Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Range of Options - Exploring the Henry Mountains Part II

Bull Creek Pass - 10,500 feet
My second favorite activity on public lands is cruising scenic dirt roads in remote locations, discovering new, unpopulated areas that warrant exploration. What's my favorite, you ask? Parking the truck and using my feet to wander some trail or path that takes me even further into places I've never been.

This post is about one such outing that took place on an excursion into the Unknown Mountains, aka the Henrys. Located in southeastern Utah, these rugged and rarely visited peaks provide respite from high temperatures when canyons and deserts are baking under the summer sun. To view the beginning of this journey, check out Part I, which describes a drive to Bull Creek Pass.

The elevation at the pass is 10,500 feet above sea level, and is the starting point for a moderate hike to the summit of Mt. Ellen, the highest point in the Henrys at 11,522 feet.  Although I can't seem to locate mileage for this particular hike, it can't be much more than 2 miles or so each way.  Any real challenge to the trail has nothing to do with steepness, although those unused to high elevations will undoubtedly struggle a bit - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A split rail fence at the pass marks an otherwise undistinguished trailhead.  The way ahead is obvious for much of the trip. Following the ridgeline, the path begins with the destination in plain view. At this elevation the vegetation is sub-alpine, with small grasses and forbs being practically the only ground cover.  There are some stunted, wind blasted trees tucked into hollows along the way, but for the most part the terrain is devoid of anything taller than a shrub.

Like many above treeline hikes, exposure is significant during thunderstorms.  Through the months of July, August, and September anyone attempting to reach the summit should get an early start, and be well off the ridge before any electrical activity begins.  Winds are also typically quite strong along the crests, making spring hikes more challenging from the standpoint of potential hypothermia.  Although the risk of serious injury is relatively minor, the environment here does pose challenges for the unprepared, and the remoteness of the setting means help would take a lot longer to arrive.

As you can imagine, the lack of trees also affords excellent panoramas of everything on the horizon.  The views are quite distracting, and more than once I found myself stumbling along as I tried to look around me instead of where I was supposed to be going.

Despite being mesmerized by scenery progress is quick as the grade is mellow and the trail easy to follow.

The only reason I'd rate this hike as challenging is because it traverses large and unavoidable fields of what I call "ankle-eating rocks".  For the most part the stones are stable and at rest, but it is advisable to pick your way through these sections with care to avoid a sprain.

Ankle eating rocks

With a steady climb the path soon reaches the ridge, where it seems to vanish.  Not to worry though - the way is straightforward.

There are actually three distinct high points along the crest.  Looking ahead it appears as though the foremost peak is the target, but Mt Ellen proper lies beyond.

I had lost the trail upon reaching the spine, but elected to forge on anyway across uneven terrain.  Nearing the first "false" summit the way is barricaded by a steep slope of dreaded ankle eating rocks.  Making careful selection of foot placement, I scrambled upwards.  As I went I noticed a curious phenomena - the stones had a ringing quality as they shifted and collided with my passage, and I wondered if they had a high metallic content.

At the apex of this first point is a very large cairn.  I suppose it is natural to make use of the overly abundant materials at hand to mark the spot, but for what reason? I wonder if the folks who built it mistakenly believed they had reached Mt. Ellen, or maybe it was just for fun.

Even though this is not the highest point, it still offers an unlimited survey of the entire horizon, and makes a good place to pause for reflection.

The view north to Bull Mountain

Once again the trail is nowhere to seen, but the lack of a path is not a problem where this hike is concerned.  Basically continue along the ridge, picking the easiest line through large sections of loose rock.

Looking below me I spot a multitude of game trails criss-crossing the slopes. Apparently the creatures who call this place home are no better at finding the way than I am.

Persistent scrambling leads to the goal - the summit of Mt. Ellen.  Here another rock pile awaits the few travelers who make the journey, although this one is much less ostentatious.

The marker hides an unexpected human artifact at its base - a mailbox with an ABS register tube.

I've hiked lots of places where a trail register exists to record completion of the journey, but rarely do these posterity archives have paper or usable pens.  This was the case here as well, so I used a tiny margin on a previous entry to scribble my initials and date (I carry my own pen, thank you).

Of course noting my presence here is not the reason for the trip.  I came mostly because I could, and knew if the weather was fair I would have unparalleled vistas of the landscape around me.  On that point I was correct.

Tilted formations in the Waterpocket Fold

Tarantula Mesa

Powell Point, a readily identifiable landmark in the region

Looking south towards Mt. Pennellen

Some enterprising soul constructed a makeshift seat using a large slab of rock.  This impromptu throne served as an excellent vantage from which to take in the expanse of land and sky, and the occasional bird of prey soaring overhead.

On this particular trip I was to see only 3 other people in the mountains, and none of them were hikers.  This meant I had the highest point in southeastern Utah all to myself, and that was just fine.  The vault of sky overhead and seemingly endless horizon provided all the distraction I needed.  Thanks to an early start I was able to loiter in my seat of cool native stone for a good long while.

Unfortunately, the one factor that cut my visit short was the threat of possible thunderstorms later that day.  Although towering cumulus clouds had yet to form, I knew it would be far safer to leave early than to overstay my welcome.  Besides, I wanted to take my time on the way back down, and soak in more of the surroundings as I went.

The timing of the trip was in late summer, so most of the wildflowers had come and gone before my arrival.  Even so, there were a few hardy and colorful exceptions to be found along the way.

As I made my way down, I was finally able to discern the trail I had lost earlier located on the west flank of the peak.  There were still a multitude of ankle eating rocks to contend with, but at least I did not have to wend my way through, around, and over random piles of stone as I had on the way up.

I made it back to the truck well before the promised rains arrived, and used the extra time to scout out another place to boondock for the night.  Although I had accomplished a primary goal of the trip in hiking to the high point of the range, there was still a good deal left to explore the following day.

A rainbow arcs over the mountains after an afternoon storm

In the next and final chapter I'll complete my near circumnavigation of the Unknown Mountains.  Based on what I've discovered so far, I'll be making many trips back here to become even more familiar with Mons Montis Incognita.