May 14 - 18, 2018
Part 1: Bears Ears
This May I had the opportunity to meet up with my friend Dan, who was one of the driver/participants in last year's great White Rim Trail expedition. He had little experience on Cedar Mesa and environs, so was interested in exploring. I did some research and planned a route up Bears Ears along Elk Ridge with a visit to Beef Basin, that Cayuse, of Wander the West and WRT fame, recommended. From there we'd loop around, perhaps drive Montezuma Canyon that someone, I forget who, recommended. Hovenweep National Monument was near there, too. From there I wanted to check out two other areas I'd not been to: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Dolores Canyon (I'd seen a photograph that made the area seem spectacular.)
I would meet Dan late Monday afternoon at Cedar Mesa. I gave him detailed directions to my favorite dispersed camping spot in the area. He would arrive there on Sunday, try to find a good camp site for us, and do some hiking on Monday and visit Muley Point. He and I both have inReach satellite communicators and he messaged me on Sunday that he was able to grab my favorite camp site and would mark it has occupied while he was away during the day. Excellent.
A few days before I left I got a Camping World sale brochure. I noticed they hade a couple models of propane campfires on sale. I thought that would be handy to have along this trip. On the WRT Cayuse had one and it was almost as much fun as sitting around a real campfire while enjoying a beverage and the telling of tales, and without dodging smoke and without the worries of making sure the fire was dead-out at the end of the evening. I bought the Little Red Campfire™ (and tested it before setting out).
Don't forget to click on any photo for a larger version (strongly recommended.)
Monday, May 14
I set off Monday morning, not too early, headed up US-550 toward the Four Corners. I stopped for lunch at El Bruno's (recommended) in Cuba, NM. It is only about 6 hours driving time from home to Cedar Mesa, so I arranged it so I'd have a little time to stop at Teec Nos Pos Trading Post in Arizona. I wanted to find a little Navajo rug on which to display some of my NM pueblo pottery. I also wanted to stop at Blanding both for gas and to check the visitor center there for info on Beef Basin.
Teec Nos Pos
I did stop at the trading post, but they didn't have any of the sizes I was looking for - a size they call "runners" which would fit the tops of the chests where my pottery was on display. Well, they did have one, but it had a purple color that I could not abide. I did purchase one small rug with a pleasing, colorful design that I thought was not too "busy" as to distract from my pottery. (As it turns out, once I got it home I decided it was much to pretty to cover up with pottery, so simply have it on display now.)
|Beautiful little rug purchased at Teec Not Pos Trading Post|
I'd driven from Shiprock on US-64 which joins US-160 at Teec Nos Pos. I continued on 160 to Red Mesa where I turned north toward Utah on IR-35. This route is more direct and, I think, more interesting than the more trafficked highways. It's easy to find from the south at the junction just west of the Four Corners Regional Health Center; it's tricker to find from Montezuma Creek - you must follow Center Street past the Post Office, cross the San Juan River, then take a left on the unmarked Red Mesa Road. The road passes on the left side of the hill then turns south.
I had called the Blanding Visitor Center the week before to ask if they had info on Beef Basin and they assured me they did. The reality was a bit different. The map the man I'd talked to said was the best, didn't really cover the area, and the lady there on this day did not have any ideas on the area beyond some 7.5 minute topo maps they had. There was only one of those in stock and it only covered part of the basin, but bought it anyway. I got gas at the "unattended" station near the visitor center and set out for Cedar Mesa via UT-95.
North Mule Canyon
|"Twins" set up in one of my favorite campsites of all time.|
It was a good moment spotting Dan's ATC and Tacoma at the camp site. I backed in next to his rig. As it got toward evening I got out my new propane campfire and set it up. I also set up a camera to take a time lapse sequence of the night sky - it was close to the new moon so should be dark enough to see the Milky Way. I'd researched times and directions using the Photo Pills phone app (recommended), and brought along an intervalometer as my camera did not have those functions built in.
The Little Red Campfire was a success. We sat around it catching up and admiring the dazzling star filled sky. One regret was that I never thought to set up a shot of us and the little campfire - that would have been a nice addition to the blog illustrating one of the pleasant moments of the trip.
Star Time Lapse
I took a couple test shots of the sky, set a delayed start up in the intervalometer and pushed go. Later Dan asked how many shots the camera would take and I suddenly realized I had not changed that parameter after testing the device! Thank goodness for his question or the night would have been a bust with only 5 images. I set the counter for 399, the maximum, but didn't really know how long the battery would last.
Use this link if you wish to view on YouTube in 1080p:
Night Sky over Cedar Mesa, UT
Tuesday, May 15
Cedar Mesa (continued)
I delayed checking my camera until after breakfast and my first cup of coffee. No need to rush if it was bad news :-) Turns out it was not bad news. Yes, the battery had died somewhere between 200 and 300 images, but using my Hoodman loop the photos looked OK. I don't usually bring my laptop on trips a week or shorter, but did this time so I could download and examine the photos, if I wanted.
|Morning at the campsite.|
Dan and I broke camp and headed west on UT-95 toward Natural Bridges. Elk Ridge Road, that leads up between the two Bears Ears peaks is the first right after the turn off to the national monument. We stopped part way up to photograph some of the great views.
|Looking off toward Natural Bridges. Note also the ripples in the mudstone in the foreground.|
[Warning: The entire length of the route described below, up to the junction of Beef Basin Road is impassible in wet weather. You can see the solidified ruts of folks who were up to their axles in clay along the road.]
We also stopped at the pull-out at Bears Ears pass for more photos. There we met a couple on electric mountain bikes, of all things. On the way up we passed from piñon/juniper forest to pines. Once over the top, at this higher elevation, there were spruce, fir, and aspen.
|Looking in a southerly direction from Bears Ears Pass|
|Looking toward the north from Bears Ears Pass|
|Looking back at the Bears Ears from a couple miles north.|
South Elk Ridge
We proceded along Elk Ridge and stopped at Arch Canyon overlook, but the haze combined with looking into the morning sun rendered the view less than spectacular.
|Arch Canyon Overlook. That little bump on the horizon (right) is Ship Rock.|
We turned up FR-088 to the north. I had come this far on a previous trip, on that trip I kept going straight which took me to the Cottonwood Access Road on UT-95 not far from Blanding. We continued though the forest, but shortly came to an area called "Little Notch", which overlooked Hammond Canyon, and we stopped for photos.
|View toward Abajo Peak across the Little Notch|
Before driving on I looked again at my forest service map. Areas of the Dark Canyon Wilderness were on our left. A couple years ago I had asked at the FSDO about the road conditions driving down FR-89 into the canyon. They asked what I was driving and in response they said, "Well, you can drive down..." with the implication, that I wouldn't be able to drive back out. We wouldn't be attempting such a thing today. I saw some side roads on the map ahead where we might find a good lunch spot. I also saw a map feature called "The Notch." Something to look forward to seeing.
[Caution: there are warning signs to discourage bringing trailers or large vehicles in this stretch of the road. A high-clearance vehicle is not necessary for skilled drivers, but recommended.]
There was a long, straight descent along the northern side of the mountain with dramatic views of the sandstone canyons, the eastern-most reach of Dark Canyon. Then we came to The Notch where Dark Canyon nearly meets Notch Canyon on the east. (There is also a Notch Peak north of The Notch - a bit confusing.) Wow! Great views. Great photo op, though nothing compares to looking out across the landscape with ones own eyes.
|Looking back (south) at The Notch and the road descending to the pass.|
|Looking toward the west and Dark Canyon from The Notch area.|
|Looking easterly across the notch at Abajo Peak.|
|Looking back at the road where it climbs up from The Notch on the north side.|
|Photo stop where we took photos, such as the one just below.|
|Looking west into Dark Canyon.|
Shortly after climbing back out of The Notch we turned on a side road to find a place for a picnic lunch. At first I wanted to find a spot with a view of Dark Canyon, but as the road quickly deteriorated, we "settled" for a lovely little meadow for our repast. I should have taken a photo, but forgot to do so.
North Elk Ridge
Somewhere along here the forest road name changes to Gooseberry Road. We stopped briefly at the closed access road to Gooseberry Guard Station to look at the info kiosk there and to use the vault toilet.
A few miles farther along, although still at a high elevation, the amount of vegetation drops significantly - lower amounts of rain and snow, I speculate - and the red-rock sides of the mountains become more pronounced. And an additional few miles brought us to the junction of FR-93 that drops down into Beef Basin.
Beef Basin Road
Beef Basin Road begins innocently enough. We stopped at a hairpin curve where there was room to pull over and wide open views to the north and east. Not far past here you leave Manti-La Sal NF and enter BLM lands (with a few sections administered by the state of Utah.)
|View of the La Sal Mountains, east of Moab, from the hairpin curve.|
|Looking roughly toward Beef Basin from the hairpin curve.|
|Here we are, preparing to explore Beef Basin|
[Warning: proceed beyond this point only with high-clearance, four wheel drive vehicles. 4LO is not required, but helped with traction in a few places.]
Past the hairpin curve, the road begins dropping and the surface includes large rocks to navigate around or over interspersed with fairly level gravel road. On the second, longer descent stretch, down into the basin, we did stop a couple times to scout our path, not that the road was too technical, but from inside the truck it was impossible to see how much drop there was on the far side of some of those rocks and ledges. We made it down with a few mud flap drags and nothing worse.
|Part of the way down to the basin we stopped to scout the road and take a photo or two.|
Once down in the basin we came upon a junction and had to stop to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go. As I may have mentioned, detailed information on the roads in the basin was sparse. The national forest map does show some of this area, but not in detail. I couldn't figure out how to apply the 7.5 min topo map I'd purchased in Blanding as it had no road names or numbers. I'd copied a number of maps from the BLM website and put them on my iPad - they were the most detailed for roads, marking those that were "maintained", but I couldn't exactly place us on those either.
|This photo is out of sequence - taken on our way out, but illustrates the junction.|
You'd think that information board would contain a "You are here" map, but it doesn't.
[Note: Google Maps solves this conundrum by labelling every road in Big Basin as "Big Basin Road" - not the most helpful, IMHO. Now that I'm home and have driven the big loop, the 7.5 min Topo map makes much more sense.]
The resource that 'saved the day' was my Avenza Maps iPhone app (also available for Android phones) and the USGS topo map Quads I'd downloaded into the app before leaving home. Yea, foresight! This free app displays GPS-enabled maps, shows you which of the maps you've downloaded you are on, and then shows you precisely (within the accuracy of your phone GPS) where you are on that map. As soon as I remembered to open that app, we were able to see exactly where we were and figure out which way we wanted to go. USGS Quads, many USFS and some NPS maps are free to download. There are many commercial and other governmental maps available for purchase. Cheapskate that I am, I only have the free maps, plus I prefer USFS paper maps - though I have to admit the GPS-enabled function is mighty handy.
This was my first time in Beef Basin and mostly I knew that Bob thought this area was beautiful and interesting with many ruins. Perhaps I should have asked more questions about where to go. A few of the maps had "ruins" marked in ambiguous locations, but nothing obvious. Anyway, I thought a good first survey of the basin would be to take what I'm calling the 'big loop' to orient ourselves for a future trip when we had more time to explore. It looked like the southern leg might have dispersed camping spots as it was closer to the edge of the basin. Dan was willing to follow my lead.
We turned left at that first "major" junction toward Stanley Spring. The road to the right (north) leads to Ruin Park and the back way into the Needles District via Scotty's Hole (suitable only for modified 4WD and rock-climber vehicles) and to other back areas.
After another descent, we turned right to start around the big loop, counter-clockwise. Very quickly we came upon a fork in the road. Bear right for the big loop; left for what I'm going to call Beef Basin Spring Road which leads to the intersection of the return loop and Ruin Canyon Road (although I didn't know that at the time). We took the right fork. The northern, and especially western, legs of the loop were a little bumpy with expansive, yet unremarkable views and little opportunity to pull over - so no photos. No good dispersed camping spots on the north or west, either.
When we reached a junction at the southwest corner of the loop (the loop is sort of rectangular, thus corners) I stopped and looked at the topo map. Left would continue the loop, right went for some ways before ending who-knows-where, and ahead looked like a short spur that might offer a camping spot.
South Springs Camping Area
|Looking at the campsite from near the campfire/lounge area|
Indeed, the short road lead to a very nice dispersed camping area and ended. There was room for our two campers, and maybe one or two more had they been along, among the piñons. We did have to jockey a bit to find close to level. There was also a fire ring/seating area with a very pleasant view of the basin. "Behind" the camp area was a small rock ridge. This ridge is part of the rim of South Canyon that runs southeast from about this spot. On the topo maps this area is called South Spring, though we saw no evidence of a spring. Looking at the topo map from home I see South Spring is down in the verdant canyon.
Before we settled down for the evening we took a short walk along the road not taken toward the west.
|Looking back toward our camp from the road to no where.|
|A blooming cactus along the way.|
Milky Way Time Lapse
Before it got dark, I set up my camera and tripod on the ridge behind camp. I found a position that would hopefully place the profile of an artsy dead tree in the scene. I weighed it down with a gallon water bottle in case the wind came up during the night and set the intervalometer.
|Looking up South Canyon from about where I set up my tripod.|
|A view of our camp, and the basin beyond, from atop the little rock ridge.|
We enjoyed another night of spectacular, star-filled sky, sitting round the Little Red Campfire.
|A still from the time lapse sequence.|
Or you can use this link to view in 1080p on YouTube:
Milky Way rising over Beef Basin, UT
Wednesday, May 16
Beef Basin (continued)
|Wild flowers near our camp.|
After breakfast, Dan and I walked up the ridge to photograph placement of my time lapse rig, and to admire the view of the canyon. I wanted the photo for historical purposes and this blog. I peeked at the photos in the camera and couldn't see a thing. I had lengthened the open shutter period from 15 seconds to 20, thinking the exposures at Cedar Mesa had been too dark. But when I put the Hoodman loop on the display the sky opened revealing the Milky Way in its glory. Wow, maybe the images would be OK after all. But again this new battery had also died before completing the series.
|My time lapse set up. You can see the dead piñon tree that I used for foreground in the video. The intervalometer is attached to a tripod leg with gaffer tape.|
You can also see the gallon water jug I used to weigh down the tripod in case of wind.
|Morning view of South Canyon. South Springs should be just below according to the topo map.|
We started out driving east along the southern stretch of the loop. We passed a couple areas that looked like good dispersed camping. This part of the road was in much better condition and prettier, in my opinion, as it runs along the basin rim. We stopped at an unmarked, four road junction to orient ourselves. I also realized I wanted to make sure my airbags were sufficiently inflated before driving back out of the basin. Yep, one side had dropped 10 psi.
|Dan's rig stopped on the road we were driving out on, facing the intersection below.|
|Beef Basin Springs road is the left turn. Straight ahead is the continuation of Beef Basin Road loop.|
|This is the road that leads south from the intersection down Ruin Canyon.|
I figured the road ahead was the continuation of the loop, soon to turn north. The road on the left was what we'd been calling the "short cut" and I now believe is named Beef Basin Spring Road - we'd seen the start of it just after beginning the northern part of the loop. The road on the right, examining it now from home, looks like it follows Ruin Canyon for a while, then climbs a ridge before ending. We proceeded ahead after I added 10psi to one of my airbags.
This next shorter section of road was very sandy, including stretches along wash bottoms. I suspect the Beef Basin Springs road might have less sand. We passed a couple of side roads and a small herd of cattle (probably at Stanley Springs), then came upon our route from the day before. We stopped for a few photos of the junction and sign, including the one I placed higher up in this section. We then headed up and out.
|A look back at Beef Basin after the first, mild climb.|
|Beef Basin Road at a relatively level spot.|
|A view off to the northeast from Beef Basin Road.|
Climbing out of the basin was made somewhat easier by virtue of being able to see the rocks and holes better from below. We dropped into 4LO a few times simply for the better traction.
|Dan nearing the top of the middle ascent.|
|Another view from Beef Basin Road.|
|Interesting rock formations along Beef Basin Road.|
We again pulled over at the hairpin curve to take photos in a different light and to catch our breath. A trail bike passed us heading downhill - the first vehicle we'd seen since turning onto Beef Basin Road the day before.
|A tighter crop of the La Sal Mountains seen from the hairpin curve.|
I was somewhat dazed (and confused) during my first visit to Beef Basin. Upon reflection I'm looking forward to visiting the area again. I believe next time I'd take Beef Basin Spring Road, then maybe explore down Ruin Canyon Road (although it is not marked as "maintained" on the BLM maps, so may have to keep a look out for that.) There were a couple nice dispersed camp areas on the south stretch of the big loop. Looking at Ruin Road via Google Satellite view I can see some dispersed camp areas and even spotted a couple obvious ruins. Ruin Road is marked as "maintained" as far as Bobby's Hole.
Bridger Jack Road
At the junction where we turned in yesterday, we took the other choice, heading northerly toward UT-211 - the paved highway that leads to the Needles District of Canyonlands from US-191. It was getting along toward lunch time, so I kept an eye out for a picnic spot, specifically one with a view of the canyonlands I knew were toward the west. We lost elevation as we left (again) the national forest.
|Can you see the road on the mesa to the left of the butte?|
Boundary Butte sits near the National Forest/BLM boundary.
Finally I spotted a track leading from the road toward the canyon edge. It was a deluxe dispersed campsite with a view overlooking the East Fork of Salt Creek and Canyonlands NM. I should have marked the exact spot with my GPS, but didn't think of it at the time (Using Google Earth & Maps: 37.939049, -109.727871.) Dan and I walked about thirty feet down to a ledge with an unobstructed view of the sandstone marvel below us. Dan brought down his chair and I used a convenient log. A picnic site with a spectacular view indeed. I remembered to photograph our lunch spot and took a number of exposures of the forms and features of the canyon below our feet.
|Dan at our deluxe lunch spot with Canyonlands NP off in the distance.|
|This was my view while eating lunch. Wow... just wow!|
|I had to take a few more photos using a longer lens so you could better see what we were seeing.|
|I tried to figure out which prominent butte is there near the horizon. Should have noted the bearing at the time.|
I believe that's Island in the Sky on the horizon, left, and Canyon Rims Recreation Area on the right.
Shortly after we left our fantastic lunch spot we passed an informal parking area on the canyon side where there were 6 or 8 cars parked. I wondered if there is a rock-climbing hot spot there. I know there are a couple on the highway to the Needles District. After a little research at home, I believe this is the trailhead for Wedding Ring Arch, a.k.a., Salt Creek Trailhead.
We descended into a dryer area and stopped for photos as the awesome Bridger Jack Mesa came into view.
|I had to composite two photographs to get the full sweep of Bridger Jack Mesa.|
Click here to see a larger version.
|Looking back at the road as it skirted the east prominence of the mesa.|
As we continued on into what I believe is North Cottonwood Creek Canyon with the tall mesa on our left and tall bluffs across on the right. Both Dan and I noted similarities between this landscape and that along the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands' Island in the Sky. Anyone who perhaps doesn't have the time or the vehicle for the WRT could drive up this gravel road from UT-211 and get just a teeny, tiny, itsy-bitsy taste of that same flavor.
|The road runs north between the cliffs and the sandstone ledge.|
|A slightly different view of the scene above, but showing the road where we stopped for photos.|
|North Cottonwood Creek Canyon.|
|A closer view of the cliffs and domes on the east side of the canyon.|
We continued down the canyon stopping a couple more times for photos before finding blacktop. At the highway we turned right, toward the east and civilization.
|These needle-like bluff tops remind us that the Needles District of Canyonlands NP lie just beyond.|
|Here is where we stopped for the photo above. It's only about a mile to the highway from here.|
The journey continues in Part 2.