Trans-America trail trip report: part 6 (Utah)

April 15, 2018  •  1 Comment

I had a cancelled flight to the Faroe Islands last Thursday, so have ended up with an unexpected open weekend at home. Rather than taking pictures as I'd hoped, I'm just doing some processing. But that has given me some time to get another installment on my TAT trip report blog finished. In this report, I cover the rest of Utah once out of Canyonlands. 

To recap, it's now about 13-14 days of steady driving to get to this point on the Trans-America trail. Given some Moab time, it's more likely that most Jeep overlanders would be around 16 days at this point. 

As I'd mentioned in my last installment, I had camp reservations for the White Rim trail but pulled out of the full circuit because the Green River had flooded the road at one point, making it an out and back trip, and a crazy wind storm had made it impossible to set up a tent or canopy at the Airport camp on the White Rim. I ended up staying at an official campsite up near the Mineral Bottom road the night of the windstorm and then headed out of the Moab area first thing in the morning. 

I'd seen some YouTube videos of some really rough terrain between Moab and Green River, so was expecting a slow trip. That must be the trails on the Kevin GPS TAT route though, which as I understand it are more motorcycle-oriented than Sam's choices. The road out of Moab was easy but the wind was still howling. I stopped for some quick infrared shots near the Dubinky Well - you can see the sand accumulating on the road, sort of like driving in a winter snowstorm in spots. The road to Green River is mostly easy driving, much of it which you can do at 50 mph. The windstorm continued to worsen as I headed north and was so bad that I grabbed a room at the Super 8 in Green River rather than continue on and having to try to camp it the wind again that night. The hotel filled quickly as it's on the Interstate, and all the motorcyclists were pulling in to also get out of the sandstorm. Normally coming out of Moab, I would go for a lazy start (or do the Lathrop Canyon side road in the morning - see the last blog entry for details) and head the west side of the Green River for one of the best camp sites on the entire TAT. 

2019 postscript. I'd been past Dubinky Well a few times and had been curious about some side roads that headed west towards the Green River. Coming through the Moab area in Spring 2019 I had some time and headed out that way, visiting Secret Spire and Dellenbaugh Tunnel. There's great scenic vistas (below) and some fun, technically easy rock climbing to and from Dellenbaugh Tunnel (rating 2+ for Moab but far steeper than anything encountered on the TAT itself). There's all sorts of camping options through this whole area, which is all BLM land. Next time back in Moab I plan to spend a lot more time exploring out here. I also did the whole White Rim in March and loved it. My kind of negative comments above were, it turned out, based on the least attractive bit of the trail. It can be done in 2 days but I took 3 so I had lots of photography time. My favorite spot was Candlestick camp - only one vehicle allowed to camp here, so I had the evening sun on Candlestick Tower all to myself. 

Desert moonDesert moonThe last of the day's light falling on the desert and buttes on BLM land north of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 17 March 2019.

Coming south out of the town of Green River, once over the river itself, you're onto a long stretch of easy driving for the next couple of hundred miles. There's only a couple of patches of moderately rough road now until getting all the way to Craters of the Moon in Idaho, so progress through Utah can be quick if you aren't stopping much. 

Coming south out of Green River, there's a few points of interest. There's a nice photo opportunity and a mud flats/pond area called the Horse Bench Dam, just as the road comes through some oddly shaped bluffs (infrared below). Just beyond that, there's a road to the left (Irvine Ranch Road - intersection at N38.849 W 110.216). The road is okay for the first 5 miles then gets very rough. There's some famous fossil deposits here if anyone is a geology fan. When I was in here, a big rental SUV pulled in with a bunch of very clean (for the moment) geologists from Wisconsin. 

Dry resevoirDry resevoirAn old resevoir, now filled with anerobic ooze and a dry crust over top (trust me, I know), on the west side of the Green River, Utah, 7 June 2017.

Just a little farther down CR 1010, you come to the San Rafael River bridge. Just before you get to the bridge, there's a road (CR 1028) that heads left towards the Green River and its well worth taking a few hours to explore. There's a small geyser about a mile down the road (below) and from there there's a road (on the upper side of the fence) that leads down to the Green River. This is mainly an easy drive but the last part is pretty sandy. I went down by myself but was a little anxious as (1) I have not really had any pure sand driving experience and (2) there was not much to winch out of for most of the way. Anyway, it was fine in the end and you can get right down to the river, which is quite pretty (2nd picture below). 

After crossing the San Rafael bridge, there's a good camping site on the right hand side of the road at a place called Moonshine Wash. Watch for a dirt track heading right about a mile after the bridge. This would be a highly recommended camping spot anywhere else along the TAT but given there's a spectacularly good camping site overlooking the river only a few miles down the road, I don't think it makes any sense to camp here unless you are coming through late in the day and want something real easy and nice, just a short distance off the TAT. 

My vote for the best camping site on the entire TAT goes to the Trin-Alcove Bend site, which is just another couple of miles down the road. There's a dirt road that heads up a small hill on the left (N 38.711 W 110.146), then bends around, contours around a creek (with a couple of rougher sections - high clearance useful but I think a normal height truck could also get through fine with some care), and comes out in a big flat area overlooking the Trin-Alcove Bend. I found this place on the trip west but had been at a hotel in Green River due to the windstorm the day before, so did not camp here in June. But on my TAT Backwards trip, I made a point of staying here. I had even thought about staying a second night so I could explore the side canyons, but it was just too hot in mid-July. I had a terrible sleep the night I was here - it was still 90 F at 11 p.m. and I just could not get settled, and dragged my butt over to Moab and a hotel with air conditioning for the next night. 

The views here are spectacularly good and odds are you will be totally alone. This is White Rim quality but without crowds to go with it. 

Above: from the top of the bluff that drops straight into the Green River (i.e., if you stepped off, you would land in the water). Below, the outlet of the side canyon (called Three Canyons). For photo overlanders, I just cannot recommend an evening and morning session here enough. 

Back onto the main road heading south, the next stop of potential interest is the Horseshoe Canyon trail. This is part of Canyonlands National Park and is apparently very nice. I drove down to the parking lot for a coffee brewing stop but did not do the hike as it looked quite far in to the pictographs. Having spent a lot of time on the other side of the river at Needles, I was anxious to get on the road. Good gravel roads make for quick progress now out to the Highway 24 crossing, and over through the Capitol Reef. The TAT then swings north, crosses I-70 again, and then meets up again with the San Rafael River. 

There's a good camping ground right at the San Rafael river bridge. Just beyond that was one of the surprise highlights of the TAT, the pictographs at Buckhorn Wash. As I drove up through the spectacular canyon, I came across the small site that has pictographs on the canyon wall right beside the road. I'd never heard of these before but if they were in the Moab area, you would never be able to get close to them for crowds. I had this place to myself for about an hour while taking some photos. 

After Buckhorn Wash, the TAT comes down into a valley where you can gas up and get ice at Castle Dale. From there, it's back up into the next mountain range in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. At Indian Creek, the TAT does a sharp right up the valley and eventually a sharp left back down. This adds some time and you end up coming out just a few miles up the road. I debated cutting this side trip off as it was getting well past dinner now, but did head up in the end and found a great Dept of Agriculture camp up at the end of the main road, the Indian Creek Campground (N 39.445 W 111.238). I was alone up here, in a campsite with 2 huge picnic tables and an industrial size fire pit, in a really pleasant site that could have taken about 15 people. Even in mid-June, I had a chilly evening and there was frost on my tent in the morning.

The second day's driving out of Moab took me from the Indian Creek camp all the way to Wendover, on the Utah/Nevada border in a long driving day. In the morning it was some pretty obscure gravel roads in the Uinta National Forest that were quite slow (there are options for some corner cutting in this region for anyone in a hurry). Note that before you get to Highway 28, the TAT route takes you up the Maple Creek Road. This is not passable as you eventually come to a gate and private farm land (N 39.398 W 111.873). This is one of the only places that Sam's maps were drastically out of date. Eventually you cross I-15 and work up to Delta, Utah, which gets you back to desert high speed driving.

Past Coyote Knolls, you're on Death Canyon Road and then through an area with some sand dunes and into an area where everything has 'Rattlesnake' in its name. Not sounding like the sort of country one wants to camp in and a bit of dilemma as to where one would want to break down if you had a choice (will it be Death Canyon or Rattlesnake Bench???). Sam's maps have the TAT going out to Eskdale and a gas station at this point. For jeeps, there's no need to do this. At the Foot Ranch Rd intersection, swing north and head for Gandy (N 39.293 W 113.763). 

2019 postscript: I came west to east on this section of the TAT in March 2019. From Callao I instead headed east, past a Pony Express memorial site and some wetlands, then south on the Flourspar Rd, through a pleasant pass and past old mine sites (and good camping sites along the way, especially just north of the intersection of Weis and Brush highways. I liked this route better than the TAT itself as it had way more points of interest along it. Basically in this section I think you can just follow any of the roads through the western desert just aiming to get to angle up to Callao. 

Callao, UtahCallao, UtahAn abanoned house near Callao, Utah, in the western desert southwest of Great Salt Lake, 14 June 2017. This town was a stop on the historic Pony Express.

The roads up the western border region in Utah can be driven fast and it's easy to put on a lot of miles here. There's an acceptable campsite at Tom's Creek (N 39.858 W 113.774) but better options further up the road. Just past Tom's Creek is the historic town of Callao, which still has a few people living in it. This was on the Pony Express route, as is the section of the TAT to the north of here. There's some good photo opportunities in Callao, where there are some interesting abandoned houses (above).

Just north of Callao, there's a turnout and information on the Pony Express station that was at this point, and there's a nice view east out over the Utah desert. From here, it's up through the appropriately named Overland Canyon and into a more hilly part of Utah with some grasslands. There's numerous good camping spots through this section as it's really infrequently traveled. In some places, I was almost driving through plain grasslands there had been so little traffic on the road. 

I wanted to get a morning photo shoot in at Bonneville Salt Flats, so I pushed on through to Wendover, arriving after dark, but not super late. I grabbed a hotel room at the Super 8 on the Utah side of town (the state line runs through the middle of town) as that the end closest to Bonneville, which was <15 minutes from town. 

The state line is also the boundary between Mountain and Pacific time zones, so you change your clocks as you go through town. I set my alarm that night for about an hour and a half before sunrise so that I could get out to the salt flats early and try to set up prior to sunrise. My alarm went off in the morning and I got a coffee ready, then got thinking it was quite light for that time of the morning. During the night, somehow my phone decided I was in the western part of Wendover, in the Pacific time zone, so I was actually an hour late getting up and had only 20 minutes until the sun actually rose. In a panic, I bolted out, watching all the good pre-sunrise light fade as I drove, and arrived at the salt flats just as the sun came out. I literally set my tripod in front of the jeep, took about 6 shots, and then the good light just disappeared. I managed to get two decent shots, but desperately want to get there again for a longer visit. Mental note for self: always carry a mechanical alarm clock!

Dawn at the Bonneville Salt FlatsDawn at the Bonneville Salt FlatsThe rising morning sun catches the undersides of the cloud cover at Bonneville, just on the Utah-Nevada border, 15 June 2017.

After taking the few photos, I drove down to the end of the paved road and took a drive out on the salt flats themselves. It was a bit bumpier than I was expecting but I got the rig all the way up to 76 mph, which is just a touch off my all time speed record in the Jeep. I will try to insert some video in here at some time in the future, but for now I  just have a picture of the salt that looks like snow on the truck. 

 

After leaving Wendover in the morning (I went back for a leisurely breakfast after the early morning shoot), I headed north, to the west of Salt Lake City. This section was again mainly fast driving on good roads, but did have a few side diversions that Sam had managed to include in the TAT route.   Straight and narrowStraight and narrowOn the Trans-America Trail in northwest Utah, 15 June 2017.

 

For people wanting to camp in western Utah, there's the obvious choice of out on the Salt Flats. I'm not sure if you're officially supposed to, but it would be easy and would give the best options for evening and morning photographs. A little farther north, the TAT does a nice diversion around the Bovine Mountains and there are camping options there as well. There's a couple of camping spots on the road up to the pass (looks like a popular area for ATVers) and another option in a lonely and picturesque area with some really interesting rock formations (this one over the pass and directly north of Bovine Mountains at N 41.531 W 113.688). After that the TAT starts to swing back east to come over top of the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

A little past Kelton, the TAT does a short diversion south in the Locomotive Springs Waterfowl Management Area and there are some great photo opportunities here. There was a pair of buildings I saw in the distance and I ended up stopping and walking out to them (in my excitement for even more deserted buildings I forgot to change into boots, so just had my driving sandals on - not a good idea in snake country!). There are a couple of great, shot-up, graffittied, old cabins out there - selection of infrared and full spectrum below. I even got one of a snake crawling up bullet holes on a painted-up tin shack - something totally out of a post-apocalypse scene. 

Welcome homeWelcome homeAs much as I like Utah, this farmstead must have been hellish to live on - super hot on the northern fringe of Great Salt Lake, bugs from the adjacent wetlands, and infested with a variety of snakes, all on super saline soil. This is an infrared of the driveway in, Great Salt Lake, Utah, 9 June 2017.

From here, Sam's TAT route takes you to Tremonton. I suspect this is another motorcycle gas-up spot, as it otherwise makes no sense to get back on to paved roads when you can head north on country roads that lead you into Idaho. 

On the day I traveled through here on the trip west, I ended up having my longest day on the TAT, and ended up camping at the entrance to Craters of the Moon National Monument. I've been back through this area twice since and now have a different recommendation specifically for photographers (if you are just into overlanding, I'd say swing north at Blue Creek and pick up the TAT again where it crosses I-84, which is what I did on my trip west). 

If I was doing the TAT east to west again, I'd spend the morning in Bonneville, then take my time coming up through northern Utah, explore back roads up the Hansel Valley (Salt Wells Road), and then head east for a few miles on I-84 to pick up the TAT and cross the border to Idaho. When you cross the Idaho border, you're into the Pocatello Valley, which is, I think, the best area I've ever seen for photographing old farmhouses and rural vistas. The last 2 trips through here I've gone into Malad City and stayed at a hotel (there's a simple, clean one up alongside the I-15 intersection) and then gone back out into the Pocatello and Arbon Valleys for morning and afternoon photo shoots. I'll provide more information on that in my next blog entry.

If you're not a photographer and just want to keep going, be aware that there aren't many good camping options for quite a long ways now. For planning purposes, you should consider camping options out of Moab as:

(1) slow photographer's version: Moab to Trin-Alcove Bend (camp, evening and morning shoot); Trin-Alcove to Indian Creek; Indian Creek to Bonneville (morning shoot - only way to make Bonneville for an evening shoot on arrival would be to skip some of the meandering dirt roads in central Utah); Bonneville to Malad City (with afternoon shoots in Locomotive Creek and the Pocatello Valley); or 

(2) quicker overland version: Moab to Buckhorn Wash; Buckhorn Wash to Bovine Mountains; Bovine Mountains to Craters of the Moon (you'd miss good morning and evening photo shoot times at Trin-Alcove and Bonneville but would still have time to visit them). 

Any way you cut it, you're looking for 3 full driving days to get from Moab to Craters of the Moon (or if you are on a mission, maybe even a little beyond to a good camping site at the start of the Sawtooth Mountains crossing). 

Bonneville Jeep (01)Bonneville Jeep (01)Late afternoon golden hour light at Bonneville Salt Flats, 15 March 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Comments

Vintagetat2020(non-registered)
Thank you for sharing your adventures on the Trans America Trail. I have learned many details from your posts. We will use your helpful information on our adventure across the TAT in 2020
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