Thursday, September 26, 2013

The West Dez

I've been in Utah for what seems like a long time, and feel like I've been to "the desert" a lot.  However, that's always meant down south:  Fruita, Moab, Canyonlands, North Wash, Escalante, Zion, and places in between, and even though I have known about the "West Desert" I had never been west of I-15. Not only are there plenty of specific places I've never been, there are entire ranges that I barely had heard of, much less tromped around in:  Wah Wahs, Confusions, Indian Peaks, White Rocks, Deep Creeks (ok, I'd heard of the Deep Creeks:  supposedly good skiing there), the House Range, etc.  Ash and I - with a rare open weekend in the summer/fall schedule of a director of a community garden  - decided that it was finally time to see what was up with the West Dez.  But where to go?

Because we are Americans, we decided to go for the most superlative place in the area.  Notch Peak, the highest point in the House Range, has the distinction of having the second-biggest wall in North America (behind El Capitan) and sho 'nuff, it tops out over 9000 feet and the desert floor is at 4500, and you can practically throw a rock to hit the "hardpan" (as they call dried lake beds in those parts, apparently).  So it had to be dramatic, and though there are a few LONG, fairly burly, and committing climbing routes on that west wall, there was a nice hike up the gradually-rising east side.  In addition, we had noticed that there's a "Notch Peak Scenic Byway" that goes around the peak, and naturally we figured that something with a name like that had to be a nice bike ride.  So off we went to the Wild West.

A book we read indicated that literally no one lives in what is called the "Jack Watson" area (Jack was a one-armed mercantile store owner on the "loneliest road in America", apparently before it took on that moniker), and that area stretches 100 miles between Delta, UT and Baker, NV.   And I think it's because it's......bleak.  Not a lot out there except sand, rock, hardpan, and wind.  But that's the beauty of it.  We figured we wouldn't be battling people too much as a result.

The Notch Peak Scenic byway actually goes around both Notch Peak and Howell Peak, and goes over a low pass near Swasey peak, and I had very roughly calculated it at around a 50 or 60 mile ride.  A dry cold front was approaching UT which resulted in a high wind warning for that area, so we started out in a pretty random spot:

that was quite a ways downwind of our southern-most point in order to perhaps facilitate a tailwind at the end of the day.

As we climbed up into the hills we actually were surprised to see a fair number of cars (like 4 in an hour).  And soon enough we saw the reason why:

I've heard of U-pick blueberries and raspberries, but U-dig fossils?  In a state where the Feds set up major sting operations for people trading pottery?  But I guess that "Trilobites" are far more numerous than Anastazi potshards.

This place was crawling with people:

and the operation there was run by a couple who charge not a little ($28 for 2 hours) to try to find these things. They were surprised not only to see cyclists ("You're the first bikers ever!") but also that I wasn't interested in digging or even in taking one of their fossils that they generously offered (I did take a bit of water, however; way more valuable).

Just past this place the road had forked, and since I was carrying the map, didn't notice the looming  fork, and didn't specify to Ash which way to go, she naturally took the obvious big-climb option, as is her wont.  I knew that it was a dead end so I chased after her hard for the entire 5 miles to where she had arrived at the dead end and waited for me, looking down on the not-quite-as-big-as-Notch drop down to the desert floor.  But as it turned out, this little foible was not only the best riding of the day, gave us an incredible view of the walls soaring walls as we snacked, but also set us up to re-scale our intentions given the conditions.   Which was wind.

A long descent down to the desert floor put us into both great views of the increasingly-big cliffs:

but also onto a southbound double track where we.....crept.  I am pretty sure we were going the same speed or even slower on the flats into the wind than we had been climbing the 10% grade earlier.  I had seen on the map that there was another pass through the mountains to cut off some distance, and as we struggled against the wind it was clear that was going to be our best option.
Ash going not nearly as fast as it looks like she's going!  It's windy....
Things went well until we saw that not only was there a lot of flood debris at the mouth of the canyon that we were about to enter, but the canyon itself was pretty tight, so the road and the streambed and the same.  The thunderstorms that had rattled through UT had created a bit of flashing, so we had to push our way through sand and baby heads for a fair distance:.

It was a bit reminiscent of our push-fest on our Idaho bike tour, but given the lack of load it seemed a lot easier this time!

Finally back down off the pass and back to the car.
Ash the ever-courteous cyclist indicating her intended direction to the local traffic
The Notch Peak hike is surprisingly easy; only 3.5 miles and 2500' up, and it's unusually beautiful.  We felt like we were in Zion with cottonwoods and pines in the canyon

and walls soaring above us.
it's a good thing she's as melodramatic as I am
And finally near the peak the near-5000 drop to the desert floor was breathtaking.
Inspired the the peregrines, ready to take flight.....
After cruising back down we decided to head for Crystal Peak, a unique "mountain" (sort of a large bump) in the desert that is striking in that it's the only thing around that is white, crystaline, volcanic "tuff".  It's about 800 feet high and is super cool, again with a great view (this time of the Wah Wah mountains; great name!)

Although it has taken us a lifetime to get out exploring in the Wild West Desert, there's enough fun stuff to do there and it's such a bleakly-beautiful area that it'll likely start to compete with it's more-famous, further-south brother-deserts for our attention.....

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