Thursday, May 1, 2014

Southeast Utah -- Where the Wild Wild West Still Rules

     Reaching Sipapu Bridge is a 0.6 mile steep hike in Natural Bridges National Monument.

By Lynn Arave
TAKE a survey of Utah adult residents and you'd probably discover that 80 percent or more have been to Southwest Utah and St. George.
However, you would likely also find that only 10 percent or so have been to Bluff/Blanding/Mexican Hat and Southeast Utah.
("Four Corners" is probably the largest draw in the area.)
While the St. George area is bustling, crowded and congested, southeast Utah is where the open wild wild west still rules.
Spectacular views, anchored by Monument Valley, dominate the landscape. It is like living in a John Wayne western movie.
No traffic jams, motels so laid back that credit cards are not even asked for and friendly locals.
               White Canyon, northwest of Bluff, Utah in Natural Bridges.

                    Part of the rugged, yet exciting way down to Sipapu Bridge.

Southeast Utah was the last section of Utah to be settled by pioneers. In fact, it was only 1904 -- barley over a century ago -- that National Geographic explored portions of San Juan County.
One may often wondered what the first explorers found or thought when entering a virgin region. Here is an early account of the exploration of southeast Utah:
In 1905, "Wonders of San Juan County" was a May 3 headline in the Ogden Standard-Examiner.
S.T. Whitaker was a photographer in a small group sent out by the Commercial Club of Salt Lake to explore southeast Utah.
Whitaker took some 700 photos in a 30-day expedition.
The group took a train to Thompson Springs and then went by wagons to Moab and then Bluff City.
From there, it was a 20-animal pack train of supplies that had to be used to penetrate the area. Some Navajo trails were used and at one point the group had to detour some 25 miles to get through a slickrock ridge.
"Upon arriving at a canyon called White Canyon we found what is perhaps one of the largest, if not the largest, natural stone bridges in  the world," Whitaker, from Ogden, wrote in his report. "We called it the Augusta, it is 310 feet (wide) ..."
(The party named two other large bridges "Caroline" and "Edwin," oblivious to the fact that National Geographic had named the same bridges "President," "Senator" and "Congressman," in order of height, just about one year prior.)
Today, these bridges are located in Natural Bridges National Monument and are named Sipapu (meaning place of emergence), Kachina and Owachomo -- also variations on Native American words.
If often took all 250 length of rope for these early 20th Century explorers to descend into White Canyon and reach these stone features. They also noticed some ancient inscriptions in the rocks of White Canyon.
The expedition also discovered a 400-foot-long cave in the area, its entrance almost completely covered by a waterfall.
They also noticed mounds all over the habitable landscape, which they believed to be the ruins of past natives.
The group also reported finding relics -- crumbling pots, some mummified remains and most interesting -- battle axes near a lot of bones and skulls -- proof of a large battle long ago in the area.

                           One of the rustic wooden ladders en route to Sipapu.

--Today visitors to Sipapu and other natural bridges are aided by stairs, ladders and defined trails to reach the bottom of White Canyon.
Obviously a visit to the Four Corners is a visitor highlight in SE Utah, but don't forget to savor the open landscape here, as the native Navajo nation seems to do so.

Taking a "loop" here, if you have the time, is the best way to appreciate the area. Go down Utah Highway 95 from Hanksville and you'll see the Henry Mountains, Hog Springs (great picnic area), the north end of Lake Powell -- with some spectacular rocky viewpoints that rival Canyonlands or Dead Horse Point.

Continuing toward Blanding, it is quite a winding drive, but erosion of the landscape is the focus here.
Returning north, take Highway 191 through Monticello and Moab for a faster, straighter drive.

                         Monument Valley in the far distance.

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

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