San Juan River to Cedar Mesa, Utah in January

January 26, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Moki Dugway View in WinterMoki Dugway View in WinterView from the upper portion of the Moki Dugway series of switchbacks on Utah-261 as it climbs from the San Juan River Valley up onto Cedar Mesa in southern San Juan County, Utah.

January in southern San Juan County, Utah. A good winter, moisture wise: the mountain watersheds have about twice the normal amount of water content, projecting a lush green springtime.

In the meantime I enjoy the wintry views. Snowy in the high elevations, dry below.

Sand Island Launch Site - San Juan River, UtahSand Island Launch Site - San Juan River, UtahPicnic area overlooking the San Juan River at Sand Island Recreation area, Utah.

From the San Juan River town of Bluff I drive west on US 163 to the Bureau of Land Management's Sand Island Recreation Area. A ranger station (closed for the winter), boat launch on the river, and campground. Nobody around.

Boat Landing, Sand Island, San Juan River, UtahBoat Landing, Sand Island, San Juan River, UtahThe lower San Juan River at Sand Island Recreation Area, between Bluff and Mexican Hat, Utah, in January.

The site also has the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, a fantastic sandstone wall of ancient inscriptions pecked into the patina (dark coating on the rock). Most of the inscriptions are 700 to thousands of years old.

Sand Island Petroglyph Panel Interpretive SignSand Island Petroglyph Panel Interpretive SignAn interpretive sign at the parking area for the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel at Sand Island Recreation area, southeast Utah.

Petroglyph Panel, Sand IslandPetroglyph Panel, Sand IslandPetroglyphs (inscriptions, figures pecked into rock) at Sand Island Recreation Area in southern San Juan County, Utah. Rock Inscriptions, Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, UtahRock Inscriptions, Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, UtahFigures pecked into the sandstone face of the cliff at Sand Island Recreation Area on the San Juan River in southeast Utah.

From Sand Island I return to US 163 and head further west. Through the cut at Comb Ridge, the last frustrating barrier to the Hole In The Rock Expedition of Mormons that settled the town of Bluff. More on that later in this post.

A few miles before reaching the hamlet of Mexican Hat, I turn north on Utah-261, a mostly paved and flat highway connecting 163 with Utah-95. It will cross the length of Cedar Mesa while it does so.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, UtahGoosenecks of the San Juan River, UtahThe view of the river far below from Goosenecks State Park, near Mexican Hat, Utah.

Utah-261 passes the entrance road to Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park, overlooking the deepest entrenched meander in the world. That's more of the San Juan River down there, looking infinitely different than it did between the low bluffs at Sand Island.

Utah-261 Approaching the Moki Dugway and Cedar MesaUtah-261 Approaching the Moki Dugway and Cedar MesaHighway 261 warning sign as it approaches the Moki Dugway switchbacks up onto Cedar Mesa.

Approaching the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa on Hwy. 261, you are greeted by warning signs that there are steep, narrow switchbacks ahead. Not recommended for trucks, RVs, trailers. Why? Look. You will go from down here up onto that mesa. How, you ask? You will find out. On the Moki Dugway, Above San Juan River ValleyOn the Moki Dugway, Above San Juan River ValleyHalfway up the Moki Dugway section of Utah-261, looking down on the San Juan River Valley portion of the highway.

This section of Hwy. 261 is called the Moki Dugway. A "dugway" is a section of road that had to be excavated ("dug") out of the hillside. By hand, or using heavy equipment, and explosives, whatever it took. Other than this section, Highway 261 is paved and very gentle.

The Moki Dugway Switchbacks, Cedar Mesa, UtahThe Moki Dugway Switchbacks, Cedar Mesa, UtahA viewpoint on the Moki Dugway section of Utah Highway 261, overlooking the lower switchbacks above the San Juan River Valley.

Once on top, you have about 25 miles of lonely Cedar Mesa to look around at, with its high desert pygmy forest of Pinon Pine and Utah Juniper trees.

Utah 261 ends at its intersection with Utah-95, the highway from Blanding to the Colorado River in Glen Canyon and beyond to Hanksville. On this day, it was snowy again. Snow showers, the road surface lightly coated but not too bad.

Utah-95 on Cedar Mesa, JanuaryUtah-95 on Cedar Mesa, JanuaryHighway 95 on Cedar Mesa in San Juan County, Utah in January.

Turning east toward Blanding I come to the high point, elevation 7,110 feet at Salvation Knoll. There is a turnoff there with a new (2016) commemorative display of interpretive signs honoring the Hole In The Rock pioneers that traversed this then-wilderness with families, wagons, and livestock on their way to settle Bluff, Utah on the San Juan River.

Salvation Knoll, San Juan County, Utah in JanuarySalvation Knoll, San Juan County, Utah in JanuaryThe turnout on Utah-95 at Salvation Knoll, commemorating the hill where Mormon scouts of the Hole In The Rock Expedition arrived on Christmas Day 1879 to re-orient themselves as to possible routes for the wagons across Cedar Mesa.

Why is it called Salvation Knoll? Because ahead of the main party of wagons there were scouts looking for the most feasible route across Cedar Mesa, having already crossed the Colorado River in Glen Canyon at the perilous Hole In The Rock crack down to the river.

Those Mormon scouts, out of food and in the snow of late December, were lost and seemingly close to despair. On Christmas Day in 1879 they climbed a nearby hill to try to get their bearings on this vast landscape. From this point they could see the Abajo Mountains to the northeast. That sighting gave them confidence as to where they were. So they called it Salvation Knoll.

And on this January day in 2017 I took some more photos of what it might well have looked like to them then, hungry and cold but intrepidly carrying on for the good of the rest far behind them.

There were a lot more hardships for the pioneers to overcome before they reached what would become the Bluff townsite. Amazingly, not a single person died on the journey, and besides that two babies were born. Salvation Knoll, Cedar Mesa, UtahSalvation Knoll, Cedar Mesa, UtahHole In The Rock Expedition interpretive signs at Salvation Knoll overlooking Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

Photo location: southern San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

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