Saturday, June 1, 2013

Great Western Trail - Orderville Canyon, Arizona to Utah

May 20 and 21, 2013

After the Overland Expo I had planned to take about a week to do a scenic drive back to New Mexico. I hadn't visited much of northern Arizona or southern Utah before and thought it was high time to remedy that situation. The rough plan was up US89 and US89-A through Jacob Lake to Bryce Canyon to visit a friend who is a Ranger there. Then a quick scoot across Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument gathering info for a longer, return visit. Camping at Capitol Reef NP, Natural Bridges, Muley Point, and then it would be about time to be home. Oh, the best laid plans... Future blog posts will cover these events, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Sort of at the last moment on Monday I thought it would be a fun adventure to take a backroad north from Jacob Lake to Utah instead of following the paved highway the entire way. I had seen the "Orderville Canyon" trail in the Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trail book, by Charles A. Wells and Matt Peterson. The book said, "Easy. Mostly graded road with one steep hill. Suitable for stock 4WD SUV's with high clearance.... Time: 2 to 3 hours." Hey, that sounded ideal - a beautiful backcountry drive, maybe with a chance to practice some of the skills I'd picked up at the Expo, too. Sign me up.

The Great Western Trail is a unique corridor of braided and paralleling trails for both motorized and non-motorized users. The trail system traverses 4,455 miles through Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. It incorporates stunning desert and canyon landscapes, plateaus, woodlands, dense forests and alpine meadows. It links 18 National Forests, Tribal, State and BLM administered lands and encompasses the most diverse vegetation, topography and wildlife in the western United States.

I did my due diligence and stopped at the Kaibab National Forest Ranger Station in Jacob Lake to check on my route. The woman at the information desk was familiar with the route (and the guide book in my hands to the point of even recognizing it was a new edition) and cautioned me that the whole middle section was no longer maintained, but since I had a high clearance 4WD, and as long as I was careful, I shouldn't have any problem.

Sign announcing the start of this leg of the Great Western Trail.

I drove the 3.2 miles east from Jacob Lake on the highway and found the turn-off to FS 257. It was 3pm, but as it was late spring I had plenty of light left I figured. Anyway, the plan was to find a nice dispersed campsite along the way and complete my drive to Bryce in the morning.

The beginning of the GWT east of Jacob Lake at US-89, look north, the direction of travel.

The trail follows the ridge of the Kaibab Plateau populated with tall Ponderosa Pines through which the roads meandered. There are numerous dispersed camping sites in the first few miles, many of them large enough for sizable trailers.

Grass and tall trees for the first several miles of this trail.

One tricky aspect of this route is that there are numerous other forest roads intersecting this one. The guide book gives directions for each turn or junction with milage, but even better, the Forest Service (and BLM) have erected markers with the Great Western Trail icon pointing the way.

Various groups have also erected informational signs along the trail. These give those who pause to read a bit of the history of the trail and the settlers who moved in, such as the Mormon group who established Orderville and set up a dairy in this canyon. (In this section the signs were placed by the Arizona State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Fund. Sorry, I didn't pause to photograph these signs.)

There were wild flowers blooming. Quite lovely.

The elevation of the plateau drops rapidly. Five miles in, the big trees are thinning in favor of smaller trees and plants of lower heights. By 10 miles instead of grass and pine needles along the ground one finds profuse growths of sage and other high-desert plants, though there are still pines lining the wide canyon walls.
Lark Sparrow

It was interesting to me to note that in some sections, between junctions, there was evidence of vehicles passing not that long before I came along. In other sections my tracks were the first since the last rain - which had to be some time past.

Once out of the big trees I was into Piñon and Juniper forest. The canyon would narrow with rocky walls, then would widen out showing evidence of old corrals and not so old cattle grazing. Camping spots were becoming few and far between, in fact in most places there was not even any way to get out of the roadbed.

Sure enough the road was not maintained in this area, though rocky and heavily rutted in sections, it presented no obstacle. It did require attention to where I placed my wheels, so there are no photos from this fairly long section.

Somewhere along here I began to realize traversing this trail would take longer than the 2 - 3 hours as published. I decided I wouldn't stop until I had travelled farther along, as I wanted to get into Bryce Canyon the next day early enough to be sure to get a camp site.

The road became rougher, though still through interesting territory. I was on the lower sections of the plateau, but had not reached "the hill." This feature, mentioned in my quote, above, from the guidebook carried the admonition on the map itself, "Toughest section; use 4-low going down." There was also a camera icon just before the hill on the map, promising a great view. The terrain was becoming more open and arid, as the road twisted, rose and fell. Then it opened up and I knew I was there - mile19.4, the steep hill.

View of the southern flank of Utah from the edge of the Kaibab Plateau (the hill.) View larger image
After taking some photos, I had hearty snack as the day was getting long and my energy was getting low... and I suspected I'd need some energy soon. I put the truck in 4WD-Low and started easing down the steep, rocky road. Keeping in mind what the Land Rover drivers continuously said, "as slow as possible; as fast as necessary."

That slow as possible quickly became a stop as there was an intimidating rock ledge the width of the road with an abrupt drop-off on the low side. The drop was about a foot on the driver's side and a somewhat less abrupt 8 to 10 inches on the passenger side.

This is where "ego" gets us into trouble, I can almost hear Fred Monsees, the Land Rover driver explain in his "how things get broken" class! I had to figure a way down or turn around and drive the now 3 hours back to US89. When I'd read the trail classifications in the guidebook, the Moderate rated trails had been described as "may require some rock stacking." I decided that this Easy trail had become Moderate since the book was written.

I decided to try rock-stacking. It took me a while to build two ramps off the ledge and to remove the rear steps from my hitch receiver so they wouldn't drag. I should have taken photos, but I was totally focused on the task at hand. Started the truck up and eased down my ramps, careful not to try and stop while on the ramps lest the rocks shift under me. Success! The only things that scrapped were my mud flaps. I stuck the steps back on and proceeded hoping that was the worst part... until I came to the next ledge.

This one wasn't as bad and I could put one wheel on the side of the track, so only had to build one rock ramp (and remove my steps and do a little dead limb trimming.) After I cleared this ledge and worked my way down, the shadows were getting long and finding holes to avoid a little more difficult. But no more rock stacking required. Whew!

It seemed like it took forever to get down that hill, but looking back at my GPS log, it only took about 40 minutes total. OK, so maybe you guys in your big trucks, Jeeps or FJs could have just driven straight down, but newbie me in my heavily loaded, brand-new, stock 4x4 Tacoma decided not to dent or break anything this time.

About a mile after the hill, with the road a fairly smooth "thoroughfare"  I found a little spur off the road, that lead nowhere, to camp. I nestled in among the Junipers, off the "main" road. Not that I thought anyone would be coming down that road in the dark in a million years.
My cozy campsite with the last rays of the sun lighting the tops of the Juniper.
I even had time to take a short walk before dark. I saw some game trails, but no game. I had a restful night.

The roads were much better in the morning, though I confess to taking one wrong turn. I figured it out quickly, backtracked and got back on the trail.

You can see the Utah escarpments along the horizon.
I knew I was on the right trail once I saw the identical sign as was pictured in the guidebook.
I've made it to Utah all in one piece.

Climbing up to US-89 the views were still spectacular.

Click to view larger image.

The roads in Utah were well maintained and I touched 36 m.p.h. before good sense returned to me. The route brought me out onto the highway about 20 miles east of Kanab.

All in all, a good adventure with truck and driver surviving with nothing more than a few scratches on the skin. The 2 - 3 hour trail took me 5-1/2 hours, not counting camp time. I talked to a fellow a few days later about this. He uses a different author's guidebook, but noted it usually took him about twice the time listed in the book, so I guess this is endemic to the trade.

Thanks for reading along.

Here is a track map and profile taken from my GPS, should you be interested. I do not recommend taking this route with only my map as a guide. The red pin, "Camp GWT", marks my campsite; the other pin marks the origin.

You can see the steep hill at about 20 miles.

p.s., I phoned Matt Peterson of, one of the authors of the guidebook to see if he was interested in a trail condition update. He was, as he said it had been two or three years since they'd last driven it. Seems like a good guy. He said to keep watching the site as they will be coming out with a phone app of their own onto which you can load tracks (for off-grid use) for the trails in their books. He said the current scheme using a third-party app hadn't been satisfactory. They also sell data cards that plug into various brands of vehicle navigation devices and show the routes and waypoints.

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