One of the many great things technology has done for mankind is diminish the frequency of the turn of phrase, there’s only one way to find out, the very words uttered (or so we imagine), when Lorrel “Sixty” McInnely put his bulldozer in gear towing a compressor across two felled lodgepole pines that spanned the gap of Box-Death Hollow fifteen hundred feet below. I can also imagine that “Sixty” got his name when it was discovered that one of his testes weighed thirty pounds.
But, I’ll come back to the rest of the story in a minute.
We’ve gone all Summer without a true breaking out into the backcountry save for a day trip late July, so on the last weekend of the season we set out to drive and camp along the road that goes to Hell’s Backbone on the Grand Staircase National Monument. We packed up Friday evening and left Hurricane early Saturday morning, getting into Zion Canyon when the sun was up above the east rim.
If you’ve never made the Utah Highway 9 traverse of the canyon, you should know that it is by no means a shortcut to Highway 89, but it is always well worth the time it takes. One of the slowing influences is the obligatory traffic control turning the two-way flow through the Zion tunnel into one-way whenever an RV over a certain size presents itself, much like the one above. The tunnel is a mile long and was engineered at a time when caravans this size were unimaginable, at least in making their way up to the tunnel to begin with.
Highway 9 opens up on the east side and the eyes are always treated to the awe that is the geology of this area.
We stopped for breakfast fare at a new attraction along Highway 9 just north of Orderville at Forscher German Bakery.
We went in to find a beautiful assortment of authentic pastries, but oddly absent were the odors one would associate with early morning baking. I had a currant strudel while the wiser Mindy had a warm roll. The strudel was good, but was not fresh as one might expect from a bakery. But, this is a backcountry report, so who cares.
We decided to retrace our earlier route along the Skutumpah Road, this time going all the way to where the road intersects the paved road that connects Henrieville and Kodachrome National Park.
Just as Skutumpah drops down into the Kodachrome Basin travelers are treated to this view, one of dozens along the way.
Fathers’ Day a year ago my kids and I did a camping trip through here, but Mindy had never been so we made the little tour.
Chimney Rock is a must-see in Kodachrome Basin, a formation that gets everyone scratching their head. Another attraction in the campground, not pictured here, is a rock formation that gets everyone shaking their head; think Lorrel “Sixty” McInnely. And yet, it appears to be this state park’s eight thousand ton guerrilla with no mention of the formation’s name, though the park is known among locals as Phallus Park.
From Kodachrome, coined by the National Geographic Society in 1949 after the type of film it used (a name conferred only after permission from Rochester, New York), we joined the All American Highway that is 12 at Henrieville and drove pavement to Escalante where we had Calzones at Escalante Outfitters, the best folded pizzas west of the Mississippi.
We picked up 300 East on the north side of Escalante (if you’ve hit the Hole-in-the-Rock trail you’ve gone too far) and headed north along the paved road. Three point three miles in, the road turns to graded gravel with much washboarding. Airing down enough to smooth things out a bit is recommended. Hell’s Backbone Road starts at an elevation of 5,700 feet and summits at 9,200. The road is passable for passenger cars and appears to be well maintained having passed a grader along the way.
There are trails rating in the sixes such as McGath Lake Trail that feed from this road that provide greater challenges. Given our passengers, Ginger and Maryann, we spared them the jostle and stomach turning, having learned this the hard way on the Barracks Trail.
About half way through Hell’s Backbone we turned off the trail and headed up to the Blue Spruce Campground, seven sites, six of which are bordered by the clear Pine Creek. It was mid-afternoon, and the mossy green forest floor and the small falls of the creek bid us abandon of any further driving in favor of relaxing instead.
Not sure if it was karma, the odds or just dumb luck, or all three, but we had the entire campground all to ourselves. We wondered a bit if all the beware-of-bear warnings were the reason for this ghost campground, but that didn’t deter us, bear spray handy.
If you follow the exploits of Ginger and Maryann, you know they were right at home here. Plus squirrels. Dog heaven. Makes me wonder why we as humans are so hard to please.
As the shadows grew longer I attempted a fire to create some coals for our foil-wrapped veggies, but the area fuel was too wet, so we cooked them on the Volcano along chicken breasts. Cous cous rounded out the fare of a delicious evening meal. By the way, if you’re not familiar with the Moroccan pasta, cous cous is a great camp meal starch in its ease of preparation and mild taste that blends wonderfully with herbs and fungi. Just don’t eat it raw and drink a lot of beer. The Belgians tortured Algerians this way.
We were serenaded to sleep by babble and flow of Pine Creek.
Sunday morning we broke camp after instant oatmeal – a great and easy hot meal to prepare, enjoy and clean up – and coffee and grapefruit juice, and joined FR 153 to Hell’s Backbone Bridge.
About four miles from Blue Spruce the road’s view opens up to the Box-Death Hollow.
With a little Geology 101 we can guess at the effects of wind and erosion on the Grand Staircase, but whatever forces created this tree’s gnarl escape the imagination.
Another 1.8 miles and we crossed the great Hell’s Backbone Bridge 3.0.
Yes, this is the third bridge. Version 1.0 was the one traversed by Sixty on his bulldozer pulling behind him a trailered compressor in 1933. The Great Depression’s relief of the Civilian Conservation Corps were the ones responsible for the double-pine-trunk crossing under the tracks of Sixty’s dozer. He inched across, having tied a rope around his waist in the event that the logs should fail, trusting in whatever method used to secure its other end. He didn’t need it, though, since he and his heavy gear made is across without incident and went on to plow and build the road we traveled.
In the photo above in the shade of the bridge are what appear to be version 1.1, a number of long pines that seem to span the gap. A second bridge of more concrete engineering was erected in 1940 and was then replaced by the current version.
Box-Death Hollow from Hell’s Backbone. Box-Death? What’s that about, anyway? It’s about cattle plunging to their death trying to cross Hell’s Backbone.
That’s why we kept the dogs in the H3.
On the Boulder Mountain side of the backbone the trail descends back to Highway 12 just south of Boulder. Back on pavement we were treated to our favorite part of our favorite roads in Utah, Hogsback Ridge through Calf Creek Canyon and up the slick rock of Escalante Basin. This area is hemmed by the Colorado Plateau of which the basin is a part, along with the Aquarius Plateau to the north, the Circle Cliffs to the east and the Kaiparowits Plateau to the west.
We stopped for lunch on the quarter-mile stretch of the Hogsback Ridge.
The afternoon began driving back on Highway 12 to Henrieville where we doubled back just short of Kodachrome State Park and mounted the Cottonwood Canyon Road, a little over 37 miles long that terminates south at Highway 89 between Paige and Kanab.
The shot above is from a vista reached shortly after the Butler Valley Draw, looking north.
Below is panned east and looks back upon Powell Point and Kodachrome Basin. Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, whoa yeah.
Eleven miles into the Cottonwood Canyon Road is the geological anomaly (what isn’t) of Grosvenor Arch.
This is a rare double arch named after Gilbert Hover Grosvener, a one-time president of the National Geographic Society.
The Cottonwood Canyon Road continues along the Cottonwood Wash filled with, you guessed it, Cottonwoods, making several shady and tucked-away primitive camp areas.
While this is a graded road, it is not maintained as well as the Hell’s Backbone Trail. We’ve had recent monsoons that have wreaked a bit of havoc in the washes, but otherwise the road is pretty passable. Every vehicle we passed was a rental car of crossover DNA.
Further south is the amazing Cockscomb, a long geological feature of a serrated ridge that with enough imagination might have one think a dragon is buried alongside the Paria river.
It’s a boundary of two distinct geological worlds smashed up against each other and receded. The road crosses the Cockscomb twice.
Once through the Cockscomb we entered the Rock House Cove where the H3 felt as if it turned into a Mars Rover.
And then, into our parting shot of the badlands.
What a great trip, and all within a couple of hours’ drive from our home. Sixty is my new hero, and even if he may have never uttered the words, there’s only one way to find out, this has always been the impetus behind putting it into gear, opening the throttle and going.