Monday, June 17, 2013

A Range of Options - Exploring the Henry Mountains Part I

The Henry Mountains
I've made the statement on multiple occasions of just how varied the topography is on the Colorado Plateau. This is particularly true of the southeastern part of Utah, where lofty mountains loom over deeply chiseled canyons. Both the Abajo (Blue) and Henry Mountains are leading examples in this category, and no matter the weather or season both ranges offer many different options for exploration. In this post I'll begin with some of the terrain encompassed in the wild and rugged Henrys.

The Unknown Mountains

The open spaces of the American West exerted a mighty pull on emigrants seeking a fresh start, but by and large would-be settlers avoided the Henry Mountains and surrounding area due to the difficult nature of the terrain. Although it is certain Native peoples knew of the range, early explorers made no attempt to penetrate too deeply into the region. For whatever reason no one bothered to give these prominent features a lasting name, at least not one recorded by history.

When John Wesley Powell passed through the region in 1869 on his journey along the Colorado River, he christened them the "Unknown Mountains", since they appeared on no map of the time. It was not until his return in 1871 that he gave them the current appellation in honor of Joseph Henry, who was then director of the Smithsonian.

The Henrys only really came to prominence after Mr. Powell sent noted geologist Karl Grove Gilbert in 1875 to study the mountains. His findings after two seasons of fieldwork were published in a landmark paper entitled "The Report on the Geology of the Henry Mountains". This seminal work established a baseline for much subsequent research on Colorado Plateau landforms, and anyone who studies earth sciences today is familiar with his contribution.

A key finding of the report is that the Henrys, like the nearby Abajo and La Sal mountains are laccoliths. These features were formed when large intrusive bodies of magma began upwelling from below, seeking to emerge onto the surface of the land above. As the Colorado Plateau is almost uniformly stratigraphic in nature, the layers began to bulge upwards, rising in height corresponding to the amount of pressure from beneath.

These "frustrated volcanoes" elevated the overlying land to great heights. Over millions of years, the magma bodies eventually began to cool, while the layers above were stripped away by water, wind, and time. The exposed remains consist mostly of porphyritic diorite, with occasional outcrops of sedimentary rock in juxtaposition to the granitic body.

Like the "sky islands" of southeastern Arizona, what makes the ranges here unique is dramatic vertical relief, with summits ranging from 6000 to 8000 feet above the surrounding terrain. While lower elevation deserts and canyons bake in the summer sun, these lofty volcanic peaks offer green forests and cooler, wetter climates to those seeking relief.

Despite the extensive documentation of the mountains, few ventured into the region until leadership of the LDS (Mormon) church directed members in the 1880's to undertake missions to settle and cultivate the land, further expanding territory under their authority. The communities of Caineville and Hanksville were among the first established that still survive today, while other smaller populations fared less well and dwindled away.

The next influx of humans occurred some years later as a result of mineral exploration and extraction, primarily focused on areas surrounding the mountain. One notable exception was the establishment of a small town called Eagle City in support of gold mining in Bromide Basin near the slopes of Mt. Ellen, the tallest of the peaks in the range.

Despite a promising beginning, the period of activity lasted less than 10 years, and by 1900 all that was left were abandoned buildings and rusting equipment. Other precious metal seekers attempted to locate ore bodies elsewhere in the mountains, but all eventually succumbed to failure when no significant deposits were found.

Old rock cabin

The next decades saw little human intrusion into the Henrys, with the exception of a few hardy ranchers who used the slopes in summer for grazing cattle and sheep. This changed just before World War I, as newly discovered properties of radium fueled a brief mining boom, which ended when demand peaked not long after the war's end.

In the meantime small scale operations continued to extract vanadium (usually found in conjunction with uranium), used in processing steel. Mining activity surged once again during and after World War II, as high demand for uranium fueled by the nascent Atomic Age reached its peak.

All mineral extraction is subject to boom and bust cycles as demand fluctuates greatly. As prices dropped so did the production of uranium, closing most of the mines. Claims still exist today, and when demand increases it is likely activity will resume once more. Until then, visitors to the Henrys can expect to find little sign of a human presence, especially away from the few established roads that exist.

Bull Creek Pass Trail to Bull Creek Pass

The entire area encompassed by the Henry Mountains is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency under administration of the Interior Department. Primary activities allowed under their mandate traditionally focused on mining, grazing, and resource extraction. Today the emphasis is geared more towards recreation, and all of the area is open to camping, off-roading (on existing trails), and exploration. As mentioned earlier, few actual roads penetrate the range, but those that do exist are in generally good condition.

Be advised however this is unforgiving country, with no services available except those found in the small communities outside the mountains, and that road surfaces here will change dramatically in wet weather. Flash flooding, impassable clay, and washouts are common occurrences, and back country travelers should contact a local BLM office for current road conditions and weather forecasts before setting out.

This post documents a section of one of the primary roads into the mountains - the Bull Creek Pass Trail. Beginning off Utah SR 95, this designated Scenic Backway displays a wide variety of terrain as it climbs from the lower elevations south of Hanksville to the highest point reached by road at 10,500 feet.

The geology of the region is most intriguing, and soon after leaving the highway some great examples appear. Named by locals "Little Egypt" these colorful formations resemble those found just to the north in another natural showcase called Goblin Valley. Although not as extensive as their better known relatives the rocks here are just as whimsical and appealing to the imagination, and stopping to explore is a good idea.

After a worthwhile diversion rambling amongst rock hoodoos, the road continues to meander through badland foothills, making slow progress towards the heights. Vegetation is minimal, as scant rainfall and high concentrations of minerals keep all but the hardiest of plants at bay.

Ever so gradually the road climbs, crossing numerous dry streambeds that cut across the flanks of stony terrain. Though water is noticeably absent, the presence of cottonwood trees along the banks are tell-tale signs that moisture exists - just out of sight underground.

Although the road is not overly rough it is rocky in spots, and it will hold most drivers to a leisurely pace. Traveling a bit more slowly allows for a thorough survey of the surroundings, including spotting evidence of the mining history seen here.

The treed slopes of the mountain seem tantalizingly close, but the road is in no hurry to get there. Winding through the foothills topography details are revealed slowly, turn by turn.

The trail begins to parallel the bed of Crescent Creek where we encounter more relics from the past. Just along the road is a small cabin, all that remains of the once populated Eagle City, a minor boom town built to service the mine in Bromide Basin.

Eagle City - Population 0

These fragile remains of what were once the hopes and aspirations of those who came before are the only signs on this particular trip that anyone ever called these mountains home.

Leaving behind the ruins the trek continues onwards, finally leveling out on a broad grassy plain called Eagle Bench.

Here I find a puzzle. Although no one lives in the area, it apparently has enough importance to warrant an airstrip. There's a sign proclaiming it as such, and a wind sock, but I'm darned if I can see anything that resembles a runway. I suppose a plane could land here if it had to - really had to.

Eagle Bench Airstrip with Bull Mountain in the background

With no one around to answer the burning question "why", I let the road carry me onwards towards my goal.

The grade has been deceptively moderate to this point, ascending slowly but most assuredly upward. The views reflect this as the horizon begins to stretch out at the base of the range.

Anyone who has passed through this country on paved roads can attest to how chiseled and broken the terrain is, with canyon upon canyon cleaving a network in just about every direction. Imagining how early arrivals to the region would have viewed these obstacles explains why so few dared to venture into the labyrinth, limiting the human presence.

Those seeking relief from merciless sun and hot temperatures found below will find a soothing balm of cool air and refreshing green trees emerging above Eagle Bench.

Looking down on Bull Mountain

Soon the road reaches a mean elevation and the route begins to make use of natural ravines between hills and peaks to navigate the topography. There are still ups and downs, but in general you can say you've "reached" the mountains.

A fork in the road appears, offering two different trajectories for the traveler. Continuing on leads to Bromide Basin, while the right hand turn takes you towards Bull Creek Pass, and beyond to Hanksville on another track from the south named Sawmill Basin Road.

I made that journey a while back using this other "major" route, and swore I would never do it again due to the excessively rocky conditions I encountered. Who knows, maybe someone put a grader on it in the intervening years, but I wouldn't count on it. Still, my path leads in that general direction for now.

Beyond the junction the road becomes markedly steeper as it heads for higher Bull Creek Pass.

Before the pass another set of choices are presented with a smorgasbord of options for exploration. This point essentially amounts to the culmination of a loop that began at the previous junction where the road led to Bromide Basin.

Moving on I arrive at the promised destination, heralded by a sign that tells me just where and how high I am.

Driving this delightful Scenic Backway at a very deliberate pace puts me at the pass in the late afternoon, and not wanting to rush through anything I elect to continue just beyond the pass to find a campsite for the night. There is a lot more to see and do here, and I'll continue the story with my next post - hiking to the summit of the highest point of the Unknown Mountains. Unknown - at least for now.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Grand Canyon - Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River

Bridgers Knoll from the rim
Grand Canyon is always on my mind, and why not? It occupies an enormous space not only in the physical world, but in my imagination as well. It is located just up the road from me, offering nearly unlimited opportunities to "drop in and drop out", or more prosaically just get away from it all.

Maybe that's why my thoughts return time and again to the sights and sounds from one of many intimate encounters, enticing me away from more mundane activities like work and endless chores around the house.

One of the places that merit revisiting (even if it's just in my head) is Thunder River. The name itself is a tantalizing invitation to a landscape uncommon to the overall Grand Canyon ecosystem, made all the more delightful by the exuberance manifested in its existence. But to see it you have to make the journey, and that's what this post is all about.

The Bill Hall Trail

For this adventure we're going to have to go a bit farther afield than some of the easier to access trail heads found inside developed Park boundaries. In fact, we're going to need to travel almost 200 miles to the "other" side of the Canyon, aka the North Rim, then make a 30 mile trip on unpaved roads to a remote and unimproved dirt parking area known as Monument Point.

I could post turn-by turn directions including Forest Service road numbers, but if you are serious about the trip you'll just have to invest some time in finding out for yourself where you need to go. Sorry, in my opinion that's part of the fun.

Once you've arrived at the designated spot (you'll know you are there because the road ends and the Canyon begins) it's time to saddle up and hit the trail. The start of the path begins just to the west, through a sagging gate. After dropping down a short distance amidst shrubby vegetation, the trail begins to ascend moderately at first on a rubble strewn slope, heading for the promontory known as Monument Point.

The Bill Hall Trail head at Monument Point
A short distance ahead encounters a spur diverging towards the rim of the Canyon. It leads to a small stone marker and plaque commemorating the life of Park Ranger Bill Hall, whom the trail is named for.

After a moment's consideration and a good look at the majesty of the Canyon, rejoin the main path as it continues upwards. If you are like most folks, beginning the trip with a full pack on a reasonably steep and rocky trail will leave you breathless and sweating in no time. The good news as they say is once you reach the top it's all downhill from there.

Once you complete the heart pumping climb, views to the north are nearly endless thanks to a fire that cleared most of the pinyon and juniper for miles. The next .3 mile is a more or less level trek across open spaces, with a couple of minor ascents/descents through shallow gullies.

One final hill leads to a substantial pile of rocks which marks the drop in point. This is a good place to take in one last look at the scenery, as the next two miles demand total attention to the trail.

The descent into the Canyon starts at this rock cairn
One notable hallmark of the Bill Hall Trail is the rapid loss of elevation over a short distance - 2000 feet in 2 miles. Many hikers opt for the longer but more gradual Indian Hollow Trail found farther west.

I suppose it depends on personal preference, but there are many trails in the Canyon that feature very steep and loose descents, and once you get used to the idea that you must choose your footing very carefully it doesn't really make much sense to try and avoid it. I do however definitely recommend at least one trekking pole or walking stick to assist with sketchier sections.

Looking back up at the first part of the trail illustrates the challenge to hikers with heavy packs - coming and going.

The most difficult section is the steady and unrelenting passage through the Kaibab and Toroweap layers, which seems longer than it is due to the care hikers must exercise on the way down.  Eventually the trail rounds the corner to the northwest and begins a traverse into the Coconino, where the grade moderates just a bit.  The views to the west invite a break from the grueling but necessary plunge.

There is one spot in the Coconino where some may find a short rope useful to lower packs, although many people could probably pick their way down the rocky outcrop with careful placement of hands and feet. After this relatively minor obstacle the trail returns to a more acute angle, dropping swiftly through a series of switchbacks to a drainage leading to the Esplanade below.

Esplanade is a word which means "a level open stretch of paved or grassy ground". While neither paved nor grassy, it is analogous to the Tonto Platform found in the eastern and central Canyon. Like the Tonto it offers a somewhat contiguous layer that can be used as a conduit for east - west travel in an otherwise nearly vertical environment. It resides at a higher level than the Tonto, lying atop the Redwall formation at around 5400 feet instead of below it, and is characterized by broad basins of slickrock and beautiful stone hoodoos.

A great feature of the Esplanade is the potential presence of water collected in potholes after rain or snow. In what is typically an exceptionally dry place this might be the only moisture available to animals and humans, but the ephemeral nature of the source means it cannot be relied on

Pothole water on the Esplanade after rain
Where the path finally reaches the Esplanade proper, hikers will find suitable places to dry camp as well as the junction of Bill Hall with the Indian Hollow trail coming in from the west. Those planning on spending the night here would be wise to plan ahead and cache water, or take their chances and hope that recent rains may have replenished the potholes.

The junction of Bill Hall and Indian Hollow trails
On this journey I chose to overnight on the Esplanade in both directions, breaking up the descent and climb into more enjoyable (less difficult) sections. Although water was available due to recent storms, I had already elected to deposit water ahead of time on an earlier reconnaissance trip.

After a restful afternoon and evening spent watching light and rain curtains dance amongst the pinnacles and promontories around me, the journey resumed the next morning. Following a path to the edge of the Esplanade, the trail switchbacks numerous times to descend the Redwall into Surprise Valley.

Surprise Valley is an anomaly in this part of the Canyon, hence the name. Geologists believe a very large section of the Redwall slumped away from the main body, forming a broad basin between the side canyons of Tapeats Creek and Deer Creek.

For many hikers the surprise comes from the fact that the valley has a southern exposure, is waterless, treeless, and can be unmercifully hot in the summer months. On this trip I was fortunate in that the weather was unsettled, and I actually got rained on a few times as I dropped down into the infamous cauldron.

Rain falls across the Canyon above Surprise Valley

Descending along the Redwall

Looking down into the valley

Surprise Valley
Once at mean level, the trail meanders through the valley, picking its way through folds and pleats of talus skirts receding from the base of the Redwall. Soon a large cairn appears heralding another choice of routes. This is where hikers completing a loop of Tapeats and Deer Creek can opt for clockwise or counterclockwise circumnavigation, depending on personal choice and permit limitations.

From the Bill Hall/Indian Hollow merge to the junction in Surprise Valley is 4.6 miles, with the only moderately arduous part being the Redwall descent. This passage through the Canyon's most formidable barrier is no more difficult here than any other, and is certainly less of a challenge than the beginning of the Bill Hall trail.

The intersection of Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek trails
The loop is probably the most heavily used trail in the west end of Grand Canyon, due entirely to the attractiveness of Thunder River on the east side and Deer Creek Falls on the west side.  Both destinations are also popular with river runners, and you will likely encounter invading hordes of sandal wearing day trippers at either location. 

Even so, the difficulty of the hike and far flung location offer enough of a challenge to keep all but the most hardy away, and the area still has a very remote character.

On this visit I am hiking the loop, making a descent to Thunder River and Tapeats Creek before continuing along the River to Deer Creek.  I am only covering the Thunder River portion with this post because unfortunately just past this point I slipped and used my camera to break the fall, rendering me unable to photograph anything else.  Stuff happens.

Heading east from the junction, the trail roughly parallels the base of the Redwall.  Like the Tonto, the views from this mid-canyon perspective are amazing, offering high walls above and yawning depths below.  Soon the path approaches the edge of Surprise Valley where it begins a series of (you guessed it) steep, loose switchbacks into the gorge below.

The upper reaches of Tapeats Creek

Dropping into Tapeats Creek

Two things become obvious when standing at the edge. The first is audible - the sound of lots of water pouring over rock ledges. The second is visual - the sight of lush green plants and trees clinging incongruously to the base of the Redwall.

First look at Thunder River

Thunder River is really not a river at all, but it is a prodigious amount of water blasting out of springs at the base of the cliff. This mighty torrent flows about 1/4 mile down canyon before merging with perennial Tapeats Creek, and the surrounding area is a oasis of green and living things in a sere, barren desert.

As the trail loses elevation the extent of the springs become more apparent.  Soon you're at eye level with the falls and looking directly across the canyon at them.  This is as close as you're likely to get, as dense vegetation surrounds the water- and moss slick cliffs and rocks.

The environment here is more like a tropical setting than anything else you are likely to see in the Canyon, and the spectacle is truly entrancing to those who understand the harsh and unforgiving nature of this place.  The Colorado River at the bottom of Grand Canyon is the only comparable source in terms of volume, and although it winds for 277 miles through the gorge, nowhere does it present as magical a setting.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, my journey is barely underway, but I'll have to leave you here for now.  I will return in the future to chronicle the rest of the loop hike, taking care to better protect my (new) camera this time. 

In the meantime try to imagine the delicate spray of water, the mighty roar of a river unleashed from its underground prison, and the gentle fluttering of leaves on a warm breeze, all while surrounded by majestic walls of timeless beauty.  If you can do that, you'll be fine until I get back.