Plateau Hopping in Utah
Plateau Hopping in Utah

by Peter Matusov

Photos: Nikolay Matusov and Peter Matusov

Russian version

* * *

September of 2021 grinds to the close - the desert has cooled off somewhat, and the school is already in session, meaning it is a prime time to leave the significant others and hit the road.

To spare us the pains of choosing the destination, Chris Snell just sends GPS coordinates - somewhere on Aquarius Plateau: "Let's meet there. If you arrive earlier, scout the campsites." We set out on a Saturday afternoon with Nikolay and Jules the Airedale in a Range Rover with a trustworthy 365 thousand miles on the odometer.

Not a single sight, not one impression, not any memory I can recall in nearly 8 hours and 420 miles between San Diego and Virgin River Gorge... and then it gets dark. We should have taken off in the morning and trekked across small roads in Mojave Desert, bypassing Las Vegas entirely.

Our luck improves in a motel in St.George, Utah - one of the old classic roadside jobs, acquired recently by Wyndham conglomerate (that does nothing to improve the property besides raising prices). We get a ground-floor room with doors inside and outside, and grab the dinner to go in the last five minutes before kitchen shuts down for the night.

Day 1: “Highland of trees” - Markagunt Plateau to Aquarius Plateau
Day 1: “Highland of trees” - Markagunt Plateau to Aquarius Plateau

Seeing that I left home my annual National Parks pass, I forgo driving through Zion and head out North towards Cedar City.

Stopped for a break in the aspen grove off Utah SR 14.

As we usually learn stuff after the trips, this area is known as Markagunt Plateau - a site of a vast volcanic lava flow the past. The roads in the area cross the lava outcroppings - in some places the rock lays bare, nothing really grew on it in some five million years ago.

Looking down into Zion Canyon:

A quick detour to Cedar Breaks National Monument:

Utah SR 12, Red Canyon; it seems like a good time to make a stop and take a short hike.

Utah SR 12, famous "Hogback:"

The views from Kiwa Koffeehouse are gorgeous:

Boulder, Utah: the place we met to see the unknown 8 years ago:

Working out way up towards the pass on Utah SR 12; at the viewpoint, we find that the transmission dipstick in the Range Rover is dry as a bone. We bum a quart of ATF from a generous RV owner, and make a round trip to Torrey and back to procure more.

It is time for us to get up to Aquarius Plateau. A part of a larger system known as Colorado Plateau, Aquarius is remarkably flat-topped: it counts about 500 thousand acres, or 200 square kilometers, of area above 11 thousand feet; yet its highest point, Boulder Mountain, is barely 328 feet higher than that. You can drive right past it without knowing it to be a mountain peak.

The turn-off to Aquarius Plateau is just a hundred feet or so from the viewpoint; the road is so steep that we have to engage low range before we leave pavement. The road then proceeds to gather more than 2000 feet in elevation in the span of about two miles, most of it - over the basketball-sized rocks that are sometimes planted in dirt and sometimes - loose. Setting Sun beating into our windshield did not help a slightest bit.

The climb was hard on everyone, especially Jules.

By the time we reach the first prospective campsite, it is already dark - so we find the closest flat spot, large enough for five vehicles and a tent, and call it a day.

We spend some time warming ourselves with Knob Creek, then use the Range Rover's heater in the cab while chasing phantom signals on 2-meter ham band, trying to contact our amigos.

They arrive very late, by which time we're already in the tent, about to turn in.

Dinner is reduced to aperitifs merged with digestifs, with nothing in between.

Our daily trek: 278 miles, losing the total of 13.5 but gaining about 21.9 thousand feet in elevation, in a little under 11 hours of driving time.

Day 2: Aquarius Plateau to Hogback.
Day 2: Aquarius Plateau to Hogback.

The night is cold at 11000 ft. In the morning, the puddles, our tent, and stuff are iced over.

I make the first mistake - that is, make a really nuclear coffee. There are few takers besides Nikolay and me - that coffee will keep us borderline sick for some time.

Finally, packed up and almost ready to go - it is almost noon already!

The amigos seem to be eager to take the fast road downhill - but we don't reciprocate. So...instead, we're making our way slowly across the Aquarius Plateau and not-very-pronounced Boulder Mountain.

The road drops quickly off the North-Western edge of the Plateau. The aspens are in their full Fall garb.

Soon, we're rolling North towards Bicknell, Utah, in full view of the flat-topped Thousand Lake Mountain in Capitol Reef National Park:

In Bicknell we find a gas station and a great hardware/hunting/everything store, and buy a bunch of stuff we didn't know we needed.

It is already mid-afternoon, so we take a gorgeous road from Teasdale towards Boulder, bypassing Torrey:

We have to return to Utah SR 12, and do the arduous climb to the pass. Along the way, we point out the "entry point" to the "fast" road back to the Plateau.

We pass Boulder, climb out of the valley, and turn onto a 4x4 trail leading to a point not far from Hogback. The road is almost exactly like those towards the White Pocket: rutted, sandy, and crossing a myriad of rocky ridges.

The bench narrows, finally allowing just enough room to camp at the edge of a hundred-foot cliff. What a great feeling it is, occasionaly, to call it a day before sunset!

Chris gets busy cooking the pozole - it is a slow, deliberate, and complex process, despite his assurances of otherwise.

In the meantime, sun sets, and paints everything with a soft South-Western glow.

A giant full moon appears - no photos we took do it justice.

Labors for the day - about 85 miles, losing the total of about 9 thousand and regaining about 5 thousand feet, in about 5 hours of driving.

Day 3: Hogback - Burr Trail - Henry Mountains - Hite Crossing - Sundance Trailhead
Day 3: Hogback - Burr Trail - Henry Mountains - Hite Crossing - Sundance Trailhead

The morning picture of four 110s is only different from the evening version by barely-perceptible change in lighting.

That giant full moon is still with us - just on the other side:

And then the fierce morning sun hits the cliffside:

Jules enjoys a morning walk along the Bench:

Today, we go easier on the morning coffee - instead trying to finish some of the leftover pozole.

Sun is already pretty high in the sky, and it is time for us to leave.

We fuel up at a Sinclair station in Boulder, and leave Highway 12 - for Burr Trail.

From Alltrails website:

"The Burr Trail road, originally a cattle trail blazed by stockman John Atlantic Burr, extends from the town of Boulder on Utah Hwy 12 to the Notom-Bullfrog Road, and continues to the Bullfrog Marina and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Much of the road lies outside the boundary of Capitol Reef and traverses the Circle Cliffs, Long Canyon, and The Gulch. The 8.5 mile (13.7 km) stretch of road inside Capitol Reef includes a breathtaking set of switchbacks rising some 800 feet (244 m) in only one-half mile (0.8 km)."

Sounds like fun! It just happened so that in years of meandering across Utah we've never been to Burr Trail. What a crazy discovery!

The Eastern wall of the canyon is mostly illuminated by the sunlight reflected from the Western wall, making for some light show:

Here we come to the famous Burr switchbacks, on par with Shafer Trail and Moki Dugway:

We drop off the side of Waterpocket Fold, and follow Notom-Bullfrog Road North for a little over 20 miles. Then, we cross the canyon towards the East, and start a quick climb into Henry Mountains.

McMillan Springs Campground is fantastic yet absolutely empty. We enjoy a lunch break with fresh water.

An hour later, we're already working our way across the pass - here's our last chance to see Waterpocket Fold:

I have to make a prop for GaiaGPS: it is by far the best mapping/routing/tracking software I've come across. Their off-pavement map coverage is unparalleled. For the old farts with declining vision, an 8" tablet is a great alternative to the phone.

We break out of conifers, and are met with flaming-yellow aspens:

Time to lose altitude, and head towards Utah SR 95 and Hite:

Hite Crossing bridge across Colorado River:

Predictably, the gas station in Hite is closed. Nothing to worry, we're only driven 130 miles today. Chris pulls off SR 95, and we continue along a dirt road hugging the Colorado River Canyon.

We turn towards the Sundance trailhead, and find ourselves a gorgeous place to camp at the rim of a thousand-foot-deep canyon. Life is great!

Jules is happy to be all by himself:

We have to be careful with the choice of a camping spot: our first pick would require walking from the campfire to the tent by the Range Rover, straddling a fifty-foot-deep crevice. Only two car widths' worth of the crevice are filled with boulders, the rest is a hazard in the dark and under the influence...

Dan is cooking tonight's dinner: galbi (Korean BBQ ribs) and kimchi-stuffed peppers:

Gorgeous food, beer, and whiskey are fueling the campfire conversation until very late.

Then campfire is properly extinguished, and we retire for the night.

Tally for today: 147 miles, with total ascent of 12 and loss of 13 thousand feet, in 8.5 hours of driving.

Day 4: Woodenshoe Road - Beef Basin - Elephant Hill - Monticello
Day 4: Woodenshoe Road - Beef Basin - Elephant Hill - Monticello

Boy, is today going to be gorgeous!

After a lazy breakfast, we trundle along Woodenshoe Road. The road is pretty good, however, it is criss-crossed with hundreds of washouts, some of which are deep enough to make us slow down almost to a stop. The road, skirting the rim of the Dark Canyon, is slowly gaining the altitude. At 8400ft, the pine forest is beautiful.

Wait, I know this place...

We've been here! We've taken a bunch of pictures of us, with almost the same crew but in very different vehicles, 9 years ago!

We're in Beef Basin; it is already late afternoon, and we plan on camping near Bobby's Hole on BLM lands. I am getting low on fuel, however, so the contents of two jerry cans are emptied into the tank.

The road gets rockier as we descend into Bobby's Hole.

Our progress is slow, and all of a sudden gets a lot slower. The road, usually maintained by Forest Service, hasn't seen much love in the last two years - and the usually-benign descent all of a sudden requires spotting.

It takes a while for all of us to get to the canyon floor.

The canyon looks very attractive for camping, however... the road is so badly eroded, so, even if we manage to descend into it safely, we'll spend half a day winching ourselves up tomorrow.

Nobody wants to go up that grade we came down just half an hour ago, and it leaves us the only option - drive through Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. We can't stay there without a permit, and we can't camp there without a reservation. On top of all, NPS informs me that pets aren't allowed inside, too. Wouldn't it be nice to announce it a little earlier?

We miss the five-minute window of sunset rays casting on the Needles, so all the colors are muted till it gets dark.

At the end of Devil's Lane there's an aptly-named SOB hill.

Eight years ago, only Discovery 2 with traction control had issues climbing through this left-hand turn. It is much rougher today.

We discover that with the 110s it is easier to back up one section of the climb.

The Range Rover makes through the zigzag, but barely.

When we get closer to Devil's Kitchen campground, it is too late to honor the one-way traffic signs. We continue on, through the Squeeze - I do remember driving it in the opposite direction, about 14 years ago. The Squeeze is narrow - a few inches less, and I'd have to fold the mirrors. And the Range Rover is narrow!

It is pitch dark when we arrive to the foot of Elephant Hill.

The first Z of it requires backing up the middle part; this is more than average feat in a complete darkness, limited space, and considerable drop-off. Chris and Ben manage to perform the ballet despite controversial assistance of multiple tired spotters. Some vacuum plumbing malfunction causes Chris a loss of power at the top of the hill - that is not encouraging, along with a large dent in the front differential cover.

Dan decides to try to make the turn - but the first attempt to skip the back-up is met with an unseated rear spring on his 110. Mind it, it was retained both on top and on the bottom - but the flimsy factory bottom retaining strip is no match for half a ton of a Salisbury axle and 8.25R16 Michelin XZLs. The bottom of the spring also rests on the hard brake line - so this situation needs to be rectified before we can proceed. We spend some quality time re-seating the spring and retaining it with ratchet straps, while keeping the 110 on a 40-degree slope by means of a High-Lift and two Land Rover bottle jacks.

Jason and I decide to forgo the adventure of not backing up a section of the Hill, just for the sake of simplicity, and don't have too many problems going over the Hill.

Now we're out of Elephant Hill, and on our way to Highway 211. We don't have any camping plans, and we're fading quickly. On the way through Bears Ears National Monument, I catch myself falling asleep, having a super bright and vivid dream, and waking up in a span of a couple of seconds - we need to crash soon.

We fuel up in Monticello - too bad the Maverick gas station is under renovation, so we miss out on hot drinks and snacks. We end up going East on a road leading back to Bears Ears, just for a few miles, and taking the first open space in the forest enough for five trucks and a tent.

Nikolay and I have our evening Bourbons, along with some hard salami and cheese, around 2 a.m. Everyone else is fast asleep.

Deeds of the day: 161 miles, gaining 11 and losing 8 thousand feet in elevation, in about 15 hours of driving. It occurred to me that we practically retraced the entire daily route of our trip in 2013 from Horsehoof Campground to 191, but after dark.

Day 5: La Sal Mountains
Day 5: La Sal Mountains

After yesterday's low range workout, we wouldn't wake up till late - but the raspy clutter of a generator started by RV inhabitants a few hundred feet away slowly prevailed. I am all for civil liberties, but, very selfishly, I think a total blanket ban on ALL two-stroke engines would make our life quieter for a couple of years.

We get rolling a little before noon; Chris, true to the form, finds the path that only uses three miles of U.S.191 and six - of Utah SR 46. It is nice and refreshing just to cruise down a single-lane road between the fields. La Sal Mountains loom in front of us, giving a sense of purpose.

We lose Highway 46 at Two-Mile Road, and work on gaining remaining two thousand feet in elevation on the way to Medicine Lake.

The place is gorgeous, and the air is crisp and clean at 10 thousand feet. I'd stay here forever.

Yet... Chris is convinced he could do better. He and Ben leave for a recon, Jason tries his hand at fishing, Jules walks around in mud near the lake, drinks a lot, tries to make friends with deer and cattle (unsuccessfully). We just chill out, with cold beer at hand.

The radio wakes up with instructions on how to get to a better place, and we relocate. By whatever little time it takes us to hop in the trucks and get there, the campfire is already going.

It isn't four in the afternoon yet, but Jules is already happy just to stay inside the tent. He's had enough stress last night on Elephant Hill; I am not yet entirely forgiven for shoving him back unceremoniously when he tried to hop on my lap on the way through the switchbacks.

We spend the evening chilling, chatting, cooking gorgeous steaks and veggies brought by Jason, and working on that giant bottle of Glenmorangie brought by Nikolay.

A Dutch owen is produced, and Ben and Dan get crazy with making peach cobbler - we haven't had one since that very cold night in Fishlake National Forest 8 years ago.

We haven't covered much ground on this day - only about 70 miles, losing a kilometer and gaining about one and a half in process, all in leisurely two and a half hours.

The night is cool but not freezing - Jules refuses to stay under covers.

Day 6: going home.
Day 6: going home.

The morning is beautiful - but we have to run home. We retrace our steps down to pavement, and West to U.S.191 - where we give ourselves the parting honk, and head South. We still hear the amigos' conversations on VHF until a few miles South of Monticello, then it is all road noise.

For a few hours we are treated to very familiar sights - Wilson Arch:

Comb Ridge between Bluff and Mexican Hat:

Mexican Hat Rock:

Bridge across San Juan River:

Monument Valley with the crazy followers of Forrest Gump:

Then it is all Navajo households until Tuba City.

We stop for gas and snacks at a station off Interstate 17 South of Flagstaff, and hope to stretch the fuel until nearly Yuma. The crazy climb out of Verde Valley forces us to drop into the second gear, and watch the tractor-trailers make easy work passing us in the right lane. There's no fun, and nothing to write home about on I-17, or I-10, or Arizona SR 85 to Gila Bend.

The fuel light finally shows up about 30 miles short of Yuma; we pull into a gas station and notice that the Range Rover developed a nice exhaust sound, almost Gelaendewagen-like. It definitely doesn't run on all cylinders - but it is already getting late, so we poke the distributor cap and wires, shrug, and press on. Nikolay is driving, and he is not concerned with any loss of power.

We're home early (for this trip) - before even 10 pm, having covered about 811 miles in about 12 hours, climbed the total of 35 and decended 45 thousand feet (reflecting very accurately our campsite elevation and home near the sea level). Another trip is behind us, and we are not looking forward to unpacking the Range Rover, fixing broken things, and going to work.

Bits and pieces
Bits and pieces

I wanted to test a few new things on this trip.
One of them is my multi-band Icom-7000 transceiver covering every band from 1.8MHz to 440MHz; I've only tuned a shortwave antenna to a single 10-meter band, and dual-band antenna for VHF and UHF. In the end, I had no time or inclination to screw around with shortwave communications; other than that, the basic duty of VHF comms with the rest of the group Icom performed admirably. It helped to pipe the sound into the car stereo, rather than use a tinny external speaker.

Another fun thing was running APRS (Automated Position Reporting System) using a Yaesu FTM-100DR installed in the cargo compartment of the Range Rover. One has to download a manual as a PDF from Yaesu's website to get this going; once everything was programmed in before the trip, the FTM-100 worked like a charm. It would start reporting the position as soon as the power was on, without any other interaction on my part. APRS runs at 144.39MHz - ostensibly, only slightly beyond the line of sight. However it is, several of my APRS packets were received at distances over 170 miles, and, according to Chris, one of them was captured and retransmitted by a digipeater in Colorado, 184 miles or 295 km away.

So... APRS provided a pretty reliable, if a little sporadic, means of documenting our progress. Our relatives in San Diego entertained themselves tracking us via Internet portal.

The Range Rover, once again, delivered us safely home from a long trek. Not without some bizarre issues - like disappearing transmission fluid or mysterious misfiring cylinders - but nothing that would have left us scrambling for replacement parts or a tow truck (unlike our much younger LR4/Discovery 4). It seems perfect to wrap it all up with a memorable quote of Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear (Season 14, Episode 6 - Bolivia):

"The most unreliable car in the world is the most reliable car in the world."

* * *