The San Rafael Reef is the jagged uplifted eastern edge of the greater San Rafael Swell, a giant dome-shaped anticline rising to the west of the Green River in central Utah. People who have driven Interstate 70 west of Green River will likely remember the incredible highway route that cuts right through the vertical red walls of the San Rafael Reef. Though most travelers blow through the Reef at 70 MPH, in mid-April we spent a week hiking in, on, and around the San Rafael Reef to the north and south of the highway. This often ofterlooked region boasts amazing geologic wonders and a seemingly endless array of canyon and slickrock adventures and solitude.
After tromping around in the snow smothered aspens near the top of Guardsman Pass yesterday, we drove down below the snow line towards Midway and found a fantastic trail to hike through vast groves of colorful aspens and brilliant neon red oaks. Pure eye candy!
The beauty of autumn (especially amongst aspens) is sometimes so overwhelming that it fills me with an intangible sense of longing — a desire to grasp the beauty, to hold and own the moment forever. But these moments and feelings slip by like sand through your fingers, and there’s nothing to do but let the beauty stream by and be grateful for the experience, however brief it may be.
Our big summer road trip is almost over and soon I will start posting many new photos and trip reports from our adventures up north! In the meantime, here are some photos from yesterday up near Guardsman Pass at the head of the Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Range of Utah. With a fresh snowfall smothering the golden aspens, along with a mystical foggy atmosphere, the photography conditions were just about as dreamy as can be!
In mid-June during the first week of our road trip we took a zigzagging route through the Great Basin of western Utah and Nevada. The Great Basin gets its name from the fact that no rivers flow out of the region; there are few rivers or streams, and any flowing water collects in broad lakebeds or salt flats where it eventually evaporates. Encompassing most of the state of Nevada and the western portion of Utah, the Great Basin is characterized by a seemingly endless series of rugged north/south ranges with broad, empty desert valleys in between. Our first stop was the remote House Range near the western border of Utah, where Notch Peak soars dramatically over the desert with a sheer 3,000 foot vertical north face.
We had hoped to hike a ridge route up to the top of Notch Peak, but a forecast of high winds and thunderstorms quashed that plan, so we moved on to nearby Great Basin National Park just over the border in Nevada. Here the same relentless high winds also convinced us to abandon our plans to hike up Wheeler Peak, opting to not spend a day getting blasted by chilly gusts on the high ridgeline. But we did enjoy a tour through the famous Lehman Cave, a beautiful cave system under the base of the mountain.
Next we drove north to the Ruby Mountains, the most “alpine” of Nevada’s numerous mountain ranges. We drove up Lamoille Canyon on the west side of the range, and were immediately awed by the super rugged peaks soaring precipitously above the valley on all sides. What awesome mountains!
We’d been hoping to do a backpacking trip in the high Ruby peaks but were also expecting that there would probably be too much snow still. Indeed, the high peaks still had a substantial snowpack and the high lakes still frozen, so we camped a few nights in Lamoille Canyon and did smaller day hikes instead. We will have to return another year for some backpacking in this incredible mountain range!
Earlier this month to wrap up our Utah road trip we spent several days camping up on Cedar Mesa and hiking into various canyons to look for Ancestral Puebloan ruins. I would guess that most or all of these ruins have been discovered (and pillaged) by now, but it is still great fun to hike through these canyons and try to spot them yourself.
The Cedar Mesa Plateau has one of the highest concentration of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Four Corners, with sites scattered up and down every canyon. The Ancestral Puebloans (also sometimes referred to by the outdated term “Anasazi”) lived in the Four Corners region roughly one thousand years ago, though evidence of their predecessors dates all the way back to 6500 B.C. By about 1300 A.D. the region was abandoned.
Most of these ruin sites are located under natural alcoves on high ledges, oftentimes with difficult access points that provided defensive protection. The Ancestral Puebloans farmed corn on the canyon floors or up on the rims, and even today you can still find little dried corn cobs in many of the ruins. Most of the pottery has been stolen by pothunters by now, but you can still find small potsherds and sharp rock blades around some of the more remote ruins.
More photos below! Continue reading “Cedar Mesa Antiquity”
If you look at my recent photo of Goosenecks State Park, you can see that there’s absolutely no way to hike down to the San Juan River in that area — continuous cliff bands block any possible route down. However, back in the 1890s a precipitous trail was constructed nearby by Henry Honaker as a supply route for gold prospectors. Honaker’s unbelievable trail zig zags down a puzzle-like route from the rim to the river, oftentimes descending sheer cliffs via large ramps built from meticulously stacked rocks.
See more photos below! Continue reading “Hiking the Honaker Trail”
After all these years of exploring the deserts and canyons of Utah, I never bothered to go to Natural Bridges National Monument. It’s pretty much out of the way from anywhere and after all, it’s just another couple arches, right? Well, on our recent road trip after backpacking in nearby Dark Canyon, Natural Bridges was finally on our way, so I figured we might as well stop and check it out.
And we were blown away. First off, the natural bridges — particularly Sipapu — are absolutely mind-boggling. These aren’t some dainty little arches; these are ginormous masses of earth soaring through the sky over the canyon. And what a canyon too! Even if the bridges weren’t there, White Canyon would still be an awesome place for a hike. And if that’s not enough, there’s an abundance of Ancestral Puebloan ruins throughout the canyon — including some of the most fascinating sites I’ve yet seen.
The thing about Natural Bridges Monument, though, is that there’s not a whole lot to see from the road. A roadside tourist might not see what’s so great about this place. You’ve got to at least hike down to Sipapu to see the glory. On our first day there we hiked the entire “three bridge” loop hike starting and ending at the Sipapu trailhead. We enjoyed the canyon so much we decided to spend a second day there hiking up-canyon to see more of it!
Horse collar ruins are located between Sipapu and Kachina bridges, up on a hard-to-get-to ledge as usual. It’s so fascinating to image people living here almost a thousand years ago, and the fact that these ruins have been sitting here for that long gives them an aura of sacredness.
See more photos below! Continue reading “Natural Bridges”