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Utah Travel Headlines Blog

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Wandering around Behind the Rocks

By Dave Webb

I’m loving this mild mid-winter weather. We’ve got plenty of snow at the ski resorts and on the snowmobile trails but green grass in the valleys. Some northern Utah golf courses are open and playable. And southern Utah is often sunny, with perfect temperatures for hiking and biking. In my opinion, we couldn’t have it better.

During late December the Christmas bustle and a big project at work were significantly cutting into the recreational activities that help me stay sane. I was getting a bit stir crazy and decided I needed a little red rock therapy. I headed to Moab for a few days between Christmas and New Years and had great fun exploring an area known as Behind the Rocks.

Behind The Rocks is one of Utah's last great unspoiled places, where you can wander to your heart’s content. It is located behind the rocky rim southwest of Moab, just a stones throw from town but essentially a million miles away.

Behind The Rocks offers about 50 square miles where there are no trails, no human footprints, no people. You can wander all day without seeing or hearing anything related to humans, except the plumes left by jets high in the sky above.

If you are goal-oriented, intent on hiking to a specific destination, this isn't the place for you. Oh, there are plenty of things to see here - slickrock fins and domes, arches, Indian rock art and ruins, dinosaur tracks - that kind of stuff. But you can't just hike to them. The environment forces you to wander.

Why can't you just hike straight to the neat stuff? No guidebooks, at least that I have found, describe routes to these places. The guidebooks describe what a neat area it is, and give general information about the kinds of things that can be found there, but they don’t describe trails to destinations. Perhaps that’s because there are no trails. The fins tend to block direct movement through the area, spreading hikers out and inhibiting trail formation.

Why is such a scenic, interesting area, so close to civilization, still unspoiled? Because access is extremely difficult. It's darn difficult to get into the area and darn hard to get around once you get in.

If this kind of wild adventure appeals to you then come on, join the Corps of Discovery and start wandering around.

My hike took me through the north portion of Behind the Rocks. The sky was mostly cloudy, the sun breaking through occasionally, and the air temperature was in the upper 40s. Great hiking weather. The absolutely best time to hike here is in early spring and late fall. Summers are very hot with little shade.

You’ll have to backpack if you want to explore much of this area, but backpacking is difficult because there are no reliable water sources. There may be a few potholes with water for short times after storms but there are no springs or streams. Rugged canyons cut into the area and water flows through them, 1,000 feet below you, at the bottom of sheer cliffs where it can do you no good.

We hiked in via the Hidden Canyon Trail, which snakes up the rim, crosses Hidden Valley and then ends on the edge of Behind the Rocks. The trailhead is located off US 191 just south of town. A small sign marks the turnoff. I’m not going to attempt to give specific hiking instructions. If you want to explore this area you need a good map, good scrambling skills and the confidence to go it alone.

Three jeep trails approach the area and can be used for access: the Moab Rim Trail on the northeast, the Pritchett Canyon Trail on the west and the Behind the Rocks Trail on the south. I recommend you hike up these trails – don’t try to drive them. Even veteran jeepers with modified vehicles hesitate to drive these trails because they are so rough. One guidebook said this about the Pritchett Trail: “As the trail grows tougher vehicles should have at least one locking differential, and drivers should be mentally prepared for the possibility of vehicle damage.”

It’s a fun area, great for wandering.

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