Journeying through the Lockhart Basin
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
MOAB, Utah – The term “sag wagon” certainly does not generate excitement at first mention.
But traveling through the Lockhart Basin Backcountry Biway does. Especially when it’s one’s first trip to Moab, Utah.
Ever since I came to the valley to intern for The Aspen Times in January, my sports editor, Jon Maletz, has urged me to go to Moab. His description of the terrain and environment was more than enough to arouse the curiosity in me, a Seattle native. Finally, I was presented with the opportunity by another co-worker, Scott Condon.
In an email five days before the April 27 departure date, Scott outlined his need for a sag-wagon driver through the famed Lockhart Basin on the outskirts of Canyonlands National Park. He and his friend Bob Ward, a former Times editor, had traversed the route before in the mid-’90s, but wanted to do it again – this time on their mountain bikes.
It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to do this.
A quick Google image search revealed the incredible geography of Canyonlands. It reminded me of a road trip my family took to Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon and the Grand Canyon in the late-’90s.
I also was excited to join two veteran hikers/bikers in Scott and Bob. I knew that I would be in good hands.
The ultimate plan was: I would drive ahead of Scott and Bob from the Lockhart Basin trailhead and go as far as Scott’s new Subaru Outback would take me, which we figured would be about 15 miles. We would then set up camp, and the next day I would backtrack the same route and proceed to downtown Moab. To meet up with the bikers again, I would drive down Kane Creek road and meet them at the creek.
It sounded like a lot of driving, but when one is exploring one of the most beautiful areas in the U.S., who cares?
On April 27, we drove to Moab via route 128, which follows the Colorado River. On that road, I got my first glimpses of what I could expect during the weekend: Massive cliffs and towers flanked the road, and numerous trails branched out. We stopped for dinner at the Moab Brewery, then proceeded to the Canyonlands entrance via highway 211.
After Newspaper Rock, we found a campsite about 200 yards after mile marker 2 as darkness descended. Nestled in the cliffs, we knew that morning would bring an incredible vista.
The sunrise did not disappoint, and neither did the weather: just a slight breeze and clear, blue skies.
At the trailhead, Scott and Bob made their final gear checks, and after posing for a photo in front of the trailhead sign, it was time to part ways.
From the outset, rocks and sand created fun driving situations. The first few miles were easy to negotiate but became confusing when multiple roads branched out to campgrounds. Luckily, I chose the correct routes – at least until I came to Indian Creek.
I remembered that I was supposed to cross a waterway eventually, but I didn’t think it was so early on. I paused to consult my map, and Scott and Bob pulled up alongside me. We laughed at the strange turn of events and attributed the meeting to the mostly downhill route to that point.
After crossing the creek, I made my first wrong turn.
I saw some tracks leading up a steep, sandy hill and saw a road at the top of it. I bravely decided to chance it, but came up embarrassingly short. Putting the car in reverse, I could sense the glares of groups of campers along the creek most likely thinking of how much of an idiot I am. I overtook Scott and Bob again going up a rock-laden hill, and I hoped to not make any more mistakes.
I remained trouble free on the day and stopped many times to explore off the beaten trail. After gaining a seemingly sizable lead on Scott and Bob, I climbed down into a canyon carved out by water runoff. Afterward, I climbed up two cliffs and ate lunch while gazing across the Lockhart Basin.
While elevated, I watched a lone mountain biker come down a hill and pass the Subaru parked on the side of the road. At that point, I wondered how far back my group was as we neared the 15-mile meeting point.
I got back in the car with the goal of getting to the trail junction without any more stops. Not long after, I spotted the biker, who stopped along the side of the road. We started talking when in my rearview mirror, I spotted Scott and Bob.
I let the bikers lead the rest of the way as the road became rocky, forcing me to use caution. We made it to a junction in the road, where one could continue on the Lockhart Biway or travel down to the Colorado River. It was still very early in the day, so we decided on the latter.
Again, the bikes set the pace while I stayed back. The road was incredibly soft, and at some stretches the Subaru’s wheels drifted through deep sand. Despite the sometimes precarious driving, the view of the Colorado was worth it.
Because of the deep sand and gradual incline, we latched the bikes onto the roof and proceeded back to the main road.
About a mile farther, the Lockhart trail was no longer suitable for the all-wheel-drive Outback. We set up camp at a small turnaround point, and we hiked up the rocky road to watch the sunset.
The shadows created incredible scenes across the basin. On what we called “Slanted Butte” and “Anticline Butte” to the east, the light made the two towers look majestic.
The next morning, Scott and Bob continued on toward Hurrah Pass while I turned around to return to Moab and meet them at Kane Creek. On the way back, shimmering chunks of sedimentary rock called chert caught my eye, and I stopped a few times to try and search for the most colorful pieces. With the “Master and Commander” movie soundtrack booming from my iPod, the drive was as enjoyable as the first.
I eventually returned to the road, this time stopping first at Newspaper Rock, and then making a hiking pause at Wilson Arch on intrastate 191, south of Moab. The meeting time at Kane Creek, after leaving the campground at 8:30 a.m., was estimated at 1 p.m. After my Wilson Arch stop, it was past noon, and I knew I had to pick up my pace slightly to reach the meeting point.
I began my journey down Kane Creek Road and into another stunning canyon. The road was much more populated with campers this time, and the narrow path often created tight situations to negotiate. I regrettably didn’t have much time to stop and explore, and I reached Kane Creek before 1 p.m. and set up a folding chair at the bank of the creek to wait for the riders.
After 45 minutes of waiting, I began to grow concerned about how much time had elapsed. Shortly after 2 p.m., Scott crossed the creek – without Bob. Scott delivered the bad news: Bob’s rear derailleur was all but destroyed by a rock, which got lodged in a crank. He estimated that our companion broke down 13 miles back, so we prepared to take the Subaru as far as we could down the trail and hope for the best.
Fortunately, as we placed Scott’s bike on the roof of the car, Bob arrived in the back seat of a young couple’s Jeep.
We proceeded back to the Moab Brewery, ending the two-day excursion and one of the best trips I’ve ever experienced.
Being a sag wagon driver allowed me to see a lot of Canyonlands in relatively great comfort. I was glad to help out a couple of guys, and I took full advantage of all my free time to explore.
I would suggest anyone jump on the chance should a similar opportunity present itself. It’s truly a unique experience. If one likes driving off road as much as I do, I would suggest the Lockhart Basin Biway.
I’d say my first trip to Utah desert country was a resounding success.
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