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 > Smoky Mountain Road - GSENM (Many Pics!)

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seldomseensmith

Flagstaff, AZ

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Joined: 09/18/2006

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Posted: 06/12/09 09:46am Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Spring fever and chronic wanderlust. It’s truly bad news for me when the two get together, and the only known cure is a road trip. I’d been thinking about Smoky Mountain Road for a while now. I last drove the road about 10 years ago and my memory of the experience was very fuzzy, which turned out to be a good thing. I did remember the road was pretty rough but I made it all the way through, so how bad could it be?

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I left home about noon, and by 2:30 I was standing in front of a very helpful but somewhat concerned BLM employee at the Grand Staircase – Escalante Visitor Center in Big Water, which is about 10 miles west of Page on U.S. 89. He wanted to know if my vehicle was high clearance and 4-wheel drive. He asked if I was in a hurry to get to Escalante, because if so there were better roads to take.

I assured him that my truck was both high clearance and 4-wheel drive, and that I was in no hurry to go anywhere – I just wanted to go somewhere. His overall demeanor seemed to be that of someone who has given up trying to convince people there are alternatives to doing dumb things, but he gave me a permit to spend the night anyway and wished me well.

Smoky Mountain Road is one of three main roads bisecting GSENM. It is 78 miles from Big Water on Highway 89 to Escalante on Highway 12, and it crosses the ruggedly beautiful and isolated Kaiparowits Plateau. Of the three roads it is far and away the loneliest, longest, and most difficult. I knew it would be a challenge and that was the point. But whoever said we tend to remember the good while forgetting the bad was right on the mark with this one.

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After leaving Big Water, the road meanders eastward along the base of Nipple Bench. The landscape is more like the moon than Earth – nothing grows here. High levels of selenium and other minerals toxic to vegetation permeate the soil, and stark badlands of silts and clay present a bleak and lifeless panorama. The bluffs and cliff faces offer angular relief and some color to the otherwise barren scene. The road here is heavily rutted and shows evidence of difficult or impossible travel when wet.

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The road soon turns north away from the dead zone, and small scrubby plants begin to appear. In the distance the Kaiparowits Plateau looms ahead. Kaiparowits is a Paiute word that loosely translates as “big mountain’s little brother”, a reference to the much taller Aquarius Plateau to the north. It is one of the least visited places in the lower 48, and was among the last to be mapped.

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Here we have Smoky Mountain Road RV Park. No spaces available, so I guess I’ll move on. Actually, this is a cow camp where wranglers live while tending cattle that graze through the Monument. I encountered some of the frisky bovines later on.

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After traveling across the valley floor for the first 20 miles, the road approaches the base of the plateau. There are many roads in the west that climb steeply to reach high places, but there are only a few like this one – The Kelly Grade.

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The first time I did this trip, I was driving my old Ford truck, which had a carbureted gas engine. I remember locking the hubs at the bottom and thinking “I hope I make it”. I almost didn’t. There are pitches here so steep that gas would not stay in the carburetor bowl, and my truck stalled at the worst possible moment. I had to crank the engine and pump the accelerator like a madman all while working the emergency brake and releasing the clutch to keep from sliding back down the road. Fortunately these days there is fuel injection, and despite the road still being pretty doggone steep, I made it no problem.

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On the way up there is no room for two vehicles, and I have no idea where you would turn around or let someone by if you had to.

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Fortunately it wasn’t a problem as I saw no one the entire length of the road. Once you finally reach the summit of the Plateau, you can stop to look at the incredible views from above. Here is Page and the lower end of Lake Powell

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As it was pushing 5:00 when I got to the top of the grade I decided to take advantage of the awesome overlook and make camp. There were isolated storms rolling across the western horizon, which fortunately did not threaten me, however I did wonder if the road ahead would be affected. Much of the soil here is a clay-like gumbo when wet, and I did not want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere.

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After spending a peaceful night in splendid isolation I arose early and prepared to resume my trek across the vast expanse of the Kaiparowits. Just after leaving my boondock site, I passed BLM 332 where burning underground coal seams still smolder. The burning carbon is what gives Smoky Mountain Road its name; the fires were probably ignited by lightning. Just a side note – When GSENM was set aside by President Clinton in the late 1990s, the Kaiparowits was in imminent danger of becoming the West’s newest coal strip mine. Love the guy or hate him, the creation of the Monument was the single greatest act of land preservation in the last 50 years.

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The road seems innocent enough for the next 10 miles or so, traveling a fairly straight line towards the next line of cliffs in the distance. Soon enough random patches of naked rock start appearing, forcing me to slow down. When the track reaches the base of the first mesa, it begins a very long and tortured contour around the head of seemingly countless small drainages that have carved the land into vertical stairsteps.

The road was first “built” in the 1960’s to allow for mineral exploration and cattle ranchers to tend their herds. Kane County is the agency that used to do maintenance but they abandoned the road in 2006 after a dispute with the Federal government, and it shows. The pictures don’t really reflect the reality of road conditions.

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In many places the roadbed is bare stone that some long ago grader attempted to scrape into a semblance of flatness. That forgotten road crew is long gone, but Mother Nature is still on the job, cutting and shaping the stones into designs that suit her plans.

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The worst part came at a place called Last Chance Draw where the road washed out in October 2006. The original crossing has never been rebuilt, leaving travelers to find their own way. While the picture here may not accurately portray the white knuckle experience I had while descending this bank, I can tell you the anxiety was very real. I am truly glad that I came into this from the south, because I know for sure I would never have been able to climb it from the other side. At this point I knew there was no going back, and not knowing what else might lie ahead made me somewhat uneasy.
Thankfully although the road remained very rough, the rest of it was no worse than what I had already seen.

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Do you recognize this type of rock? I’m pretty sure it’s Leeverite. You know, as in “leave ‘er right” where it is. I thought about trying to push it over the edge, but who am I to improve on Mother Nature’s handiwork?

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Late in May a series of unseasonal storms soaked much of the region. As a result the desert was greener than usual for this time of year, and many wildflowers added a splash of color. The best displays were from prickly pear cactus, although penstemon, skyrocket, and blue flax, and others made an appearance.

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Tamarisk is an invasive species, but this one made up for it to some degree by being in full bloom.

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I mentioned cattle ranchers earlier, and at the upper end of the road came across some of their wards. Domestic cattle aren’t very smart, but these guys are the hillbillies of the breed, and they are more curious than afraid.

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After clearing the beeves off the road so I could continue, I left the area with a promise to the cows that we’d get together sometime for dinner.

Death Ridge Road. Hmmmmm…… I thought Smoky Mountain Road was rough. Maybe next time.

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After grinding and bumping my way across the contorted landscape for 30 miles, the road begins to improve about 10 miles outside of Escalante.

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That’s mostly because here we are in Garfield County, and these guys do their job. Even so the road is still subject to washouts and flooding, especially here at the lower end in Alvey Canyon Wash.

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Much of the last few miles the road is in or being crossed frequently by this dry riverbed. Not a good place to be in a flash flood – was that thunder I just heard?

The road ends in Escalante on Highway 12, and the humble town is a welcome sight.

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Even so, despite the agonizingly slow and rocky nature of the trail I already miss the absolute solitude and rugged wildness of the Kaiparowits.

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It took me a decade to finally retrace my route, and I’m glad I did. And now I know I won’t wait 10 more years before I visit again.

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The entire 78-mile road took me almost 8 hours to complete, but I was not in a hurry, and I stopped frequently to take pictures and look around. But it was worth every minute of it, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t give it try if you’re up for some adventure.

I highly recommend this journey for anyone who has a taste for backcountry travel, but consider yourself warned. This road is not to be taken lightly. Take your time and be prepared to creep along at 2 to 5 bone jarring miles per hour for long stretches. Check with the BLM for current road conditions, and don’t go anywhere on this route if thunderstorms are in the forecast. Take everything you’ll need, and make sure your vehicle and tires are in excellent condition. Happy Trails!

BradW

Mayor of Flat Rock

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Posted: 06/12/09 09:49am Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Cool trip photos. Thanks for posting.

Brad


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Rawhyde

?

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Posted: 06/12/09 09:59am Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Do you think a dually will fit and make it on this road?

cewillis

Tucson, az, usa

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Posted: 06/12/09 10:12am Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Quote:

I did not want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere

Oh, sure you did!

Great work again, Mr. Smith. Wonderful looking country (except for selenium!!), and outstanding pictures. Thanks.


Cal


weymard

NORMANDY

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Posted: 06/12/09 10:22am Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Nice pictures ! awesome landscape ! you are right this landscape is more like the moon than Earth ! Thanks for sharing.


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craziecritter

Garner, N.C.

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Posted: 06/12/09 10:41am Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Breathtaking.....awesome pictures. Can I go next time?


Sharon, Tom with
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btggraphix

Golden, CO

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Posted: 06/12/09 01:15pm Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Very nice seldomseen - thanks for sharing!

SUPERBASH

Long Island NY

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Posted: 06/12/09 02:11pm Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Very Cool. I love offroad adventures & trips. [emoticon]


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seldomseensmith

Flagstaff, AZ

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Posted: 06/12/09 02:38pm Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

cewillis wrote:

Quote:

I did not want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere

Oh, sure you did!

Great work again, Mr. Smith. Wonderful looking country (except for selenium!!), and outstanding pictures. Thanks.


My dream job - being stuck in the middle of nowhere - unfortunately it doesn't pay very well [emoticon]

Thanks everyone for the positive feedback. As long as you guys like the reports, I guess I'll just have to keep going places. Darn it all..... [emoticon]

Foxkorea

SoCal

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Posted: 06/12/09 02:44pm Link  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Thanks for your post. I'll be up there in the Escalante and Paria area in a few weeks--although not doing anything like the road you've just travelled! Just going to stick to Cottonwood Canyon Road, Hell's Backbone Ridge, and Highway 12. But your photos have me psyched!!

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