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Dirt Roads & a Hole in the Rock

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Last summer, I bought a large-print road atlas online that was $10 down the drain! I thought it would be easier to read but it lacked detail. Since I prefer by-ways to interstates, it’s useless, I thought. But it happened to be in the Jeep during a long road-trip, and on some lonely stretch of blacktop, reading it out of pure boredom, I saw Hole-in-the-Rock Road on the Utah map. Then I noticed the ‘Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’ (GSENM), and the crummy book began to redeem itself.

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I’m a co-founder and trail-leader at OffroadPassport. com, and overland opportunities in proximity to Arizona are valuable to me so I started asking around. Then while on the Rubicon Trail in July, our friend Sam said he planned to go in August and invited us to join him. The plan was to camp all week in Escalante, Utah and explore.

My research revealed that a “mission-calling” to settle the southwest created Hole-in-the-Rock. November 1879: 250 people and 80 wagons set out from Escalante for the San Juan River, but two weeks later they met a rock wall. They located a crevice wide enough to walk through with a ravine beyond it that dropped 1200 feet to the Colorado River. To get the wagons through, it eventually required six weeks of blasting and chiseling to cut through the 40’ wall. Finally, late in December they plunged the 80 wagons down and floated them across the Colorado. No wagon overturned, and nobody was killed.

Fast-forward to August 17, 2009 when George and I met Sam, Lucy, Jim and Phil, and departed for Utah. En route, to Utah, we stopped at Horseshoe Bend Overlook, a highly recommended, easy-to-reach photo-op near Page, Arizona that soars 1000’ above a U-Turn in the Colorado River.

We camped at Wahweap (Lake Powell), drove to the Big Water GSENM Visitor Center for maps, and then crossed Highway 89 to Smoky Mountain Road. Scenes from ‘Planet of the Apes’ were filmed where pavement gives way to dirt, beautifully stark and eerie. We took Smoky Mountain Road to Tibbett Canyon and then turned right toward Powell. The terrain gave no indication of water nearby, but suddenly a gorgeous view of the lake appeared. We ate lunch at Alstrom Point and vowed to camp there next time. Now northbound on Grand Bench to Croton Road, we cut back to Smoky Mountain Road 20 miles south of Escalante. This easily negotiable trail ascends rocky shelves while barren wasteland morphs into lush mountains. We setup camp at Petrified Forest State Park near Escalante.

Sightseeing Wednesday: north past Escalante River to Calf Creek, around Boulder to Lake McGath where rockiness and water-crossings rewarded us with a shift into 4-Low, and then on to Hell’s Backbone, an historical mail route crossing a deep gorge. Logs were placed long ago, spanning across it so horses could be ridden across.

On Thursday, we trekked to Hole-in-the-Rock, 60+ miles of washboard from Escalante to Powell paralleling the Straight Cliffs in eastern GSENM. We stopped at Devil’s Garden, Chimney Rock, and Dance-hall Rock, all worthwhile sights. Dance-hall Rock is a sandstone amphitheatre where square dances were held; improving morale of missionaries whose spirits sank upon discovery of the barrier.

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