Saturday, June 13, 2009

Smoky Mountain Road - Solitude At Its Finest

I began my journey on the rugged and wild 78 mile dirt road that crosses the central heart of the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument the previous afternoon. Because of a relatively late start, I had managed to crest the Kaiparowits Plateau at the top of the Kelly Grade before making camp, and I resumed the trip early the next morning.

The plateau resides at an average elevation of around 6000 feet above sea level, where sagebrush, pinyon, and juniper dominate the plant community. This time of year temperatures should be pushing the mid- to upper 90's during the day, and it can be very dry. Fortunately the last two weeks of May and the first part of June have been unusually wet and cool, making for ideal traveling weather. In addition the extra moisture has resulted in somewhat greener vegetation and a fair number of wildflower and cactus species are in bloom, making a colorful palette of the desert.

The road takes a direct path to the north, heading for what some folks have called "standing up country", where upper layers of overlying formations have eroded into mesas, ridges, benches, and canyons that break the topography into a jumbled puzzle. I already knew from spending time on the Colorado Plateau that there is no such thing as the shortest distance between two points being a straight line. Before the journey was over Smoky Mountain Road made that very clear to me.

In a relatively flat stretch before reaching broken land ahead the road is easy to travel when dry. During thunderstorms or in winter, the road surface can become treacherous. Anyone traveling in the area will probably become mired in the muck until things dry out. If storms produce heavy rain, all bets are off in getting through as flash floods frequently wash out sections of the road, and road crews no longer arrive to repair the damage. This road is primitive, and visitors need to be completely self-sufficient when making this trek.

The road was first constructed in the 1960's to allow for exploration of the area by mineral interests, and to give ranchers access to the cattle that graze the Monument. At one time there was maintenance done to the worst sections of the road by Kane County, but after a dispute with the BLM over access, they suspended all work in 2006 and today road conditions are subject to the forces of nature.

For the most part the road contours around the base of the benches and ridges that dominate the western region. There is much exposed rock, and in many cases the road bed consists entirely of cross-bedded sandstone ledges. There are also hundreds of ravines and drainages that cut across the road - as the route stays fairly high along the slope they are reasonably small and easy to traverse, and the challenge is simply negotiating them at a speed where you don't bottom out the suspension on your vehicle.

About halfway through the most rugged area I came to a place called Last Chance Draw. During very heavy rains in October of 2006 the crossing of the draw was washed out and never repaired. When I descended into the shallow canyon I was dismayed to see that the road no longer existed, and at first I thought I would have to turn around and go back the way I came. But after closer examination I could see where others had traveled a short distance downstream and dropped into the streambed off a steep and sandy bank.

Not wanting to talk myself out of trying it, I went ahead and nosed my truck over what looked like the edge of Grand Canyon. The angle made me think the front end was going to be damaged before my front tires reached level ground, and it was very close. I did bang the receiver hitch in the back pretty hard as the rear end hit bottom, but no damage was done. Afterwards I got out to look things over and I realized at that moment there was no going back. The bank was composed entirely of soft sand, and the angle was such that I knew I would not be able to get enough traction to climb it, even with 4-wheel drive. At that point I felt a little like John Wesley Powell who wrote these words in his journal just before entering the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon for the first time:

“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”

I continued on, hoping I would not encounter any other obstacles or challenges that would prevent me from reaching the other end.

Despite the rugged terrain and the snail-like pace required to keep from shaking my teeth out, I paused often to admire the beautiful and sublime country around me. So far I had yet to see another human being, and there were no signs that anyone had been in the area for quite some time. The sky was filled with a patchwork of cumulus clouds that looked like the promise of rain, although only scattered showers developed.

I saw that many of the prickly pear cactus were sporting bouquets of blossoms, some yellow, some pink, and a few had rich orange arrangement.

Weird and wonderful rock formations were everywhere to see, and the skyline was serrated with craggy sandstone pinnacles and angular ledges. The road wound into and out of many side pockets and canyons, undulating up and down over the varied landscape. Every turn provided a new vista into some secluded valley or a peek into the depths of a small canyon that emptied into an ever growing network of channels. On the scale of human time the place might look timeless, but evidence is everywhere for constant and sometimes rapid change, especially where infrequent but heavy rain carves the rock with an abrasive load of sediment.

After many hours of slowly negotiating the difficult terrain, the road begins to move away from the benches and into broad valleys, all the while gradually descending to the eventual exit off the plateau. The final stage of the journey enters Alvey Canyon, which has been a conduit for people into and out of the region for as long as humans have lived here. The canyon bottom holds a broad and sandy wash which would be difficult to negotiate during a flash flood, and I'm sure the road bed has to be repaired several times a year.

After nearly 8 hours of travel, the road nears Escalante, Utah on beautiful Highway 12. The country I've just journeyed through is unparalleled for it's rugged beauty and unforgiving terrain. Nearly 80 miles of unspoiled and seldom visited land awaits the adventurous soul who is looking for the heart of the wild. Just a word of caution - Smoky Mountain Road is not a place for the casual tourist. If you go be prepared for anything, including not seeing a soul for days. And from my perspective, that's not a bad thing.

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