March 27, 2019.
Unlike basically every other night where wind and snow were possible in the forecast, this night turned out to be just as pleasant as the last , and when my alarm went off for sunrise, I was well-rested and ready to see what the day had in store.
I wasn't disappointed.
And, I was lucky. After snapping a few photos around camp, a high cloud cover began to develop, and I took the cue to climb back into bed for a couple more hours of shut-eye. That turned out to be a great thing since - as we all got up, had breakfast, and got ready to go - the cloud cover was already burning off, another day of blue sky on order.
Just as we were about to go, the shadow of a contrail catching our eye.
Back in our trucks and our path to the south blocked, we headed east - back the way we'd come - through Bobby's Hole and towards Elephant Hill. We had quite a few miles to cover, but we are all looking forward to it - the landscape something we could take in again and again.
Back in Canyonlands, we made good time, knowing that we had a lot of ground to cover before we'd see new trail - the second half of Elephant Hill, the only bit we hadn't run when we came in a few days earlier. Still, as we approached the needles, we did pause to take a quick photo here and there.
And of course, whenever we can, we do our best to be good stewards of the environment - Monte (@Blackdawg) hopping out and carefully navigating around the desert crust to pick up a stray Mylar balloon.
A seemingly small action - we'd all picked up stray trash on this trip - it turned out that we were all in for a surprise. We'll never know if it was his or Devin's (@MissBlackdawg) idea, but the strangest voice came over the CB a minute or so later. It was high-pitched and squeaky, and we could tell that Monte was as surprised as the rest of us when he informed us, "This helium is really stale. It tastes terrible. What was I thinking?"
LOL. I found myself wondering what he was planning to say before sucking in that stale air!
A good laugh all around, we continued on - eventually reaching SOB Hill - the only place where there'd been any paint left on the trail so far. Not sure if going up would be harder than coming down, I jogged up to capture each of our attempts at the ledge-y turn.
Monte was up first, making his way through with a bit of tire spin - the lack of lockers not causing him any real trouble.
Brett and Heather (@BossFoss, @MrsFoss) were up next - a 3-point turn and strategic tire positioning making quick work of the situation.
Brent (@PcBuilder14) followed suit - his longer 3rd gen needing a couple more pivots to clear the corner, but once again performing amazingly well for a stock Tacoma. Everyone should really take note as to how capable this truck is, right out of the showroom.
I brought up the rear, taking a similar line to Brett, with a similar result. The truck performed admirably, though tight turns like this make it obvious that I need to do something with the placement of the remote resis for the new ADS coilovers - the 4Runner wheels bringing the tires inboard enough that they rub when I'm near full lock.
And with that, we sped off - a nice little stretch of smooth, dusty trail leading us towards the Confluence Overlook and our turn back towards Elephant Hill.
Now closer to that trail, someone - I don't recall who - asked why the trail was called Elephant Hill. None of us knew, but it got us all thinking - is there some elephant we should be seeing in the needles or hoodoos around us?
Not long after, Devin spotted this guy. Some internet research upon my return suggested that the trail is named either for the initial climb and descent or for a series of three elephants that can be seen in rock formations with the right lighting conditions, but I think this rock formation is quite clearly a better icon - a clearer elephant head+truck would be harder to find.
Our last step before new ground was to head down the Silver Steps one more time. This is a fun section of trial that makes it's way over the slickrock and gets the trucks a little flexy-twisty. In fact, while I found this entire trail to be fun - and while there are definitely more challenging parts - I think this is the most enjoyable part. Plus, the views in front of you while you're there...
And with that, we made the right-hand turn away from the Confluence Overlook, and onto the one-way return section of Elephant Hill - this section allowing us to avoid a traffic jam at the The Squeeze.
Just as we started this section of trail, we heard Monte over the CB, "We've got a Jeep up ahead." It was obviously going the same direction we were, but it was going slow. A family of four, they had two occupants out of the Jeep spotting it over most of the trail - the driver taking it slow and steady.
They eventually found a place to pull over and we cruised by - our trucks making quick work of the terrain - and as we passed, we each stopped to chat with them for 30 seconds or so - just to say hi and thanks, and encourage them in their adventure. Turns out that they were in a rental Jeep, and here for the dad's birthday - the whole off-road experience, his birthday present!
Now that's cool.
As we left them to learn together and make their way along after us, I think we were all pretty sure that we'd stay far enough in front of them that we wouldn't see them the rest of the day. It's a good thing we didn't take a bet on that!
It wasn't long before we neared the end of the one-way section of trail, a climb up and out of the canyon the last bit before reaching the up-and-over section of trail that would spit us out at the parking lot.
Of course, that up-and-over section was also the section that contained the switchbacks that require a forward - backward - forward approach given the tightness of the turns, and it was definitely a strange experience to see another truck backing up the trail in front of me as I was making my way up forward.
Of course, we all made it up reasonably quickly - the trail very steep, but with reasonably good grip for the rubber under our trucks. As we did, who did we see coming up the trail behind us?
Yep, you guessed it! Rental Jeep Family!
Interested to see what would happen and make sure everything was OK, we decided to hang out while they navigated this section of trail - and it was a good thing that we did. Naturally, they started up the switchbacks forward...but then didn't pull forward at the first turn in order to back up the middle climb.
Yelling from their fan club (us) ensued - and after assuring them that we were in fact serious that they needed to back up one of the switchbacks - they were able to make their way up to the middle pad of the hill, the dad and daughter in the truck, the mom and son spotting.
But then, they reached the steep spot. The line here wasn't obvious - what looked right was in fact light in the traction department - and after several attempts and much wheel spin, it was clear that they were going to need a bit of help.
First, we suggested locking the rear differential - that would have solved everything. Unfortunately, neither they nor we had any idea where the switch to complete that task was - all of us reasonably oblivious to the internals of a modern Jeep. Instead, Monte helped spot the dad through a different line, and despite being a bit uncomfortable with the line (because it seemed wrong to someone without much experience), it popped the Jeep right up the trail.
To say the family was thankful would have been an understatement. For all of us, I think it was a nice feeling - being out here, helping a family that was new to off-roading, seeing them have a great time learning and enjoying the outdoors.
We bid farewell once again, wishing them a great rest of their trip and - after a short wait for an unprepared Ford Excursion to turn around and beeline back to 2WD land on it's way up the first hill - headed down to the parking lot and ultimately the visitor center where we prepped our rigs for the miles of pavement we had ahead.
All aired up, we got on the road and headed south - the time just after 1:00pm. Only one of us had been smart enough to make a sandwich while we had a few minutes of downtime and access to the beds of our trucks, and it wasn't me - though I was assured over the radio that we'd stop to eat somewhere around Blanding.
It was 2:15pm by the time we reached Blanding, and pulled into the local gas station to feed our trucks. Now hungry, I should have followed Heather's earlier example and simply made a sandwich while the rest of the crew restocked at the convenience store, but my brain must have been low on blood sugar because by the time I realized that's what I should have done, we were back on the road and headed towards dirt.
That transition though afforded me an opening. As we aired down, I quickly grabbed a few snacks and inhaled them - happy for the tire deflators I use, which not only seem to be fast compared to the other solutions I've seen, but also allow me to be reasonably inattentive while my tires reach their desired pressure.
With 17psi in our tires, we were now enjoying a plusher ride as we made our way north - back into the mountains - towards Over-Under Ruin, and eventually towards Bears Ears, where we hoped to camp for the night. We sped along, the road in good shape at this point - only a couple muddy water crossings slowing our pace.
Normally for me, these would have been nothing but great fun, but I'd noticed on the first day of the trip that my passenger side CV boot had finally torn - just like the driver side had on our previous trip to Anza-Borrego. So far, we'd stayed out of water - a good thing - but there was no avoiding it here. I took it slow - hoping there was still enough grease in the joint to prevent too much water intrusion - and carried on. After-all, that'd seemed to have worked the last time, and at least I was familiar with the fix!
It was 4:00pm when we reached the trailhead for Over-Under Ruin. "This one's really short." announced Monte - which was true, though he forgot to mention the 700-foot elevation drop in the half-mile or so to the site! Typical.
We weren't turning back, so we made our way down - the name of the site appropriate for what we saw as we crested the final ridge before dropping down into the canyon.
These two caves part of a larger series of ruins built into the cliff-side, apparently used by Native Americans as hunting and ceremonial dwellings. We quickly scampered up the first cave we came to - excited to see what it had in store.
The cave housed the ruin of a granary, several pictographs and petroglyphs, and a few shards of ancient pottery. And, while not in amazing shape, these were definitely in better shape than those we'd seen in Beef Basin the day before so we spent some time poking around and checking everything out thoroughly.
And then, we had a choice to make - up-canyon to Over-Under, or down-canyon to another cave with more ruins? Full of anticipation for Over-Under, we chose up-canyon, Brett and Heather watching from above as we followed the faint trail to the caves.
Only the "under" ruin of the Over-Under is accessible today, and we spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how access had originally been gained to the"over." In the end, we decided that perhaps a rope ladder had been the main means of access, and we made a mental note to bring our own 75' extension ladder the next time we were in the area.
We poked our head in and around the ruin for a while longer, wondering what each of the small rooms had been used for - each of them seemingly only large enough for a child - and we got our first look at a well-preserved "second story." We'd seen the wooden beams that supported this story in Beef Basin the day before, but here in the cave, things were much better preserved. On the beams, layers of leaves and bark formed the base of the floor - keeping it from falling down on the occupants below. Then, more rocks and mud on top of that created a solid floor. Solid construction that's sort-of lasted hundreds of years.
Cognizant of the time - and the fact that we had a "short" 700' climb back to our trucks - we decided that we'd better get going, deciding to skip the other caves - something that would nag at us later - what if that last cave had been the coolest?!
By the time we got back it was nearly 5:30pm and we had some decisions to make. The plan had been to visit another ruin site - Lewis Lodge - and then camp somewhere around Bears Ears - but with only a couple hours of light left, we weren't sure we were going to make it.
In retrospect, the light shouldn't have been our main concern - the view telling us that perhaps something else would cut our plans short.
Oblivious to the obvious, we forged ahead - the trail continuing up into the mountains, our speed high to make the best time we could. For some reason, I was leading at this point - I think perhaps that Monte's tablet had stopped working or something - and pretty soon it became clear that our time crunch wasn't going to be due to visiting another ruin. It was going to be due our needing to backtrack again, our route through the Manti-Lasal Forest to Bears Ears blocked once again by snow.
Our evaluation here was quick, the conclusion the same as the previous day - with another 1500' of elevation to gain - and slippery, snow-covered mud on the road - there was no way that this was happening. So we got the trucks flipped around and high-tailed it back the way we'd come - all the way to Blanding, and back onto the highway.
Having decided not to air back up, our hour-or-so drive into a headwind towards Natural Bridges National Monument made me realize how much the truck really does prefer 40psi over 17psi when travelling at speeds over about 35mph - it was a slog! We stopped only once along the way at a road-side "ruin," it's construction amazingly modern - colored concrete between the stones, bits of metal embedded into the floors.
"Reinforced ruins." Made us all glad that we'd gotten to see the real thing several times already, as we wondered how many people saw these and nothing else.
As sun got lower on the horizon, we decided it was time to find camp. Luckily for us, Monte and I had been here just a few months earlier and knew of a couple roads with dispersed camping that we could take advantage of. Of course, our first choice was already taken, but after splitting up and searching around, we made our way to a perfectly nice spot - Bears Ears rising above us in the distance.
Positioned in camp, we got everything deployed and dinners made in our now-normal timely fashion, the sky going through it's magical transition above us.
Monte had a fire going in no time, and as we all gathered around to eat what we'd prepared, we marveled at what we'd seen and commiserated about what we'd missed - snow having kept us from what was supposed to be one of the coolest ruins on the trip - Lewis Lodge. Oh well, just another reason to return!
Conversation soon turned to our plans for the next day - our last full day together - and one where we planned to do something we'd wanted to do the last time we were in this area - hike down into Natural Bridges National Monument to get up close and personal with some of the spectacular geology it had to share.
It was going to be another long hike - 8 miles if we believed our "guide." And for some reason we did, despite the evidence to the contrary on the trip so far, none of us quick enough to put two and two together - perhaps the sunset distracting us from what should have been obvious...
Not that it would have mattered - we loved the adventure. We sat around the camp fire enjoying each others company and eyeing Brent's smores for a couple hours before finally calling it a night, excited to see what the next day would bring, not knowing that it would be more than we could have ever expected.