Utah: Sand and Mud

Sometimes it’s best to put away the maps and just wander.

There are few places in the world quite as spectacular as southeastern Utah. Pinnacles of stone tower over a parched red desert floor, dusty backroads wind thousands of feet up narrow switchbacks precariously cut from vertical rock walls, and aspen forests reach for 11,000-foot snow-capped peaks. Late spring is my favorite time of year, when the summer thunderstorms are just getting started but the roads are still dry enough to be passable. With a canoe on the roof and a prototype trailer to test out we wandered north from Overland Expo in search of that picture-perfect mountain lake.


As the first decent camp beyond the Navajo Nation, Valley of the Gods has become a kind of obligatory tradition when traveling north from eastern Arizona. That’s not to say it isn’t worth a visit—it’s only slightly less impressive to behold than Monument Valley, a campsite and campfire are practically guaranteed, and it’s absolutely free. Our first night’s camp greeted us with fierce wind-driven sand that blew well into the evening, but our spirits would not be diminished. As we huddled inside the massive canopy of the Kakadu tent sipping Corona and waiting for the storm to pass, the only smart member of our expedition mocked us from his clean, comfortable lair. Eventually the wind subsided and we settled into a fire-lit evening of tall tales and tall plans for the following day.

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I awoke to the smell of bacon and poked my head out into a calm, overcast morning to see if the scent was a lingering dream—it wasn’t. Adding to the delightful smell, bits of left-over filet mignon from the previous night’s dinner were joining the bacon, along with eggs, veggies, cheese and hot sauce. Minutes later, the Bacon Filet Mignon Breakfast Burrito was born.

Departing from our mile-high camp we climbed higher up the Moki Dugway continuing our search for the perfect lake. Pulling in to the tiny Mormon settlement of Fruita we made a quick stop to top off our water tanks, and grab a bite for lunch… and pie.


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Ignoring the signs warning us of road closures and impending doom, we turned south to follow Pleasant Creek in hopes of winding our way up the massive form of Boulder Mountain in the distance. The first water crossing was little more than a trickle and a fun off-camber exit this time of year—while Google Maps will send you over Lippincott Pass in a Camry without a second thought, the slightest hint of water is enough to shut down it’s routing. The wonderfully sinus-clearing scent of fresh sage filled the truck as we twisted through a maze of brush, up the narrow wash, and over the rocky ledge that makes up South Draw.


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When you come to a fork in the road, the track most worn is the often path most followed. Sometimes the worn road instead means every traveler before you backtracked and took the other fork to get out. We learned the latter was true of this road as we navigated around a vertical wall of stone, hundreds of feet high, and found a pile of house-sized rubble blocking our route. Backtracking and heading due west brought us up the glowing orange canyon of Tantalus Creek to Jorgesen Flat, and to a lakeshore camp almost as we had envisioned, almost…


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Thankfully, the swarm was made up of mayflies and not mosquitoes, and an investment of patience and fire rewarded us with a spectacular and bug-free sunset. Dinner could wait. As soon as the boats could be unloaded we were on the crystal clear water for an evening paddle, dodging trout as they leaped out of the lake just inches from the canoe. Though the temperatures reached freezing that night it was still the perfect spot, and we didn’t break camp until noon the following day.


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Pulling out after brunch we headed west around the lake toward Highway 12, and that’s when the “fun” really started. The trail came to a creek just feet upstream from where the rushing water dumped into the lake, a creek which took great offence to the concept of our crossing unimpeded. With a boulder-strewn bottom a safe crossing at speed was impossible, so we sent the two Toyotas—unburdened by a trailer—across first. After a couple attempts, the Land Cruiser climbed out of the muck and I started to cross.

By this point the creek was fed up. It grabbed a hold of the trailer with all the sticky goop it could rally and refused to let go. The Discovery was too light to dig in, and with all four wheels flinging mud into the air it simply slid from one side of the trail to the other. Meanwhile the creek had shoved the trailer sideways, trapping it in front of a rock to prevent any retreat. After a few more mud-flinging moments I accepted the reality of the Discovery’s first “stuck” ever, and we decided to see if the Land Cruiser’s old winch actually worked.

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The rest of the drive was blissful, with a quick snack break at the Kiva Koffeehouse the only thing to distract us from the warm yellow-green glow of aspen and the hot breeze blowing off the slickrock as we descended from Boulder Mountain to the town of Escalante for resupply.


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Sometimes you just have to put the hammer down—not wanting to repeat the events of our previous water crossing with dark clouds looming upriver, and knowing a firm rock bottom awaited us throughout Alvey Wash, we ran the canyon as quickly as safely possible. Safely up on the mesa we searched for camp, finding our favorite site of the trip walled in on all sides by juniper.


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Thunder woke us early, and we climbed out of the tent into a dark, soggy morning, grateful for the Kakadu’s quick teardown as the skies above us opened up. It wasn’t long before the roads turned to damp clay, leaving us to slip and slide our way to Smoky Mountain on tires that more closely resembled cinnamon powdered donuts than aggressive all-terrains.

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The slickrock surface of Smoky Mountain was a welcome relief from the sticky goop, but though beautiful, only a faint hint of the coal fires we had heard about could be smelled. Taking advantage of a brief gap in the storm we backtracked north, following a chasm in the ground that seemed to have no bottom.

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A burning, putrid smell filled the truck as we crested the last hill to find a cloud-like white smoke floating up from the ground. The stench intensified as we stepped out for a closer look at the blackened crevice, which almost appeared to be melting from the heat of the fires below.


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Still feeling light-headed from the coal fires we arrived back at Kelly Grade just in time for another thunderstorm. So we pulled off the road, made lunch, and waited—there was no way I was going to attempt the descent in the rain after the morning’s slip-n-slide. On the way down the familiar voice of our friend Paul May came through the radio from south of Page, over 30 miles away, reminding me why I switched from CB to HAM. We made plans for a beachfront camp on Lake Powell.


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A narrow rock-walled canyon gave the feel of being in a subway tunnel as we followed NP231 south. Eventually the canyon spilled out into a maze of pinnacles, cliffs, sand and mud overlooking the shore of Lake Powell. With no obvious way to reach the beach we wandered around Warm Creek Bay in search of a firm path to the water, and broke out the winch a few more times.


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And then we found it, camp right on the water, just as the rest of the group rolled out of the canyon to join us. We spent the next three days in the company of friends, exploring coves and sandbars, and enjoying the warm breezes and refreshing waters of a late Spring on Lake Powell.


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On the second morning our resident traveler from Cornwall (UK), Benjy, put the finishing touches on his miniature imu (an underground pit oven) before filling it with pork, corn, carrots, apples, and yams and covering it up for the day to cook kālua style—the resulting meal was exquisit.


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As if on cue a wall of wind-driven sand struck our camp, sending dogs and people scurrying for cover just as we began to setup for the evening’s feast. Almost as quickly as it started the wind was gone, leaving us with a beautifully contrasting stormy sunset.


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Pulling a trailer off-highway is a great way to ensure the drive is never dull. Our Sunday exit would prove no different, offering us the opportunity to pull out the Maxtrax and practice our sand recovery skills before hitting the tarmac for home.


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Originally licensed to Expedition Portal for publishing on July 7th, 2014.
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