridge and the river beneath for a bit before heading out along the road again. Taking a wrong turn and continuing down old Highway 24 past the large afore mentioned pheasant farm before finding ourselves at the locked gate. After consulting our maps for a minute, we found our way back to a turnoff shrouded by brush and made our way along a very dusty road skirted by an old landing strip before we finally swept north into The Squeeze.

Aptly named as the canyon walls slowly squeeze in to a narrow point with I-70 on the horizon ahead. We sprinted along this road and under I-70 until we made it to the entrance to Black Dragon Canyon. Here we found a gaggle of road cars and mini vans. People who had braved the “rough” road up to that point before deciding to hike the remaining quarter mile or so to the iconic pictograph panel. We, being of sound mind and in far more capable vehicles, drove straight to the panel. Much to the visible ire of many of the hikers.

We arrived at the panel to gaze upon the ancient markings and contemplate it’s meaning. Personally, I think it’s graffiti, nothing more.

I know that’s sacrilege to say for many people, but I think that while it’s interesting to wonder what the people who created it were thinking, I don’t think it has any greater meaning than saying, “Hey, bro! I killed a horned beast. Check it! Ungh!” It’s like trying to find deep meaning in someone’s tag of an overpass sign. It’s just not there. I find the markings made by Pioneers far more interesting, but I’m in the minority, I know. Regardless of how I feel, Derek was fascinated.

After undoubtedly annoying the tourist at the panel with my inane ramblings about ancient graffiti for a while, Derek led us into the dark maw of Black Dragon Canyon.

Along the riverbed we found the remains of travelers less fortunate than us.

Eventually along the soft sandy river we reached a formidable obstacle that had to be conquered. Derek, in his mighty Toyota, decided that he would mount it with ease. Now, apparently on Thursday on the way to The Dollhouse it was discovered that the Tacoma was not engaging 4-Wheel Drive. That can be a problem when one tries to surmount obstacles. Derek felt that this was an issue easily overcome with the liberal application the throttle. With a loud bang of the right front hitting on a rock, the Toyota stopped. The silty sand. Not allowing any further progress.

Fortunately, unbeknownst to Derek and Brian, there was a bypass just to the left. So they backed up and slinked around.

My Dad, perhaps with some encouragement from me, decided to take on this little climb. Unfortunately, because of the Troopers wheelbase, he became high centered. I quickly scampered around the bypass, threw a strap to him and yanked him over. There is no visually documentation of this, so we can easily deny that it happened and say that his Trooper was the only vehicle to actually make it over!

We mounted back up and continued winding our way through the canyon until we finally ascended and found ourselves along the Jackass Benches.

As I was enjoying the view and hanging back to stay our of Derek’s dust, I came around a corner to find:

Yeah… So remember that loud bang on the Tacoma’s right front? Well apparently that caused some serious damage. Like, sheering several bolts ouf of the lower ball joint.

So we found that two bolts had completely sheered off, one had sheered off about halfway into the bolt hole and one bolt was just missing. This was probably an issue before the damaged caused by the hit on the ledge, but that likely finished the issue off. Fortunately, Toyotas and Isuzu’s share many AISIN components and I just happen to have eight bolts from when I replaced my lower ball joints in my toolbox that were an exact match for the Tacoma.

So we got to work.

Derek was super excited to use his Bushwacker exhaust jack.

In fact, Derek was just super chill about the whole thing. If it where me, I would have hopped out of my rig, swore up a storm, and then been in a bad mood. Derek let loose some choice words, but generally was just upbeat. He’s kinda the embodiment of, ‘A day on the trail, no matter how bad, is better than a day in the office!’

Since we had the requisite bolts, the trail repair was actually pretty quick and painless.

Within an hour of the breakage, we were putting the tire back on and getting ready to roll.

Now, the repair was just a bandage as we could only get one bolt fully in and another about halfway. Regardless, Derek was super excited that he’d be able to drive out.

The stricken Tacoma put a damper on our plans to head home through the Swell. While we were making repairs, Brian was on the phone and got his brother to start heading down from Salt Lake to meet us at the next I-70 exit we could reach with a truck and trailer to get Derek’s vehicle all the way home. Also, because of the weakness of the repair, we limited our progress to ten or fifteen miles per hour along Jackass Flats. So rather than being able to make it to exit 131 in 30 minutes, it took around two hours.

No matter. We made it without any further damage and in high spirits. We pulled into the trailer parking area off the exit and Derek and Brian pulled out their camp chairs to wait in the warm sun for their rescuers to arrive. Meanwhile, my dad and I aired up our tires, said our good byes and took off for home.

As I accelerated up the onramp to the freeway, my Trooper was vibrating like crazy. Initially I thought that it was just mud stuck in the wheels and it would eventually even itself out. But, even as we reached 75mph, it persisted. We quickly pulled off at the next truck pullout and I dove underneath to find that my rear u-joint was shot. Not falling apart, but clearly in duress.

We made the decision to risk it and power on to Price and hopefully find a replacement there. I found that it was happiest at about 70mph, so we cruised along I-70 and US 6. Along the way I managed to get ahold of AutoZone and have them place a u-joint on hold. When we got into town about 7pm I hopped out again and took a look at the joint again. No change, which was encouraging. I still bought the replacement, but decided that doing a parking lot replacement in the failing light was not what I wanted to do. So we decided to risk it again for the drive home.

After a stopping in at Groggs for some dinner, we embarked again along US 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon. The whole while the Trooper would start vibrating heavily every time it dropped below 70mph, which was frequent. I had visions of the driveline coming apart and just destroying the underside of the vehicle. I wondered if perhaps I had made the wrong choice.

But it didn’t. It held all the way home. And when I checked after pulling up to my garage, the u-joint looked exactly the same as it did there on the side of I-70. Lucky me. And when I replaced it later in the week, I can tell you, I was sure glad I didn’t try and do it in the parking lot! Holy hell, was it a rusted POS!

The weekend on a whole was a fantastic trip. Arduous and frustrating at times, but without a doubt, one for the books! It was great to see Joseph and fantastic to finally get into The Maze, explore Poison Springs Canyon and wander through Black Dragon Canyon, all places I’ve been meaning to get to for years.

Around Moab – Easter Weekend 2014

After an enjoyable First Weekend at the Easter Jeep Safari I was eager to get back down to the area as soon as possible. Fortunately my good friend Kurt, of Cruiser Outfitters fame, and I were already planning to head down to Moab and the surrounding area during Easter weekend, or more commonly referred to as “Big Weekend” in the 4-wheeling world.

Big Weekend is called such because the Easter Jeep Safari runs for nine days from the Saturday the weekend before Easter until Easter Sunday. And as the week progresses, the events in Moab and the crowds get bigger until finally peaking the Saturday before Easter when the Red Rock 4-Wheelers run 35 plus trails and have a parade through town in the morning. Much like it had been six years since I had been to Moab for the Jeep Safari, it had been almost 10 since I’d been down during Big Weekend.


I took off from work on Thursday and headed down south with the plan of meeting Kurt that night at Crystal Geyser just south of Green River to camp. I made it to the geyser not long after dusk and managed to find a nice side canyon to tuck into. After setting up my Skydome (the greatest one man tent ever made), wandering around the geyser which unfortunately never went off, I got the fire roaring and enjoyed a beer and book while I waited for Kurt to show up.


Kurt finally came roaring into camp around midnight with his many LED lights blazing through the night like a noonday sun. We stayed up for a while longer chewing the fat around the fire and mapping out the plans for the next few days. Finally, with the embers dying out on the fire we clambered into our respective sleeping bags and dozed until morning.


We awoke Friday morning with the sun. Well, Kurt did because he slept on his roof rack. The Skydome does a great job of blocking out the light and I awoke refreshed sometime around 7. We puttered around camp for a bit and decided rather than cooking breaky ourselves, we’d head into town to the Moab Diner. So we packed up and blasted out along the service road back to I-70.


We arrived in Moab about an hour later to find the town a buzz with people getting their days adventures started. We pulled up to a packed Moab Diner, which is the go to greasy spoon in Moab since the closing of Smitty’s Golden Steak. We were lucky, though, and with only two of us we were able score a seat quickly. The place was bustling with people, mostly 4-wheelers, grabbing a full meal before the day. There were a few groups there that had a deer in the headlight look. Clearly, they were not here for Safari or the related events. And while they probably guessed that it would be busy in Moab for the holiday, I’m guessing that they were not prepared for what the town is during Big Weekend.

Kurt and I scarfed down our breaky while people watching and then made our way to Potato Salad Hill to volunteer for the RME cleanup activity there. But when we arrived, it was already clean! Now I had not been to PSH for well over a decade, and the last time I was there during Safari, it was trashed. Since it is the gathering spot for the shall we say less cultured visitor to Moab, it used to get littered with Natty Light cans and cigarette butts of people watching vehicles slam against the rocks. In the years since the last time I was there, RME stepped in and raised money for dumpsters and brought in volunteers to clean it up each morning. Which is exactly what is needed. Since PSH is so close to Moab, and had such a bad rep, it was a focal point for groups looking to close off public land for recreational access. Showing that a few bad apples do not represent the group as a whole does a great service.

Greg, one of the owners of RME, was there to meet volunteers so Kurt and I stood around chatting and reminiscing about PSH over the years. Times we’d tried it, how much it’s changed. Finally we decided since it was clean, we may as well head into town for the Vendor show.

The Jeep Safari Vendor Show was one of the main reasons that I was excited to come down to Big Weekend. Always tons of interesting things to see and people to run into. As Kurt and I arrived at Spanish Trail to find parking a premium. Kurt got a great spot, while I had to find my way through deep, soft sand in a corner by the horse track. Probably wouldn’t have been a problem had both my hubs been locked…

Anyway, we made our way into the show and quickly ran into Greg and Shane, RME’s other proprietor. The small arena was overflowing with vendors, and we started our tour at the Teraflex booth. Always friendly guys, we chatted with Dennis for awhile while admiring their beautifully built JK’s.


From there we meandered, stopping a various booths, always running into more people. Some of the highlights for me were the Nemesis Industries booth with their awesome old mail Jeep.


This sweet Land Rover Series I at the Advanced Adapters booth:


And chatting with Ben from Outback Proven. Just a super nice guy.

After touring the show for a few hours Kurt and I decided to head into town for some beer cheese soup at the ol’ Moab Brewery and then a stroll along historic Main Street. First of, and I hate saying this; Moab Brewery has really gone down hill. No more bread bowls. What the fuck? At least the beer is still good.

We walked up and down Main Street and poked into the Back of Beyond books for a minute. While Kurt sat on a bench like an old lady, I decided to wander over to the Jeep display. The display was set up in the vacant lot across from the Jailhouse Café. But I was distracted by the sight of a clean looking tin top Samurai and ended up coming at it from the back parking lot, and boy was I glad I did!


The Mighty FC concept from last year was parked back there. The coolest concept from last year, for sure. Something that Jeep will never make, which is a shame, because it pays to be unique. And with the level that they seem to be trying to dilute the brand these days, they need something to spice things up!

Once I actually got into the display, I gravitated to the Cherokee Dakar concept. Now the new Cherokee is lame. I’m not going to debate that. But I thought the Dakar concept was basically what the Cherokee should have been out of the box. A moderately capable soft roader. So I poked around it a bit, and liked what I saw.


And then I came home and read that the Cherokee can not be modified in any way closely resembling the Dakar. That’s a fail, Jeep. A big fail. Just rebadge them the Cherocar, which would be more appropriate.

Next to the Dakar Concept was a new Jeep Renegade Trailhawk. Personally, I really like the looks of the Renegade. And I am fully aware that it’s a FIAT car, not a Jeep. But if I were in the market for a small, AWD wagon for around town and an occasional trip out on a gravel road, I would have the Renegade on my list.


I left the Jeep display and wandered back to where Kurt was. Our next order of business was to head out to Area BFE and meet up with some people out there for the night. When we got there we wandered around the main campground for a bit looking for Olly and Robbie’s camp. Back when I was in high school I had a friend named Sterling who had a 1987 Toyota 4-Runner that was lifted, locked, ect. We called it the “Magic School Bus” because he painted it school bus yellow one day in auto shop. So I found it quite humorous to see this down there.


Camping at BFE was… interesting. While I enjoyed hanging out with many of the people there, some of which I hadn’t seen for ten years or more, even when I’m camping I like to get a solid night’s sleep in. And these guys had the party going into the wee hours. Needless to say, my sleep was adversely affected by loud music and Tacoma coming by shaking my tent every few hours.


I drug myself out of bed around 6:30 the next morning and packed up so that Kurt and I could get to Potato Salad Hill to help with the clean up again. We got there to find that it was again, remarkably clean. But there was a little bit of trash around, so we spent an hour or so scouring the area picking up bottle caps and cigarette butts.

As we were cleaning up, people started showing up to watch the hill. It was 8:30 in the morning, and people were pulling up the base and setting up shade tents and lawn chairs. This amazed me. There is so much to see and do around Moab, and yet people are coming to PSH first thing in the morning and settling in for the long haul. I don’t get it. That said it was interesting to see a couple UTV’s make the climb.


Not sure how I feel about the UTV explosion of late. It’s not for me, but I guess if it get’s people out and enjoying the land, it’s a positive.

Anyway, we collected a couple small bags of trash and then took off back to town to meet Ben from Outback Proven for breakfast at the Jail House Café. Always a great place for breaky, if you’ve never been I highly recommend it the next time you are in Moab.

After breaky, Kurt and I sailed south on US-191 to go check out the Mi Vida mine in Steen Canyon. For those of you uninitiated with the Moab area, Charlie Steen and the Mi Vida mine are perhaps the most important person and place in the area’s history. Very briefly, Charlie was a uranium prospector working in the area in the late 40’s and early 50’s. While everyone else was looking for uranium in the relatively shallow Morrison formation, Charlie was looking much deeper in the ground. People thought he was nuts, but Charlie was a geologist by training and was convinced. And it paid off. On July 6th, 1952 he found a massively rich ore deposit on one of his claims. He called it “Mi Vida”, or My Life. Charlie’s life from there is a fascinating story of ups and downs and I highly recommend finding out more about him.

What the Mi Vida did for the region was create a mining boom bigger than anything ever seen in American history. People came from all over to try their have ad finding their own Mi Vida. This turned Moab from a sleeping farming community into a boomtown; and left us with a massive network of roads. The majority of the trails that we enjoy in the Moab area are strung together from old uranium prospecting roads.

Kurt and I followed the route that thousands of trucks once did back in the 50’s and 60’s up Steen Canyon to the Mi Vida.


Time was when you could drive straight up to the shaft entrance, but the spur is now blocked by large rocks meaning for a short hike down. No bother, it was a beautiful and quite day.


This entrance to the Mi Vida is called the Comstock Shaft. And amazingly, it still has a fair amount of equipment outside of it. The BLM, in an attempt to make the world safer, has “reclaimed” every other mine in this area by removing all equipment, buildings and closing of the mine shafts. In reality, they are destroying history. But that’s a conversation for another day.

What is left here at the Mi Vida is the ore dump.


Some of the railroad that took ore out of the mine.


And some of the ore cars and the electric engine that pulled them.



The engine and ore cars are on ceremoniously placed there on display. They are not linked together, and it appears that the track ends not far into the shaft. I suspect that the BLM, or perhaps the current owner of the claim, left them here this way because of the historical significance. It’s a nice gesture and I wish that the BLM had allowed us to enjoy the history of this region rather than plowing it under. It truly is a shame.

Kurt enjoys exploring the inside of mines, so he decided to clamber through a little man sized hole that had been dug into the back fill and get further into the Mi Vida.


I, on the other hand, don’t go into mines. So I stayed outside and relaxed in the peace and quite of the day.


Kurt wandered the interior of the Mi Vida for about an hour. When he finally poked his head out of the mine like a mole and scrambled back down the back fill, we hiked up to our vehicles in one of southern Utah’s typical short spring downpours. We conferred out maps and started to climb out of Steen canyon towards Lisbon Valley. After a few detours to check out spur roads, we were finally greeted with a breathtaking view of Lisbon Valley looking north towards the La Sal’s.


We worked our way along the western rim of the valley, slowly descending towards Highway 113 that cuts the valley perfectly in half. All along both sides of the valley you could see the signs of the areas history. Old roads everywhere, the massive cut of an open pit copper mine to the east, tailing piles, faded signs. Truly an area that has a story to tell.

We reached the valley floor and connected with Highway 113 to head north into the town of La Sal. A quite ranching community that served as the jumping off point for the uranium industry, it’s reverted back mostly to its roots. Sitting majestically at the base of the La Sal’s, it looks and feels like it’s still in the late 60’s, early 70’s. The two commercial building along the main drag are simple, red brick structures with dusty parking lots.



Pulling up to the La Sal Store, I half expected to see Steve McQueen walk out or Kowalski to blast by in his Challenger. We wandered the store for a minute and chatted with the clerk about two mines at either end of the town. The looked operational and we suspected them to be gold or silver mines. Turns out that they are uranium and that the come online and shut down every few years with the prices.

As we left the store a gentleman rancher who was curious about the snorkel on Kurts’ Cruiser stopped us. A very interesting man who’s managed ranches from California to Montana. He was eager to chat with us about the ranching history in the area and had a few choice words about the situation in Nevada, basically pay your range frees or you’re a free loader that deserves little sympathy.

As much as Kurt and I wanted to stay and chat, we needed to get moving to make camp at a decent time that night. So we bid him farewell and hit the road again. Before leaving La Sal, though, we quickly stopped at the semi-operational mine on the west side of town.


From the looks of it, it was ready to start running again at the flick of a switch.

We kept moving until we got to the ghost town of La Sal Junction on US 191. This was little more than a couple of gas stations, a motel and a service garage. I even remember one of the gas stations being open into the mid-90’s. But now, they just make interesting photo subjects.





We hopped back onto 191 northbound and made one last stop for gas in Moab. Being the afternoon of Big Saturday, many people were getting off the trails and starting to head out of town, just as we were. It’s always somewhat melancholy in Moab on Saturday afternoon, and I had the same feeling that I did when I was a kid. Sad that I was leaving, but glad that I had made it down; looking forward to another year. I will definitely come back to EJS next year, perhaps even Big Weekend again.

Even though we were leaving Moab, we were not done with our journeys for the weekend. After topping up our tanks we got back on the road and found our way to I-70 and then just east of 191 a bit to the sleepy town of Thompson Springs. Now Thompson Springs was a vibrant little community that has slowly withered as transportation has advanced over the last century. Originally a railway stop for cattle and the coal mines in Sego Canyon, it also become and important waypoint on Route 6 before the Interstate system passed it by in the 60’s. From there it was just a matter of time until it began to die. Eventually, the railroad depot was closed in ’97 and now the town is barely a shadow of its former self.


Fortunately its long history has left us with some interesting buildings.

The Silver Grill, an old Café, claims to be under restoration and opening again soon.



And one is tempted to believe it. The place looks ready to go with table setting and comfy looking booths. The only give away is that the ceiling has given way in the center of the building.

Just down the street is the old Thompson Motel. Surly once a welcome sight for travelers along Route 6.


Now, after years of neglect and use by transients, little more than a place that will give your children nightmares…



The railway was very important to the town, and what used to be the center is built up around the old depot.



You can get into the place, and it appears that Union Pacific may still use it to store some equipment. And it was clearly used as a base for repair operation up until 2001 according to some papers that we found inside.


Across from the depot was the Desert Moon Hotel.


It looked lie it was only recently closed and was in fact for sale. An enterprising individual could easily take it over and turn it into a quaint Bed and Breakfast.

Out behind the hotel was a cool little junkyard of old Chevy trucks.


I always am intrigued when I see vehicles abandoned like this. Obviously, they had outlived their usefulness. But I always wonder, why didn’t they try to sell them? Or did they think that they might be able to fix them up one day?

As we explored the remained of the old buildings, we were once again greeted with some of Southern Utah’s spring rain. So we headed back to our vehicles and began to make our way up to Sego Canyon and camp for the evening. As we found our way out of Thompson Springs, we stopped at the old school house, built in 1911.


While the school didn’t look like much, the view the student’s had was certainly breathtaking.


As we continued up towards Sego Canyon, the clouds and rain followed us. The town of Sego, which I unfortunately didn’t get any pictures of due to the rain, has little left. There are a few foundations and the shell of the old general store still standing. There used to be a two-story boarding house next to the store, but several years ago it finally collapsed. The choice camping spot in the courtyard right outside the old boarding house was unfortunately already taken, so we had to hunt around for another one. Eventually we found one under a big tree down the canyon a ways. The rain continued to pour for awhile as we lounged underneath Kurt’s very useful ARB awning.

Eventually the rain broke, giving us a chance to get a fire burning and some steaks and brats cooking. Dinner was quick, and after our limited sleep from the night before, we both decided to turn in early.


We woke with the sun shining down Sego Canyon to gorgeous blue skies. Truly, if there were a financial way to make it work, I could live in Sego Canyon. We fashioned some delicious breakfast burritos and packed up camp to quickly get into Green River as Expedition Utah was hosting a tour of the Utah Launch Complex at 9am.

On our way down the canyon, we stopped at the mouth where there is the cemetery.



Always solemn places, cemeteries at ghost towns, it appears that this one is still getting some attention from either relatives or other good Samaritans.

And then it was back to I-70 and Green River, where we would tour some fascinating sites of Cold War history. But that, is a whole other trip report!

Alpine Loop [09/17 & 09/19]

Got home from work on the 17th and decided that I’d hit the Alpine Loop as I hadn’t yet this year. And I’ll tell you, what a great day to have done it! After slogging through the traffic on I-15 and the Highland-Alpine Highway I got to AFC and then POOF! No traffic after the turn off to North Fork. Amazing. I’ve driven the Alpine Loop dozens of times in my life, and I’ve never gotten to do it with such, hmm… gusto? What a blast. Especially the spur road to Cascade Springs. It was just spectacular. Just spectacular. I haven’t had that much fun with the Miata for a long time.

Anyway, I thought I’d snap a bunch of pictures, but I was having so much fun driving, that I only got a few towards the beginning and end. So, here is one early on during the loop:

And then at Deer Creek at the end:

After the drive I decided to stop in a Chicks Cafe in Heber for dinner. Delicious chicken fried steak as always. And then cruised home, all along the way watching an epic lightning storm off in the distance wondering if it was smart that I left the top down. Fortunately, no rain.

Just a great night. A wonderful reminder why I love cars.

When I showed up at work the next day and told a few of my friends there about the drive, they immediately wanted to hit it up again. So on the 19th we headed out from work in the Miata, Paimon’s MR2 and Jeremy’s big G8. We had some issues with traffic on the first half of the Loop. Well, one issue. A Buick Endeavor that was doing 10mph and either ignoring the vehicles lined up behind her, or not caring. So we pulled off and snapped a few glamour shots at the summit.

After giving our slow moving friend a bit of time to get ahead, we hit the road again. Always nice when its clear ahead. Again, the spur road to Cascade Springs was epic and clear allowing for some spirited driving on all our parts!

At Cascade Springs

Showing how massive the G8 is compared to the Miata and MR2.

After that, we headed down the Sundance side and out to Provo Canyon. Jeremy decided to depart there and head down to slog through traffic in Utah County while Paimon and I headed to Heber and the Dairy Keen for some burgers and shakes.

All told, this was a great run as well. I was very impressed with Jeremy’s G8. For how big it was, it held the corners well. Aussie engineering I suppose. I look forward to seeing the Holden Commodore tear up the track at Bathurst in a few weeks. And Paimon has done a great job rebuilding that ’87 MR2. Really a beautiful job.

With the sudden change in weather and my being gone all next month to Australia, this was probably my last run up American Fork and the Alpine Loop until next year. I hope that I’ll get some good runs further south this November, though.

A Swell Break

Sometimes you just need a break. It’d been a long tail end of the winter and nearly three months since my last camping trip to the Newfoundland Mountains. So while I was doing some maintenance to the Trooper a few weekends ago I figured that it was time for another trip. Nothing, big or fancy, just a chance to get away from it all for a few days.

So I called up my good friend Scott who had finally found an acceptable camping vehicle in the form of a 2003 Toyota Tacoma and saw what he was doing the next weekend. Fortunately nothing, so we planned to take a short trip into the San Rafael Swell.

Accompanied by Scott’s wife Manda and my girlfriend Katy we battled rush hour traffic Friday afternoon until we made it to Spanish Fork canyon, where we stopped at the delectably vintage Little Acorn inn for burgers before continuing on to our final destination of The Wedge.

I generally like starting my excursions to the Swell at the Wedge because usually I’m heading out from Salt Lake after work and its an easy place to find any time and in any weather. Its prepared camping, which is not my preferred form, but if its 10 o’clock at night and all you want to do is light up a camp fire and not find a fire rind or build one. Bam, its there. And that’s exactly what happened this trip. We rolled into camp around 9:30, staked our tents, lit up the fire, sipped a few beers and chatted until we felt the need to hit the sack.

The morning brought a brisk sunrise after some light rain in the night and the typically spectacular views of The Wedge.

We had a leisurely start to the morning, and thus set the tone for the day. Katy, Scott, and Manda had never been to the Swell before, so I took them out along to some of the highlights, the first stop being the MK Tunnels along Buckhorn Draw. The Readers Digest version of the MK Tunnels is that the government back in the late 1940’s hired a contracting firm called Morrison-Knudsen to blast a number of tunnels in the Swell as a test. The reasons for the test were, and still are, classified. Rumors are that they were blasting to test for places to build ICBM silos (unlikely because ICBM’s had yet to be invented as we know them today), to a place to store weapons, testing weapons, and my preferred options, a location to house bunker facilities such as what eventually ended up in Cheyenne Mountain. But obviously it was found that the sandstone wasn’t quite as strong as granite when it comes to planning to survive a near miss from a nuclear attack.

You used to be able to actually get into the MK Tunnels, but in the last few years the BLM took it upon themselves to “protect” the public and block them off. Not only did they gate this tunnel entrance, they also covered up all the holes that the blasts left in the top of the mesa. Truly a shame.

Despite Katy’s best effort, she couldn’t open the gate.

Just a little ways down from the MK Tunnels is the famed dinosaur print. Just up on the ridge to the side of the road is the paw print of a giant lizard creature thing.

Katy was not a believer.

Opposite of the dinosaur print there is a short network of roads and some campgrounds. We walked a little down them just to see if it was worth it to take a detour (it wasn’t) but looking up I saw a cave I’d never noticed before! It was up a very steep and loose incline, but very much worth the climb.

After sliding down (literally in some spots) from the cave, we continued our journey down Buckhorn Draw to the Buckhorn Pictograph Panel. As the name would suggest, this is a panel of extensive Native American paintings. Many people feel that this was some sort of ritual site or meeting place. I tend to err on the side that these were done by bored teenagers who decided to tag a wall. Much like people today people writing their names in a cave. Today its graffiti, two thousand years from now it’ll be art! Maybe. I don’t condone writing on walls, but the skeptic in me says that this is as likely a possibly as this being the Anasazi Louvre.

There are some really pretty flowers at the base of the panel.

A short jaunt down from the Buckhorn Panel is the San Rafael Bridge, which spans the river of the same name. There are actually two bridges, the original suspension bridge and the modern steel and concrete one. The original was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp between 1936 and 1937 and is an impressive structure. All wood and steel wire aside from the concrete towers and anchors. You can no longer drive across it, but walking gives you a sense of what it must have been like. Even on person taking a heavy step can cause it to bounce slightly. Must have been a fun drive for sure!

And for all you Relic Runners out there, the dam we built last year to keep cool is still standing!

After relaxing by the river for a bit we continued on down the road to what the BLM refers to as “The Sinkhole”

To the untrained eye it looks just like that. A hole sunk into the ground in the middle of a flat. Interesting, but nothing terribly special. I’ll let you all in on a little secret here. Its not a sinkhole. Noooo. It’s a Graboid hole. Yep. True story. Don’t believe me? Go look for yourself and you’ll become a believer.

From here we blasted down the rest of the Cottonwood road to the I-70 underpass to the southern side of the swell. Our goal was to get to the Lone Warrior pictograph panel and stake camp there before heading into Reds Canyon for the evening. Well, as with so many things, that’s not what happened.

We rolled into the Lone Warrior camp around 2:30 and found a nice spot to set up. As I was staking the tent, Katy decided to take a nap in the car. When the tent was set, she chose to move into the tent for her nap. Apparently, the same thing happened with Scott and Manda. And then Scott decided to also take a siesta. So that left me with my Winston Churchill biography in the shade for several hours.

The siesta ended about 5:30, plenty of time to head out and explore for a bit longer. But apparently long desert naps make people hungry. So a fire was lit the satisfying crackle and sizzle of pie irons and hobo dinners replaced the crunch of tires over dirt.

I’m not complaining, sometimes it’s nice to just relax in the warm desert breeze and read for a while. And as our food cooked and the sunset I relished the long, evening of just chatting and joking by the fireside.

The next morning we all rose relatively early. After breakfast and taking down camp we headed out to out first stop of the day: Swasey’s Cabin. This is where a family of early settlers in the area had lived. A small one room log and grout cabin. It’s amazing to think that they eked out a living down here running cattle.

At least they had a spectacular view!

Katy listening intently to my interpretive tour.

After Swasey’s cabin we made our way to one of my favorite areas in the Swell, Red’s Canyon. I regret that I didn’t get any pictures of Red’s Canyon really, as I was driving, but it really is just a beautiful area. And it has my favorite entrance sign of all:

Red’s Canyon was the scene of extensive uranium mining in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, so there are quite a few mines to explore in the area. One of the biggest was the Lucky Strike Mine. You can just tell by what is left, sixty years later, that this was an huge operation.

And it’s situated in a spectacular side canyon!

Now I’ve been to the Lucky Strike Mine camp a number of times, but I’ve never taken the time to actually hike up to the mine itself. This time I made it a point to, and I was not disappointed! The first shaft that you can see from the camp has a large entrance, but quickly gets narrow. And since I’m not one for spelunking really, I opted not to venture to far down. Katy, who is short, managed to get a little further than I.

This shaft is nothing compared to what is across the canyon. There is what clearly was the main hub of operation for the mine. I counted not less than five shaft openings.

And then once you get inside, wow! Amazing. The pictures don’t do it justice, but just think about how bustling this place must have been in its heyday!

We explored inside the mine for a while and then emerged to find clouds gathering to the west.

And with it being Sunday afternoon everyone (but me) wanted to get home at a decent hour. So rather than head through the rest of the Reds Canyon Loop, we backtracked a bit and then headed out towards Temple Mountain and ultimately Highway 24 near Goblin Valley. This proved to be fortuitous because Scott’s worn BFG AT’s had seen just about enough of the high speed dirt roads in the Swell. First, the particularly angry left front decided to blow out its sidewall.

Fortunately he had a good spare and we were back on the road in no time. Unfortunately by the time we reached the Temple Mountain campground, and just a few hundred yards from pavement, the right rear got a puncture. No pictures of that one, but three plugs and a friendly traveler with a compressor since my air tank ran out and we were on our way again.

All in all it was a great weekend. Perhaps we didn’t hit all the highlights, but it was much needed relaxation in one of my favorite areas of the state.

Beef Basin Thanksgiving Weekend 2009

Thanksgiving weekend and beef. Not the usual combination, normally it’s turkey or tossing the pig skin (some sort of sports reference I’m sure). But Thanksgiving weekend 2009 was tied with Beef Basin.
We departed Salt Lake at 7:30 on Friday morning with the goal of making our camp by 3:00 that afternoon. Our caravan linked up along I-15 as we headed towards Spanish Fork canyon. Kurt and I in his Tacoma were quickly joined by Greg and his son Oakley in his awesome HZJ-75, Sully and Erica in their Tacoma and Cody caught up after hitting some Black Friday sales in his Grand Cherokee.
We made some excellent time on our way down to Moab, reaching our lunch stop at Smitty’s Golden Steak before noon. After indulging in the deliciousness of that greasy spoon we hit the road again.

After another hour or so on pavement we hit dirt on the turn off for Beef Basin. We stopped for a few minutes to air down.

The road out to Beef Basin was a typical BLM graded road, quite smooth and lended itself nicely to some high speeds. We hit some shady areas that still had a fair amount of snow from the last storm.

As we descended down towards Beef Basin we were greeted with the spectacular vista so common in South Eastern Utah. No matter how many times I’ve been there I don’t think I will ever tire of these scenes.

We hit camp up Beef Basin Wash around our target time of 3:00pm. As usual everyone spent the next little while finding that perfect spot to pitch your tent or park your vehicle. Greg and Kurt had the luxury of rooftop tents, Sully and Eric were smart enough to hole up in the shelled bed of their truck while Cody and I camped like real men in our tents.

Our campsite was nicely situated about halfway up the wash and right below the ruin of a cliff dwelling which we intended to hike up to the next morning.

The weather for Friday night was quite agreeable as well, clear, fairly warm for late November in southern Utah and not much wind. Contrary to most trips we had camp set before dark and had time to make dinner with plenty of light.

After a relaxing Friday night around the campfire Saturday dawned clear with a slight breeze but definitely a bit more of a chill in the air. Much to Kurt’s chagrin, our start to the day was a bit later than we had anticipated with most of us rolling out of our sleeping bags sometime after 9:00am.
The first order of the day was to cook up some breakfast, which Kurt and Cody did with gusto in Greg’s enviable camp kitchen setup.

Once we had eaten heartily (well aside from me and my oatmeal) we began our hike up to the cliff dwelling. One can quickly see why the Anasazi chose this location. There was no way to approach the dwelling without being seen from it. And once you got to it, there was only a narrow path to get to the entrance.

The ruin was remarkable. Still had some of the wood that formed the second floor and the stairs, the mortar holding the stone was still there and the view was incredible.

We hiked back down from the cliff dwelling, finished breaking camp and headed out. Our next destination was an area called Ruin Canyon. As the name suggests, there were several ruins up the canyon.

The most spectacular being about a quarter mile from an overgrown portion of the trail. We attempted to hack our way through, but decided it was just as easy to walk.

The ruin was a couple hundred feet up from the canyon floor on a fairly narrow shelf. We hiked up and poked around it for a bit. Its amazing that even though the elements have washed away all the mortar that held the stones in place it still stands.

As we looked around this ruin we found one up above us.

It is in remarkably good condition. Cody managed to climb up to it and found that it was very small, probably just a grainery. But the condition was just incredible.
We hiked back to our vehicles for lunch and pondered the rest of the day. The plan was to head out into an area called Ruin Park. We knew that there was the potential of a storm that afternoon, so high on our list was also finding a good camp spot as well.
We exited Ruin Canyon and got back onto the Beef Basin loop road. Now, since the area is called Beef Basin, there are a number of corrals. These can make for some fun pictures.

After our impromptu photo shoot, we headed into Ruin Park and found what is probably one of the coolest ruins I have ever seen. It is called Tower Ruin, and it’s awesome. A two story ruin that has a near perfect right angle. Very neat. There is some speculation that there may have been a number of these towers to be used for signaling each other and perhaps the inhabitants of the previous ruins we visited.

Greg and Oakley decided that they would head out and try to make it back to Salt Lake that night, so we parted ways with them. The rest of us could see the storm coming in and split up to find a good, concealed camp spot. Ultimately we found one up Butler Wash and we hurriedly began setting up before the pending rain…
…Which didn’t come. No the storm split right over us and aside from a strong breeze, we didn’t get anything. So we sat around the campfire to stay warm and argued the merits of cast iron versus aluminum for camp cooking. The final verdict being that cast iron is the only way to go.

Sunday dawned windy, cold and with a slight dusting of snow. I woke up early and hiked out a ways from our camp to a beautiful overlook of Needles. Unfortunately I only brought my medium format camera and have no pictures to share. I will tell you that it was spectacular in the crisp morning air.
As everyone else woke we stoked up the fire and made some breakfast sandwiches and indulged in Sully’s delicious peach/pineapple cobbler from the night before. With breakfast complete and camp broke, we headed out. Our route took us down Bobby’s Hole and into the Needles District.

Cody decided to take a quick detour and run Impossible Hill.

We headed towards Needles on a narrow two track and were greeted by spectacular view over every hill.

Through what remains of SOB Hill.

We finally made it to Elephant Hill. It’s been years since I was last on Elephant Hill, but it is much easier to make those tight switchbacks in a Samurai than it is in a Tacoma! But up we went.

And then back down.

And that was it. We had made it to the parking lot of Elephant Hill and pavement. We jetted out to the Needles Outpost for some fuel (fortunately without incident this time!) and then made a quick stop at Newspaper Rock.

The day ended with Kurt, Cody and I stopping at The Moab Brewery for Beer Cheese Soup and a cold one before trekking north and home. Aside from the cold, and even that wasn’t that bad, it was a great trip.

All pictures courtesy of Stephen Nielson and Kurt Williams