San Juan County Highpoint: Mt. Peale

Mt. Peale has been on my list of mountains to climb since I first went to Moab in 2009. The La Sal Mountains tower above the red rocks, often graced with snow during “desert season” in the spring and fall. Being based in Norwood this year brought fresh incentive to climb Mt. Peale since the La Sals grace the western skyline on most of my after school runs.

The highest peak in Utah outside the Unitahs, Mt. Peale comes in at 12,721′ above sea level. Moab, to the northwest, sits at only 4,000′ while Paradox Valley to the southeast is at about 5,300′ of elevation. Peale is on a whole slew of peakbagging lists, including clocking in at #57 on the USA prominence list (it’s the 3rd most prominent peak I’ve climbed to date).

Early this winter, my rooomate Katherine mentioned that she wanted to climb Mt. Peale in the winter and wanted to know if I would join her. I was somewhat hesitant considering that I wasn’t sure when I could commit to climbing the peak since I was working 7 days a week and as a result of all that work, I wasn’t running very consistently. She basically ignored me and just kept talking about the hike like it was something that was Going To Happen.

Excellent move.

As it happened, I suggested March 12 for our ascent. I had paid no attention to daylight savings time beginning at exactly the time we planned to depart from the house (2am MST/3am MDT). Somehow I figured I had plenty of time to finish my shift at Mouses at 9pm, drive 50 miles to the house, sleep a bit and still climb a giant mountain? I was, however, committed, so I was in. Three hours of sleep and all.

Also throwing a wrench in our plans was that the weekend prior, Katherine had twisted her ankle in an ice climbing fall. I was willing to let her off the hook on the hike (in some ways, I saw an escape that would prevent me from facing my fears about my own fitness) but she continued to insist that she would be fine despite not wearing real shoes at school all week. (#realchampion)

My alarm didn’t go off because I very wisely set it for 2:45am, a time that actually didn’t exist that day. Katherine gently woke me up at 3am and then attempted to lay out to me that she was 75% sure her ankle could handle the hike. It was 3am, I was out of bed, and we were leaving. That was that. We jammed to T-Swift in the car on the way to the trailhead (which meant that I had “Bad Blood” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay” in my head for 16 miles…) and I kept my eyes peeled for deer lurking on the roadside.

Honestly, when we strapped our snowshoes on at the start of the snow-covered road, with Peale looming in the full moonlight, I gave us a 50/50 shot of making the summit. We had a long slog of road before we could even think of moving up the slopes. The magic of hiking in the dark took over though and we made great progress. I didn’t even turn on my headlamp because the moon was totally sufficient for light.

The day dawned just as we reached the start of our ridge ascent. Once we left the road, the snow got steep fast. My 2nd hand snowshoes purchased when I lived in Montana (in 2010!) don’t have ascenders. They’re small, definitely not designed for mountaineering on 30% slopes, and some of the quick tighten bindings don’t stay very tight anymore. It wasn’t long before my calves were screaming and I was tugging on my bindings every few minutes to keep them tight. I was tired and just wasn’t feeling it. The sky was greyer than I’d expected and I felt terrible.

I’d seen the exposed rock on the ridge from the road and all I wanted was to make it there. As soon as I could, I removed my snowshoes and strapped them to my pack, opting instead to go up the scree with microspikes and ice axe. On the rock, I started to find my groove and the sun started to come out. I moved efficiently upward grabbing short breaks while waiting for Katherine to catch up; during one of these little breaks I actually fell asleep in the wind at 10,000′. It was sort of nuts.

At the top of the exposed rock on the ridge, we crossed some steep snow on our way to the summit. We were both tired but the summit was only 150′ above us. Most of the way, we managed to stay below the ridge and were somewhat protected from the worst of the strong winds out of the northwest. On the final walk to the summit, however, the winds were definitely something to contend with. I braved the wind to take a couple of selfies and then it was time to head down.

Our short summit stay was sort of disappointing since the views were incredible. We could look north to the bulk of the La Sals, including Grand County highpoint, Mt. Wass:

Looking south over South mountain the Abajos and the Henrys were visible along with most of canyon country:

Looking back to the west, there was the Uncompaghre, Pardox Valley, and my beloved San Juans:

We debated a little how to descend and eventually settled on a glissade down the gully. It was steep in some places but it worked out okay. The day was getting warm and the snow turning to mashed potatoes so our pants were soaked. By the end, when the grade had lessened, we were both laughing and mentally preparing for the long slog back out to the Jeep.

12 hours after we’d gotten out of Ruth, we arrived back in the parking lot and headed out hoping to make it to Naturita in time for burgers and milkshakes at Blondie’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two milkshakes consumed that fast.

At home in Norwood, we attempted to have celebratory beers but I was sleepy by the time I’d had two sips. We’d covered somewhere in the ballpark of 15-16 miles and climbed 5000′ in elevation. That’s definitely not too shabby for an afternoon on the snow.

Thank you so much to Katherine for an awesome day in the mountains. I learned a lot and I reached the summit of a mountain that had been taunting me for years.

 

Bluebell Knoll: Wayne County High Point

Once #RuthXJ, Sprocket and I made the descent from Mount Ellen, I realized that there was still a lot of daylight left but I had no idea what to do with it. I contemplated reading but the weather still seemed a bit unsettled and not great for basking in the sun. I thought about heading to Hanksville, finding some internet and working on this little blog and then I decided if I were going to spend money I’d better do it the good old fashioned way: at the gas pump.

I’ve checked into most of the Utah county highpoints over the last few years, aimlessly clicking around Peakbagger, SummitPost, and the like learning which ones are drive ups and which ones require large amounts of hiking. Wayne County’s Bluebell Knoll (also known as Boulder Mountain or Boulder Top) popped up as being not too far from Hanksville (ahem, if 60-ish miles counts as not too far). Fortunately, Utah’s Highway 24 passes through Capitol Reef so the drive was pretty much gorgeous.

When I arrived in Bicknell, there were some clouds sitting ominously over the Aquarius Plateau (again, also known as Boulder Mountain) but there didn’t appear to be rain falling from them. I figured I’d come this far and the only way to know if the forest roads were too muddy was to actually go check them out.

I’m so glad I went! The roads were only barely wet in places and mud wasn’t really an issue at all. I found that the route was in really good shape. It was, true to name, a bit boulder-y on top but nothing that really needed high clearance, just patience to pick a less bouncy line.

Bluebell Knoll

Everything about this drive and short walk (it was less than a quarter mile from the road to the “top”) reminded me a lot of Grand Mesa. I guess that makes sense because both Grand Mesa and the Aquarius Plateau are uplifts on the uplifted Colorado Plateau.

View from Bluebell Knoll

The only bummer of the hike was that I noticed Sprocket had split a nail sometime during our Mt. Ellen adventure. I couldn’t find a nail clipper in the Jeep (gotta fix that!) but Sprocket let me use a pocketknife to clean it up a bit so it wouldn’t split further. This was a huge bummer because it meant that the big black dog was mostly out of commission for the rest of the weekend.

View from Bluebell Knoll

After we were done, we headed back to Hanksville. The weather for sleeping the previous night had been AWESOME so I basically wanted to back and do it again.

Mount Ellen: Henry Mountains High Point

When I realized that I had the whole Labor Day Weekend to go out exploring with Sprocket, I decided it was high time to go check out Utah’s Henry Mountains. I’d been past them before but since it was early spring, the roads up into the mountains themselves were too muddy down low with snow gracing the higher peaks. The Henrys are rarely explored despite the fact that the highpoint, Mount Ellen, stands 11,522′ high giving it more than 5,000′ of prominence. The summit is also the high point of Utah’s Garfield County.

image

Camp

As is usual, I had a hard time gauging just how rough the road to Bull Creek Pass actually was going to be. It can be difficult to tell just what people expect road conditions to be. As it turned out, it was rough but nothing that ever required me to use 4-wheel drive. On the way down, I did avail myself of low range since it was pretty steep.

Wikiup Pass

Bull Creek Pass

From the saddle at Bull Creek Pass, we made our way up through the wind pretty quickly. It looked as if a fairly major rainstorm might be approaching from the west but it wasn’t moving very fast and seemed to only be rain (no thunder or lightning).

View to Mount Ellen Peak from Mount Ellen Summit

Our views were way more expansive than my iPhone camera can show you. We could see all of the myriad canyons around us plus the Abajos and the La Sals in the distance. I was a bit disappointed that it was slightly hazy; I would have loved to glimpse my home San Juans from this distance!

Ellen Ridge

The trail petered out when we reached the ridge and made for kind of slow going through the large rocks. Sprocket hates this sort of hiking. We lingered on the peak for just a few minutes before heading back down to the Jeep. The clouds continued to appear to not be moving quickly but the wind was still whipping across the ridge from the west.

Typical Summit shot

Almost back at the Jeep, I was shocked at how powerful the gusts were! There as a bit of rain in the wind and it stung my cheeks and the wind pushed me continually off trail as we jogged back to Ruth as fast as was prudent.

image

image

As I stood on the summit, I felt a weird feeling: I just wanted to go explore the canyons at my feet instead of climbing more peaks in the range. Perhaps it was the vagabond traveler in me but I felt the call of exploring pulling me back out of their remote clutches and back on the move.

On The Page: Sandstone Spine

I am a mountain girl at heart but having some time in the desert has become really key to my happiness. While looking at maps of the deserts of the 4 Corners region, I’ve traced the length of Comb Ridge with my finger, marveling how far it extends. Browsing the adventure travel section of the library, I found Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge by David Roberts.

Sandstone Spine

Knowing a little bit about the terrain of the area, I was impressed that someone would have done this (although I still dream about The Hayduke Trail which is even more impressive). Traveling with two friends, the author describes the slow going over the tricky terrain, tensions of traveling in a group, and ruins found throughout the ridge.

My bar for a good travel book is one that either makes you see an area you know in a different light or desperately want to travel to a new area. I’ve spent some time around Comb Ridge both on the Butler Wash side and on the Comb Wash side but never really explored the canyons of the Ridge. This book makes me want to go wander canyons so badly.

Roberts very lovingly describes the Anasazi and Basketmaker ruins that he, Greg, and Vaughn explore along their trek. He pulls in just touches of his understanding of the history of the human occupation of the area, mentioning Robert S. McPherson’s work as well as some of his earlier books (it also made me want to revisit Craig Child’s House of Rain).

Sandstone Spine excellently combines history, travel, and human history for a very readable book. I am also excited for fall desert season. Anyone up for adventure?

Backside of Comb Ridge

 

This post contains affiliate links that help fund 3Up Adventures. All opinions are my own.

Arizona: Southward Bound!

One of the bonuses of being a teacher is that a lot of school districts seem to have gone to week long Thanksgiving Breaks! This actually makes a lot of sense considering the number of families that travel for the holiday and missed some school anyway. Last year I took advantage of the break by spending some time in Denver and then flying to Connecticut to celebrate Lucy and Franz’s wedding. This year, I decided to return to an infant holiday tradition and go to Arizona to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with a dear friend from high school who had been kind enough to invite me to Thanksgiving in 2012 and 2013. I think she’s stuck with me now. 🙂

Thursday after school, Sprocket and I hopped in Ruth, made a quick stop at the gas station and headed out of town. I decided to take advantage of the long stretch of driving to run a fuel mileage test at about 55 mph so we weren’t making great time but I wasn’t worried about it at all; we were cruising down the highway listening to podcasts and simply enjoying the freedom of the open road.

XJ Selfie

I’d hoped to make it all the way down to Kayenta that night but I’d gotten a start about an hour later than I’d hoped plus it’s amazing what a difference driving 55mph for 200 miles compared to 70mph makes. (I think I drove about 40 from Monticello to Blanding…holy deer everywhere on the side of the road!) We made camp along the San Juan River knowing that it would be more difficult to find a good place to camp once we crossed the bridge onto the Navajo Reservation.

Camp near Bluff, UT

In the morning, we got our start just before the sun crested over the buttes to the east. It was lovely to cruise along watching the desert become fully light.

Originally, I’d planned to take the standard route to Flagstaff via Kayenta but, seizing the luxury of traveling alone with no real schedule, I decided to take US-191 south to Chinle and visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I’d passed right by the monument in 2013 but it just so happened to be during the government shutdown so even though the park is run as a partnership with the Navajo Nation it was no dice on visiting.

Roadtrips are my absolute favorite. I almost didn’t take this one to try and save some money but I am so glad I did and I’m excited to share stories of the adventure with you all.

 

Summer! Roadtrip!: Part 2

Continuing our adventure from Ridgway to Green River! Check out Part 1 here.

At the top of the canyon, I was treated to some awesome views of the northeastern side of the La Sal Mountains. I’ve seen them from pretty much every angle but this one so it was pretty awesome. This area was gorgeous and I’m excited to come back this way to grab the Grand County highpoint (Mt. Waas).

FSJ. Uravan area

Colorado-Utah line

This road was so much fun to drive. It’s in great shape and brought a new perspective to a sort of blank space in the middle of my home adventure region.

La Sal Mountains

FSJ near the La Sal Mountains

Just before total darkness, we dropped down into Castle Valley. It was a little odd to be here for the first time since my wedding to F and all sorts of feelings got raised during the drive through the valley. By the time we got down to the River Road though, the air was warm and I was cruising along the Colorado with the windows opening feeling like summer had arrived.

Castle Valley

It was almost 11 when Sprocket and I pulled into camp off of old Highway 6 near Green River. He had a late dinner and we took a walk in the bright moonlight. It was fun to walk around without a headlamp but the moonlight doesn’t differentiate very well between damp sand and mud so I ended up with a bit of a spa treatment.

Late night dinner

Muddy feet

The sleeping temperatures in the desert were absolutely amazing. There was a soft breeze blowing through the jeep and the moon was streaming through. I was enjoying it so much it took me a long time to fall asleep but I slept hard once I did. I woke up to this happy dog checking out the view:

Sprocket in the morning

FSJ in the desert near Green River

Summer! Roadtrip!: Part 1

I cannot think of a better start to summer than a roadtrip! Even better, Colorado decided to cooperate with me and get sunny and summer-like just as it was time to head out and meet Amanda in Green River. Amanda (of Amanda Summerlin Photography fame) had emailed me way back in April to see if I’d be interested in an adventure in early June. She’d photographed a wedding in Salt Lake and had a week to drive to Denver before flying out to another wedding. Of course, I couldn’t refuse the offer of a great adventure partner so plans were made.

I needed to leave Ridgway the day after school had gotten out so I didn’t get a particularly early start but after a busy morning of getting things ready to leave, Sprocket and I set out over Dallas Divide.

FSJ on Dallas Divide

FSJ

Roadtripping

I had initially intended to go the fast way to Green River via Grand Junction. And then I decided to go through Moab. And then I decided to take a new route through Gateway. It was a beautiful afternoon and I was so so happy to be on the road with Sprocket.

Roadtrip

Beth and Sprocket

I think he was pretty happy to be on the road as well:

Sprocket in FSJ

I’d seen bits and pieces of the Dolores River Canyon around Slickrock, Paradox, and Bedrock and I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that Colorado 141 alongside it on the way to Gateway was absolutely gorgeous. I was so glad that I’d decided to come that way!

Colorado 141

I caught some glimpses of the hanging flume:

Hanging Flume

When we reached Gateway, I turned onto John Brown Road and headed up the canyon.

Entrance to John Brown Canyon

Sprocket and I took our time (mostly because the FSJ continues to have vapor lock issues) but the scenery wasn’t too shabby so there wasn’t anything to complain about.

Relaxing in the back of the FSJ

Views near Gateway, Colorado

John Brown Road to Moab

Check back tomorrow for the rest of the drive to Green River, including one of my new favorite gravel roads!

Peakbagging: Wagon Road Ridge

I’ve been trying to get up to the summit of Wagon Road Ridge for a long time. After my first trip to the Bookcliffs when I became rather enchanted with their remote, rugged beauty, I knew that I’d eventually have to check their highpoint off my list (or more specifically, the Lower 48 Range5 highpoint list on Peakbagger).

9 Hole, Right Hand Tusher Canyon

I’d heard that Right Hand Tusher Canyon was a difficult drive but found that it was pretty straight forward to drive so before we knew it, we were at the “trailhead.” The trail is definitely not an official one and climbs really steeply. Fortunately, most of the steepest climb is in some sort of shade although there is a long exposed traverse around “9 Hole” before you make the final climb up onto the ridge. The views (pictured above) are pretty fantastic.

Wagon Road Ridge

I have to admit that the best views weren’t actually on the highpoint but rather just when I reached the road on the ridge. Sprocket and I persevered and hiked the rest of the way to the highpoint just because we needed to and then headed back down to meet up with Amanda.

Wagon Road Ridge

Stats:
Highpoint of the Central Roan Cliffs (aka Bookcliffs): 9,503′
Hike: 10mi RT, 1,900′ elevation gain

4×4 Roads: Right Hand Tusher Canyon

I’ve been trying to figure out how to get myself to the top of Wagon Road Ridge to claim the Bookcliff’s high point but that point is really in the middle of nowhere. I attempted to access it from the north at the beginning of May but was turned around because I was on tribal land without the appropriate permit.

FSJ on Right Hand Tusher Canyon

I’d done some research on approaching it from Green River, Utah and I was excited to try it from there since I really love exploring the Bookcliffs but there appeared to be no good trail reports on the upper part of Right Hand Tusher Canyon Road. There was one post where the drivers abandoned their attempt mid-way up the road because they figured there was nothing up higher for them and another on Peakbagger.com that claimed that the road was really terrible and required high-clearance, 4×4, and possibly a locker or traction control.

Right Hand Tusher Canyon

I finally decided to go for it (and take Amanda along with me for the adventure). Of course, a road of unknown difficulty level is the perfect place to take a vintage Jeep on it’s first off road adventure with you. 🙂

It was a long dirt road that was occasionally a little bit rough but really wasn’t that much of a challenge. I used 4-wheel drive in one place to crawl over a couple of rocks and I used low range 4-wheel drive to drive one step hill with a little bit of a loose, washed out channel. Besides those two places, the road was a really easy drive.

Right Hand Tusher Canyon

This is the hardest part of the road, the rock is loose to the right and necessitates driving fairly far towards the “edge.” I tried going up with just my hubs locked but found I needed to shift into low range to make it easier. A locker may be helpful here but is certainly not necessary.

Hardest part, Right Hand Tusher Canyon

Immediately after a rain, I wouldn’t attempt this solo or without a winch since there are a few places that look like they might turn into some slick, deep mud but overall, it was a pretty drive up into the Bookcliffs (that accesses a prominence point! more on that soon!).

Cedar Mesa: Fish and Owl Canyons

I was planning on heading to Utah’s La Sal Mountains for Memorial Day weekend but when I started chatting with a fellow teacher, I discovered that she and her husband were hoping to get out backpacking on Memorial Day so I happily changed my plans a bit and we obtained permits to hike Fish and Owl Canyons off of Cedar Mesa.

Both Meghan and I needed to be at graduation on Friday evening so we set our departure time for very early on Saturday morning. We got a little bit later start than we wanted but still had time to stop and grab breakfast at The Peace Tree in Montecello (I believe it is owned by the same people as The Peace Tree in Moab).

As we approached the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to pick up our permits, I was a little apprehensive about the whole trip. The temperatures were in the upper thirties and it was raining. At the ranger station, we learned about where the water sources were in the canyons (we’d had enough rain that there was pretty much water the entire way except from Fish Canyon about a mile from the confluence to Owl Canyon about two miles up from the confluence). We watched a quick ten minute video about protecting the water and archaeological resources on Cedar Mesa and then we were off.

 

As we unloaded from the car, it started raining and rained on us for pretty much the next couple of hours as we descended into the canyon. The rain did not dampen the spirits of any of us (dogs included) as we stretched our legs after the long ride.

Fish and Owl Canyon Trailhead

The mile and half to the edge of Fish Canyon went quickly and before we knew it, we were at the edge of the canyon. Growing up in Washington State, I hated going to the eastern part of the state because it was a boring desert. Now, I have this big place in my heart for deserts (eastern Washington included!) and the views just made my heart happy.

IMG_2719

Hiking to the entrance for Fish Canyon

Descending into Fish Canyon

Fish Canyon

Many trip reports make a big deal about “The Crack” into Fish Canyon and we made quick work of it. My friends’ pup, Wilson, wasn’t so sure about making the descent but Sprocket had quite easily demonstrated the descent into my arms technique and we all made it just fine.

The "Crack," descent into Fish Canyon

Owl canyon exit

Sprocket backpacking

Fish Canyon

I decided to take you all a rainy selfie while waiting for Meghan and Ethan:

Backpacking in the rain

Fish Canyon

Sprocket in Fish Canyon

I love wandering through canyon bottoms. The trail was fairly well cairned as it crossed back and forth across the canyon and we covered about eight miles or so from the car before we made camp. After making some meals, trying to keep the dogs out of Fish Creek (I hate wet dog in my tent!), and a little bourbon, we headed to bed. I’m glad that we were choosy about where to pitch our tents because about 1am, it absolutely poured on us!

The next day, we decided to make the push all the way out of the canyon so we tried to keep up a nice steady pace down the rest of Fish Canyon and then up Owl Canyon.

Fish Canyon

Fish Canyon

 

Rocking some serious backpacking style:

Backpacking attire Beth style

Fish Canyon

Fish Canyon

The hiking in Owl Canyon was a little bit easier than it was in Fish Canyon. (The route finding in upper Owl was a little more difficult though). The rock formations were also a little more diverse.

Friends in Owl Canyon

Beth and Sprocket at Nevills Arch

The dogs were super happy when their three miles without water ended and Owl Creek appeared.

Dogs cooling off in Owl Creek

I really enjoyed the route finding on the way out of Owl Canyon (and my curiosity about all the side canyons was totally piqued!). There were some awesome waterfalls, with actual water!, and an exciting ascent out of the canyon.

IMG_2859

Waterfall in Owl Canyon

IMG_2863

 

The pups and I paused at the top of the canyon to wait for Meghan and Ethan. The views were again, incredible.

Sprocket looking at the view

Sprocket resting on backpack

We’d had a great time in the canyons. There’d been some rain, some fun hiking, beautiful canyons and really good company. Since we’d put in 10 solid miles that day, we decided to head for home to sleep in our own beds. We stopped on the way home at Stateline Bar and Grill near Dove Creek, Colorado for some very needed burgers.

Cows on Cedar Mesa

I think we tuckered out the dogs:

IMG_2872