Desolation Canyon: Horseback adventure turns into frightening journey

Published: Thursday, Jan. 25 2007 12:00 a.m. MST

A rider and horse are silhouetted against the mountains during a ride along the ridge from Rock Creek to Steer Ridge, part of an archaeological expedition into Desolation Canyon from Tavaputs Plateau.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," I lobbied my wife, Heidi, in an attempt to convince her to come with me down Desolation Canyon for eight days on horseback in mid-September.

My friend (and former Deseret Morning News staff writer) Jerry Spangler, now the executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, was planning an expedition along with the Utah Division of State History and the University of Utah to retrace the steps of a 1931 Harvard archaeological expedition into a remote area of Desolation Canyon. Guides and packhorses would be provided; I could even bring my own horses to ride. This sounded like my dream assignment.

Besides the pure adventure, there was a strong news angle: The research of the Harvard expedition, particularly in the nearby Range Creek and Nine Mile Canyon area, helped define the prehistoric Fremont culture.

The Desolation Canyon area is Utah's largest wilderness study area and is the largest geographical area in the contiguous 48 states that doesn't have a road through it. It is one of the most rugged sections in the country, as witnessed by the many who attempted to chase — and failed to catch — Butch Cassidy and his gang over the Outlaw Trail that runs throughout the canyon.

The heart of the area we would be exploring is only accessible from the Green River by boat, unless you have permission to travel through one of the large private ranches and hike or ride down into the canyon. For our expedition, one group of 19 rafters would travel down the Green River while the horse crew of nine would enter from the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch into Desolation Canyon through Rock Creek. The elevation change would be more than 5,500 feet — deeper than the Grand Canyon.

While each group would do archaeological surveying throughout the journey, we would rendezvous for three days at Flat Canyon, where the horse crew would be restocked with supplies. Flat Canyon and the adjacent canyons would be the most remote area and appeared to have the most promising possibilities for new discovery. Even the resurveying of previous sites would be important to monitor vandalism as civilization creeps closer along new oil and gas exploration roads that have provided access for all-terrain vehicle riders.

Before we left, Jerry called and asked if I could bring more horses. Because of elk season, they were having trouble securing enough.

Brad and Tina Barber had room for two extra horses in their trailer and I could tow four, so I volunteered to bring six.

Our adventure started with a meeting of the horse crew in the late afternoon at a supermarket parking lot in Sunnyside, a small town 25 miles southeast of Price. Our group consisted of historian Steve Gerber and his wife, Sandy, open space land consultant Brad Barber and his wife, Tina, Duchesne County Commissioner Kent Peatross and his wife, Susan, me and Heidi and archaeologist Bill Davis.

It was raining, and Butch and Jeanie Jensen, owners of the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch, left word at the store that we wouldn't make it towing our horses. After Sunnyside we needed to travel on steep switchbacks on a dirt road to Bruin Point, a climb of more than 4,000 feet in eight miles. If we were lucky enough to make it to Bruin Point, there were miles of nearly impassable mud roads.

We would be fortunate to get to the ranch at all, even with four-wheel drive.

We needed to find a place to leave our horses and come back for them when the weather dried out. Fortunately, we were directed to Walt Eyre's home in nearby East Carbon. He graciously let us keep all 12 horses (Kent brought four) and trailers there for the night. After a harrowing drive through mountain roads, mud flats and snow, we arrived around 10 p.m. at the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch to a warm fireplace and one of Jeanie Jensen's famous meals.

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