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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Fall ATV Ride in Utah's Castle Country

There are a few towns between urban Salt Lake City and outdoor mecca Moab that do not get a lot of attention.  They have been known as Pee Town (the place you stop to pee on your way to Moab) or the "Speed Trap" (Wellington) as you make your way to southern Utah’s famous deserts.  This area between these two famous hubs, portions dubbed Utah's Castle Country (you will see why) is a beautiful area very few even know exists.  This once booming area which grew rapidly as a coal mining town, has slowed down and since earned the reputation as "The Moab Layover". 

Fall ATV Ride hosted by Carbon County Office of Tourism

I spent three days in this area and let me tell you... there is so much to do here.  To call this area a layover is a gross misrepresentation of some of Utah's best landscapes and activities.  In fact, there is so much to do in this area that Amanda and I had to divide and conquer some days in an attempt to really see what the area has to offer.  From Stock Car Races to waterfall hikes, scenic desert drives, amazing mountain biking trails, and some of the best ATV trails, this is a quiet area of Utah that truly has it all.  Of course it can be hard to decide where to play in Utah as this large state has so much to offer for those who like to play outdoors.  But, let me give you some advice… if you want to play in Utah on amazing trails, without the high prices or overcrowded trails, make this layover your final destination. 

My long weekend in this area started off on the highest of highs (10,193 feet high to be exact).  I started my tour of this area on four wheels with the annual Fall ATV Ride through Castle Country.  It was over 60 miles of riding dusty ATV trails through amazing scenery during one of those perfect Utah days.  You Utahns know what kind of day I am talking about, those chilly mornings that lead to a hot sunny day.   

If you do visit this area, and if you do choose to join for next years ride, let me tell you that you can expect to see so many of Utah's famous and varied landscapes.  In just one day of riding I saw bright yellow aspens on woody hillsides,  insane summit views from 10,000’ above the canyons, red rock walls lined with petroglyphs, and a picturesque plateau with herds of wild horses.  

All in one state, one area, one day.  

Fall views along the ride and dusty dirt roads

Amazing breakfast pizza - donated by the City of East Carbon. 

The day started with registration at Sunnyside Park in East Carbon.  Machines lined up in the parking lot and riders gathered at the registration table to sign in, grab their lunch, and enjoy a quick breakfast and a safety demonstration.  Breakfast was an amazing assortment of coffee, fruit, donuts, and breakfast pizza.  Yes, you read that right... breakfast pizza.  Scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, and various veggies on a cheesy hot pizza on a cold fall morning, easy to eat and so delicious.  Oh, what a glorious way to start a day. 

Our machine, rented from Summit Motorsports in Spanish Fork

To really enjoy the ride, there are a few things you will need to make sure you have.  Sunglasses (goggles would be even better, it was really dusty), a good buff, a blanket if it gets chilly, sunscreen, a hat, a thermos for coffee, a mini speaker, water, food/snacks, and any safety gear needed (radios, extra fuel, cables, etc).  

Machines lined up for the ride 

The turnout for the event was pretty amazing especially for the first year of the event, thanks to the amazing efforts of Carbon County's Tourism Specialist, Tina Henrie.  Because of her hard work, we had over 70 people and over 30 machines in the group (you will need to bring your own machine to the event).  The $25 admission for the driver or $10 admission for the passenger earned you breakfast at the park, a packed lunch, a tour guide, a map, and a swag bag.  Castle Country OHV Association did an amazing job of leading the tour, educating visitor's on the trails and all the scenery around us.  

The itinerary and plan for the ride was:
Breakfast in Sunnyside Park 8:00 a.m.-8:45 a.m.
Welcome & Safety Meeting 8:45-9:00 a.m.
Ride Begins! Group 1 & 2 depending on the number of registrants
Lunch at Daddy's Canyon Complex 9 Mile Canyon around 11:30-Noon
Tour the Complex, Visit the Great Hunt Panel
Head back to Bruin Point

Map of the Fall ATV Ride Route 

We headed out on the machines single file, motoring along dusty canyon roads with amazing scenery along the way.  At our first group stop, we took in the late September fall foliage and sweeping views below in the canyon.  Tony Riffle was a one-of-a-kind tour guide, passionate about this area he called home.  We saw the yellow aspens that served as a backdrop to the 3.5 mile cable running down Water Canyon with towering trams and cables.  It was like history frozen in time, those ore buckets suspended in the sky, reminding everyone what the past of this county once was.  

It is no surprise that this area was once famous for its coal mining history.  The Sunnyside coal mine was located at the mouth of Whitmore Canyon (26 miles east of Price, Utah).  The first coal mine opened in Whitmore Canyon in eastern Utah in the 1890s and this area was once home to the largest coke and coal deposits in the west.   The 3.5-mile tram and cable was used to transport rock asphalt from the mine high above and down the canyon below, making this the longest continual cable at that time.  It is a unique experience to be climbing in the machines, seeing these ore buckets suspended in the sky, somehow beautifully preserved for visitors to see. 

In front of an aerial tramway
Pit stop to see the trams and cable

Stunning fall foliage along our ride

Following dusty dirt roads on our ATV ride

Sweeping views as we climbed our way up the canyon

Amanda and I posing at Bruin Point

I knew this area was going to be amazing, but believe me when I say the beauty here took my breath away.  My jaw was on the floor as I heard about the worlds longest cable at the time, strung down the canyon, history preserved in space and time.  And then I saw the sweeping views below, the most beautiful fall colors.  And then we reached Bruin Point at an impressive 10,193 feet.  Not only is the ride up to this point spectacular, but it also gets credit for being one of the highest mountain roads in Utah.  Bruin Point is also the 29th most prominent point in the state of Utah and offers incredible views from over 10,000 feet.  The road to the summit, Water Canyon Road (a graded dirt road), is a beautiful winding ride climbing high above Utah.   I stood at Bruin Point, taking it all in, giddy with the warm sun, cool fall air, great company, and to be in this new-to-me area in one of the prettiest states I have ever been to.  Why don't we know about Bruin Point up in the city?

Posing in front of the foliage along the ride 

Making our way into some of Utah's red rock castles 

After Bruin Point, we jumped back in our ATVs and continued our tour through the canyons.  Joining the ride, you certainly had that sense of camaraderie.  Other ATVers would wait at an intersection to make sure you didn’t miss the turn.  Everyone had extra supplies, huge smiles, and a great day out on the trails.  We stopped at pit stops along the way to take a few photos, stretch our legs, or learn something new about this area of Utah.  As we traveled from Bruin Point, the scenery changed drastically as we made our way into Utah's famous desert landscape.  We went from pretty yellow pines up to this high mountain pass into that dry red rock desert southern Utahns and her visitors love. 

The amazing tour guides and historians on our ride 

It felt like we had 5 different historians in the group and I even took notes as people who grew up in this area told me about the towns they loved so much.  Tony pointed out some of the coal mining structures along the way while Ted pointed out various indian artifacts along the canyon road.   For me, the best part of traveling is getting to know the people who call the area home.  Hearing someone's passion about an area, why they love it so much, why they have always called it home, is a pretty special experience.  It's one thing to drive through an area and read a few brochures to form an opinion and take in the scenery.  It is a whole new experience to see someones hometown through their eyes and to really to understand what makes this area so special.  <When you let people show you something they love and why they love it is an entirely different experience.... #PeopleNotPamphlets 

A wall with petroglyphs in Nine Mile Canyon

The ride continued down dusty desert roads as we made our way to the area I was most looking forward to, Nine Mile Canyon.  Nine Mile Canyon was on my Utah Bucket List- that list I made when moving out here to motivate me to see as much of this area as I could.  It is a list of some of Utah's iconic and unique "must see" places.  Nine Mile Canyon made it onto that list and it turns out, it is actually a 40 mile canyon and will take the better part of the day to fully explore.  This canyon is home to beautiful red rock lined with pictographs and petroglyphs** from the ancient Fremont Culture (AD 950–1250) and Utes. This canyon is often called the ""the world’s longest art gallery" as pictographs and petroglyphs, over 1,000 rock art sites, can easily be viewed right from the canyon roads.

**Pictographs are drawings or paintings made on rocks while petroglyphs are images that have been carved into the rock.  

The drastic change in landscape from aspens to red rock

Petroglyphs (above me) in Nine Mile Canyon

The Famous Great Hunt Panel in Nine Mile Canyon
The well known Great Hunt Panel is one of the main attractions of the canyon and can be found 45.9 miles deep into the canyon.  These petroglyphs can be seen up close, a short walk from the parking lot in Nine Mile Canyon.  These petroglyphs have appeared in National Geographic magazine and are often seen in Fremont rock art.   "Scholars believe it might represent an actual bighorn sheep hunt and wildlife biologists believe it depicts a scene in late November or early December when herds meet for the fall mating season. It is the only time of year when the rams, ewes, and lambs are all together in the same place". Castle Country Guide

Ancient Art, Modern Selfie 

We had lunch at Daddy Canyon Complex after seeing the famous Hunt Panel in person. We also walked among the other trails through the red rock, baking in the desert sun while enjoying a cold beer and a great lunch.  The event was so well organized, down to every detail from breakfast to lunch, pit stops to parking.

ATV break along the trail
Fall foliage along the trail 

Soon we left the petroglyphs behind and were making our way up to a plateau - and this was where the grand finale of the ATV ride happened.  Let me start by saying I dreamed of seeing wild horses when I moved to Utah. I spent entire days driving through the middle-of-nowhere, looking for these often hard to spot wild herds. Well, Castle Country surprised me again as we pulled up along the plateau to see herds of wild horses, trotting along the fields and grazing in the open land with wild manes blowing in the wind.  No big deal, just driving along this plateau while wild horses play in the wind alongside you.  What can be more midwest than this?
Wild Horses on the plateau

The Range Creek Herd Management Area (HMA) is located on the West Tavaputs Plateau (ranges from 5,600 to 8,900 feet in elevation) high up here in Castle Country, far away from the busy cities and populated areas.  We saw about 20 horses in different groups up here on the plateau.   The origin of the wild horse herd is believed to be from ranch horses once owned by the Preston Nutter Ranch.  Access to this area is through Nine Mile and then up Cottonwood Canyon.  It may also be reached by traveling through Water Canyon and over Bruin Point.  Read more about these wild horses (managed by BLM) here.  I am pretty sure I audibly squealed with excitement as we watched the horses trotting on the ridgeline, it's certainly a unique experience and a memory that will not soon be forgotten.  

Wild Horses on the plateau

ATVing along the plateau 
Returning back to the trailhead
Views from the plateau

Big Horn Sheep in town at East Carbon

All smiles at the end of the day

By the end of the ride, my face hurt from smiling. I was sunburned and windburned, and everything I owned was covered in a thick layer of dust and grime.   I felt like the dirtiest human alive but damn, was I happy.  It was such a great day taking in some of Utah’s best scenery with some of the kindest people I have met in this state.  Castle Country, this gorgeous area between Salt Lake City and Moab has some of the best ATV trails around... you just didn’t know about it.  It is here that you can experience so many of Utah's landscapes in one day.  You can stand at 10,000 feet taking in the scenery and keeping your eyes peeled for some of the local residents (bears) while taking in some of the best fall views.  You can descend into a red rock canyon, photographing petroglyphs lining the canyon walls.  You can climb back up to a plateau where you can see a herd of wild horses running in open fields against a blue and white clouded sky. Skip the crowds, head south, but not too far.  Castle Country has a whole lot to offer.  

Check back in as I keep sharing my experiences in beautiful Carbon County.  Stay tuned for waterfall hikes, mountain biking, and strolls through Historic Helper. 

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