From New Mexico, we entered southeastern Utah, by-passing the famous Four Corners Monument which at the time was closed. Entering Utah meant something special to us. If New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment”, Utah is the “Land of Spectacular” and what awaited us was beyond expectations.
The four weeks spent in the state was one long continuous view of changing colors that swiped valleys, canyons, bluffs, buttes, mesas and arches like a painter’s brush dipped in a wide sampling of earthy tones and pastels of purple, pink, rusty red, orange and yellow.
Our consciousness was filled with geologic stories of how these rocks formed over millions of years and what our short time on earth allows us to witness at this miniscule point in time. If one ever desires to feel most insignificant, simply come to Utah. The land is overwhelming and at every corner, it presents itself in new ways. It is no wonder that Utah contains five National Parks and seven National Monuments.
Much of our time was spent in the southeast region of Utah which is known for its diverse rock formations and colors, dramatic canyons and spectacular rock arches and spires. We were in the center of the Colorado Plateau where the most jaw dropping scenery is concentrated around the Green, San Juan and Colorado Rivers and their tributaries, all of which have been eroding away for millions of years. Some of the landscape has been altered from the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and creation of Lake Powell as well as the mining industry. But that portion of Utah’s story is for another time.
We began our explorations of Utah in Bluff, hardly a spit of a town on the San Juan River. Not far from the Four Corners, Bluff is east of the more popular Glen Canyon and Lake Powell. Making Bluff our home base for one week gave us time to explore Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears Monument, and Natural Bridges Monument. The famous Monument Valley was nearby but not accessible as the Navajo Nation remained shutdown due to COVID. Despite the famous Forrest Gump Point, we were in the most unassuming portion of Utah; pushed into the shadows of Bryce & Zion, Grand Escalante, Canyonlands and Arches. Yet, it is here where we learned of an extraordinary story that began our education into Utah’s history of pioneers.
By 1879, a large concentration of Mormon communities existed in the Utah territory – mostly in the Salt Lake region. With the mission of expanding their presence in Utah’s country, Latter Day Saints (LDS) leaders urged families to migrate to other regions and set up communities. One of those leaders, LDS Church President John Taylor convinced 70 families (250 men, women and children) comfortably settled in southwestern Utah to form a wagon train, travel east and settle near the San Juan River. “Answering the call from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”, the San Juan Expedition began in early fall of 1879 with the expectation of arriving at the destination in three months. The goal was to create a more direct route to the largely unknown territory, cutting out several hundred miles of travel.
By December of 1879, the expedition consisting of about 80 wagons and teams had made its way to Escalante, following a well-traveled route. About 40 miles east of Escalante, the party stood on the edge of the unknown territory that lay ahead. On December 2, scouts returned with a report. One described the potential route as follows “A bird couldn’t fly over the route, to say nothing of getting wagons through.” Council was held and one leader promised the party that if they continued the journey, a road would be built and crops raised the next season. That’s all it took. With strong faith and supplies for a 6-week journey, the party began blazing an eastern trail.
What the 250 (+2) men, women and children subsequently encountered paled in comparison to the 1300-mile handcart migration to Salt Lake City from Missouri that many of the party members had experienced prior to this move. And it took twice as long as originally planned.
About one third of the way into the journey, the wagon train arrived at a natural crevice on the 1000-ft cliff above the Colorado River gorge. The company prepared to blast a passageway through what is now called the “Hole-in-the-Rock”. A raft was built to carry the wagons, people and horses across the Colorado River. Among the party were two brothers, coal miners from Wales having expertise in blasting powder. They were among several men who were lowered over the cliff and dangled midair to drill holes in the rock and fill them with blasting powder. This went on during winter storms.
A member of the expedition, Kumen Jones, wrote the following: “After about six weeks work and waiting for powder, etc., a start was made to move the wagons down the hold. Long ropes were provided and about 20 men and boys held on to the wagons to make sure that there would be no accidents, through brakes giving way (brakes created with chains), or horses cutting up their long lay off, but all went smooth and safe. And by the 28th (of January), most of the wagons were across the river and work had commenced again on the Cottonwood Canyon another very rough proposition”.
Ahead of them were some of the most desolate and rough country imaginable (as described by party members). They encountered more deep canyons and high rock formations standing in the way of a direct path. Near the end of their expedition, they came onto Comb Ridge, another rock formation that impeded their route. By now, the anticipated 6-week journey had turned into 6 months. The group was hungry and worn out.
The pioneers came to the south end of Comb Ridge where they built a road over what they called the “San Juan Hill”. Charles Redd wrote the following: “Aside from the Hole-in-the-Rock, itself, this was the steepest crossing on the journey. Here again seven span of horses were used, so that when some of the horses were on their knees, fighting to get up to find a foothold, the still-erect horses could plunge upward against the sharp grade. On the worst slopes the men were forced to beat their jaded animals into giving all they had. After several pulls, rests, and pulls, many of the horses took to spasms and near-convulsions, so exhausted were they.”
At last, off the Comb Ridge and across Butler Wash, the settlers reached the Bluff area on April 6, 1880. Seven miles short of the original destination on Montezuma Creek, the exhausted travelers could go no further. Hence, the town of ‘Bluff’ came into existence. Except for one horse, no lives were lost, and two babies were born during the grueling 6-mon journey. To acquire supplies in Escalante, the newly blazed 180-mile route continued to be used as a means of getting in and out of the San Juan area for about one year.
We travel with a full-ton pickup that pulls our home, a 33-ft fifth wheel. A truck and an RV – that’s all we have. The Mormon settlers lived in wagons pulled by horses– all they had. Of course, little comparison can be made, yet I could not help think about those wagon trains in Utah’s unknown territory as we drove our truck down wash-board, narrow and bumpy gravel roads just to get to spectacular lands discovered and preserved long ago.
Our good fortune allows us to settle our very comfortable home in Bluff for a week so that we could venture out on our mini-expeditions into Utah’s wild frontier that is Bears Ears National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley. And if we must drive our GPS-guided and air-conditioned truck on a gravel road or two, so be it. I guess we’ll just have to suck it up for the next several weeks as we continue to blaze our trail through Utah. Onward we go.
By the way, fear of destroying our road tires (attached to the truck that pulls our home), we avoided driving up the Moki Dugway which rewards you with a grand view from Muley Point. But we did see a similar view from Goosenecks State Park, accessed via maintained paved roads. We learn as we go, so stay tuned as the truck tire story continues in Moab.
Enjoy a few more images from our time in Bluff, Utah.