Saturday morning I picked up my brother, David in my Ford Explorer Sport and we headed for southern Utah — again. I wanted to explore the area west of Goblin Valley which was an area we had not yet stuck our curious noses.

We didn’t leave real early and it was about noon before we got to Goblin Valley and headed west down a heavily traveled gravel road. It was a beautiful spring day and there were lots of campers along the way. When we got to the Little Wild Horse Canyon, it was full of vehicles with a number of scout troops wandering around. We decided that we didn’t want to try that hike that day.

Little Wild Horse Badlands

We kept heading west hoping to find a road to take us to the south end of the Muddy River canyon where it cuts through the south end of the San Rafael Swell. The further we went, the worse the road got. There was still a log of damage from last fall’s flooding that was especially bad in this area. In fact, in the area where the dirt trail crosses the Muddy River, it was hard to tell where the road used to be. The new path just kind of picked its way along through the tamarack willow and across a rocky shallow area. There was a vehicle, several ATVs and an extended family with children playing in the water there.

Muddy River Painted Hills

Finally we could tell that there wasn’t going to be a road going where I had hoped to find a road. However, the country was interesting. We still had a big part of the afternoon so we just decided to pick a dirt road and explore it.

The first promising dirt road we found turned out to be the east end of Salt Wash. According the (terrible) map that we had, this road continued west through the canyon and joined a Capital Reef park road which would take us back to the highway. That was perfect since we had just enough gas to drive that far.

The canyon wasn’t very deep or interesting but you always want to see what is just around the next bend. This trail had been wiped out by the previous year’s flooding but we could see where at least three different kinds of vehicles had been through there recently. If they could get through, so could we. There was a steady run of water but the stream crossings were either sandy or rocky so we didn’t feel like it was too difficult of a trail.

We stopped for lunch at a creek crossing and were busily eating a sandwich, when a very LARGE whiptail lizard crawled out of some nearby rocks and made its way to the water edge. We watched to see what it would do when it got to the water. Instead of turning away from the water, it started running rapidly across the top of the water! I had seen Messiah Lizards do that on nature shows but I guess even in Utah they know that trick. Cool!

A little farther up the canyon we hit a bad place in the trail that required some rock moving and careful navigation to get through a boulder field that had been churned up by flooding. We should have turned around then. But we didn’t. After all, those other tracks made it through and the trail looked much better on the other side.

Well the trail would get better, then get worse, and then better again. We kept going. At one point, the trail left the canyon and headed an area of water reeds that was obviously a place where springs were coming out of the hills. When it was time for the road to go back into the creek bed, the road dropped down a 15 foot embankment that almost straight down. Yikes! There was no way we were going to be able to get back up that! Now we were committed to go all the way through the canyon. But at that point the canyon was almost gone and we were in different country. The cliffs along the south side looked very much like the looming cliffs in Cathedral Valley in north Capital Reef National Park. We must be getting close.

Then we hit “The Bog”!

This was an area where a water seep entered from the south and made the mud and sand trail too soft for vehicle traffic. The trail narrowed because of a big rock in the middle of the creek and going to the north of the rock was much worse. The previous vehicles had obviously had major problems getting through there. We could see where a vehicle trying to get through the north side of the rock had gotten stuck and probably had to wench itself out or have help from another vehicle.

We looked the situation over and made some modifications to the trail next to the rock. I thought I could get through it if I moved fast enough. After getting a good run, I hit the bog and spit sticky mud everywhere. I just BARELY made it through. Another six inches longer and we would have been stuck for good. That was too close for comfort!

Now we are getting low on fuel and we still haven’t hit the park road. However, what is left of the canyon is much wider and the creek sometimes disappears into the sand completely. We must be getting close.

There were several areas of tall cliffs similar to the Capital Reef Cathedral Valley area. And just like the Capital Reef Park’s cliffs, they even had an occasional black dike cut through. This back dike is a layer of cooled lava that had been set on it’s end so that as the softer cliffs weathered away around them, it left this thin 10 to 20 foot wide fin of lava rock sticking up into the area.

As we approached one of these black dikes, we rounded the corner and discovered a large hole in the dike a short distance up the hill just before it disappeared into the cliff. The hole was big enough to be a Class B natural arch!

Black Dike In Cliffs

Black Dike Arch

Black Dike Arch panorama

Why didn’t we know about this arch? Why had we never seen this arch in any documentation! As far as we were concerned, this was a new discovery…. at least for us. REALLY COOL! Finding this arch made the whole trip worth while. David had another new natural arch to add to his Utah Arches web site.

We hiked up the hill so we could get a good picture with sky through the arch. It didn’t look like anyone had ever climbed that same hill to do the same thing.

Now the late afternoon shadows were getting long and we were really getting short of fuel. Naturally we were anxious about getting out of there. Still, we hadn’t hit the park road and our maps weren’t good enough to show us exactly were we where and what we still faced further down the trail. However, those other vehicles had made it so….

We got to another bad area where the trail was especially bad and getting muddy again. The road left the creek bed and cut a dugway up a steep hill. That is the direction the tracks left so we headed up the narrow dugway. As we topped we could see campers on the other side camped next to the creek. There were four vehicles and lots of people. They had obviously come in from the other side so we obviously weren’t far from the road we needed.

We drove down into the camp to get directions and a couple of guys split off from the campfire to talk to us. I rolled down the window and mentioned that we could use some directions. The guys just started laughing. They were hoping that we could tell THEM where they were. We then discovered that the tracks we were following were their tracks and they were completely lost. AHHHH!!!!!

I mentioned that we had been following their tracks thinking the trail went all the way through. One guy laughed and declared us to be the “unluckiest guys in the world”.

They had a slightly better map that we had and with GPS coordinates we were able to find exactly where we were on their map. It was still another five miles down a muddy canyon heading now south to reach another road…. but not the park road. The eight guys invited us to join them for the evening and it was obvious that they had come stocked with enough alcoholic beverages to REALLY enjoy their camping. There were liquor bottles everywhere!

We decided not to join them but thanked them. One guy wanted to know how we were able to get through “The Bog” in “that” vehicle but it was obvious from the amount of mud on the sides that we had.

We headed back over the dugway to try to pick up the trail again but going down the other side of the dugway turned out to be trickier that I could handle. We almost slide off the side and I finally ended up just pointing the Explorer down and making a new road. On the other side, following the creek bed was impossible because of rocks and a pool. The dugway was obviously a way to get past a bad area and we had to go back to the “Drunks” camp because that was the only way to get back into the creek. When going back over the dugway, David hung on the outside to help keep the Explorer from being pulled over the edge. Back at the “Drunk” camp, they had to move their sleeping bags off the bank to let us drive back into the creek bed. However, we didn’t go far when we could tell the creek bed was getting much less stable and the mud was worse. We stopped to walk down the creek a way. We didn’t go far before we found the creek bed un-passable because of a landslide. We had no choice but to turn around and go back out the way we had come.

So we turned around and drove back to the “Drunk” camp and had them move their sleeping bags yet again so we could drive up out of the creek bed. We tried to beg gasoline off of them but they were traveling with empty gas cans. They were sad that they were going to have to turn around and go back out the same way, too. However, they had some more drinking to do and that would help the situation at least for the night. We told them that we would go as far as we could and to please pick us up on the way back out tomorrow. We then headed back over the dugway, were David insisted on walking down the bad side.

By now it is mostly dark and the gas gauge was almost sitting on empty. But we couldn’t do anything but try to get out.

We were surprised at how soon we got back to “The Bog”. We got out and tried building up the worst parts with rocks but when it came time to zoom through it, the Explorer just slid sideways off the rocks and buried itself to the frame in the mud. We were then stuck in a major way.

At least we were stuck with the front sticking up so that sleeping in the laid back seats would almost be flat.

It was a beautiful almost-full moon night. I got out a small Army hand shovel and proceeded to at least do something while we awaited rescue the next day from the “Drunks”. We figured we could dig for a while, change diggers, rest or sleep when we were tired, dig some more and just enjoy the night. Then a couple of toads in the nearby creek started croaking (a very odd, low croak) which lent an eerie note to the evening. David kept swinging the flashlight over their direction and asking out loud if that sound was getting closer. The mind does strange things in the dark…. late at night…. in strange surroundings. We decided that before we went to sleep, we were going to have to pay a visit to those toads with large rocks.

Digging with the little Army shovel involved sticking the shovel into the mud and then prying it up again as the mud emitted a huge sucking noise. You then had to bang the shovel on a rock to get the mud to come loose. Then you could try another small shovel full. It was obviously going to be a long night.

Some time about midnight, David announced that he could hear voices. (Great! The croaking was getting to him.) We walked out in front of the Explorer to listen when we saw a while figure gliding down the creek bed towards us. (Great!! Now I’m seeing things!) Out of the darkness came four hikers, the first one wearing white shorts and a white t-shirt. They were lost and were REALLY glad to see us. However, they weren’t so happy when they discovered we were stuck in “The Bog”. We gave them water, energy drinks and a few snacks. Before long they were strong enough to want to help us get out of the bog.

These four hikers (Dan, Chris, Andrew and Brian) were in the 24 to 26 year old range and had spent the day repelling with ropes down Quandary Canyon. They had then mistaken the Salt Wash creek for what they thought was the Muddy River and were following it back to their camp at Hidden Splendor. When we explained that they were about 5 miles off and heading the wrong direction, they were REALLY glad to have found us. They had run out of food and water. They tried to drink water out of Salt Wash and discovered why the creek was given that name.

They also had a bunch of climbing ropes and webbing which they hooked up to the front of the Explorer so they could help pull. They did some digging, stuffed brush under the wheels and then proceeded to try to pull out. It moved the vehicle about 18 inches. We went back to digging and piling more brush. The second attempt actually got us out of the bog with lots of clapping and yelling afterwards.

We piled all of their packs along with our camera bags in the back, somehow stuffed four guys in the back seat of my two door Explorer Sport and proceeded to drive back down the canyon. We could go for a short distance until we got to a bad place in the trail where everyone would have to get out so I could navigate through the problem. When we got to the place where we dropped off the bank in a near vertical drop, we all agreed that we would never be able to get the vehicle up that spot. Everyone got out and I gunned it up the side and over the top…. barely. I didn’t let on how close the front wheels were to coming back over the top. I just let them think it was no big deal as we loaded up and headed across the top back to top the swampy area before dropping back into the creek bed again.

All the time we are watching the gas gauge until it can’t drop any further. The guys in the back seat created a Jewish gasoline chant recalling something like the Jewish miracle tradition of the oil in the lamps that lasted seven days after running out. After a few giggles they decide it may be borderline blasphemy at a time when we would be grateful for ALL types of help.

At one point we had to unload to get over some rocks and miss a rock overhang with a drop off on the other side. Everyone had just gotten back in when we hit a sharp rock and the left rear tire blew out. Everyone at the same time groaned loudly since we all knew exactly what had happened. You could have heard the groan in Hanksville. So now we have to unload, find all of the tire changing tools, crank a very muddy spare tire down from the underside, jack up the vehicle, pull the popped tire off, put the spare on and then put everything away again. Amazingly, with everyone doing something, it only took a few minutes.

As the remaining gas gets us a little further down the trail.

At one point, the trail crossed the stream and up a steep embankment. Surely we didn’t come down that! We would have remembered coming down that! We really had to search around in the dark before we realized that we must have come that way. With everyone out of the Explorer again, I drove through the stream up the embankment and then turn sharply up a side wash. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked.

We finally made it back to the bad rock field that I had really been dreading. Everyone got out and rebuilt some difficult spots that needed to be changed now that we were coming from the other direction. Will a little bumping and grinding, we made it through and soon were back at the spot where we had eaten lunch earlier that day. Before long, we were out of the canyon and back on good dirt roads again.

What a relief! At least, if we run out of gas here, we were more likely to have someone drive by the next day.

Then we hit another problem. We knew there were two roads that would take us back to the highway but we didn’t know where they were…. exactly. We decided to head south on the graded dirt road nearest the mouth of Salt Wash but after three or four miles it was plain it was heading the wrong direction and we had to turn around again. What a waste of precious gasoline!

We decided to head back to another cross road that we had passed earlier that day that I knew would head back to Hanksville but it was about five additional miles just to get to the turn off. Still we had to try to get as far as possible. Amazingly, we made it to the turn off and headed south past Factory Butte towards the highway.

Along the way we looked for campers that we might be able to beg gasoline from. At one point we topped a hill to find the ground on the west side of the road, littered with people sleeping in sleeping bags. We swung around so we could find a vehicle in our headlights. However, there were no vehicles. Nor motorized vehicles of any kind. Not even bicycles. Just a bunch of hikers spread out all over. As soon as we swung our lights over them, people started sitting up in their sleeping bags. What a way to get awaken in the middle of the night. What a strange place to find a bunch of hikers. They obviously couldn’t help us so we headed down the road towards the Hanksville highway again.

It was about 15 miles to the highway and we couldn’t believe it when we actually made it. A miracle…. Now there was nothing to do but head for Hanksville (another twenty miles or so) until we run out of gas and wait for the first vehicles to come by in the morning.

Several miles later, I drove up a long hill and the Explorer started to cough. I didn’t think we were going to make it to the top…. but we did. Then we could almost coast down the other size… and then several more miles down the road. And the Explorer just kept going.

Soon we were close enough to Hanksville that we could see lights and passed a few farms. But even if we somehow did make it to Hanksville, no one would be open to sell us gasoline. In fact, it was now Sunday morning. There might not be anyone open at all on a Sunday!

We drove into Hanksville amid much joyful howling. And there was the closed Hole-in-the-wall gas station with their gas pumps still lit up though the store itself was closed. We could get gas with a debit or credit card!

And just as I pulled into the gas station and up a little hill to the pump island, the Explorer coughed on it’s last gas fume and we coasted to a stop in front of the pumps.


Now the only thing that we needed (OK, I needed) was a can of Mountain Dew that I managed to get out of a pop machine in a nearby motel lobby. I also called home and left a message that we were OK and heading home. Then it was back on the road again as we promised to take our four hikers back to their camp at Hidden Splendor. It was now like 3 AM in the morning and it wasn’t long before the Mountain Dew started to kick in. It almost lasted until we got to the Hidden Splendor area.

We headed north from Hanksville to the turn off for Goblin Valley State Park. Instead of going to Goblin Valley, we continued west up the Temple Mountain road. At that point, I didn’t know how far it was to Hidden Splendor area but I thought it was fairly close. Actually, it was another hour of driving on the gravel road just to get to the turn off for Hidden Splendor! Then it was another 10 miles to Hidden Splendor itself! Doh! So much for heading home as soon as possible.

I had no idea where we were or what direction we were heading but the guys in the back seat pointed and I drove. We finally pulled down a narrow dirt road and it was declared that we had arrived. The guys invited us to their camp site to catch some sleep and eat before heading home. We declined. They headed off into the darkness, expressing their gratitude and we proceeded to look towards home. However, we were exhausted and needed at least a little sleep first.

Hidden Splendor is an old uranium mine inside the southeast rim of the San Rafael Swell. There was an airstrip built there and I saw the cement foundation of at least one previous building. It seemed to be a rather popular spot since we saw several campsites and a number of vehicles. We decided to pull down to the end of the runway and catch some sleep. It was pitch dark and we had no idea where we were.

A couple of hours later, it started to get light so I sat up to see where we were. WOW! We were parked at the end of the runway which was at the edge of a cliff! Before us was a beautiful expanse of cliffs, bluffs and the Muddy River below us. It was fantastic! As tired as I was, that was one of the most memorable sunrise experiences of my life! It was wondrous!

Hidden Splendor View

We quickly grabbed our cameras and took numerous pictures while enjoying the sun rise as it lit up the red cliffs. We soon discovered we were surrounded by blooming Sego Lilies so we spent some time also taking pictures of the flowers.

Soon the sun was up so we decided we had better head for home. There was only one problem. The sun had come up in the west. Or was it the north? We didn’t know what direction we were facing. I did know which road we came in on but everything looked different in the daylight. So off we went, not really knowing where we were heading

Along the way we saw a coyote, wild horses, mule deer and had to stop several times to take pictures of the wild flowers. We saw Family Butte in the distance, but not where it was suppose to be.

Family Butte

At some point we recognized the gravel road and our sense of direction corrected itself. However, I was going to need a lot more Mountain Dew to be able to drive home now that it was Sunday morning. So our first stop was in Green River where I loaded up with Mountain Dew and we grabbed something for breakfast. By the time we made it to the Price/Wellington area, I had to pull over for another nap. Then it was back to the Provo/Orem area where I had to explain my absence to a rather concerned wife.

What a great weekend!