Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hell's Backbone

Most of the roads in and around the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument pass through rugged high desert settings where sagebrush and juniper are the dominant vegetation, and daytime temperatures in the summer approach 100 degrees or more. A notable exception is the Hell's Backbone road, which technically is not part of the Monument but lies on the northern edge above the town of Escalante.

Located in the Dixie National Forest, Hell's Backbone road makes a high arching loop from Escalante to Highway 12 near Boulder along the southern face of the Aquarius Plateau. At the highest point on the route visitors will be just over 9200 feet above sea level in a cool mixed conifer and aspen forest - a welcome relief from the scorching heat of the desert below.The road can be experienced by starting in either Escalante or on Highway 12 just south of Boulder. In both cases the turnoff is well signed as the Hell's Backbone or Posey Lake road, also known as F.S. 153. I am of the opinion that traveling from west to east makes for overall better views, however my impression is purely subjective and either way you choose you're likely to have a great experience.

Unlike the lower elevation roads in the area, Hell's Backbone can become impassable as soon as October if winter arrives early. Likewise, it can be late June before the snow melts enough to make travel in the high country possible. Alternatively this road is not subject to the kind of problems frequently encountered in the desert during periods of heavy rain; for example no flash flooding or sticky clay to bog the unwary visitor down. Overall the road is a well maintained dirt surface, but be aware that washboarding is common and in some places severe. In any event be sure to check with the local District Ranger or Escalante BLM office before venturing out.

The tree cover along the road as you climb limits the view to a few glimpses of the Box - Death Hollow Wilderness below and the Straight Cliffs above Escalante. The gradual climb provides a lesson in how temperature and moisture influences the plant communities here. Above the town of Escalante drought resistant and heat tolerant sagebrush and juniper dominate the land. As you approach the 6500 foot elevation the air begins to cool noticeably and mixed pinon and ponderosa pine forests begin to appear. Higher still (around 8000 feet) brings about the complete transformation - white barked aspen trees mingling with species of conifer like limber pine, douglas fir, and spruce.

The Aquarius Plateau

Travelers looking to see more of the area outside the Hell's Backbone road have a great opportunity to climb higher still about 13 miles in from Escalante. Here F.S. 154 branches left and north to Posey Lake, where a developed Forest Service campground provides a base to fish the lake and explore trails into the Wilderness. The road itself continues up and over the Aquarius Plateau, the highest timbered landmass in North America at over 11,000 feet. Designated as a Scenic Backway, the road meanders through dense forests and open meadows before eventually reaching Highway 24 west of Torrey.

Hell's Backbone bridge

Cruising along the scenic forest road is a pleasant enough diversion, however the highlight of the trip is reached about 24 miles in from Escalante - the Hell's Backbone bridge.

When the road was first constructed in the 1930's as an alternate route linking Boulder and Escalante, construction crews faced the challenge of crossing the narrow ridge separating the heads of Death Hollow and Sand Creek canyons. The result is a narrow single lane bridge that spans the gap, with sheer dropoffs to either side.

The views here open up to the south, and for the first time you can see that the route has been skirting the upper edge of the rugged and roadless Box - Death Hollow Wilderness. Many great hiking opportunities await the intrepid backcountry enthusiast, including the Boulder Mail Trail, hikes into Sand Creek, Mamie Creek, Death Hollow, and the upper Escalante River. The terrain here is composed of slickrock sandstone formed into undulating benches and domes, with narrow steep walled canyons carved by a number of perennial streams off the Plateau. Summer is definitely not the best hiking time due to excessive temperatures, and winter can be cold and snowy, leaving spring and fall as the ideal choice.

Once you resume the journey, the road begins a gradual descent towards Boulder on the east side.
The views are more expansive as you head down the east side, and the descent is a bit steeper. As the road nears Highway 12, fields of irrigated alfalfa begin to appear in the hollows and bottoms between the white sandstone walls. Ranching was introduced to the area with the first LDS settlers in the mid to late 1800's, and it continues today throughout the region. The hay is harvested several times during the growing season and provides a source of food for the cattle in the winter months.

The road comes to an end at Highway 12, back in the high desert where we started. Turning left here the town of Boulder can be reached a couple of miles north. Left at the intersection journeys into the heart of the stunningly beautiful country along Highway 12, including the incredible Hogback - But I'll leave that for another time.

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