The Shafer Switchbacks have been on my to do list since I caught the off-road, 4-wheeling, Overlanding bug a few years ago and on this last trip to Moab I had the opportunity drive them. This route was on my mind both from reading the Guide to Backroads around Moab and from viewing posts from the blog New Mexico Backroads a few weeks before my trip. Needless to say I was psyched! Above: Evaporation ponds and red rock. Below: Really red rock! If you look close in the center of the picture you can see a few ladders that are part of a ropes course.
Below: Looking up at Dead Horse Point State Park from Potash Road. Classic western landscape.
Below: Thelma and Louise Point looking at the Colorado River.
Below: Looking North from Thelma and Louise Point. The rock wall in the image produces amazing echo with 4 or more distinct slap backs. A very cool stereo experience. Give it a yodel and see for yourself. A few miles later we would enter Canyonlands National Park and be greeted with a small but very rocky section of road that required low range gearing and all of the driver’s attention (thus no photos of this section). My stock Xterra handled the rocky section beautifully. (edit summer 2014 the road has been improved and is now very smooth. Conditions can change with one good rainstorm, if in doubt contact the National Park.
Below: Shafer Switchbacks. Notice the very small people in the top right corner. Next time I’ll have to remember to stop at a few points and get some pictures. For my first time up I just kept my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The switchbacks and the climb were not that bad however I was not ready for the long drive on the narrow shelf road once we were at the top. That section was a bit nerve racking.
Below: Looking down on a group of cyclists that were starting multi day trek on the White Rim Trail. The road was first used as a cattle trail and later as a road for mining trucks. The thought of driving trucks on that road makes me think of the movie The Wages of Fear.
Above: Mesa’s along Route 211 toward the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. This image was taken at the end of our drive to Beef Basin. In the casual photograph it’s hard to get a feel for how massive these forms are. To capture that feeling I chose to use a normal focal length lens and a position that would not include the top of the mesa. When you see the fence at the base of the mesa you start to get the feeling of how massive it is.
Above: Cottonwood Canyon Road as it rounds Bridger Jack Mesa. Notice the car on the right side for scale. The road was in really good condition (May 2012) with a few washboarded sections and small obstacles. I think of these roads as the domain for 4-wheel drive vehicles but as with other trips you come across the odd car that you wonder how it got there. On this drive it was an old Volkswagen Squareback (early 70’s) in mint condition complete with a driver with small round sunglasses and a waxed mustache.
Above: Salt Creek Overlook. Near Cathedral Butte there is a side road that will take you out to this viewpoint. In the book Guide to Moab, UT Backroads and 4-wheel Drive Trails this section of road is listed as moderate as it is quite rocky. We drove halfway in before deciding to walk. With a little more experience I could have driven it as the Xterra has the ground clearance but today was not the day to attempt it. Next time for sure though. The walk out to Salt Creek Overlook was a easy and a nice change as we had been in the car a few hours at this point.
Above: Almost to Beef Basin we stopped for a look at these large white rock formations and to stretch our legs a bit. Just after this section of road there is a steep and sandy section with large rocks and a blind corner. A bit stressful as it was my first such stretch of road however a few miles later I would be reminded that thousands of cars have made it back up that the steep sandy spot when we came across the old Volkswagon.
Above: Classic western landscape of Beef Basin. Below: One of the many ruins in Beef Basin.
Below: Greater Short Horned Lizard spotted at South Spring Campground.
Below: As we finished the Beef Basin loop the weather started to look as if a storm was brewing. We decided it was best to start our return as it would be a few hours until we reached asphalt and another hour to get to Moab. Fortunately the only weather encountered was random spots of raindrops and nothing that would make the return trip difficult.
Below: The Xterra on Cottonwood Canyon Road. I brought extra gas not knowing what kind of milage we would get on the back roads or what we would run into. Turns out we only used a bit more than half a tank up to this point. In the future I hope to replace the rear bumper with one that will accommodate the spare tire and have room for Jerry cans so I don’t have to keep the fuel on the roof.
Of the half dozen times I have been to Moab my latest visit was the first time I had the ability to drive some of the areas back roads and discover some amazing landscape. On my last visit I picked up a copy of Charles Wells book Guide to Moab, Ut Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails and have spent some quality time reading it’s contents. The first trail in the book is the Book Cliffs & Sego Canyon (suitable for stock 4-wheel drive SUVs). The above image shows the Book Cliffs and Crescent Junction as seen from the I-70 rest area. By the time I get here I am ready for Moab, however this time Moab would have to wait for several hours.
Above image: the Xterra at Thompson Pass with the first trail dust of the trip. Below: The road through Thompson Pass to our first waypoint. From there we would follow a wash for a few miles then climb up to the top via a steep windy section of the trail. The trail goes through some great scenery as it winds along and is fun to drive. Having to keep an eye on the road I did not stop for many pictures. Highlights included spotting a Pronghorn and an Eastern Collard Lizard.
After about 20 miles a small trail leads out to the overlook below. The Trail was challenging in a few areas with tight turns, rocks and small ledges. Being new to 4-wheeling, I’m still getting to know the Xterra and what it is capable of when it comes to clearing rocks so I took it easy. At a point about 3/4 of the way to the overlook I came upon some larger rock ledges an decided to walk the rest of the way. As I reached the overlook the wind picked up and it looked as if rain could come our way. Not wanting to get stuck off the main road I cut my time at the overlook and got going.
The rain held off and after viewing the rock art in Sego Canyon we headed back to the highway via Thompson Springs. Below: parting photograph of the Book Cliffs at the mouth of Sego Canyon. At this point the cliff rises 800 feet from the desert floor.
All photos in this post shot with the Leica M8.
This past February 18th I joined up with the Utah Xterra Owners Club for their annual Pony Express run. Since moving to Utah this past summer and acquiring a 2006 Nissan Xterra I have been keen to get out and explore many of the canyons around Cache Valley. This past summer and fall the Utah Road and Recreation Atlas (Benchmark Maps) has been top on my reading list for finding new places to explore. One place I have been really interested in is the west desert area of Tooele, Juab and Millard counties. The area is also called the Great Salt Lake Desert and includes the Dugway Proving Grounds (no public access), The Pony Express Trail and a portion of the Historic Lincoln Highway. Plus it’s a really big wide open place with small mountains that look like islands and has tons of potential for photography. If that wasn’t enough my long standing project about looking at the west has up to this point primarily consisted of images showing how we experience the west through visiting National Parks. Joining up with an automobile club would be both fun and new way to think about how we experience the western landscape and meet some fellow Xterra owners.
We planned to meet at 9 AM in at a gas station in Lehi. This was my first time here and I have to say I was impressed with the town’s old commercial district and the grain silo. It was a perfect sunny morning with lots of activity going on. When the group of Xterra’s I was in pulled up to the gas station there were about 20 Land Rovers leaving on some adventure. Then I saw a group of road cyclists (about 30 strong) heading up the road. This must be a popular place. After everyone in our group of 11 vehicles had fueled up and did whatever we needed to do at the gas station we headed out taking 73 west toward Cedar Fort for about 30 miles then hit gravel road at Five Mile Pass and kept going west. After a short distance we stopped as a group to take the opportunity to air down our tires. This was something I was initially wary of doing since I did not have a way to air them back up. Talking to a few drivers I learned that by deflating the tires it would provide better grip and also absorb some of the road vibrations. With over 100 miles to go I decided to air down slightly and see if I noticed any difference. It was hard to tell how much difference it was making for my ride as I only aired down about 7 pounds. I’ll have to experiment with this more on future runs.
Our next stop was Lookout Pass Station. We climbed a small hill had a look around, snapped some pictures of our vehicles with their first mud of the day then headed down to the walled off pet cemetery at the base of the hill. We attempted to drive up Little Valley Rd. on our way to Simpson Springs but due to bad road conditions we decided to head back to the main Pony Express Road. Being new to 4-wheeling it was one of the muddiest sections of road I have been on. I think it was a good decision to turn back and try it again when it has dried out.
Soon after we arrived at Simpson Springs Pony Express Station and stopped for lunch, conversation and picture taking. The highlight of the stop was watching a helicopter rounding up what I assumed to be wild horses. After some time the horses actually ran pretty close to where we were parked and everyone tried their hand at photographing the action. I got a couple of shots off before my camera battery mysteriously died. After some time we geared up and headed west toward Dugway Pass. Between Simpson Springs and Dugway Pass it’s about 20 miles of straight and flat road. Leave plenty of distance between vehicles (dust and visibility) and watch your speed. It’s easy to start going fast and you have to remind yourself that gravel roads handle very differently from highways. A hole in the road or dip could put you in a bad situation a long way from help.
After a restroom break at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge we stopped at Wilson Hot Spring. This was where my Xterra got muddy. The drive out to the spring was a sticky mix of mud, sand and salt. At one point I was sliding toward a very wet patch that had boards across it; some kind of sign not to go that way. Luckily I stopped before sliding into it and was able to back out and take the little bypass. The sticky mud reminded me of a passage in Earl Swift’s book The Big Roads, “a truck convoy finding the Siberling Cutoff impassable, set off across the salt. This would have been a risky move in a light runabout. In a giant cargo hauler the results were inevitable. every truck that ventured onto the flats broke through and became hopelessly mired; even a Caterpillar tractor failed to achieve any traction in the stinking goop that lurked beneath the surface.” (page 68). The story ends with the trucks being carried out by hand. I’m glad to be living in a time of better roads and capable vehicles. The story is a good reminder of the dangers of traveling in the west desert of Utah.
A little farther down the road on the other side of the Fish Springs Range we took a side road at the Utah and Emma Mines. It was a nice climb up to the top. I waited on the main road until the end of our convoy as I wanted to get a shot of all the Xterras going up the road before I joined the party. The drive up the old mining road ended with everyone parking in a row with a spectacular view of the Deep Creek Range and Snake Valley. In low range and third gear I only had to tap the brakes on a few sharp bends in the road on our way back down. At this point we would be heading in generally North West and would go through the very small town of Callao.
About 5 miles out of Callao we turned onto a section of road that is marked both as the Pony Express Rd. and the Old Lincoln Highway. Except for one spot the road was dry but it was slow going as the road wound through many washes and small hills. This was the only part of the trip where we had traffic coming from the other direction. I can only imagine what it must have been like traveling in this area with a 1930’s or 40’s era vehicle (loose steering, breaks that lock up, no seat belts) and then coming around a curve to find another car headed your way. After 25 miles we were back on asphalt. Realizing we had missed the turnoff to take us to Gold Hill; members of our group talked via radio to see who wanted to go to Gold Hill and who wanted to just head to Wendover. Most of us decided to go to Gold Hill and arrived around 5 PM the place was literally a ghost town. I now understood why there were so many photos on the web of this old store front. It’s about the only thing there. I joined in and shot about 30 frames of the building from a few angles so I could stitch together a panoramic image of the place.
Next stop Wendover. A quick dinner and then the trek back to Logan. Since a winter storm was hitting the Wasatch Front I opted to take a northern route back to Cache Valley via the Old Midland Trail (Utah 30) and hopefully avoid traffic and snow. As it turns out it was the best option. In two and a half hours I made it to Tremonton and entered Cache Valley via Riverside. At Beaver Dam the snow had started and the road conditions deteriorated rapidly. Crossing the valley the snow just kept coming and traffic slowed to a crawl. My journey that had started at 7 AM that morning was completed 17 hours later at 11 PM. The only trouble I had was getting up my steep and snow-covered driveway. But I made it.
©2012 (images and text) Andrew McAllister
All images photographed with the Leica M8 and Zeiss ZM lenses.
The other western landscape. Massive power transmission lines near the Utah and Idaho border.
Lonesome road through rolling hills near the Utah-Idaho border.
©2012 Andrew McAllister