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.


  1. I hope to visit the Henry's this summer. Many thanks, the information and photographs is much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for the details and pics! It's very useful for those wanting to plan a trip ;)

  3. We drove this in 2017 and because time was running out we opted to take the rocky road (unbeknown to us) back to Hanksville. It has definitely not been graded. Very Rocky, but a beautiful drive. Reading your post brought back memories.
    Thank you