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Southern Utah - In June?

Written by  Michael Holland
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Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the App StoreOverlanding through Utah’s backcountry should be on everyone’s bucket list.   Utah’s overlanding routes enable the traveler to experience the land like no other. Not only does “  eye candy”—spires, towers, canyons, mesas, etc.—surround the traveler; but the many dirt roads lead to some of the best adventures in North America.  One can canyoneer down a slot, mountain bike an epic singletrack, or hike in a desert oasis stream.  It’s all available...in Utah.  My friends, Dave, Barb, and Sam, joined me on this 12-day overland adventure into the wilds of southern Utah.  

 

 

We hiked to a thought-provoking petroglyph panel, dodged thunderstorms and flash floods, rappelled numerous times through a slot canyon, and found solitude right off a major thoroughfare I-70 running east and west.  The deserts of Utah in June?  Yep, you read correctly; June can be a prime time to venture.  For the past few years, I have escaped to “  canyon county”   in June immediately after the school year ends while my wife and daughter visit grandma in Florida. I call a few friends, watch the weather forecast, and plan an adventure.

My eyes spot the exit sign, and we quickly separate from the traffic of the busy interstate to enter a more quiet, peaceful place—the Last Chance Desert. The wildflowers are blooming and the dirt road ahead is empty.  Dave and I decrease the air pressure in our tires.  South it is...My Land Crusier and I lead the way.  In a moment’s notice the road surface transitions from soft sand to slippery clay.  We turn onto a road leading to Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park.   We get lucky, a.  A day earlier, we probably wouldn’t have been able to access this area.  The dried clay ruts in the road and the watermarks in the sand signal that this land was bombarded with rain.  I pull over at the Muddy Creek Crossing to scout what lie ahead. 

"Barb, you’re first!”  

“What, I’m not crossing that...Why me?”  

“Well, you don’t have a winch on your vehicle.  You need to go first, so Dave and I can winch you out if you get stuck.”    Barb looked at me suspiciously, but she begins to edge her Tacoma into the water.  Pretty anti-climatically, she crosses with ease, and Dave and I quickly follow. 

Our vehicles pull into a sweet spot off the road, and we pitch camp. Dave makes an incredible, tasty organic concoction, for dinner.  We dine on the goulash and warm ourselves around the fire.  I check my cell phone; .  Funny, no signal and no chance of finding one.  We are out here!  The sun sets behind the Thousand Lake Mountains, and I stare upon the starry sky. The cot calls—good night.

“Mike, there seems to be a lot of water in the road.  Do you think it will flash flood?”  

“Ahhh...Looks like it just did...the clouds are dark in the distance. Let’s give it a go!”  

Barb and I begin driving up Muley Twist Canyon in the backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park.  Dave and his Land Rover departed yesterday for home; so it’s the two of us fording the puddles of a recent flash flood.  Our eyes fixate on all the arches sunken, hidden into the canyon walls.  We round a corner; and I notice a muddy, four-inch stream coming at us.  I quickly wave atto Barb to warn her.  

“Let’s get to higher ground.  Follow me!”  

“What?”

Luckily, I had explored in this canyon previously.  I knew there was a high bench around the corner.  Feeling safe and secure, we embark on a spectacular hike to the crest of the reef.  Capitol Reef is a 100-mile long stretch of rock running north and south in Central Utah. Upon reaching the crest, we stare onto the green grasses along the Notom-Bullfrog Road.  Yes, the desert in June is spectacular!

We drive the Burr Trail through the small, picturesque town of Boulder on our way to the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument created by President Clinton in 1996.  Barb and I walk into the visitor center and hear words that we do not want to hear:  “  Sorry, I think the county closed the road.”  

“What?”  

“The rain washed out the Hole in the Rock (HITR) road.  You need stick to the pavement.”  

"Well, that’s a problem.” 

Few roads in the monument are paved; and more importantly,our plan the next five days hinges on the HITR road being open.  We decide to drive down the road and turn around once we get to the barricade.  What else to do?  But, we find no barricade.  Yippee!The road is definitely wet, but not slippery.  After numerous stream crossings, long water holes, and a few slips and slides, we exit onto the Egypt Bench road.  We find an awesome camp spot, and I trek up to a hilltop to call Sam. Sam, a teaching colleague, could only getaway mid-trip, so he was on his way to meet us.  After coordinates are exchanged, we stoke the campfire, make dinner, and bask in our piece of paradise.

The following day, we all make our way down the HITR. The HITR is a former trail created by Mormons settling in southeastern Utah and needing a way to cross the mighty Colorado River.  Their odyssey started as a quest but turned into somewhat of a nightmare.  They spent months in the desert before eventually founding and settling in Bluff, Utah.  On this day, the skies are blue, the temperature perfect; we love the drive.  We stop at Dance Hall Rock.  The pioneers used this natural rock amphitheater for musical performances and dancing as they waited for the trail to be blasted down to the Colorado River.

We meet up with Sam and he is amped about his new 2015 TRD Tacoma.  He and Barb discuss the differences between her 2014 and his 2015 model (the cup holders generate the most discussion).

Our route continues toward the many fingers/canyons of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area.  Lake Powell (really a reservoir) gleams in the distance.  We hastily throw things in our packs for a one-night backpack and descend the slickrock canyon.  The weight in our packs takes a little getting used to, but soon enough we “  skip”   down the canyon with delight.  The canyon walls rise higher and water flows from perennial springs; soon enough we’re walking in an ankle deep stream.  For us, it’s a wonderful afternoon!  The black ravens keep us company as we throw down our sleeping bags in an enormous alcove and savor the sounds of canyon country.  Good day, good night!

After sunrise and breakfast, we hike through waist deep water, climb up and over waterfalls, and avoid poison ivy as we meander through a narrow canyon following a stream to our waiting cars on the mesa top.  Hiking in canyon country offers a magnificent experience!  After seven miles, we return to our trucks, wash up, and relish in the solitude.  Eventually, we mosey back along the HITR toward a camp spot for the night.  My Land Cruiser leads; but I don’t know exactly where I’m going.  With a little luck, we discover an outstanding site behind an enormous sandstone butte.  We aren’t the first visitors!  Pioneer and cowboy signatures etched on the rock date back to the 1800s.  We spent the rest of the evening around a campfire, sipping a few beers and watching the lightning strikes far in the distance.

With the sun striking Navajo Mountain, we pull out of camp and head toward the final adventure in the area.  The roads have mostly dried.  We halt momentarily when we come to a washed out road with a stream running down the middle of it.  What to do?  I jump out and scout a possible route.

“Sam, what do you think?  Barb, are you okay with going down the side and crossing the stream?” 

“No!  Abort!”  Barb declared.

We disregard her dissension and jump in the trucks to make a go of it.  Our trucks shift into 4-Low, and I engage the Land Cruiser’s rear locker. The crossing is easier than expected.   Sam and I don our canyoneering gear once again.  I inform Barb of our route; tired, she decides to hang back and relax.  Sam rappels the first drop and feels stoked.  All goes well until the third rap.  We build an anchor quickly; but once we descend, we find ourselves up to our knees in mud. We do our best to wallow through.  After a few more raps and making another deadman anchor, we are almost free. Sam inches his way down the final rap and lands in a waist-deep water hole.

“Snake!”  Sam yells as he crawls to the other side.  Sitting on top of the rap, I begin to laugh.  Sam notices air bubbling through the sand and decides the loch ness monster lives!   He informs me that this waterhole reminds him of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars where the large snake takes down Luke.  I tell him that no light sabers are needed, but that we need to rally. We saunter back to camp, and Barb laughs hysterically at us as we stumble into camp covered in mud from head to toe.  After a shower (the Helton shower system rocks), we enjoy a dehydrated meal around the campfire recollecting about our trials and tribulations as Barb shakes her head and reveals she is glad she didn't accompany us.  

June in the deserts of Utah is grand.  The weather can make things interesting and awe-inspiring.  The lack of crowds makes finding solitude easy.  So, if you see a white Land Cruiser bombing around there next June; know it’s me finding the goods.  Join me! 

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