By Chris Watkins
I was breathing a mixture of air and fine particles of red dust. Reed was ahead of me, pumping his pedals toward the loose ground. The rock walls of the slot canyon kept shrinking until we were without shade, but now we could see the ridges and jagged spires of Temple Mountain. It was our only day on the trail and we were anxious to soak in as much of the auburn-colored landscape as we could.
Located about four hours southeast of Salt Lake City, Temple Mountain is 6,773 feet tall, capped with spectacular fissures, and best known for its contribution of uranium to the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bombs. The mountain is part of the intricate San Rafael Reef, a 56-mile arm of sandstone that is shaped like the most rugged right triangle you have ever seen.
On my first visit to the reef, I went to Little Wild Horse Canyon where I enjoyed twisting and squeezing through numerous wedges and slots before reaching the sheer cliff edge of the reef’s western side. This time around, I wanted to find a place where I could take my bike and explore a different part of the monstrous sandstone upheaval.
It was a warm early spring afternoon when I eagerly rushed home to gather up all of my gear and stuff it into my truck. There was some order to my frenzied packing because I had to make room for my two friends, Dave and Reed. I needed this trip for my own reasons, but I was grateful to have Dave and Reed along, especially because they were both counting down the days until moving out of state. But as I stood staring at the growing heap of camping and biking gear in the back of my shiny red Cherokee, I recalled a quote from Thoreau, who wrote that a person who journeys alone can move at his own pace, but in the company of others, you must wait.
No matter how hard I try to plan ahead, it seems I never can get out of town fast enough. Despite doing a good job of gathering food and selecting the necessary gear, our bikes slowed us down. But it's amazing what is possible with a little determination... and about 10 yards of rope.
After loading the three bikes onto a rack designed for two, Reed hoisted the sagging bikes up and toward my Jeep while I wrapped rope around the bike frames and sloppily tied a knot to my useless rooftop rack. Dave contributed by softly chuckling at the incompetence of our efforts.
After a good 20 minutes of tugging, knot-tying and finagling, we were ready to hit the road… but not for long. We hadn’t made our necessary stop at REI (which a lot of people know can never be limited to only a five-minute visit), where I purchased a Utah Atlas and skimmed through a Utah biking guide so that I would be able to steer us directly to our intended camp spot at Temple Mountain.
We were in and out of the store in less than 30 minutes (I believe this to be a success—maybe even a record), but as we hopped into my Jeep, I was overcome by the thought, that horrible fear, that I was going to get stuck in Friday evening southbound traffic and never reach my destination. But to my surprise, we had an easy time getting out of the valley.
My journey south couldn’t have come at a better time. I had recently graduated and started a new job, and I was desperately trying to find a new apartment that would allow pets. It’s times like these, when I feel overwhelmed by my social responsibilities, that Utah’s wilderness has provided me with the greatest sanctuary.
As we breezed by the Provo Towne Center, I grinned at the thought of trading those manmade spires for the sandstone kind that man will never be able to replicate. I pushed my gas pedal down a little harder.
The farther I got from Salt Lake, the less I dwelled on a specific concern or worry. It is always a gradual process, though. I was experiencing that enveloping anxiety when I realize that, for a weekend, I am putting aside all my daily responsibilities and journeying to a place where there is nothing I can do about them.
I continued this slow adjustment process as we breezed past sandstone protrusions and vast expanses of flat desert floor. Whether it was an enormous mesa or an isolated butte shaped like an anvil, there was never a moment of boredom. It wasn't long before I became more interested in trying to figure out how a certain sandstone formation was created than mulling over the fact that it is almost impossible to find a rental that will allow dogs. Before I knew it, we where turning off Hwy. 24 onto the Temple Mountain/Goblin Valley Road.
As we drove down the fine, red-dust road, the last rays of sunlight were gently dimming the west side of the mountain with a peaceful and delicate orange patina. With its bloated foundation and distinctly tiered pinnacles, it is clear why Temple Mountain was named for its resemblance to the Mormon temples in Manti and Salt Lake City.
Enthralled with our new surroundings, we continued down the road (which by now had become the dirt Chute Canyon Road), attempting to visually digest the fantastic formations and colors that seemed to pop up around each corner and behind each mesa. Finally, doing our best not to get too greedy by trying to absorb it all on the first night, we returned to the base of the Temple and set up our tent.
Once the fire was going, we began talking in an attempt to be social but eventually realized that silence isn't a bad thing. I scrambled up onto a sloping mesa just above the campsite and sat there awhile, alone and calm, listening to the occasional gusts of wind. The only other sound was from the soft chatter between Dave and Reed. "Yeah, there's a lot I have to do before I head out to Seattle," I heard Reed say as if I was right next to him.
As the sun rose the next morning, I unzipped the front of our tent. The clean-cut edges and enormous base of Temple Mountain were in perfect view. I hopped up and began boiling water for oatmeal. Dave and Reed followed as soon as the smell of breakfast reached them in the tent. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun continued to rise steadily while we made our final preparations for the ride.
I slung my daypack over my shoulders and eagerly began pedaling with all the joy of a kid racing off to a friend’s house. I could see the accenting ridge and the abandoned uranium mines on the Temple's southern end. To each side of me, the rock surfaces fluctuated in color between the familiar red sandstone so common in the desert and the goldish-yellow hue of slickrock.
The air had a chilly bite to it that made me want to work harder on my bike while blazing over the soft, loose dust. Dave’s arms grew some unexpected goosebumps that were evident because of his sleeveless T-shirt. Once we came to the paved Goblin Valley Road we got on a trail that started on the southeastern rim of the mountain.
From this side, the San Rafael Reef ran parallel to us as we headed across a smooth, packed trail that led a mile and a half through a flat area mainly vegetated by low-lying scrub oak and juniper. We came around a bend and were met by a fork in the path. Before Dave got the question "Which way do you think we should go?" out of his mouth, Reed had started turning toward the trail that pointed west and directly into the reef.
Entering the reef, we pushed through a two-inch layer of sparkling gray sand that seemed to directly challenge our decision to stay on this particular trail instead of heading back in search of a different and easier route. The canyon narrowed to the point that I had to make an effort not to scrape my right bar-end across the sandstone wall, which had already been marked with horizontal patterns by water from long ago.
Reed rode ahead, and his determination made me wonder what was going through his head. Was he mulling over the many things he needed to take care of for his big move? I wasn’t sure, but he seemed lost inside himself and completely content to be in that space. Could it be that he too needed an escape?
The narrowed walls directed us deeper into the reef. We had made up our minds that this was the trail we wanted to explore, so the only place left to go was forward, hoping that an environment so beautiful would not lead us into a 50-foot chasm.
We pedaled slowly across the heavy sand. Our lack of speed didn’t bother me because it allowed for better looks at the scenery and the chance to take some pictures. I told my friends to ride at their own pace so they wouldn’t have to wait each time I took my camera out, but it didn’t seem to matter to them. Whenever I clicked out of my pedals to stop, they used the opportunity to listen and absorb the environment that was all around us.
We continued on and came across a park ranger who explained that we were in fact on our desired loop. We didn’t know too much about the area so we were grateful to learn about an old mining area at North Temple Wash, located near the foundation of the mountain. He also advised us to check out a set of petroglyphs that we had missed when we drove in. The chance to explore any cave is enticing to me, and I had never seen a petroglyph up close.
I pushed hard through the sand and across the sections of slickrock. At each corner I looked for the imposing peak of Temple Mountain so that I could estimate how much farther I thought we had until we reached its base. Intrigued, I noted the many ways the shape and feel of the mountain changed each time we advanced and our point-of-view changed.
We came to an opening where two old and battered mining shacks remained. The area surrounding the shacks was a mess of shattered glass and rusted tin and steel, which made for a fascinating mixture of forgotten industrial debris and the imposing enormity of Temple Mountain’s bulbous base and ragged peaks.
After I took some pictures of a rusty old car that had been sprayed with bullets, we spotted three mine openings and rode up to one of them. I peered in and inhaled the cool air and unfamiliar scent. It smelled like a combination of moist stone and the dank, chemical-like odor of uranium. I went inside to examine the supporting bars that had been driven into the rock ceiling at 45-degree angles. When I looked down and noticed a red canister that appeared to be an explosive, I felt a sudden rush of nervousness and scurried out of the mine.
Dave's eyes became wide, and with a reluctant grin he simply said, “Time to go.”
Outside the mine, I snapped some frames of Reed pausing for a moment with the juniper-covered, collapsed bowl of the San Rafael Swell stretching out beneath him. The remains of a wooden chute once used to guide the uranium ore down to waiting trucks weakly clung to the rocky mountainside. I imagined battered trucks pulling in, filling up with the profitable mineral that miners sent sliding down the trough, and then slowly rolling over the bumpy sand track on the way out. I later learned that the miners were so efficient with this process, and the mountain so rich with uranium, that in 1951 Temple Mountain produced almost $11 million worth of ore.
At this point, we were the closest we had been to the slopes of Temple Mountain. We began pedaling again and found that this was the most demanding portion of the ride.
We could see three trails, all of which went up and around the Temple, but we couldn’t tell which was the right one or if any of them connected. We tried the first two, and by process of elimination, finally got on the trail that would take us to the northern side of the mountain. This is where we made our last stop on the loop.
We kept our wheels moving, but slowly. After a few minutes, we spotted a mine that looked impossible to get to because it was a good 50 feet above us with no visible paths leading to it. Silvery tailings had spread and connected with the light cream and red colors of the hardened sandstone. The trail began to descend and we picked up speed. I was excited to do some downhill, especially because most of the loop had been slow and flat, so I took off and began riding as fast as I could.
I felt like a kid learning about the freedoms a bicycle could offer and realized that not much had changed. Here I was, many years later, still using a bike to leave my frustrations behind. I continued to gain speed and the trail opened up to about five yards in width, which was plenty of room to ride fast and negotiate small rocks and tight turns. I continued twisting and tearing down the trail until I recognized our camping area. As I coasted gently to the campsite, I grinned. This area provided the perfect remedy for the stresses I had wished to escape.
That evening, I thought about what had changed between then and when I had first arrived at Temple Mountain. I didn’t gain any sudden flashes of realization on this trip showing me the answers to all of my dilemmas, but I didn’t expect to find any. My time in the desert gave me the opportunity to recharge my batteries and calm my thoughts, which was exactly what I’d needed. I wondered about Dave and Reed, and what the trip had provided them.
“So, what do you guys think?” I asked. “Awesome” and “fantastic” were the two responses I received. We were all staring into the fire, feeling no obligation to say more than necessary. I leaned back against my rock pillow and tilted my head back. There was enough light on the horizon to see the curvature of the sky, which made the bright white stars appear as if they were right on top of me.
When we left our camp the next morning, we stopped near the fringe of the reef and looked at the petroglyphs we had missed on the way in. The maroon figures, with their wide bodies, small heads, arms and legs, look like a child’s rendition of a life led by earlier peoples. It’s such a humbling feeling to stand at the base of the monstrous, sheer sandstone wall and stare curiously at the artwork, trying to answer questions like, "How old are they?" and "What tools where used to make them?" We also observed an unfortunate layer of charcoal graffiti smeared across the surface of the petroglyph scene. After I promised myself I would do some more research on the area, we hopped back in the truck and were off.
The last delay came when Dave asked if we could stop so he could take a picture of a warning just before you enter the reef. The sign explains that you shouldn’t enter the mines because there might be some radon, a radioactive material, and abandoned explosives. So be careful and stay out of the mines, and if you happen to miss the warning sign, as I did, you’ve now been warned — and won’t have to hope your friends will watch out for you, unlike mine!