Most people will have heard of the US National Park’s, think Yellowstone or Yosemite or Arches, but I find that the State Parks can be equally impressive, however, much less visited. One such State Park is “Dead Horse Point” near Moab in Utah.
It was made famous in a scene in the film “Thelma and Louise” and, indeed, it seems that most people do travel to the car park and have their picture taken at the look out and drive off again, but if you can spend a little more time there, there is quite a lot to explore.
But first how to get there. Dead Horse Point, legend has it that the park is so named because of its use as a natural corral by cowboys in the 19th century, where horses often died of exposure. It is ca 30 miles from Moab. The easiest route is to follow the well signed posted roads UT191/313 from Moab. However, maybe due to jet lag, I wasn’t quite concentrating and followed our SatNav, which took us down the UT279, towards a “Pot Ash” plant. Then the SatNav said we should turn right, which we did onto an unmade road and across a railway line. The road had sign posts and was well made with hard core/gravel. So, we continued. Even fording a small stream didn’t start alarm bells ringing! Little did we know we have found the infamous “Long Canyon/Pucker Pass” Road.
There were four us in the 4 WD SUV and we were too busy admiring the scenery to take much notice of the changing road conditions. The road started to climb through a series of switchbacks from ca 4000 ft to just over 6,000 ft above the sea level. The start of the climb was marked with road signs – albeit full of bullet holes – so I sensed nothing untoward as we started the climb. The average gradient I found out afterwards is 5.49%. As we progressed the road became very narrow with little room at the sides of the car with a sheer drop down to the valley below. The passengers on the right side of the vehicle told me afterward, there were many times they couldn’t see the roadside just the vertical drop down the cliff, meanwhile I was trying to avoid scraping the wing mirrors on the sheer cliff at my side.
We then encountered Pucker Pass. As we passed through an arch of fallen boulders, we encountered a steep bumpy section of “slick rock”, where it gets both narrow and bumpy. Progress was awfully slow as the car – equipped with road tyres – struggled on the loose sand on the sandstone. We made progress by putting the car mats under the wheels and brushing the loose sand away.
I can say this, normally our car is full of noise, – people talking, pointing out the sights, taking pictures etc. Not this day. It was incredibly quiet, and I have very few (poor quality) pictures to show from this part of our journey. I recommend on “on-line” search and read and see other peoples’ tales!
I am still not sure if this road is a “legitimate” route in terms of insurance and rescue in event of a breakdown, so please check if you chose this route. I would advise, as a minimum, using a high ground clearance 4WD SUV with “All Terrain” tyres, taking a shovel and brush and ensuring you do this in a dry spell,. Better still, use a local guide and an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV).
It’s worth doing, the views are fabulous, the drive a thrill, but be prepared!
After exiting Pucker pass, the road flattens, and it is straightforward to Dead Horse Point.
We parked up at the Visitor Centre and decided to walk the rim – a circular walk of ca 5 miles. We started our walk a little later than planned – at 10am. The temperature was already in the 90’s, so be prepared – hat, sunscreen, lots and lots of water. You are above 6,000 feet and there is no shade or respite from the elements.
The first things to notice are the incredible views over Moab toward the La Sal mountains. The electric blue lakes you can see are evaporation pools from Potash extraction. The sun evaporates the water in the pond, leaving crystals of Potassium Chloride behind. The Potash source comes from the “Paradox basin” which lies some 3000 feet underground. Hot water is pumped down a well to dissolve the potash and then drawn back out to the surface to evaporate, creating the colourful ponds you can see.
Keep a look out for birds flying around you, I managed to snap a picture of a Peregrine Falcon diving below me.
Follow the well-defined path along the edge of the cliffs – there are no barriers so be careful! Enjoy the expansive views across the vast area of Canyonlands. Some 2000ft below you, you now start to see glimpses of the Colorado river that created this landscape and the buttes and pinnacles carved out over the millennia.
As you continue to follow the rim trail you can see the immense vertical cliffs carved by ice, water, and wind creating a stunning scenery. This is a high-altitude desert, yet plants and animals survive and thrive. The plants grow very slowly here, some of the trees are said to be hundreds of years old but are only 15 feet tall.
You now come to the end of Dead Horse Point and stepping onto the viewing platform you are met with a truly awe-inspiring view. The mighty Colorado looks tiny and distant, but it is responsible for the landscape you see below you. Let your eye follow the road that runs below Dead Horse Point to the “Island in the Sky”. I was amazed to see cars on this road. After our Pucker Pass experience, no one was in the mood for this drive, but surely, we will return, and this is a “must do”.
We then followed the “West Rim” trail for yet more stunning scenery. This was a slightly longer walk back – some 3 miles and had trails running off it that meant you could extend your walk further. We chose to return to the car and have a well-earned refreshment at the Visitor Centre.
I guess it is true that you could visit Dead Horse Point for 15 minutes and appreciate the majesty of the place, however having spent a half day hiking we had a truly remarkable time. During our walk we could see more trails and more enticing views, so, without doubt you could make this a destination in its own right – trouble is, in this corner of Utah there is so much to see – Canyonlands, Arches, La Sal mountains, dinosaur trails, to name but a few, it is impossible to do justice to the area in one holiday. Oh, well, I will just have to keep coming back.