Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hole-in-the-Rock Utah

Last Saturday I was privileged to take a trip down the desert road south of Escalante (my hometown) to a place that is very special to me, called Hole-in-the-Rock.  When a lot of folks hear this name they correlate it with an arch and store south of Moab, Utah.  While that Hole-in-the-Rock is impressive, I wish to tell you about another today.  Now, I know many of you that are from Utah have heard the story, but I also know many have never ventured to the site.  While mid-June is not the ideal time to go due to rough roads and 100 plus degree heat, I am humbled and find myself in awe every time I visit the site.  Though I live under 80 miles from the site, I have only visited about a half-dozen times in my life.  This trip will always be remembered as one of my favorites, as I took my kids for their first time and was able to relate the story, which did involve some of my ancestors.  For those unfamiliar, let me tell you a short version of the story.

The year is 1879 in South Central Utah.  Pioneers belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ-of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) had been in the communities of Cedar and Parowan for just under 20 years.  many settlers to the communities had been there for less time than that.  It's hard to imaging traveling across the plains by wagon and handcart, only to reach Utah, settling, and being called to settle again in the Cedar City area.  This was not the last experience in settling a new area for 250 of these people.  In the summer of 1879, church leadership called these 250 people to pick up their belongings and travel to the far southeastern corner of Utah to establish colonies in what would be known as "the San Juan Mission", named after the San Juan River which flowed through that country.  The church had hopes that settlement of the area would help to ease tensions with native American tribes in the area, as well as bring stability to the area.  This area was one of the very few remaining areas in the continental US to be explored and mapped, due to it's ruggedness.  The canyon of the Colorado River proved impossible to cross, and the 2 existing routes into the area took travelers nearly 200 miles around these impassible features.  It was determined that the party would seek a more direct path, as the area was only about 135 miles in a straight line from the Cedar City area.

Murals at the Hole-in-the-Rock Heritage Center depict scenes from wagon venturing down the road constructed at the "hole"

Looking up the Hole-in-the-Rock
This is where my heritage and ancestors come into play.  Escalante was settled at this time, a very young settlement in itself (1875) and men from the community were called to explore the area and find a path that would accommodate passage for the party down to the Colorado River, across it, and through the area beyond to their goal.  The exploring party located a crack in the 1,200 foot sandstone walls, which the party believe could be blasted out and improved to create a road to the river.  With this news, the San Juan Mission party set out on their way.  Initial travel was fairly easy along existing roads to their last sight of civilization they would encounter on their journey, Escalante.  After a short stop, the party proceeded south out of Escalante towards the Colorado River, nearly 70 miles away.  The next 50 miles were relatively easy.  The party made their way to 40 mile spring, and Dance Hall Rock, where they paused to send members of their party to explore the route to the crack the Escalante men had discovered.  Their report on return was very discouraging.  Going home was discussed, but mountain snows had already fallen, which would prohibit a return at this time.  The group decided to press on, camping at 50 mile spring while work commenced on the "hole".

Powder was in short supply, and it was soon determined there was not enough for the job.  To improvise, the party blasted holes in which they drove poles which created a base to tack the road to the side of the lower ledge.  Blasting above continued to create the fill for the road.  A barge was built on the river below to allow the wagons to be ferried across the river.

Looking down the hole to Lake Powell below.
The road was completed on January 25th, 1880, and wagons made their way down the narrow slot the following day.  The slot was barely wide enough for a wagon, and you can still see where the wagon hubs rubbed against the sandstone walls.  The wheels were chained to keep them from turning, horses and men held the wagons back to keep them from sliding down the steep "road" out of control.  One by one each wagon made it safely down and across the river.  The country on the east side of the river was the next challenge.  Cottonwood Canyon again proved a formidable foe, but once crossed the country beyond offered easier travel.  The party arrived in a valley where they established the community of Bluff, Utah in April of 1880.  The party had spent more time on this short distanced journey than other members of their faith that crossed the great plains to Salt Lake City that during those years.  These settlers went on to establish the communities of Blanding and Monticello, Utah as well.

The hole itself is quite a feat of wonder when you look at it, but I look at the desert country for 70 miles to that point and find myself wondering how I could have ever walked or drove wagons that distance, let alone down the hole.  The hole itself fills me with wonder as I try to envision the noise, dust, and confusion as man and beast struggled their way down the more than 45 degree slope to the river below.  It was an amazing experience to walk down into the hole and show my kids the marks left behind from the wagons, and tell them the story of the expedition. 

If you have not made the journey I highly recommend it!  True, it is a long way through desolate country, but if you really try to envision what this group went through it becomes a very special experience.  Let me break down a few ideas to make the trip more entertaining, and to enhance your experience:
Dance Hall Rock served as a natural "dance hall" and gathering place for religious services and other gatherings for the members of the San Juan Mission Expedition
  1. Hole-in-the-Rock Heritage Center.  Be sure to start the trip off right by visiting the heritage center located on the east side of Escalante, right off of highway 12.  Here you become better acquainted with the background and history of the story, including a replica of the type of wagon used, interpretative displays, and amazing murals depicting the passage down Hole-in-the-Rock, and the amazing story of "The Last Wagon".  The Heritage Center is a work in progress, we look forward to the final phase to be completed in the future. 
  2. Stops Along the Way.  It's only 70 miles from Escalante, but it's a very windy road, full of ups and downs and is quite often rough, which slows your travel.  There are many amazing natural wonders to check out on your way.  A stop at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument visitor center on the west side of Escalante, just off of highway 12 as well will help you locate some of these beautiful areas.  We opted to check out a couple of our favorites, the dinosaur tracks near 20 mile wash (off of the Colletts Canyon road), Devil's Rock Garden (just before the 20 mile wash, very well marked), and Dance Hall Rock, which is about 40 miles down the road.
  3. Plan for Almost a Full Day.  This is very remote country.  There are no services once you leave the pavement.  Cell Phone service is sketchy at best.  Take plenty of food and water, first aid, etc.  Take what you would need to spend a night if the worst were to happen.  The road is improved, but again can get a lot of washboards and loose rock.  We ruined a tire from a rock puncture on our outing.
  4. Spring and Fall are Best.  Being outside was not much fun on our trip!  The best times to beat the hear are from March-May, and September-November.  Do yourself a favor and go when the weather is cool, or consider very early morning before it gets hot!
  5. It's a lot Further Down than it Looks!  I know several people that have began the hike down to Lake Powell below, only to turn around to come back up.  It is just over a mile down to the lake, and nearly a 1,200 foot drop in elevation.  The road base is no longer visible, having been washed away long ago by wind and water.  Now large boulders littler the bottom, requiring a bit of strenuous hiking, and even climbing up and down short (10 foot) ledges.  Wear proper footwear and take plenty of water!
Hole-in-th-Rock Arch through the Phone Skope.
This truly is a very neat experience.  It is amazing to think that these 250 individuals pressed on considering they were being told they were going to, "Travel through country which could not be passed, down a road that could not be built, and across a river that could not be crossed".  It was an amazing experience to show my kids what can be accomplished when you are determined to succeed, and what our ancestors sacrificed for us.  At the end of the day, I was extremely proud of my boys as they carried on and on about their ancestors, and kept requesting songs by Johnny Cash from my iPod!   What else can I say, they have the important things figured out!  My job as a dad is done!

Even in the desert country of the Glen Canyon area you can find an amazing display of color and life.