Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Manti La-Sal National Forest Adventure - Part Three.

FR 079 aka Johnson Creek Road is approximately five miles from the Monticello Welcome Center, just past the Dalton Springs campground. It is a well maintained graded gravel and dirt trail that leads from Abajo Drive (Monticello) to North Blue Mountain Road (Blanding); 4 wheel drive vehicles are preferable, but a car can make the drive, just more slowly.  While I can tell you which peak is Abajo Peak (radio towers on top) or Horsehead Peak (trees form a horse's head), I'm totally lost as to which other mountain is which; they basically all look the same to me.  Once again geolocation, hiking, and mountain climbing sites on the internet offer me lots of information on GPS coordinates or longitude/latitude points; no photos, not a single one, not even of the popular Abajo and Horsehead Peaks.  Anyway, it is a spectacular drive full of scenic viewpoints and it is highly recommended  for seeing what it's all about in this section of the Abajo Mountains and Manti La-Sal National Forest.

On the map, FR 079 is highlighted in bright red; while it is only a little over 30 miles to complete the route, expect to be up there for about an hour to 1 and /2 hours for a good viewing.

The photos I'll be posting are a combination from two trips up there, one in June and the other in September; you'll get a good idea of the summer and fall up in the forest.  Now our first trip up in June, we had only just gone about a half mile down the trail when we were surprised with such an endearing (no pun intended) sight...a fawn grazing on the side of the road.  As we drove by, very slowly, it leaped up into the forest and standing just beyond was its mama; we made sure to say hello in soft voices and to thank her for letting us see her baby.

A good amount of the trail is lined with Aspen trees; the sunlight streaking through the forest gives a grand light show.  At one point, a fallen tree created an archway for us to drive through.


The are many twists and turns, an occasional hairpin turn, on this road; at some corners, nature has created a lovely garden to admire.  Actually, all along the trail are a variety of flowers and bushes; and maybe the occasional bunny will come into view.

Richardson's Geranium


Now lets climb higher into these mountains; grand pastures climb upwards towards the peaks while mule deer graze in the open.  As much as we wanted to park and climb upwards ourselves, there was just no room and blocking the road didn't seem a good option.  Actually, both times we did not see another vehicle until we came close to the end of the trail, near Nizhoni Campground.  Let me tell you though, when you're standing at the very bottom, looking up, you can experience vertigo.

In September there was a good amount of cloud traveling through the mountains, just in case you're wondering about some of the photos; they were so close that we could drive right through them at points.  When you get to North Canyon, the road becomes very narrow; if it's wet, take it slow as it will be quite muddy.  Stop, however, and get that grand view of Cooley Pass with Horsehead Peak in the distance.  Oh, that winding road to the right of the North Canyon/Cooley Pass photos; yes, you will be traveling down, down and round, round, and it will be fun, fun.

Summer View

Autumn View

Speaking of the Horsehead, there was a point on the trip that we stopped to look at something and when we looked upward, holy moly, there was the actual horse head up close and personal.

Ready for more spectacular scenic mountain photos?

Looks like terrace gardening, but it's a natural effect.

You'll get a chance to catch your breath and relax that over active heartbeat when you re-enter the canopy of the forest.  As you begin one curve to the left, to the right will be a gigantic field of broken, flat stones; this is actual mountain that has broken apart from the peak and slid down the side.  We walked over it only a little bit as it is quite uncomfortable, and those jagged edges gave us something to think about; mainly, "how stupid are you!?!"

Back to that curve in the road; it will go down slightly before curving to the right; but do not miss that little creek on the left hand side.  That is one of the offshoots from Indian Creek, and the sign for Indian Creek and one of the many trails is just ahead on the trail.  Many of the trails through this section of the forest are ATV friendly only.  Anyway, this is just a lovely spot to take a break in; we have two dogs that love the water, so bring them up here to enjoy a good splash in the creek.  If you cross the creek, there is a clearing ahead and it makes a great spot for a picnic.

You'll see pastures here and there again also; one we passed by had horses resting in them.

Riding upwards again on the trail, there will be an overlook; more of the rubble that you saw near the creek offshoot will be around the pull-in point.  Talk about "on a clear day you can see forever"; in the far distance is Comb Ridge.  This is an absolutely beautiful viewpoint area, so don't miss it!

Comb Ridge at upper portion of photo.

You're going to begin the downward trek out of the mountains now; don't be scared by the steep winding road ahead of you, it's really not that bad.  At one twist of the road, these gorgeous red sandstone hills will be to the left; I'm presuming these are the Red Bluffs, since the location matches the map.

Red Bluffs

The road will level out and be graded gravel for the long stretch to Blanding; you will pass by several pastures as you approach Nizhoni Campground, and see the junction to FR 095 - The Causeway Road. 

Three wondrous trips through the Manti La-Sal National Forest; the question is, "Which one are you going to tackle first?"

Mary Cokenour

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Manti La-Sal National Forest Adventure - Part Two.

Part One left you off at the junction of FR 095 (The Causeway Road) and FR 088 (Gooseberry aka Elk Ridge Road); depending on what map you use FR 095 continues north-west, or changes its name to FR 088, but either way you are heading upwards to Horse Mountain. We made the left turn towards Elk Ridge and I'm warning you now, this roadway will not be for the faint at heart; I am very proud to say that I did not scream. I would do this trip again as there is so much to see in the area on nearby trails and I want to see it!

First the map; I highlighted FR 088 in hot pink; the color seemed appropriate for this wild ride. You must have a good map with you; you will be passing many signs directing you this way and that way, but barely any that will have the road number on them.  The first time you go through this area, it's best to pick a direction and stick with it; you can so easily get lost, or in a situation where Search and Rescue might be needed.

Driving along, the area is very pretty with aspen laden forest, green pastures, you might even see some deer grazing; very picturesque and a good area for that picnic meal.

Yeah, well hold onto to that lunch you just ate for the next stop is Elk Ridge.  Elk Ridge, at its highest point, is 8800 feet above sea level and overlooks the Dark Canyon Wilderness.  The road winds down around the ridge walls, there is barely room for two vehicles to pass; at times, one vehicle will have to pull as close to a canyon wall as possible to allow another vehicle by.  On the other side, Dark Canyon Wilderness spreads out below you; do not be surprised to see dirt from the roadway fall into the 1000 foot drop.  Do not hug that side of the road with your vehicle at any time; a chunk could be missing from the edge of the road and if your tire hits that....  This is a primitive road in all ways!  This is why I warned, in Part One, that a small to mid-sized 4-wheel drive vehicle is preferable; do not be one of those smart ass' who drives a "I need to overcompensate for my small short-comings" vehicle.

Quick Story: We had stopped at Big Notch to take photos and were parked more in the middle of the road.  There was no way I was getting out on the passenger side and stepping off into that 1000 foot drop into the canyon below.  Anyway, this huge, and I mean a cruise ship on wheels, sized silver pickup truck (belonged to some B & B, but can't remember the name) begins the climb from around the ridge.  I jump back into our SUV and we move over slightly; now they have a small switchback on their side, so no problem, right?  Wrong!  The pickup truck stops and the terror on the faces of the two occupants was quite evident; and they were waiting for us to move over even more!  Poor Roy had to get out of the SUV and help direct them into the switchback and around our vehicle; they didn't even say thank you!  So yeah, leave the ship on wheels at home; no one cares about your "small issues".

North Elk Ridge, looking eastward.

North Elk Ridge


Big Notch, also listed as "The Notch" on some maps overlooks Chimney Park and Notch Canyon; in the distance are the La Sal Mountains (northeastern view)

Big Notch

 South Elk Ridge overlooks Hammond Canyon (eastern view).

South Elk Ridge

After getting off Elk Ridge, the road widens out more and you come to the junction of FR 092; follow the road as it curves to the right to stay on FR 088 and your next stop will be Arch Canyon Overlook.  The trail to hike or ATV into Arch Canyon is about 7.5 miles long, but is the only way you'll be able to visit the three arches (Angel, Cathedral, Keystone), or see the ruins and rock art.  The sun was beginning the descent for the day when we finally arrived there.

Arch Canyon
One more stop and we'll be done with this 31 mile trek, 63 miles total between FR 095 and FR 088; we began our journey at 7:30am and finally returned home by 9:30pm and it was worth every precious moment!!!  Anyway, last stop is Bears Ears, and like many other travelers and adventurers, the reasoning behind the name escapes us.  Try as we might, look at them from every angle, but just not seeing the resemblance to the ears of a bear.

Bears Ears

Elevation 8929 feet above sea level

Elevation 9058 feet above sea level
It was exciting doing the ride, it was exciting to re-experience it while writing, hurry up summer 'cause I want to go back!  Part Three will be FR 079 - Johnson Creek Road; wait till you see those mountains!
Mary Cokenour