09-24-2021 Torrey to Blanding via Highway 95

It was chilly enough Thursday morning that we were happy to wear jeans and sweatshirts to breakfast.  At last the Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe was open for business. 

I have been coming to this restaurant since 1996, and it felt only a little bit tattered.  The beautiful gardens were a bit unkept, but the interior of the restaurant was as charming as ever.  I asked our waiter where the sand was, and he pointed to a closed area of the restaurant where the vials of colored sand from all over Canyon Country languished alone on the wall of an unused room.  No matter, at least they were still there.

We ordered breakfast, with eggs benedict for Dan and chicken fried steak for Chere, and a shared chicken fried steak for us.  Yum.  Nothing like country gravy on a cold morning.  I was so tickled to be in the restaurant once again, and bought one more tee shirt that had a petroglyph on the back and the name of the iconic restaurant on the front.  Who knows how much longer it will be in operation.

We were on the road before ten, thinking our day traveling to Blanding, Utah via Highway 95 would be uneventful.  We estimated a 3 PM arrival time.  I knew we would want to stop at the crossing at the Colorado River, and might decide to take a short loop drive around Natural Bridges National Monument along the way.

Traveling east from Capitol Reef on Highway 24 along the Fremont River is an experience in dramatic change.  The red cliffs of Wingate sandstone give way to the huge white domes of Navajo sandstone for which the park is named. 

Within a very few miles the road enters the bleak gray landscape created by the highly eroded gray hills of the Morrison Formation. Formed in volcanic ash deposits that have weathered to bentonite clay, the hills support no vegetation. 

Near Factory Butte we saw several groups of RVs boondocking with their 4-wheelers and trailers.  The Factory Butte area is perfect for ATV’s, with crazy landscapes, fun roads, and no vegetation to get in the way.  To the south, over the hills, I could see the high peak of Mt Ellen once again.  I can only imagine what a great landmark that mountain was to the people living in this part of the world before GPS, or even before paper maps.

Both rigs were well fueled, so we had no need to stop in Hanksville, and we turned south toward Lake Powell and Blanding.  Just as we left Hanksville a large blinking sign warned of a road closure at Milepost 115, at Cottonwood Wash.  Oh No!  Worst thing was that we had no phone signal, no reception to make a call to Dan to try to figure out what to do. 

If the road was closed, the only way to reach Blanding was to return to Hanksville, return to Highway 24 and I-70, and then to Highway 191, going south past Moab to Blanding.  The re routing would take hours, and more than 150 miles of extra travel.  I couldn’t reach Dan, and there was no turn around.   We drove quite a few miles before finding a place big enough for both rigs to pull over.

By the time we did, my offline maps were working, and I could see that while Highway 95 was closed, there was an alternate route at the intersection of Highway 95 and Highway 261 at marker 100 or so.  It looked open.  I knew I had driven 261 but couldn’t remember for sure if the Moki Dugway was on that part of the road or farther south.  We stopped and discussed the options and Dan was happy that he didn’t have to backtrack all the way to I-70 and then travel south from Moab.

We continued southeast on Highway 95, encouraged at our good luck finding an alternate route, but the Highway 261 route was worrying me.  I just couldn’t remember.

After driving through tall canyons of pink and salmon slickrock, we started going down in elevation toward Hite Crossing and the Colorado River.  We drove up to the large scenic viewpoint and the river canyon opened up to us below in a truly breathtaking view.

Lake Powell at Hite 2021

Lake Powell at Hite 2010

I have been reading enough about Lake Powell and how the drought has affected lake levels that I wasn’t horribly surprised to see the empty pool with boat launches high above the narrow channel of the Colorado River. 

Lake Powell north of Hite in 1993 first view of Mt Ellen from Cataract Canyon

When I rafted the river in 1993 the water level was very close to the bottom of Hite Bridge.  Not so now.  The lake is emptying much more quickly than it can refill in this extended western drought.  What was once under water was barren and exposed in the hot sun.  I walked out as far as I could for a more expansive view and knew I was seeing climate change up front and close.

We entered the highway once again, traveling  across the Dirty Devil River and then down to Hite Crossing and the Colorado.  Hite used to be the main take-out for raft trips through Cataract Canyon.  I am not sure how far downstream rafters must travel to exit the river now.

After crossing the Colorado we rose in elevation gently as we continued east toward Natural Bridges and our alternate route at Highway 261.  The landscape is expansive, so immense it defies description and photos cannot begin to capture the sheer expanse of red rock and wild canyons.

Along the route we entered the shifting boundary of the Bears Ears National Monument.  There is a rock formation called Jacob’s Chair, which I remembered from recent trips.  Another formation that I remembered showed up in the distance and I laughed with Mo and tried to remember if it was the Coffeepot or the Teapot.  I laughed a lot when I saw the sign pointing to the Cheesebox.  Good thing I wouldn’t have to remember the man made name to navigate the landscape by the location of this formation. 

In the distance, the Bears Ears mark the northern edge of the monument and Cedar Mesa, riddled with complex canyon systems and the location of the most concentrated occurrence of ancient dwellings, including kivas, lodges, and granaries.  Many are named and mapped and many more are waiting to be discovered in nooks and crannies of the mesa by adventurous hikers.  The one time I hiked a Cedar Mesa canyon I was rewarded with amazing dwellings, still containing pottery shards and dried corn cobs, and no sign of human disturbance.

We skipped an earlier plan to possibly visit Natural Bridges because we knew our detour would add time and miles to the journey.  When we arrived at the intersection, sure enough there were big barriers across the road, closed at Cottonwood Creek, just 15 miles distant.  We turned south and within minutes a large sign warned us that vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds were prohibited.

We were trapped.  I got sick to my stomach and my heart was pounding.  I had no clue how this was going to turn out.  I knew that Mo and I could do the cliff in our motorhome because we had done it before, even though we weigh about 14,000 pounds. I had no idea how Dan would manage the infamous narrow road that descends more than 1,000 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods in just four miles.

There are few pullouts along Cedar Mesa that have enough room for both rigs, but after a few miles we found a spot and pulled over.  Dan said his GPS unit was screaming at him….turn around…turn around….not for rv’s…no more than 5 tons….turn around!.  We talked a bit about our options and once again Dan decided that he would go for it.  I couldn’t remember for sure if there was a place to move over and unhook at the top of the dugway.  I was wrong.  We had to stop right in the middle of the road, put on our flashers, and unhook both cars to prepare for our descent.  Lucky for us, only one car passed us.  Pretty sure it was a government vehicle from the Department of the Interior, but he just slowed and went past us.  We decided he probably didn’t want to deal with the whole thing with Highway 95 being closed.

Mo went first in the MoHo and I followed next in the Tracker.  As Dan came along behind me I moved over so I wouldn’t interfere with whatever speed he needed to go to manage his gears and brakes to the best advantage.  Chere followed me in their tow car.  I tried to take some photos and got a couple of shots with the phone, but it wasn’t a particularly great thing to be doing while negotiatiating the road.

Moki Dugway in Utah Travel Guide This website about the Dugway is interesting, with lots of photographs and discussions about driving it.  In reality it isn’t that bad, and the website says that it can be easily negotiated by truck campers and small RV’s.  At 36 feet, Dan’s rig was not a small RV.  Check out the website for some great history, great photos, and best of all a video of the trip down the hill.

Once Dan rounded the first couple of switchbacks I could see that his 36 foot rig could easily make the turns and I finally relaxed. 

I even tried to enjoy the view a bit in between trying to see how far down Mo was and take photos.  When we reached the bottom there was a wide place to pull over and hook up the tow cars.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief, and when Chere got out of the car she said some words I have never heard her say before.

We were all elated and grateful that we had managed to negotiate the scary switchbacks and had avoided backtracking hundreds of miles because of the closed Highway.

Our route along 261 intercepted route 163 going north toward Bluff, Utah.  There were some gorgeous bluffs surrounding the small town and a few things to see but none of us were thinking of dawdling. 

Our campground in Blanding was just another hour north and we landed in the warm afternoon sun in time to settle in and have a relaxing glass of wine before we put supper on the table.  I pulled out a meat loaf from home, some broccoli to steam with melted cheese, and Chere made some garlic mashed potatoes and toasted garlic bread.  We have certainly been eating well on this entire trip and this evening was no exception after our exciting day.