Hole-in-the-Rock

Navajo Mountain,
from the south

I headed south, up across Boulder Mountain to Escalante. Road trips, for me, are a blend of planning and inspiration, with inspiration taking the lead. Up I drove over the Aquarius Plateau, the highest forested plateau on the continent at 11,000 feet. Snow blanketed its eastern flanks, and at times, it seemed like much earlier in the season than late April. It’d get down to single digits tonight. I headed for lower ground.

A few miles outside of Escalante, the sign for Hole-in-the-Rock Road beckoned. I might try there later, if the road was any good. I’d been down it away a few years back. My friend, Clint, with whom I was no longer competing, said that the road, comprised of a clay called bentonite, turned into a wet plaster when wet. Didn’t want none a that.

At the town of Escalante, I finally found a bank. Good Lord, how had I survived this long without cash money? At the teller window, I asked if there was any place to camp.

“Mountains or desert?” a voice from behind me drawled.

I turned to find an older man sitting in an oddly placed chair, as if the lobby was his living room.

“Desert, thanks,” I said.

“Then you might try Hole-in-the-Rock.”

Mindful of the forecast, I wondered: “Is that road any good when it’s wet?”

“It’ll be fine,” he said.

I asked the ranger at the BLM Office the same question when I permitted, and she said the same: “A little washboardy. Other than that, it’s OK.”

I drove down those washboards, so sharp and deep and jarring that it felt as if every bolt and screw in my beat-up truck camper, from the chain tie-downs to the roof hasps, would just crumble and flake away like the mudstone badland I’d encamped near last night. I could hear my brain rattle and buzz in the soup within its case. I feared for my truck, my tires. Only way to escape the worst of the iffy jiggle of washboards, I’d learned over the years, is to drive over them real fast, let your tires dance on the ridges. Problem is, that kind of speed, along with the sudden braking that comes when you realize too late that even going fast doesn’t always work, is what causes the washboards in the first place.

The chattering assault goes on like that for 57 miles, with merciful interludes of relative calm, like flat water after the white. For that whole length, the Straight Cliffs and Fifty Mile Mountain parallel the road, which parallels the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, broke in 1879-1880 by an expedition of Latter Day Saints dispatched to colonize southeast Utah. Yet even before that, the San Juan Expedition, a party of 236 souls and 1,000 head of livestock with 80 or so covered wagons, had to find a way.

Expert road engineers, they made it all the way to a cleft in the Glen Canyon cliffs 1,200 feet above the Colorado. From there, they widened the gap with men lowered in roped barrels over the scarp sides, where holes were chiseled and dynamite planted. Then, 10 men at a time eased whole wagons down a drop of 45 degrees, eventually reaching the floor of Gen Canyon and banks of the Colorado River.

One man, it’s said, sobbed and wondered out loud how they’d ever make it back home again, their route had been so rough. At Salvation Knoll, many miles east, when the wintering scouting party for the expedition had almost given up on surviving, much less finding their way, they finally spotted the Abajo Mountains and realized that they’d make it.

It is an irony that the Hole-in-the-Rock route was replaced just a year later by an easier way up through Halls Crossing not far to the north. And the names the expedition members etched in the rock across the river at Cottonwood Canyon, an even more grueling part of the route which they notched through the desert? Those names were drowned, like the more ancient rock art of earlier, Native pioneers, when Glen Canyon became Lake Powell. Shiiit. What’s the struggle all about, man?

What the man at the bank and the woman at the BLM office never told me was that, for the last 10 miles or so, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, marked by place-names like Carcass Wash, is impassable, even to high clearance, 4WD vehicles such as my own, when wet and rainy, as it was becoming now.

The road becomes a route, marked by sharp rock, desert pavement, and that bentonite that turns to sliddery toothpaste you can hardly walk on without getting mired in, much less drive through. But with the LDS trailblazers as my inspiration, I did make it to the end of the road. I passed just two cars in the final 20 miles. Their occupants had parked at trailheads and backpacked in to the Escalante Canyons further east until the weather cleared.  As I stepped out of my pickup and surveyed the Hole-in-the-Rock, a slow-rolling SUV with Missouri plates stopped by my vehicle.

“You alright?” the driver asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  Two grizzled, rusty-haired dudes half my age sat in the front.

“Do you mind? We’re wondering if you know what the weather’s gonna be?”

“The printout at the BLM Office said rain. I didn’t check to see how much. Lemme get on my phone, check NOAA.” One of the guys did the same. “Type in…Ticaboo,” I told him as we both drew our phones. “That’s probably the closest location to here.” I punched it in.  “Where you guys from?”

They hesitated. “Missouri,” the driver said.  “He’s from Texas. Only reason we ask is, you saw that mud hole on the way in.”

I nodded. “About a half-mile back.”

How’d you get around it?” the driver asked. “We were wondering. There’s a couple other spots it gets a little iffy.”

“I drove around it on the slickrock. If it gets any bigger, I might have to drive higher up on the rock. I might tip with that camper on my back.”

Neither of us wanted to get bottled up back here. That’s what happened to the San Juan expedition. Snows farther north blocked their escape to Escalante. Admittedly, the stakes for them were survival. For us? Inconvenience.

“The roads may freeze at night,” I said as I looked at a belt of snow adhering like frost to the upper reaches of Fifty Mile Mountain 4,000 feet above the slickrock sea we  drifted in right now.  “Might wait until then.”  The forecast came up on my phone.  “40% chance of rain today. 60% tonight. No freeze tonight. We’re stuck with the mud. Some thunderstorms. 70% chance tomorrow. Chances dip tomorrow tonight.  Then it should clear a little on Friday.  Only a 20% chance. That’s my window.  ‘Cuz this weekend it’s back up to 70%.”

“We don’t know what we’re gonna do,” the driver said. “What’ll you do?”

“I think I’ll camp on the other side of that mud wallow a half-mile back, just in case, and on the north side of a couple other spots back there.”

“We’ll probably run into you later up the road then.” They thanked me and took off. I never saw them again.

The weather was more iffy than I’d anticipated, and the road? Should’ve been called Hole-in-the-Road. I had enough supplies to last a couple weeks, and I might need to want until things dried out a few days longer than I expected.  But I had a window on Friday.

I found some desert pavement about four miles from the end of the road and made my camp there. Then I launched on a hike toward Navajo Mountain, which I spied about 7 miles south between a false saddle made of mushroom rock and Harvey’s Fear Cliff, which marked the end of Fifty Mile Mountain and the Kaiparowits Plateau.

To get to Hole-in-the-Rock Road: The way is easy. As you head into or out of the town of Escalante along Highway 12, take the well-signed Hole-in-the-Rock Road which comes in on the south of the highway about 5 miles east of town. Do not confuse this site with the tourist trap of the same name along Highway 191 just south of Moab.