Adam's Fall 2006 Utah Page

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This is a special page devoted to a particularly intense trip to Utah. I've been going into the canyon regions of the southeast corner of Utah for many years now and always did so in the spring when the weather was very mild. I have always been curious as to what a flash flood looked like. My curiosity has been satisfied. October is one of the wetter months with a 0.71 inch average rainfall. But in the desert this is misleading, as many years you will not get any rain. This year, the deserts saw over 3 inches of rain in the course of a few days. Based on how much water filled our pots and pans, I'd say it may have been as much as 5 inches in places. Since i've been back, i've read a little bit more about other folks trip reports and various news reports.

A rain event like this is very rare. I've got more photos and movies and will continue adding to this web site through the end of 2006.

Lake Powell rose about six feet during and after this storm...quite usually fills up with snowmelt from distant mountains in the spring, local rainstorms in the fall are usually do not contribute much to the water level.

Anyway, let me get started with the trip report...I left from the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday the 6th of October on a fine day. The drive down Route 5 was quite boring. Through Tehachapi, Barstow, Las Vegas, then into the town of Mesquite where the motel rooms are fairly cheap. Just past Mesquite lies the picturesque Virgin River canyon and I like to drive that section in the daylight. It's a very long drive from San Jose to Mesquite. I met up with my travelling companions who were driving in from Santa Barbera later that night and we had a fine dinner.

We knew something was a little different this year when it rained lightly for the entire drive across Utah, all the way from St. George, across the San Rafael Swell, and down along state highway 24. Our first stop was in Temple Wash. There are some very easy to get to panels just up this canyon and thus they are also pretty vandalized. Those are bulletholes.

It wasn't long before a thundercloud came over and dumped some heavy rain. After about 30 seconds of hard rain, every single crack in the rocks above us turned into a waterfall. Some were mudfalls. It was quite exciting. Temple wash quickly filled with water and made the road dangerous to cross. We arrived too late to go on a hike which involved crossing South Temple Wash...this is a good thing, as we would have had to stay on the other side of that wash for quite some time. Instead...we drove out into the San Rafael desert.

Above: I have an animation of this I will post soon...

Below: No, I'm not going to cross that. But for some reason, I want chocolate milk.

There was a decision point as to what we had been raining quite a bit, all day actually...but every other year we have gone to Utah, the rain was mostly wind and it cleared up before long. We considered getting a motel. We considered camping right where we were, close to the pavement of Temple Wash. However, we decided to stick to the plan and head into the San Rafael Keg Knoll. We had hoped to hike a trail out there but things didn't really work out like that.

I was expecting the worst from a long dirt road after the rain so far, but the roads into the San Rafael desert were mostly just wet and not nearly as slick as I thought they would be. There were a few "surprise, you are going sideways" locations in the clay mud on the drive out, but we arrived at Keg Knoll, a location just to the north of the Horseshoe Canyon road that most folks take. It rained hard on and off but we were able to cook up a warm dinner. I did not put my tent up, as I felt it would be a rough night. My camping companions did put their tent up but did not use it. It rained very, very hard that night, all night long. I had brought some nice Almond wood for a fire; this was the only location where it was legal to have a fire but it was just too darn wet. I ended up carrying 30 pounds of firewood all along the rest of the trip and bringing it home, intact. Dammit. In the morning, we realized that it will probably be far more difficult to get out of the desert than it was getting in. We had no idea of the day held for us...

I apologize for the lack of photos in the next section, but I was pretty busy driving, and short bursts of terror can make you completely forget that you have a camera with companions do have some pictures from this part, so I'll update it when I can.

From Keg Knoll, we headed north to the San Rafael river, figuring that we would travel a river bottom road to attempt to find a pictograph panel that we had be told about. It had rained quite a bit that night and was still storming in the morning but the main road was still intact although it had long, deep pools of muddy water everywhere. Ten miles later, we arrive at the San Rafael river bridge. The road along the river bottom looked pretty wet, with some water running down it, but it was sandy and firm so we drove out onto it. It was not long before we were sliding in deep muddy ruts filled with a foot of water, spinning the tires, sliding and threading through Tamarisks. When you are 4-wheel driving certain things, there is something called the "point of commitment" where you dare not stop or you get stuck badly. We were committed and we did not like it! At the first solid ground, we both stopped and quickly figured that we had better get out of there.

Heading out of that scary place, I took a poor line and got stuck to my axles within 25 feet of starting out. This is where I learned that a Tow Strap must be carried in an accessible location. Partially unloading a car of heavy coolers is difficult to do in deep mud. Jumping into and out of a car with sandals will also put a great deal of mud into your car. But with a good hard pull from the other truck, I was out.

Click on the image above for a 3.5MB movie. (It may not play instantly)

My friend looked at the flooded field in front of us, figured out a different line...and got stuck about 25 feet later to his axles but worse...he punched through the top layer of sod which served as a crust over the deep mud, making it extra punishing to dig out the wheels. You can pull a car out of the mud in only one direction...straight back out...and we had a bad line for this one. It took a little short of two hours of digging and pulling to get him unstuck, but we eventually did it. There was a little desperation at this point. We had both been stuck badly, but within tow-strap distance of solid ground. We now faced 100 yards of a deep, slick, nasty road. Although we had gotten in...getting stuck way out in the middle of that bog was a very poor thing to think about. I lack the words...Helplessness? Despair? Stupidity? Well, we had gotten in, so we knew it was probably possible to get out although the first few tries weren't so successful. The small sand bar we had used to tow each other out was not an ideal place to camp for certain.

I walked the road in my sandals to see what the best way out was. I almost fell down into the water twice, it was very slick in spots. The best way out was just the way we came must drive right in the deepest water and ruts; punch it...don't go slow...don't get out of those channels. Anything outside of those channels was deep mushy mud that would grab a tire and hold it fast. Fortunately, we both successfully gunned it out of there and got back to the main road. That was a major relief, as getting help out in the San Rafael desert is a tricky proposition in good weather. The elation of extracting ourselves from that situation was quite a feeling, but tempered with the thought that we really should not have gone down that little river bottom road in the first place.

Back on the main dirt road, we headed north for many miles and found two other vehicles parked, contemplating a river crossing where there is usually no river. They had been contemplating it for a few hours. My travelling companion walked out into the river, found it knee deep, not too swift and with a solid gravel bottom. All three vehicles made it through without a problem. It looked alot worse than it was, this one.

A few miles later, we came to a big river that at one point earlier in the storm had been about a quarter of a mile wide. As it was now, it was a small stream on the near side, a large stream on the far side and lots of deep, deep mud in between. My travelling companion drove right on out there and we saw him slide in the mud all across that river bottom. It looked terrifying, as there was no good way to rescue a stuck vehicle out there. There was, fortunately, a spit of sand at the far end that you could stop in (don't stop in deep mud!!!). Once again, the far river was waded. The far end was deep and swift and had a pit that you sunk in up to your waist half way across. We did not attempt to cross this, as it was surely suicide. He made it back across that field of mud, sliding all the way. This is probably the scariest thing my companion did as far as driving. We really should not have been out there. Considering how much land this river drained...and how many storms were in the area...and the freakish time delay of how long it takes for water to flow from one place to another; who knows what the water level could have done! It certainly was impassible and didn't look like it would open up any time in closed for days or weeks.

So, we decide to head south. At this time, a fellow in a Subaru decided to wait it out. We all felt this was a bizarre decision, as we all thought we should all try to get out to the south; the way we came in. The fellow in the Subaru knew more than we did however, he already tried the south route and it was too much for a low clearance vehicle.

I, also, knew that I did not have the gas to drive 60 miles of mud. I knew I was going to run out somewhere and had to do my best to get as close to the pavement as possible.

Once we got back to the Keg Knoll turnoff, we were on the same road we had come in on the previous day...but it certainly did not look like it. I did not recognize those roads; for many miles, deep water holes over a foot deep, sometimes with squishy clay bottoms, were covering the road every 200 yards. In some places, the water flowed along the same direction of the road...but the road surface was gone and we were actually driving in a streambed. Now and then, there were deep erosion cracks that you needed to avoid. There were long stretches of slimy mud and it was difficult to get through those, spinning all four tires and sometimes going slower and slower...but never quite stopping. We passed the grader that is used to resurface those roads. It was parked approximately in the middle of the desert and this is the machine that will rebuild everything once it has all been erased by the rain. Immediately following a long oatmeal-slog, there was a cattle crossing but the earth that was built up around the metal bars was completely gone on the left side, leaving barely enough room for tires on the right side. Still, our convoy of three, my travelling companion, and the folks from Hanksville we met out there, did pretty well on those 'impassible' roads.

About eight miles from the end of the road, there was a very long mud pit that my travelling companion successfully drove through. Unfortunately, this was the point in time where I ran out of gas, and my engine died as I was punching it through the mud. The folks from Hanksville took the hint and drove around this pit and continued on their way out. It was 7pm, the sun setting in 15 minutes. In front of us was a terribly dark cloud, full of lightning and heading right for us. I dug my tires out as fast as I could and was lucky, as there was some firm ground just feet from my front wheels. I drove to the side, out of and around the mud pit. Then I was completely out of gas. There was a rancher with a large vehicle towing a 40 foot horse trailer going INTO the desert right at this time! The ranchers out here are clearly a special, different breed. I have met only a few but they are all remarkable folks.

I stayed in the desert, Hanksville was about 25 miles away. At this time, I am not really certain where we are, as I do not recognize the road; it's quite a bit different than it was when we came in. I don't know if it is even possible to get out of the desert. And with this latest storm pounding the roof of my vehicle, I don't know if it will be possible for my friend to get back! I spent about 90 minutes trying to nap in my drivers seat. In the dark, my friend came back about 90 minutes later with a can of gas; bless him. "You'd do the same for me", he said. Definitely so, but that does not mean I am any less thankful! We arrived at Hanksville at 9pm. This is a small town and you cannot expect a restaurant to be open at this time. The Whispering Sands motel, which had put up the residents of another hotel that flooded that night, honored my reservation and I actually had a nice warm room that night! Later on, the folks who we travelled out of the San Rafael desert with invited us over for wine, cheese and food. We talked until 1:30am that night! That was pretty special to meet some great folks and be invited to their house!

That night and the following day, everyone had a story. Many folks in Hanksville were flooded. Some lost their property as the river carved out a new course. The highway to the west was impassible; a tractor trailer was put on it's side, requiring a rescue of two folks. A bus full of schoolchildren was stranded out there as well. It was certainly interesting to meet folks the next day. Every other time i've been to Hanksville, it has been comparatively "sleepy" with a slow pace of life. Unfortunately, much of the town had a layer of mud a few inches thick. A few days later, this mud was pushed out of the way into giant piles.

The next morning was beautiful, if not muddy. We had not lost a day on our schedule, although we had missed out on a hike or two. It was time to travel into the Maze.

We slowly drove south to the "Hite road" into the Maze. Many dirt roads are visible, joining up with the paved highway 95. All of them were wet. A few of them looked untouched. Some of them were totally gone and would need many truckloads of dirt to rebuild. Most of them had deep erosion gullies and I was wondering if we would be able to continue along the Hite road at all, but we pressed on. At one point, the paved road had been eroded away by the river. This would have been quite a scary thing to come upon at high speed at night without those reflectors. Later on, near Hite and still on the paved road, there were a great deal of rocks in the road that had fallen off of the cliffs high above that previous night. One vehicle lost a tire on these rocks. I was hoping that the backcountry roads were not full of rockfalls and fortunately they were not; the major rockfalls seem to happen only where the roadcuts were recently made for State Route 95 near Hite. This particular highway was built in the '70s. Imagine how remote the area was before that!

The Hite road was somewhat washed out, but there were no giant mud pits, some washouts were deep but there were easy ways around the places where the road was gone.

A note about rock art and ruins. Although beautiful, intriguing and very, very old, these are some of the most delicate and sensitive things you will find out in the desert and the sites that you see pictured here are not well known. It's important to keep your distance, as even walking in the sand nearby can cause erosion and untimely damage. The most important thing to remember is never, ever touch! Above all else, these secret places need to be treated with great respect and an absolute minimum impact! For the sake of preservation, it is important that they remain unknown, so although you may ask where these sites are, I'll never tell.

We camped part way out, as this long drive...about 50 miles of dirt, is best done in segments. It takes all day long to drive especially when it has just been ripped up rainstorms.

The next day, we drove into the Maze along the Dollhouse road. I was expecting a terribly rough, rocky road. But the driving so far had been so intense that I didn't really notice we were doing the "hard stuff" until we were well into Teapot Canyon. It was actually very easy as we had a good spotter to point out the correct line to take over the rough stuff.

We camped at Chimney Rock; the scenery was absolutely spectacular both that night and the next day. My hiking companions took a trip down Pictograph Fork canyon. I opted to stay up on top because I wanted some "atmospheric" timelapse movies as well as landscape shots. The sky changed every 5 minutes. A large thunderstorm developed to the south and I counted the seconds between the lightning bolt and the thunder. 19 seconds...14 seconds...12 seconds...then 4 seconds. Then, a fraction of a second after the next strike, my hair momentarily stood up. I did not count seconds on this one, I grabbed my tripod and camera and headed for the car to wait out the storm. Not too long after this storm, my hiking companions came back; they had a fine time and so did I. We dismantled our campsite and left just as a group of mountain bikers arrived...the next occupants of the Chimney Rock campsite. There are eight campsites along this road and they are all by reservation only.

The above photograph is actually a night exposure. You can see a few stars in the sky as well as a few arcs of white light to the right of the tent. That is from my hiking companions walking through the picture a flashlights.

This location as well as the Dollhouse campsite, with all of that dramatic landscape, was a great place to film Timelapse Movies. I have a special page devoted to the six timelapse movies.

It took a short hour to get to the end of the road, the Dollhouse. It was a wet drive with water in most of the washes. There was a giant pool filling the center of the campsite. We put on our wet weather hiking gear and started out to visit some nearby attractions. I was griping about how thoroughly cold and wet I was, but my hiking companion convinced me that doing something productive was better than huddling in a car for the rest of the day. Yes, he was correct. The rain did clear up before long, we saw all of what we wanted to see and we made it back to camp to see about making dinner.

It rained that night. Then it rained harder. Then much harder. We put all of our wet weather gear on and contemplated cooking in the rain. It then rained so hard that we all did, in fact, get right into the cars. We ate junk food for dinner, sitting in the vehicle. Depressing. The weather radio said that it would be hard rain until midnight, then clearing for the next three days...this is in fact exactly what happened, so that was the end of the bad weather.

Later on that night, we walked to the far end of the Dollhouse campsite, closer to the river. We could hear all sorts of waterfall noises and reasoned that this was a bunch of pouroffs...ephemeral waterfalls that happen only after a good strong rainstorm. It was surreal to hear so much water in the desert. An hour later, the waterfalls were done flowing and it was completely silent.

I set up my tent quite late and had a good sleep.

The next day was very nice indeed. We hiked out to the "Granary" trail at the Dollhouse and spent some time at the amazing overlook of Surprise Valley. I almost fell asleep at the overlook because the sun and breeze felt so good. My hiking companions worked their way down the trail to Spanish Bottom finding a faint track into Surprise Valley. I did not feel particularly stable on this hike, sort of wobbly. Since the penalty for a fall on this steep talus slope was very extreme, I decided to split up and go back to the overlook. I wanted more landscape photos. Also, I wanted to get a picture of my hiking companions in Surprise Valley with my super-telephoto lens. You can see them in the lower left corner of the photograph below.

After this, I walked back to camp and switched to two new lenses, both of them wide angle, for more photography. We all got together for one last short dayhike.

That night, we saw an amazing lightning show to the north. The Dollhouse 1 campsite has a view of the Manti La-Sal mountains that are just south of the town of Moab. We were about 50 miles away and could not really hear the thunder, but we certainly could see the light show. There were about three flashes per minute at least and we were thankful not to be in the immediate vicinity. We commented to each other later how it was nice that the general "roaring" in the sky is just jets...rather than the continuous thunder we had heard the previous days.

The following day, my companions did a 11 mile hike up Sweet Alice canyon, a beautiful hike that I regret not going on. I, however, once again opted to do something different and wanted to walk around the Dollhouse, getting more landscape shots. I had the great idea of videotaping a hike through the fantastic cracks of the rocks in the Dollhouse formation. Actually, this was a very stupid idea, as right at the last crack, camcorder in hand, I slipped and fell a few feet onto rough rocks and hurt my knee. I recorded the whole thing on videotape and the audio, especially, is priceless. After pulling myself up, wobbling and stumbling out of that crack, I did 15 minutes of assessment, realized I was hurt but could still walk on level ground. I walked the length of the small canyon that parallels Surprise Canyon but found nothing that was terribly interesting. It was 12:30 by the time I limped back into camp. My knee hurt. I found that I had eaten all of the ibuprofen out of my first aid kit in the previous months when I pulled a muscle in my back. So, I set up the camera for timelapse photos of the sunset and drank beer. My hiking companions arrived back fairly early and we had a hearty dinner.

This night was the clearest night I have ever seen by a long shot. The campsite we were in, Dollhouse 1, was walled in by rock walls about 200 feet high. About 60 feet wide. The view of the sky was a slot, and the milky way had an alignment on this slot. I had never seen the milky way quite so clearly and we got our cameras out to try to capture what we saw. I'm pretty happy with the results!

The next day was the drive-out day. I rigged a tripod in my passenger seat and got ready to videotape the drive out. My companions were driving ahead of me and they had a 55 minute timer for periodic stops so that I could change the tape. The taping went really well. I could drive a rough road painlessly with my injured knee but it sure was hard to get into and out of the car. At Range Canyon, we all stopped and they went for a 3 hour hike. How I wished I could go with them, but I was pretty much hobbled at this point. It was a fantastically boring wait but the scenery was spectacular.

The final drive out was rough; the most difficult time I had was some of the holes in the roughest part of Teapot Canyon. You need to drive very, very slowly. This is difficult to do with a manual transmission even when in 4WD Low. It took three tries to get out of one of the holes, me "ringing the bell" under the truck each time. But the only damage was a detached mudflap which I recovered of course. It's bad form to leave trash of any kind in the desert. My manual transmission Toyota did particularly well and I think I can climb most anything easily. My friends in front had a Tundra with an automatic transmission and took it very, very slowly up the numerous rocky climbs. I found that my Tacoma could take almost any line you wanted to without stopping or slipping a tire.

Once we got off of the Dollhouse Road, our thoughts were focused on the fine milkshakes available at Jacks in Hanksville. The Hite road was even more damaged on the way out and it took a very long time to work through all of the deep washouts. Yet, folks had worked their way in, so we knew the road was easily doable. At pavement, there was a handwritten sign indicating that the Flint Trail was closed. I would guess so! That much rain wiped out most flat roads. The Flint Trail is a harrowing descent!

A great burger, onion rings and a World Famous shake at Jacks...Yum! Then, a drive to Green River for a motel room. My companions had a reservation and I did not. The town was almost full and I ended up getting a room at the Budget Inn, a small non-chain motel that had seen better days. In Green River, I am not picky about motel rooms. I left town at sunrise in order to get some low angle light on the drive back through the San Rafael swell.

I had started early enough to make it all the way from Green River to "Stateline" along Lake Tahoe. This is where I made another mistake as far as choosing a motel. I chose a non-chain motel a little off of the main strip. I got a strange vibe from the place, something I need to be more sensitive to, but since the whole trip was strange up to this point, I went with it. The manager asked for cash up front and did not require a credit card. Strange. When I opened the room, I was struck in the face by a nasty, sweaty smell. A 2 liter bottle of something was on it's side in the corner in a puddle. The bed was not made. I did not examine the room any closer. I loaded my bags back into my car. The manager was apologetic and offered another room. What the manager did NOT offer was a refund; you could not pay me to stay at this motel, so I figured it was simply my loss and I beat it. The nearby Best Western had very nice rooms.

I was looking very shabby at this point, but after a shave, shower and change of clothes, I was feeling good enough to go to Harrahs' for some people watching and a drink. Those video poker machines have quite an appetite for $20 bills, but I was very lucky and it wasn't very long before I hit a thousand dollar jackpot. At this point, I was fairly glowing from such a fine trip, I had a nice dinner, a nice sleep and a nice breakfast the next morning.

I drove south along the eastern sierra to catch the last glimpse of fall colors and drove through Yosemite, stopping here and there to limp around. Late fall is a very dead and dry time of year here.

During the long drive down the mountains, across the central valley and to the Bay Area, my vehicle would periodically rumble and "boom". I had seeded the destruction of a bearing somewhere during that muddy drive, something that could have been avoided had I taken the time to get some maintenance in Green River.

But, I arrived home safely and my cats were absolutely overjoyed to see me.

I'd do it all again. Except for the San Rafael river bottom; getting stuck bad along a river bottom road with water everywhere was the scariest part for me. And my travelling companion pretty much regrets the 1/4 mile mud slog trying to ford an unfordable river; getting stuck out there would have been disastrous, as you could have not paid me enough to try that! There was no solid ground on which to help tow someone out!

As of two weeks later, according to the park service, the roads in the San Rafael desert are still pretty much closed. I feel very lucky to have gotten out of there unscathed, and then to continue the trip into the Maze after and during such a rainstorm was a real treat. The desert is a unique place just as it is. Add water and it really changes dramatically!

Now, I'm back and happily working at a physically safe desk job. I hope the glow from this adventure lasts a long time. The pain in my knee seems to be lasting.

All photos Copyright © by Adam Lane. All rights reserved.