Alone in Utah's Lost Corner
The Tavaputs Plateau and Book Cliffs
I was listening to the Friday afternoon rantings of Dr. Laura, barely cognizant of the steady rattle of the truck's tires over the dirt road of Nine Mile Canyon. Then, as I was thinking up a call for myself ('I am my dog's guardian …') a sharp rattling came from the back of the truck. I stopped and got out, hopped around to the back, and saw that the right rear tire was blown out, totally flat. I stared at it with near-disbelief.
I have the worst luck with tire and this set on my truck is no exception. Especially on these hard roads in northeastern Utah, they go flat a lot. I should have bought six-ply tires when I got this set. I thought I'd save money, but now I am paying the price.
Truth is, I should be at home right now on a drip IV with my feet propped up. A few days ago, coming out of the Tooele County Courthouse after interviewing a commissioner about a new road, I stumbled and fell on a set of stairs and badly sprained my ankle. I went home and put on ice on it, and kept myself lubed up the next day with anti-inflammatories, but when the next day the swelling had barely gone down I swallowed hard and went to the doctor. Now, I have a ludicrous cast on. Woe is me.
The cast put the kibosh on a backpacking trip I had planned for two weeks. Instead, I decided to set out on wheels to explore this lost corner of Utah.
Bound by the Green River and the Colorado border, this lost corner I'm talking about is generally referred to on state maps as the Tavaputs Plateau and the Book Cliffs. Rising like books on end along the south, the Book Cliffs mark a marvelous gateway out of southern Utah and into a true back of beyond wilderness that is one of the most remote areas of the Lower 48. From the Book Cliffs the area undulates in desert canyons and near-alpine plateau ridges for nearly 100 miles until it peters out in the Uintah Basin. Through it runs the Green, one of America's great rivers, and east of the Green is Nine Mile Canyon, which itself is one of the nation's greatest collections of prehistoric Indian rock art. Imagine taking off from Interstate 70 on the south and sailing over uninhabited mountains and canyons, hundreds of them, crossing over the green swath of the Green, and descending into a deep narrow redrock canyon, marked on this autumn day by splotches of yellow cottonwoods. There, that tiny dot down in the dust, looking up at the sky, that's me and my flat tire.
I have done this what seems like a hundred times before. Lower the spare tire from the undercarriage of the pickup, get the jack and tire iron out of the cab, loosen the lugs, jack the truck up, pull the tire off … you know. In the midst of it all, a family in a dust-covered Bronco stopped to help. The cast made things difficult.
These are the sorts of experiences that mark a visit to the Tavaputs: The family stopped and a gruff guy helped me get the spare on and torque down on the nuts. Later, asking for directions at the Amoco station in Fort Duchesne, which is on the massive Uinta and Ouray Indian Reservation, an enormous and endearingly friendly Ute woman called her friend, a wildlife ranger, to ask about the road conditions. Later, in Randlett, while paying for one last tank of gas before I headed into the wilderness, two women running a hardwood-floored country store pointed out the road ahead. In Ouray, two duck hunters, walking the marshes by the road, stop to wave. It's like one little town with really long streets, as writers used to say of Montana.
What's that? You say this story is wandering? It is. It's hard to write a story on an area so large and so diasphoric. It can be even harder to experience it. There is next to no information on the area, and no developed recreation sites. There are no paved roads and no services, not to mention almost no traffic. Third, the rutted dusty roads that are there wind serpentinely through canyons and across mountains. Without excellent maps and directions, you can get lost.
Though the area can seem daunting, it is not impossible to explore. Here are some of its more easily visited highlights:
- Nine Mile Canyon: about an hour north of Wellington, this area features one of the nation's greatest displays of prehistoric Indian rock art. Guides are available in Price and Salt Lake City. From U.S. 6/191 just east of Wellington, take the paved road marked 'Nine Mile Canyon' through the mountains until it turns to dirt. The panels are not marked, but look for them along cliffsides right next to the road. The majority of the panels are in Minnie Maud Creek Canyon, which is marked on the state of Utah's otherwise poor road map.
- Sego Canyon: This small spot, on the National Historic Registry, is just five miles north of the I-70 ghost town of Thompson Springs (exit 185), and is accessible by all vehicles. Maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, this site features Indian rock art from three distinct time periods, including the Ute, Barrier Canyon and Fremont. The art in this area is among the most distinct and best preserved in the state, and includes the eerie paintings of man-like figures with hollow or missing eyes, absent arms and legs, vertical body markings, antennae eyes, and humans holding writhing snakes.
- Price River: This desert oasis cuts into the Book Cliffs near Woodside, off U.S. 6/191, shows the power of a small stream cutting through rock over millions of years. A good trail leads along the river.
- Bruin Point: A good four wheel drive vehicle can make it to the summit of this 10,285-foot peak near Sunnyside.
- The Ouray Wildlife Refuge: Near Ouray (no services), this refuge features marshed along the banks of the Green River and thousands of cottonwoods that turn blazing yellow in the fall.
- The Green River: This grand river, which flows into the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park, makes a swift cut through Desolation Canyon in the Tavaputs and can be seen by raft or kayak. Near the town of Green River, Gray Canyon is the only vehicle accessible area of the river in the area.
Perhaps instead of telling you about the Tavaputs, I'll just let the pictures suffice. After all, my words should not get in the way of an area so special.
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