Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trail Report: A Rubicon in the Moab

It’s Easter, and in the 4x4 world that means one thing, it’s Easter Jeep Safari week in Moab, Utah. If for some reason you are not aware of Moab, there is only one thing to know. For a week around Easter, this sleepy little town becomes the centre of the universe to the 4x4 community, much like Sturgis to the biker crowd, only with less leather and exposed mammaries, for the most part.

Anyone who has been to Moab, and the surrounding area will know why this event is as popular as it is. The beauty of the surrounding mountains and desertscapes is only surpassed by the spectacular challenges of anyone of the hundreds of trails that wind themselves through valleys, climb up rocky ridges and buttes and traverse great sandstone landscapes. Its canyon lands are the prelude the Grand Canyon, while rock towers and buttes litter the arid landscape, with regions of soft sand dunes thrown in for good measure. For those of us from the wet rain forests of the BC coast, Moab might as well be on another planet.

While the region is also a hot bed for mountain bikers, its popularity with four-wheelers began back in the days following World War II. You see, the entire region is riddled with fantastic 4x4 trails thanks to the uranium boom after the war. With the cold war ramping up, and the arms race right along side, uranium was needed in great quantities as the main ingredient in nuclear weapons. Well, Uranium was in great supply in the mountains around Moab, and as such, hundreds of mines were dug into these mountains. The rugged terrain meant that roads built to the mines were sketchy at best and required military surplus 4x4’s like the Jeep and Dodge Power Wagon.

Today however, the mines are all quiet, and the roads that lead to them now take four-wheelers on scenic and challenging tours of the beautiful landscape. I was in Moab with Jeep to test-drive Mopars project vehicles. As the Safari’s popularity has increased, Jeep uses the event to unveil project machinery as well as launch production vehicles. So with a Wrangler Rubicon in hand, I decided to do a little exploring with what little time off I had.

There are dozens of official trails used for the Safari, each with it’s own supervisor, as dictated by the local 4x4 club that holds the annual event. Groups need to register ahead of time for use of these trails do to the sheer number of vehicles in town, as well as the environmental sensitivity of the region. With the media, I had already explored two of these trails with Jeep and Dodge, the first day was spent in the dunes south of the town and the second on the Seven Mile Rim trail (Easy trails but we were in press vehicles). So while the groups stuck to the regular trails, I struck out on my own, finding a scenic 4x4 road leading up Onion Creek Rd.

That’s the beauty of Moab, the region is vast and the landscape provides a myriad of topographical features to explore. Turning off hwy 128, I had no idea where Onion Creek Rd. would take me, but one thing I was sure of, I would likely find new and interesting things along the way.

From 128, Onion Creek Rd. runs straight and flat across the Colorado River canyons floor, however it didn’t take long for things to get interesting. While most of the canyon has massive 800 to 1000 foot shear walls down to the river below, here, the creek has washed out a valley of its own, making for a gradual ascent up into the hills and high plateau abote. As soon as the road began to wind around large rocky outcropping, the route took me over several creek fordings as the road and creek crisscrossed each other into the hills. The rocky hills were soon becoming spires, tall thin rock towers that held large boulders precariously on top. It was a surreal scene making me think I was in a Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon, and would soon have an Acme rocket shot at me, or large rock dropped from above.

As I pressed on into the wilderness that was rapidly becoming more extreme, the creeks canyon walls seem to close in while the road narrowed to the point that the Rubicon was just wide enough to fit between the rock wall on the right, and the a hundred foot drop to the creek bed below on the left. The road was deteriorating as well, but still easy enough to get a car down; just don’t put a foot wrong or it’s all over.

Moving past the spires, the road became even more raised over the creek bed, however I was now up into much more gentler terrain. Rounding a corner, I was met with the side of a mountain, bright with several unnatural colors. However, the whites, grays, blacks and reds were all quite nature, proof positive that these hills are home to all manner of minerals, both dangerous and benign.

I pushed on up the road, finally reaching the high plateau above. The rugged and deadly chasm of rock was now replaced with a flat prairie of rock, sand and petrified dunes sitting 5,500 feet above sea level, and a sigh of satisfaction came over me at the sight. By no means was the trail a challenge to either my driving abilities or that of the Rubicon. No, it was the experience of exploring, what seemed to me, to be an entirely different world. The foreign landscape and vegetation, odd rock formations and alien colors all made me feel like an explorer laying claim to a strange new land. For anyone who owns anything with 4WD, Moab is an experience that is sure to be treasured.

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