(Published in July, 2002, Utah Outdoors magazine)
By Mark Reece
For those keeping score at home, try this fun little exercise: Go to the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages web site (www.gorp.com), pick out one of the 16 listed activities and see if it can’t be done in or around Moab.
Tough assignment, I know. Yet interestingly absent from this outdoor-adventure Internet site is the topic of off-road excursion, unless they’re trying to slip it into the “Driving/RV’s” category.
My point—already exhausted, I know—is that there is some major recreation going on down there, and one of the most exciting experiences in red-rock country requires no more than getting the right map, climbing into the right clearance vehicle and making sure the gas gauge reads right.
Which is exactly what two friends and I did upon the recent invitation of Land Rover Centerville/American Fork to attend the company’s annual off-road retreat to Moab. The outing featured two days filled with a dozen trails of varying degrees, events and Rover enthusiasts from around the Intermountain West.
Human-powered rec? Whatever.
With the sonic hegemony of Tool, Built to Spill and Jerry Joseph and the Jack Mormons reverberating off the interior of a borrowed 2002 Freelander, Alicia, Heidi and I set our sights on the Onion Creek wash and Pole Rim trails. These two stretches of off-road track are within 30 minutes’ drive of each other northeast of Moab.
Our guide was Bob Covington, a master technician from the American Fork dealership who was maneuvering a lifted 1996 Discovery with an impressive four-wheel drive pedigree.
Others involved in our caravan that morning included David and Debbie Croshaw, of Pocatello, Idaho, driving a stout Discovery Series II; Jennifer Rigby, a Salt Lake patent attorney, also in a Disco II; Robert Wilhite, a Land Rover market manager out of Seattle, with his dog, Lindsey, in a top-of-the-line Freelander HSE; Bob’s son-in-law and wife in a Discovery; and a tech from the Centerville dealership getting in some field time behind the wheel of a Freelander.
After introductions, obligatory safety instruction and off-roading 101 for the newbies (that’d be us), this six-pack of Rovers headed north from the motel parking lot out of Moab and then east on U-128 along the route of the incredibly low-level waters of the Colorado.
The turn-off for Onion Creek, which drains into the bigger river, is about 20 miles up the blacktop, is marked with a small, brown BLM sign and holds a large parking lot on the eastside of the graded dirt road that can be used as a staging area for mountain bikers or ATV and motorcycle enthusiasts—of which there were several dozen present throughout the day with the same idea in mind.
The main route that leads south is dotted with spacious BLM campsites, where the three of us later returned that afternoon and pitched a dome tent. After our day of treading, we then threw down our gear and spent the night surrounded by a dancing campfire and lambent, early summer sky that glimmered with shooting stars and overwhelming constellations. The microbrews and froufrou beers weren’t bad, either.
But I digress.
The Onion Creek trailhead really starts anywhere you want to turn around into the gulch from the various creek crossings within the steep, canyon-walled outer rim trail. You then merely follow the shin-high water through the 15- to 20-foot-wide chasms that span the towering rock back downstream to more of the several crossroads that switchback at various points near the beginning of the trail.
With black-streaked walls reminiscent of Powell’s Escalante arm, and jagged, water-carved sandstone overhangs every now and again, there were few obstacles that tested these British beasts of off-road repute.
Still, one large stack of protruding boulders in the middle of the waterway required some navigational instruction. With Bob guiding direction of the front tires, the Freelander spun for a moment as the four-wheel electronic traction kicked in, distributing power to the remaining three grounded wheels, powering the SUV in first gear through the water and we were off without much more effort.
The other Freelanders, along with the four-wheel drive Discovery models, then crawled along the rocks as well as the convoy continued down through the creek.
More tortuous switchbacks through perpetually wet, red sandstone washes, some showboating of horsepower through the larger openings of rushing water and we were back to the turnoff point near U-128’s scenic byway.
Our adventure in Onion Creek was only about 1.5 miles in distance on the odometer, but the stunning terrain and slow, methodical pace with which Bob guided made the time appear as if we had spent the entire morning in the gulch. In reality, it was only 10 a.m.
Next stop: Historic Dewey Bridge, about 10 miles farther east along the paved road, where we stopped for a bathroom break and then to a poorly graded turnoff southeast of the bridge that one map delineates as “Shura Road” and another labels “Entrada Bluffs.”
As we began this more technically challenging trail, the musical mood was established with some late-’80s brio courtesy of U2. While the Edge electrified the air, Bono cried out:
I wanna feel sunlight on my face
I see the dust-cloud
Disappear without a trace…
I'll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name
After being told by Bob to keep our thumbs pointed straight up on the steering wheel while driving “so you don’t break them when the wheel rips from your grip,” we headed through rugged landscape of bristlecone and sagebrush as baseball-sized rocks were being thrown out from the ruts by the BFGoodrich mud terrains.
About 40 minutes later through sometimes steep and hair-raising steps of abusive geology, we knew why this was a popular trail—the absolutely incomparable view.
Prior to the ascent, Bob had pointed out our objective at the Dewey Bridge stop—a series of power poles standing atop what appeared to be a treacherous bit of highland plateau with an elevation near 5,400 feet.
Once we reached these mammoth towers of steel and twisted cable, mere words still don’t do justice in describing the killer vantage: vertigo-inducing overlooks of the meandering Colorado River and parallel scenic U-128 byway, and the landmarks of Fisher Mesa, Castle Rock and the Priest and Nuns on the western horizon, presented on a more equal, but no less awe-inspiring setting at this elevation.
This was bad…tough…tight—whatever adjective-of-the-week you want to use.
But not too bad for the Rovers, it turned out, giving the vehicles their money’s worth and proving the trail was more typically “off-road” in response and flavor.
Gas up, anyone?
Sure, as the rest of the afternoon was spent with Alicia and Heidi recovering from the hard drive to and from Pole Rim, pizza at the new buffet in town and then a leisurely off-road loop on the west side of Moab that began at Jug Handle Arch and finished with Gemini Bridges. But that’s another story…
The Onion Creek trail turnoff and campground sites are about 250 miles south and east of Salt Lake City, and some 20 miles east of Moab. If coming from the north, travel about 1.5 miles beyond the Arches National Park entrance along U-191, cross the Colorado River bridge, then turn left (east) onto U-128 for about 20 miles. A brown sign on the south side of the highway marks the dirt road entrance into the gulch. The trail is not technically difficult, and most stock clearance off-road vehicles should be able to maneuver without much trouble.
For Pole Rim, travel another 10 miles or so east along U-128 to the Dewey Bridge, take the dirt road that heads south and the first fork that turns west. Follow the 2.5 mile southerly- winding trail to the power pole structures and be prepared to be left breathless by the view. This trail is more difficult in some spots, especially one major ascent near the beginning of the trail where clearance with no less than 8 inches should be attempted.