Trailridge Runners 4WD Club
Hole In The Rock Trip
April 3-5, 2005
story by Kathy Howell, photos by John Howell
Probably one of the most significant events that portrayed the outstanding courage and faith of the early Utah pioneers was the Hole in the Rock Expedition of 1879 - 80. In the late 1870’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) initiated settlement plans in the Four Corners area of Southeast Utah with the prospect that peaceful relations with the Navajo Indian nation could be established. The San Juan Mission was formed in the winter of 1878 - 79. Mission members were gathered from Southwestern Utah communities.

An exploring party led by Silas Smith departed in the spring of 1879 to find a feasible route to the San Juan Country. The southern route through Lee’s Ferry, Arizona was determined to be impracticable due to the troublesome Indians and an inadequate water supply. The northern route through Castledale and Moab was not feasible because of the excessive distance and the time element involved. The only remaining alternative was to take the Escalante short cut through the Hole in the Rock, a narrow slit in the 2,000 foot cliff overlooking the Colorado River.

Over 200 people, 83 wagons, each with two or more teams of horses, about 200 additional horses, and more than 1,000 head of cattle were involved in the arduous journey over 290 miles of almost impassable terrain. The expedition traversed an average of only 1.7 miles per day as a consequence of the inconceivable problems that they encountered. The journey was expected to last six weeks. After approximately six months of hardships the pioneers arrived at the site of the present town of Bluff, then decided that they could go no further. The teams and wagons were completely worn out. The resulting settlement overlooking the San Juan River was named Bluff City.

With that history in mind, several club members decided that we should retrace the steps of the Mormons. Now that Lake Powell exists, it is not possible to make the trip from start to finish. Instead, one can traverse the trail from either side, make one’s way to the river, and then turn around and go back. On the west side, you can reach the canyon rim at Hole in the Rock. The “hole” is actually a crack, maybe 10 to fifteen feet wide, which leads down a rock cliff to Lake Powell. Today, you can hike down and back in a couple of hours. The Mormons had to dig and blast some of the crack away to make a six foot ledge on which they pulled their wagons.

We decided to traverse the east side of the trail which started ten miles from Halls Crossing, made its way across rocky terrain and Grey Mesa, ultimately ending up at Cottonwood Hill from which we could view Hole in the Rock 5 miles away and then back track to Halls Crossing. The total trip is 60 miles round trip - 30 miles each way. The plan was to drive 15 miles, set up camp and spend the night. The second day we would drive 15 miles from camp to Cottonwood Hill, view Hole in the Rock, and then drive 15 miles back to camp. On the third day, we would drive 15 miles out to the starting point.

The trail from the east side begins at the airport, ten miles outside of Halls Crossing. On the morning of Sunday, April 3, 11 vehicles, a 4-wheel drive ATV and 20 people gathered to make the trip. The people were: Bill Boitano (trip leader), Greg and Wes Beery, Gail Straty and her friend, Janice, Gordon Howe and his friend, Matt, Mike and Caroline Moore, James Maynard and his son, Davis, Jonathan Brooks and his son, Grayson, and his sister, Laurie, Elaine Allbrandt and Tammy Ellefson, Rich and Anthony Loeffler, and Kathy and John Howell.

The first 15 miles took us about 6 ˝ hours. The trail started as a gravel road which eventually turned into a narrow winding road following and crossing the creek bed. There was a stop to see the remains of a building whose walls were made of stacked rock. At this point we were joined by Don Owens and his friend, Corbin, bringing our group to 13 vehicles, 1 ATV and 22 people. From here, we had a good view of the terrain that lie ahead. Down a rough and rocky hill we stopped at the creek to have lunch and gather firewood.

Since the vehicles were full of camping paraphernalia, wood was stashed wherever it would fit and even tied on the front of one vehicle. We continued on over a rough and rocky trail and had to stop and watch as we each traversed the biggest obstacle on this part of the trail. By the time we reached the campsite at around 4:30 PM we were tired and ready to stop for the day.

We quickly set up camp and got the grills going for our dinner. We grilled steaks and vegetables, roasted potatoes in the campfire, had a huge salad with fresh vegetables and finished the meal with S’mores. That night the wind blew HARD. Luckily, the tents withstood the wind.

On day two, we got an early start. The rugged and rocky terrain just didn’t let up so it was slow going. We reached a point with an interpretive sign about the dugway that the Mormons built to allow their wagons to come down from the top of Grey Mesa. We hiked it; it was steep and tough going. It is hard to imagine how they ever got wagons down that trail. The trail was much too steep for our 4-wheel drive vehicles. The sign said that the way the Mormons determined where the trail should be was by following a mountain goat. While our trail to the top of the mesa wasn’t as tough as the dugway, it was rough and rocky and required those of us with lower clearance to choose our path carefully. As a warning, an animal skull sat atop a post that marked the beginning of the climb to the top of the mesa. Once on top the mesa, it was a well groomed gravel road for five miles with spectacular views of the San Juan River. But that easy part quickly came to an end.

The trail was hard to follow. There were cairns and Bill kept looking for tire tracks, but at one point we had wandered off the trail a bit and had to readjust our course accordingly. The two obstacles between us and the end of the trail were The Chute and a couple of high rock steps. The Chute is a long slickrock drainage formed into a natural U-shape. The vehicles settled into the bottom of the U and let the rock walls guide the way down. At the bottom there was a narrow fin to cross with a hole on one side and bottomless water pit on the other, but easily maneuverable with spotting. The high rock steps seemed impossible for the vehicles without lifts, but all made it with no problem. From there is was only several miles to the end of the trail at Cottonwood Hill which was a high overlook of the river and Hole in the Rock on the other side of the river. We enjoyed our lunch amidst this wonderful scenery.

The trip back to camp seemed much easier since we were already familiar with the terrain and obstacles. Once back in camp, we discovered that the birds and animals had found our trash bags. All the bags were torn open and the trash was strewn about. Of course, we picked it up and prepared for our spaghetti dinner. I guess we were all hungry because we chowed down a huge amount of spaghetti. Again, we had fresh salad and hot dinner rolls. Gordon was prepared to make us Dutch oven cherry pie, but opted not to bake in the campfire with all the wind swirling around. Instead, we made popcorn on the camp stoves. The wind continued through the night.

On day three, we packed up camp and headed out. The trail that seemed somewhat difficult just several days before seemed pretty easy by now. By noon, we had made it to the trailhead and went our separate ways. Some headed home to Colorado, some to Moab, and some to other remote areas to continue hiking and 4-wheeling.

It was a great trip full of historical significance. It was a great group of people with our trip leader, Bill, and everyone pitching in and working as a team.