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Mount Hillers

Saturday, October 29th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 5: Hanksville to Burr Trail

Highlights: Hike in a snow-covered burn area, interminable drive on extreme washboard, spectacular campsite

The Henry Mountains rise to 11,500′ in the midst of the Glen Canyon area, a long ways from nowhere, surrounded by the rugged canyons of tributaries to the Colorado River. This mountain range is unusual because although it’s heavily forested, it’s also grazed from bottom to top, and it’s administered by the BLM instead of the forest service. I like that because I “know” BLM land and am more comfortable exploring lands with few “tourist” amenities, where you can camp or hike anywhere.

Since yesterday, I’d been gazing appreciatively at these snow-covered mountains, whose slopes were blanketed in fresh white down to almost the 7,000′ level. The Henrys are crisscrossed by long, rough gravel and dirt roads that are mostly passable with 2WD, and I wanted to get up into the snow and do some snow hiking for a change. Mt. Hillers, and the south end of the range, looked interesting to me, and on the map I found a “loop road” that I could pick up on the east side.

This road followed a creek valley up into a recent burn area where all the trees had been killed and replaced by thickets of new growth. I saw several hawks hunting, finally coming to “Quaking Aspen Spring”, fenced off from cattle, where a healthy-looking coyote watched me curiously from a willow thicket inside the fence. The elevation was about 7,000′, patches of snow lay in shadow along the road, and above me loomed the peak, behind a protected, snow-covered basin populated with the bark-less skeletons of ponderosa pine. I really wanted to get up into that basin, but the slopes along the road were covered with impenetrable gambel oak thickets.

The coyote wandered off and I continued up the road, hoping for an opening of some kind. As I rounded the base of cone-shaped Cass Creek Peak, a jeep trail appeared, climbing steeply up the slope. I didn’t want to risk driving it with my little truck, but it might be a good approach to the basin below Mt. Hillers. I had lunch in the warm sun, tempered by a chilly breeze off the snow, then started up the trail. As I rounded a curve toward the basin, I noticed a little black bull rising to its feet in an oak thicket about 100 to the left of the road. It watched me as I continued up the trail. I came over a rise and a lake appeared before me at the foot of a gnarly-looking pile of volcanic talus. It was a 4-acre stock pond created with significant effort, including a big earthen dam and a feeder well, but there were no other cattle in sight beyond the little bull. So I continued past the lake, picking my way between thickets of oak, until I came to an abandoned 4WD trail that seemed to lead up into the summit basin. Parts of the road were blocked by fallen, fire-killed ponderosa logs or new aspen sprouts, now 10′ tall. I noticed a higher roadcut and climbed up to it. And another, still higher – all now abandoned and overgrown. I was finally up in the summit basin, but I couldn’t get beyond these abandoned roads because the slope was completely covered with oak thickets. Still, it was a beautiful place in the snow! On the way back down, I again encountered the little bull, resting in his thicket, and he again rose to watch me pass.

Back in the truck, I continued over Stanton Pass and found a trailhead to the summit on the west side, overlooking Capitol Reef National Park, with a late-model SUV parked there. It was late afternoon, I had a couple hours of sunlight, and should start looking for a campsite. Descending through pinyon-juniper, the road became exceedingly rugged. Suddenly, crossing a creek in a little vale, I encountered a big truck towing a stock trailer up the mountain. I pulled as far to the side as I could, and they passed me, thanking me: two middle-aged cowboys with four saddled and packed horses in the trailer. Shortly after that, I came upon two young bundled-up guys on an ATV herding three huge steers down the road toward a corral in the distance on the spur of a ridge. The slope here was very steep, and I had to creep behind them until they got to a place where they could walk the cattle off the road. I waved, marveling at the bulk of the shaggy beeves that seemed to dwarf my truck.

With cattle all over these mountains, insects can be a problem. The loop went on forever through beautiful high country, and the road threatened to rattle my truck to pieces, but every time I found a promising campsite, the bugs would quickly find me. So I continued on as the sun set, hoping to make it to the Bullfrog highway and from there, to lower desert and hopefully more campsites along the Burr Trail.

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