This ride was several months in the making. Perusing through maps of southwestern Utah, the 10,000-foot Sevier Plateau caught my eye. Over the next few months, I reviewed every map I could find that covers this portion of the Fish Lake National Forest. The area looked promising with an 11,000-foot peak and, according to several maps, crisscrossed with singletrack. I had visions of a yet-to-be-discovered fat tire mecca, similar to the well-known Markagunt Plateau (Brian Head area) just 25 miles to the west where 100s of miles of trails serpentine there way through flower-filled meadows, reflective ponds, and colorful rocky dreamscapes. How could trail-guide writers Bromka, McCoy, and the utahmountainbiking.com guys have missed this place?
This would be an all-dayer. I get an all-day hall pass from my wife, if I’m lucky, once every couple of months. After cashing in a couple of passes exploring the Tushar Range and a trip to the 10,000-foot Frisco Peak in Utah’s west desert, it was finally the right time.
Swinging northward in my car into Johns Valley, the excitement began to build – another untraveled Utah highway that I could check off of the list. Adding to the excitement was the pale yellow halo building low in the eastern horizon, providing enough light now to reveal endlessly clear skies. Rising abruptly from the valley floor to the east, are the Table Cliffs, a southern extension of the Aquarius Plateau, standing in stark contrast to the gradually rising, yet higher, Sevier Plateau to the west. I Shifted my eyes from the road out to the west and scanned the gently rising slopes on up to the top expecting to see at least a dusting of white on some of the higher slopes. My eyes strained, focusing on every canyon, but I could see only brown and gray.
This is when I first began entertaining the idea of not lugging along my heavy hiking boots. The usual plan for this type of exploratory ride is to bike up dirt roads toward the top until the snow gets too deep, ditch the bike, strap on the boots and climb to the top; and if there’s time - scout out singletrack on the way back down the mountain. If there is no snow to contend with, ascending is much quicker due to good surface conditions and less hauling weight. Things were looking good.
Just as I brought my gaze forward to the pavement, I noticed some structures a few hundred yards off the road to the east. These are the tortured remains of Widstoe, an abandoned turn-of-the-century town whose residents tried desperately to establish a farm-based community in the sage-covered hills in the shadow of the Table Cliffs. But it just seams like this narrow little valley prefers only wind, rock, and blue sky to exist within its walls. The remains of Widtsoe along with the time-weathered carcasses of several other structures, including the old Osiris creamery, demonstrate that life in the high plateau country is inviting but ultimately too difficult with its harsh winters and short growing season.
The point at which I stop driving, pull off the bike, and start riding usually ends up being as far as my little Honda will take me. This was not very far this day. The road started getting rough just a mile or two up Cottonwood Canyon where there is a nice little pull-out at the Forest Service boundary. While putting my bike together, my inner optimist pleaded its case for not needing the heavier pack with hiking shoes. Begrudgingly, my pessimist side gave in on account of no visible snow and I set out up the road.
For several miles, the grade was at that sweet spot where you can just hammer along in the middle ring at a comfortable pace, but yet, the legs are working pretty hard and significant elevation is gained quickly. Cottonwood Canyon is deeply carved into the generally featureless and topographically subdued eastern flank of the Sevier Plateau. The canyon exposes purple, orange, and gray volcanic rocks that often create a spectacularly gnarled horizon.
Compared to the blazing colors found at nearby Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks, these rocks appear old, faded, and drab. Adding to the lifeless and lonely atmosphere of the canyon are the countless charred skeletal remains of pine and aspen - all that remain of what was surely once a proud, thick, and healthy forest consumed by wildfire.
Rising out of the canyon and onto the plateau top, the odd-shaped Adam’s Head Peak comes into view. This is one of the few high points of the southern plateau country that the famed explorer John Wesley Powell chose as a survey station in the 1880s, whose’ survey party journeyed up through the Grand Staircase of alternating and successively higher cliffs and badlands that finally tops out in the high plateaus. This undoubtedly would be a worthy destination in itself as it surely offers a fine view of the fiery, decaying edges of the Paunsaugunt Plateau to the south. And in addition, the Forest Service map shows a trail snaking its way up to the peak. Maybe next time, I thought. The goal that day was to get to the top of it all- 11,000’ Mt. Dutton.
I continued on at a fairly fast pace with short undulating ups and downs as I crossed the plateau top. Cresting a small divide, I could finally see off to the west toward the Markagunt Plateau. In the skyline I could barely make out Brian Head Peak, the patriarch of the plateau country. From this distance the peak was barely distinguishable from the pale blue sky.
Feeling a small sense of accomplishment, I stopped to take in the view and find myself on the map. The sweat-drenched and blurry map showed the road crossing several crowded topographic contours followed by a portion that closely parallels the contours, lazily crossing back and forth – an easy stretch; but the map showed I still had several miles to reach the summit.
After a short and steep granny-gear grinder, I cruised past a conical-shaped peak bulging eastward from the plateau top. This must have been Cottonwood Peak. I kept an eye open for a trailhead sign that would mark the entrance for a singletrack that is supposed to descend from the peak and loop around to the bottom of Cottonwood Canyon. With the way things were going thus far, I knew I would have plenty of time to try this trail on the way back. The sun was beginning to sit pretty high now, the air was still very cold but I could feel the sunlight slowly warming up my skin, and the road surface had been perfect.
Coasting down off the flank of Cottonwood Peak, an icy section surprised me while exiting a blind corner onto a north-facing slope. Carrying way too much speed for the ice, I forced myself not to grab the brake levers and scanned the ground closely for the rougher patches that might just give my tires the least bit of bite. I knew I had to keep my momentum and resist making sudden inputs into the handlebars, making line changes and adjustments on the rougher parts and keeping straight and light over the shiny patches. Whew! Barely made it.
After swooping in and out of a few finger-like ridges, I spotted a line of dark towering cliffs that appeared to be the summit. Figuring that it must be Mt Dutton, I thought to myself that this had been too easy. Dropping down a couple of gears, I started pushing pretty hard, as the top couldn’t have been more than a mile away. As I neared the cliffs, I could see ahead now that the road cut across the lower slopes and up and over a low pass. Okay, so I wasn’t at the top, but I figured I had to be getting close. I struggled up a few switchbacks, and started to feel fatigued for the first time.
Wrapping up and over another saddle, I began to traverse the north side of a large ridge. Within a few hundred yards, I ran into snow that was about 2 feet deep - the only thing I knew could stop me from reaching the top. My hopes of reaching the top quickly began to sink at about the same rate that my tires were sinking into the slippery slush. I stopped to assess the situation. I was pretty worn-out, especially after coming down off of a couple of adrenaline highs due to a couple of false summits. The map indicated only another mile or so, but much of the remaining route lies on the north, sun-deprived, snowy slopes of this ridge. The snow was too soft and deep to ride and I figured that my feet would become waterlogged walking within seconds and get too cold to go on.
After cursing to myself aloud for not knowing better in bringing the right gear, I zipped up my jacket, turned around, and began pedaling back toward the saddle. I began thinking about how much ground I had covered and how close I had gotten to the top and then it happened. I think it was the stubbornness in me that comes out every once in a while. Somehow the frustration and anger was motivating me to turn around and keep going. It was as if I wanted to punish myself for making the mistake of not bringing the right gear. I stopped, pivoted back, and glared at the peak. Frozen feet? Tired? Pain in the knee? Tough, I thought, you are going to the top no matter how uncomfortable it gets.
Returning to the snow, I took off my helmet and plunged my bike, upright, deep in the snow in the middle of the road. No need to try and hide it as I hadn’t seen any signs of people since I left the highway.
As I suspected, my airy biking shoes were completely saturated within a few steps, and my feet were feeling pretty cold. As I traveled further into the shadows of the ridge, the top inch or so of the snow began to firm up. Not firm enough to walk on, but just strong enough of a crust so that my foot would break through, and the ice would scrape against my shins as I leaned into the next step. This hurt pretty badly and blood began streaming down my legs. My hopes of reaching the top began to deflate and I again began entertaining excuses for giving up.
This time, I had backtracked for a good 10 minutes or so when, again, the frustration and disappointment boiled over, culminating into a complete and somewhat irrational resolve to get to the top.
There are plenty of rides I can think of where piddly little excuses were sufficient to warrant an early bail-out. But some days I can’t quit no matter how adverse the conditions get. I’m pretty sure it’s not a Wheaties vs. pancakes thing – I believe it's a mental thing, but I don’t know how to turn on that mentality at will.
Except for the large cluster of communication towers and humming generators, I figured that these are pretty much the same views that Clarence Dutton witnessed some 130 years ago while composing some of the first geologic monographs of the plateau country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. This protégé of the famed explorer John Wesley Powell certainly was worthy of the honor of having such a majestic peak named after him. Even the well-known western writer Wallace Stegner had a fascination with Dutton’s literary skills exhibited in his scientific reports. Imagine trying to be the first to describe the intricate and bizarre shapes at Bryce Canyon or the mind-blowing expanse of the Grand Canyon when such scenery has no parallel elsewhere. The vocabulary simply didn’t exist, forcing Dutton to creatively use architectural wordsmithing, using terms such as facade, certain wall, balustrade, domes, etc. to convey the natural forms before his eyes. Most of his descriptions and interprestations of the rocks, landforms, and faults of the Grand Canyon and plateau country remain unchanged or challenged by later researchers up to this day.
The family of the great geologist apparently hasn’t forgotten about him either. Anchored against strong winds that blow nonstop at 11,000 feet, is a small flag left behind by some of Dutton’s posterity who, in 2005, stood in the long-faded footprints of their most famous progenitor.
Well, I never did find amazing singletrack or an undiscovered fat-tire mecca. The Sevier Plateau is reserved for those who, like Powell or Dutton, delight in exploring and studying the unknown. Very few mountain bike tires have traversed this area, or for that matter, huge tracts of unbelievably scenic terrain elsewhere in Utah, and I imagine few ever will. Many bikers these days seem content to retread the same trails over and over ignoring the itch to explore new places – discouraged from the unknown or unwilling to ride “boring dirt roads.” That said, I made a promise to myself to someday see where that narrow path off of Cottonwood Peak goes.