Southern Utah News Articles
Off roading to Toroweap
For more than a decade, while driving across the Arizona Strip between Cedar City and Kanab, I would pass a sign for the turnoff to Toroweap. I always wanted to take the 60-mile road to the spectacular overlook of the Grand Canyon, but I was always hindered by time or not wanting to see it alone.
That changed late last month when the trip became an experience I was thankful for this Thanksgiving.
I was spending the holiday with my aunt, who moved recently to Mesquite, Nev. She had invited me and other family members, including her son-in-law Matt Aslin, to her townhouse.
Someone new to the art of four-wheeling, Matt suggested a three-day trip that would start by driving to Toroweap, then heading west across the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and returning to Mesquite in time for the holiday.
Perfect. I was onboard, taking my daughter, Kerbe, along so we could share the experience of rolling through the vast wild land on the Shivwits Plateau. It occupies the northwest corner of Arizona, and is managed jointly by the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Everything was contingent upon the weather, which was in our favor for the three-day jaunt.
The road south from Arizona State Route 389 was 60 miles of dust and washboards, but not bad considering what lay ahead.
Toroweap Overlook is perched on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, a straight 3,000 feet above the Colorado River. If you have height-induced vertigo, it will make you dizzy with teasing thoughts of falling and/or jumping.
Matt, who admitted to being shy of heights, lay prostate and crawled on his stomach to the edge so he could peer into the abyss.
The Overlook is located at a point where the canyon narrows into a deep gash cut into the earth by the river, leaving behind a layered chronology of geologic time. It reveals a history going back beyond two billion years, and offers a rare opportunity to see, from the rim, the river slicing through the canyon’s main channel. Subsequently, the mood and features of the canyon seem to deepen here. Colors are darker, shadows are deeper, the sounds of silence richer, ravens more profound soaring beneath visitors who marvel at the black rags of ancient lava still clinging to the canyon walls.
Adjacent to the Overlook, is the Tuweep Campground with nine sites that require a reservation permit from the National Park Service. Our permit was for one night. We were then off early, our two-vehicles crawling west across the million-acre Parashant, contiguous to the park. Last year it had 54,531 visitors, according to the BLM.
My daughter and I traveled in Matt’s vehicle, and was he well prepared.
His Jeep Grand Cherokee Trail Hawk was loaded down with two extra tires, 20 extra gallons of gasoline, tents, food, warm clothing, gallons of water, stove, lanterns, air-compressor and a satellite phone. All of it riding on bullet-resistant tires to protect them against the sharp chunks of basalt they had to roll over. Matt’s son, Aaron, and his wife, Gil, were in a comparably equipped Toyota WJ. We communicated between the vehicles with citizen-band radios.
Rachel Carnahan, a spokeswoman with the BLM in St. George, said the area is so remote, that if it rains or snows, the steep roads can quickly become impassable ribbons of greasy butter. Get stuck or break down and a tow can cost upward of $2,500 with no guarantee of retrieval.
“There are no facilities or amenities, which means visitors should be prepared for a variety of hazards including variable weather conditions from extreme heat and cold to flash floods or snow,” said Carnahan. She also emphasized the importance of leaving an itinerary of your trip with someone, including a return date.
The second night of our journey was spent camping before a fire, which is legal on the monument. This followed a day when our trek rose in altitude from rabbit brush and scattered pinyon-juniper trees to towering ponderosa pines around Mount Trumbull, the highest point on the monument. After a hike to view petroglyphs, consisting of human figures, desert bighorn sheep and carefully drawn spirals, we stopped at the site where early settlers built a sawmill in the 19th century that processed lumber for the structures in newly established St. George and its temple.
Next down the road, after being jostled around like pawns in concrete’s worst nightmare, we arrived at the old Mount Trumbull School that still has a working bell tower that once summoned students.
Inside the building are historical tributes in the form of photographs and commemorative benches to early residents of the surrounding desert. Most of the honored are named Bundy. On the teacher’s desk was a letter from a young student named Mark to Santa Claus written in 1966, a year before the school closed. The letter suggested Santa may want to consider skipping the area that Christmas because he might get stuck. Instead he suggested Santa and his crew of elves take the time to spend with his family. The writer ends the letter with: “We love you and your reindeer. Get good and fat this year. Love, Mark.”
On our final day of the journey, we encountered the most challenging roads of the trip with some pitches requiring a spotter.
At one point after a particularly rough stretch, we literally stopped and had lunch on the road consisting of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
By the time the road finally descended from the Virgin Mountains and into Mesquite, everyone was rattled but hooked on four-wheeling as a door to access the vast expanses of protected federal lands that surround us.
As Kerbe said at the end, “It was fun, freaky and a little scary.”