US Road Trip Day 14.2 – Gold, Diamonds and Sinking Freeways

In preparation for our trip from Moab to Kanab I had consulted several travel guides and all of them, without exception, had extolled the beauty of Highway 12. The only mention of Highway 24 I’d found, however, was as the road you take to reach Highway 12, so I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that Highway 24 is one of the most startlingly beautiful drives I have ever taken. The route is a hundred and sixty mile road that starts near Green River on I-70 and loops south along the eastern side of San Rafael Reef, passing by Goblin Valley State Park, Capitol Reef State Park and Dixie National Forest before turning north and joining up with I-70 again near Salina.

From Green River, we were travelling 90 miles along Highway 24 before turning off onto Highway 12 and had no idea what to expect. I was acting as navigator with my nose buried deep in the trusty AAA Trip Tik we had printed out before leaving Seattle, when I heard Jill gasp. I looked up and gasped too at the strange beauty that surrounded us. Out the right window sprang unearthly-looking rocky outcrops in black and yellow. Out of the left window I saw red rock formations as grand as any at Arches, but these were just hanging out on the side of the highway with as much nonchalance as the diners and 7-Elevens that line highways elsewhere in the US. And up ahead, looming ever larger, were the most spellbinding powder blue mountains veiled in mist. highway 24 utah road trip us usa america highway 24 utah road trip us usa america highway 24 utah road trip us usa america highway 24 utah road trip us usa americahighway 24 utah road trip us usa america henry mountains

We couldn’t take our eyes off those mountains and we didn’t have to, because although the highway wove this way and that, it always came back to those mountains as if drawn by some strange magnetic force. The closer we drove towards the mountains, the more intensely blue they grew. A lone truck passed us going the opposite direction but apart from that we had the road to ourselves. highway 24 utah road trip us usa america henry mountains

Then the little town of Hanksville sprang up from out of nowhere. Town seems a rather grandiose title for Hanksville; it boasts a population of 355 which is smaller than an average theatre audience or the guest list for most celebrity and royal weddings/funerals/birthday parties. If the inhabitants of Hanksville fancied a pint, every last one of them could fit into the Slug and Lettuce in London without the bartender breaking a sweat. Yet, despite its diminutive size, Hanksville has its own airport, and that airport has more than one runway. I don’t know what they have done to deserve an airport, but I don’t begrudge them it one little bit, because Hanksville has serious street cred. The famous outlaw Butch Cassidy and his Wild Boys used to mosey into Hanksville to stock up on supplies and then gallop off along the Dirty Devil River to their hideout at Robber’s Roost, just southeast of town. If you’re looking for the Wild West, it lives here in southern Utah; for Hanksville is the very heart of the Old West complete with gun-slinging and shoot-ups. It is the stuff of legend.

We pulled in at the old Hanksville Shell station to fill up the tank and buy some water, but the real reason we stopped was because there was a seriously cool car parked outside. I wandered around it taking photos and a venerable old gent with wild eyes and a beard you could lose medium-sized woodland creatures in limped past me, doffing his well-worn cowboy hat and saying “Well, hello there, little lady.” I beamed back at him. “Little lady” is just about the sweetest way anyone could address me. I cannot stand the American predilection for addressing women as “Ma’am” the minute they leave their teens – it makes me feel like a bun-wearing matron with starched clothing and horn-rimmed spectacles. hanksville utah goliath car road trip us usa america

I finished taking photos of the car and wandered inside the Shell station where Jill and I got chatting to the venerable gent and the chap behind the counter. They were obviously good friends and knew how to entertain the ladies with a good story. And oh, what stories they told. They shared a wealth of information about the geology and history of the area and spoke of archaeological digs, local wildlife and ecosystems. From them we learned of the Mars Desert Research Station which is located a few miles out of town on the evocatively named Cow Dung Road. I have never met more eloquent conversationalists; able to discuss at length just about any topic we threw their way. We spent easily thirty minutes chatting with them and could have spent much, much longer, but we still had a long way to travel so we got ready to leave. Just before we said goodbye, Jill remembered the strangely compelling blue mountains we kept seeing along the highway and asked if they knew anything about them. I’m so glad she asked, because they proceeded to reveal to us the secrets of the Henry Mountains.

henry mountains utah us usa america road trip The Henry Mountains carry the unique distinction of being the last mountain range named and added to maps of the lower 48 United States. Until the year 1871 they had no name at all, and even today the Navajo name for this range translates as ‘mountain whose name is missing’. That all changed in 1869 when John Wesley Powell set off on his Powell Geographic Expedition to explore the Green and Colorado rivers and their canyons. Along the way, he spotted these mountains, which he noted in his records as the Unknown Mountains. When he returned home in 1871 he decided to name them after a close friend, Joseph Henry, who was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.

These mountains are just about as remote and inhospitable as it gets in the US, but it didn’t stop hungry prospectors looking for gold. Rumours abound of an early Spanish gold strike in the days of the Old West; they were believed to have hit a very rich vein which they only partially mined, then abandoned when attacked by a local tribe. Rumours aside, there actually was gold discovered in 1890 near the summit of Mount Ellen, the highest peak in the range. The lucky chap who discovered it, Jack Sumner, had been one of the members of Powell’s Geographic Expedition party. There has also been substantial mining of uranium and vanadium in these mountains and some uranium mining still takes place today. Now, while there are no official reports of gold being mined up there these days, gold mining is allegedly still open to the public in some areas of the Henry Mountains, and according to our two friends, there is gold a-plenty up there, and not only that, but diamonds too, which are being mined right now by a South African company. My eyebrows raised questioningly at that last little nugget of information. The venerable gent with the cowboy hat looked me square in the face, squinted his twinkling eyes and said “Mark my words, little lady, there’s diamonds up in them there hills.” And I believed him.

Back in the truck we repeated the mantra “We are never going to get out of Utah” and giggled as we hit the road again. The Henry Mountains disappeared from sight and colourful new bursts of red and yellow mountains lined the road. We watched, mesmerized, as with each new turn of the highway a brand new landscape rolled into view.

utah highway 24 road trip us usa america

utah highway 24 road trip us usa america

And then came the black. It was unlike anything either of us had ever seen before. First we saw smoky cliffs up ahead, then dark swathes and gloomy mountains cropped up on either side of us and soon we were surrounded by the most alien looking landscape I have ever seen. It looked distinctly extra-terrestrial.

utah highway 24 road trip us usa america

utah highway 24 road trip us usa america

utah highway 24 road trip us usa americautah highway 24 road trip us usa america

It was somewhere around this point that we decided to stop to get a better view of this brave new land. Jill pulled off into what looked like a lay-by and we both immediately got a sinking feeling. The truck was literally sinking into the ground. Jill hit the accelerator but the pickup just fishtailed. I hopped out to see if there was anything I could do, and the minute my feet hit the ground the mud started sucking my shoes under, so I made a dive for the tarmac surface of the highway. Relieved to have made it to safety, I stood for a moment trying to figure out our best strategy, but then I looked down and realised my feet were sinking through the tarmac. Watching your shoes disappear through a roadway is not a good feeling, trust me on this one. Jill stuck her head out the window and yelled “The truck’s sinking” and I yelled back “So am I.” “But you’re on the highway.” “No, I’m IN the highway; I’m PART OF the highway.” I had to keep moving to stop my shoes disappearing completely, so paced up and down and suggested that Jill just gun it back onto the road, but she was afraid that the truck would fishtail further into the mud. The thing that was most worrying to both of us, apart from the fact that we were being sucked under by the scenery, was that we hadn’t seen another car for hours, and had no desire to be stranded in the middle of this strange dark land that seemed intent on swallowing us alive.

utah highway 24 road trip us usa america

Thankfully luck was on our side. Off in the distance I spotted headlights; a car was coming our way, and that news alone was enough to encourage Jill to try gunning it. At least if our truck fishtailed, I could flag down the oncoming car and ask for help. As the car drew closer, Jill slammed on the accelerator and the truck popped easily out of the mud and shot onto the highway at such speed that the driver of the oncoming vehicle may have earned a change of underwear. Jill slammed the truck into reverse and backed up to where I stood almost ankle-deep in the freeway. She opened the passenger door. “Let’s get out of here.” I hopped into the passenger seat, taking big clumps of the road with me and we spun our wheels out of there as fast as we could.

utah highway 24 road trip us usa america

We drove on for many miles through this foreboding landscape; Jill kept exclaiming ‘It’s mud, it’s all mud’ in utter disbelief. I was still picking tarmac off my feet and flinging it out the window to be reabsorbed by the malevolent road beneath us. It took us a while to shake that little adventure off, but soon Utah pulled off another wardrobe change and we were gazing up in wonder at the splendour of Capitol Reef National Park, all rosy cliffs, pockmarked sandstone and rivers flowing red.

highway 24 utah road trip us usa america

highway 24 utah road trip us usa america capitol reef

highway 24 utah road trip us usa america capitol reef

highway 24 utah road trip us usa america capitol reef

highway 24 utah road trip us usa america capitol reef

highway 24 utah road trip us usa america capitol reef

Shortly after Capitol Reef we turned left onto Highway 12. When I told Jill we were turning onto Highway 12 she looked confused. “You mean we’re only now getting on the scenic byway you were talking about? What have we just driven?” I showed her the map. “That was Highway 24. Rubbish, wasn’t it?” We burst into laughter, because neither of us could quite believe the extraordinary journey we’d just been on, and couldn’t imagine Highway 12 exceeding what we had just seen.

Utah didn’t waste any time throwing us another curve ball, because Highway 12 travels south into the Dixie National Forest so soon we were plunged headlong into the most magical of forests full of gleaming white quaking aspen trees and lazy herds of cows wandering along the roadside and sometimes blocking the road altogether.

dixie national forest utah road trip us usa america aspen

dixie national forest utah road trip us usa america birch

It was like we had entered some charmed realm driving through those aspens, and as if to belabour the point, a rainbow appeared and a deer hopped into the forest ahead of us. “Of course there’s a deer, now it’s complete” Jill said. The rainbow kept taunting us with sneaky glimpses as we drove along; I had my head stuck out the window and every time I saw it I’d shout “Rainbow, over there, over there!” and Jill, in between bouts of laughing at my idiocy, was freaking out in her own way about the aspen trees. “This is insane!” Jill screamed. “I can’t feel my face” I shouted back, my head still stuck out the window searching for the rainbow.

Near Boulder Mountain we pulled off to watch the rainbow as the sun started to drop low in the sky. There was no way we were going to reach Kanab tonight, so we settled on making it as far as Escalante and looking for a motel.

dixie national forest utah road trip us usa america boulder mountain rainbow

We got back on the road about the time the sun set and soon there was just a glimmer of light left. Jill pulled off to the side of the road and got out. I did too, not sure what we were doing and we wandered over to the edge of the lay-by and looked down. A long way down. “Yeah, that’s what I thought” said Jill. “We’re driving a road with canyons on either side, there are no crash barriers and it’s dark.” With the absolute worst timing in the world, we had managed to reach the treacherous Hogsback, a tricky stretch of road with no lights and 2,000 foot drop offs on both sides, just as night fell. I had a flashback to Bear Tooth Pass. Driving scary roads in the dead of night was becoming a leitmotif for my road trips. Thankfully Hogsback isn’t as long as Bear Tooth Pass, but it was hair-raising nonetheless, especially when someone in a Jeep overtook us on a bend doing 60.

It was with great relief that we pulled into Escalante and found a motel. There was nowhere open to grab a bite to eat, so I set the camp stove up in the back of the truck and rustled up tortellini for dinner. Halfway through cooking dinner, Jill realised she’d locked the keys in the cab, so we had to call the AAA guy to come out and jimmy the lock. He arrived close to midnight and didn’t seem at all distressed to have been called out so late; in fact, he’d brought his wife along with him, so we chatted with her as he worked on the lock. “Some folks find the scenery around here sort of overwhelming” she told us. Jill and I looked at each other. Overwhelming. Yes, that about described the day we’d just had.

Here’s some footage of today’s trip.

(continued here)

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue wheresmybackpack.com Remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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74 Responses to US Road Trip Day 14.2 – Gold, Diamonds and Sinking Freeways

  1. ledrakenoir says:

    Excellent captured, amazing shots… :-)

  2. rimassolosailingaroundtheworldm says:

    Good luck in your travels.Very a nice pictures. Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing with us.
    Next year my year I will going to sail solo around the world.Please stop on my blog. You will be surprise my voyage next year in 2013. The best Christmas Happy Holiday!

  3. What a great series of transitional photographs from the blues to the grays to the blacks and you even chased a rainbow. I think I saw a deer in your video. Do you find any gold in the pot when you reached the end of the rainbow?

    • ailsapm says:

      Yaay, you did see a deer – she just hopped into the forest as we passed, adding to the fairytale feeling of the birch forest. Well spotted. Sadly didn’t find any gold at the end of the rainbow, I think some renegade miners got there before me!

  4. Thanks for the posts! I LOVE this part of the country, especially Arches and Canyonlands. I spent a summer many years ago working in Green River on a river running operation and know that country well. I had a great trip down Desolation this last summer, and your posts are making me want more!

    • ailsapm says:

      Hi edisonleatherworks, well, after this road trip I can see why anyone would be completely head-over-heels in love with this state, it has officially blown my mind. How wonderful that you got to spend a whole summer there. xxx

  5. Angelia Sims says:

    Gorgeous captures. How spooky was the sinking road?!? Sounds super scary. Glad y’all got unstuck and love the story of the unknown mountains. :-)

  6. petit4chocolatier says:

    Stunning pictures but scary road. I absolutely love birch trees!!
    Excellent video, and definitely looked even scarier at night :)

  7. bebs1 says:

    Great stories and the music goes very well with it. I want more.

  8. pommepal says:

    Wow, Wow, Wow. That is such an awesome stretch of road, I can’t believe it is not described as a major scenic route in the guide books. You certainly find (and describe so well) some amazing places. I hope your trip goes on forever…

  9. pommepal says:

    I really, really like this post but for some reason your like button will not let me record my “like”

  10. Wow, Ailsa, what an amazing day! The next time we make it out west, I’ll have to lobby for taking a look at route 24 – but not stopping in the evil sucking part! And route 12 sounds like the perfect contrast.

    • ailsapm says:

      Yes, yes, yes, you have to drive highway 24, and then write about it. But I agree, I could have done without the evil sucking part – although it makes for a good story after the fact! :)

  11. What an incredible day!

    • ailsapm says:

      No kidding, walksandrambles. It felt like we’d fit a month’s worth of travel into one single day. It was genuinely frazzling, in a good way, but by the end of the day, we were pretty much knocked silly by it all, there was just too much to take in.

  12. Tina Schell says:

    Ailsa, I had SUCH a similar experience this summer in the same area (see my post http://travelsandtrifles.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/scenic-highway-12-day-4/ ). I had SUCH fun reliving it thru your story! It’s truly amazing out there. Thanks for the memory!

    • ailsapm says:

      Ooh, lovely, Tina, you were on Highway 12 coming from the other direction to Escalante. We’re doing that part next. So, so beautiful, I love your photos! xxx

  13. alphathread says:

    Thank you for such an interesting account of your journey. Mt wife and I are planning to do a road trip through the US national parks of Utah next year. Your insights are most informative. Chris G, NZ

    • ailsapm says:

      Well one thing’s for sure, Chris, you and your wife are going to have an amazing time, Utah is like nowhere else I’ve seen. Stay tuned – this and my previous post about Arches National Park were what we saw on day one – there’s plenty more of Utah still to come, including Bryce, Zion and Coral Pink Sand Dunes. xxx

  14. alphathread says:

    Thanks, look forward to reading more. Chris

  15. Wow o wow! going to have to add a road trip round Utah to my bucket list now!

  16. Lucid Gypsy says:

    I would love the two guys you talked to and such amazing scenery! best of all though is the two of you, you’re just brilliant!

  17. djdfr says:

    Wow, I never heard of someone sinking into a road before; like something in a book, The Black Land, where even the road is evil……
    Such beautiful scenery. I am glad to enjoy it through your blog as I doubt I will have time to “see everything”.

    • ailsapm says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the trip, djdfr, yes, seeing my feet get absorbed by the freeway was the creepiest thing I’ve ever experienced.

  18. Suzanne says:

    That was amazing. I love your photos and your fantastic adventure. What an incredible part of the world.

  19. markd60 says:

    Great photos, I’m envious of your trip. :-)

  20. Great adventure! And nice photos capturing the beauty of the landscape along the road :)

  21. I love your words as well as your pictures! I was just in that area last month and went to Bryce National Park and Zion National Park – such breathtaking nature in Utah!! Thank you for sharing.

  22. Glorious shots. That little escapade with mud and tarmac would have put the spooks up me.

  23. Carol says:

    One day I shall follow your trail and attempt to capture the beauty as amazingly well as you did. Where are the pictures of your sinking feet and the sinking truck?

    • ailsapm says:

      In hindsight, Carol, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a photo or two of the sinking action, but at the time I was just a little too freaked out ;)

  24. viveka says:

    What an amazing landscape .. stunning. Your photos are magical – and so are also your story telling. Of all those amazing views and landscape .. my favorite photo is “dixie-birch” – thanks for bringing me along on this wonderful journey.

  25. Gracie says:

    Wow! What an adventure! That must have been really scary, being sucked into the ground like that. Glad you guys made it out in one piece ;)

    Thanks for the photos, Ailsa. These are incredible.

  26. Gunta says:

    Thanks for bringing back sweet memories of the early years of traveling with hubby through all those amazing Utah landscapes…. he could have been one of them old gents calling you “little lady”. Are you sure those were birch trees and not aspen? Aspen is all over that area, but birch is mighty scarse and they look rather similar.

    • ailsapm says:

      Ooh Gunta, well spotted, they’re so similar it’s hard to tell them apart as you’re whizzing by, but the leaves are definitely Quaking Aspen – I shall change it now. Glad this brought back some sweet memories for you! xxx

  27. Pat . says:

    Amazing landscapes. Glad you escaped the sinking highway – that could have been nasty.
    Thanks for sharing another great post.

  28. Pamela says:

    O.M.G! Spellbound with your capture of breathtaking beauty – and on reading script, breathless with fear…..

  29. Don’t stop! I’m loving it!

  30. Love this part of the US! When we first started dating and were watching our budgets, we planned an almost annual trip to Escalante and the surrounding areas you described. All we needed was money for gas and some camp cookstove-worthy food! We have many fond memories of exploring this area. Thanks for the reminder…I think we need to go back soon. ;)

  31. Wonderful!! Although it sounds like you almost stayed in Utah permanently… :-)

  32. The photos are AMAZING! And getting stuck IN the highway – scary!

  33. ginplustonic says:

    Amazing pictures.

    Just letting you know I nominated you as a very inspiring blogger (http://ginplustonic.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/how-to-top-meeting-santa/) because I love your work. Keep it up.

    Cheers, Ginny

  34. At last I have time to catch up with your travels, and marvel at our adventure on the ‘unremarkable’ Highway 24 … but it’s those aspen forests of Dixie that got me – golly, they were a thrill for me. I loved your encounter with the two conversationalists (though i’m disappointed in them that they didn’t tell you about the sinking road!) – they reminded me of some of our outback ‘characters’ – conversation is currency in places like that :)

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Wanderlust, driving through that aspen forest was straight out of a fairytale, just so beautiful, and that darling deer was the icing on the cake. I love that term, conversation is currency – you’re so right. I bet you have some great characters in the outback ;)

  35. bluebrightly says:

    Great post! It’s an amazing part of the world. I was lucky enough to spend time in the area and camped up on Boulder Mountain once. I can’t wait to get back. Thank you for taking so many pictures and telling us about the adventures.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks bluebrightly, I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. I’d love to have spent more time in that area, it was quite magical. Hope you get to go back soon! xxx

  36. pippabiker says:

    Glad you like my state! I miss Utah a lot and can’t wait to move back there this summer. Sounds like you had a grand time. I have had the good fortune to ride all that on my bike!
    Cheers,
    Pippa

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