Smokey Mountain Road & Underground Coal Fires - Turktacular 2017

  • Updated: November 26, 2017
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

November 26th 2017

This was another travel day connecting the Hole In The Rock area of Escalante with Vermillion Cliffs so we could do White Pocket on our last day.  Along the way we visited a long burning underground coal fire and drove through some of the most remote areas of Escalante.

We expected Smokey Mountain Road to be an attraction in and of itself since writeups online describe how it traverses through the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and rave about the rocks and scenery.  It was pretty but compared with the other sites we've visited I wouldn't visit again as a destination in and of itself.  There's just too many beautiful spots out in that area.

We spent a pleasant night near the Harris Wash trailhead we'd used for Red Breaks the day before.

It started out with one of those disgustingly beautiful sunrises you run across sometimes in the desert which made for an ok view while drinking our morning coffee.

Driving out we came across one of Kristens least favorite animal species.  She only approves of them when in steak or hamburger form.  (I'd be giving her the stink eye too if she made a regular habit of eating my species yet objected to even driving by me.  Pfft.)

We left Hole In The Rock at a junction marked 11 Mi. Collet Top.  This connected with Smokey Mountain Road which would allow us to cut over to Lake Powell and get to Vermillion Cliffs.

We didn't know what to expect from road conditions since online sources are notoriously unreliable when it comes to classifying what type of vehicle you need.  At least as of November 2017 the Jeep was overkill and I could have gotten Kristen's Subaru Forester or any other high clearance non 4WD vehicles through fairly easily.

There were a few sections early on where we went through shallow water and up some rocks but even with the early morning ice we rolled on through easily.

Further on we joined the actual Smokey Mountain Road which has another section extending further north of Escalante.

It was pretty back here just not quite the astounding views we were expecting.  Blame it on being spoiled by time spent in parts of Utah with vividly colored rocks :P

Navajo Mountain just dominated the skyline anywhere in this area and you can see why it was included on the Sierra Club Desert Peaks Section list.  At least until access issues caused it to be removed but hey, it was a little weird having a drive up peak on that list.

Other than expecting interesting scenery we had one attraction we wanted to visit along the way which was the underground coal fire.

Since I learned about it years ago I've always been fascinated by the story of Centralia Pennsylvania

In that case an intentionally set fire spread to an old coal mine and it's been burning ever since leading to the town being abandoned.  It's one of those things I'd love to get out there and explore however it's a bit of a drive from California.

So when I read that the Smoky Mountain area was named due to an underground coal fire that had been burning for a very very long time it peaked my interest.

We found BLM Road 332 next to Smokey Hollow which was a spot where others had mentioned finding actively smoking vents.  I drove excitedly to the end and...found a decent view.

The red cliffs in the distance are called the Burning Hills and are directly attributed to the fire.  However we didn't find anything until we started heading back and realized we had driven right past what we had been looking for.

(I did notice on the map that there's a peak out there called Crotch.  That's located over in the Burning Hills.  Anyone up for a trip to climb Burning Crotch?)

A short distance back there were cracks running along what was presumably an old coal seam or else very regular fractures due to heat.

We found a few places where they went down quite a ways based on the pebbles we dropped down but there was no sign of heat or smoke.

There was a place marked Drill Hole on the map but all we found was a metal post sticking out of the ground.

We were starting to think that might be all we'd find when Kristen caught sight of smoke up on a hillside.

So as of November 2017 the active area is actually quite close to Smoky Mountain Road.  We parked along the BLM road and hiked over only to realize we could actually drive right up to them.

The smell hit us as soon as we got close.  A chemically burning oil smell is the best way I can describe it.

We couldn't see any flames but you could feel the heat coming out of the opening.

We found a few of these pegs labeled fire monitor set into the ground.

We'd soon had enough of breathing foul smelling fumes and continued on.  Unfortunately the smell stuck around in the car for the next 2 days!

From there the road descended steeply through Kelly Grade and into a much more barren area.  We'd originally planned a side excursion to the Wahweap Hoodoos but it was an 8 mile hike and we just didn't have enough daylight or motivation to do that just for an isolated photo op.  Maybe next time!

We popped out into civilization at Glen Canyon City which mostly seemed to be a collection of warehouses and rental businesses.  We drove south on 89 about 15 minutes to reach Wahweap which is a resort which promised to have year round showers.

It was fairly deserted outside of a few RVs but they did have coin op showers which was a nice luxury after a few days of hard hiking.

We were hungry and took the opportunity to run into Page and get one of the most satisfying brewpub meal I've ever had.  (Everything in Wahweap was closed but based on the Yelp reviews we weren't missing much.)

Our whole reason for coming out this way was so that we could finish the trip on White Pockets which is an area of strikingly colored rocks in the Vermillion Cliffs area.

It was a few hours drive from Wahweap to Vermillion Cliffs.  When it's not dark the drive along House Rock Road is quite scenic but we'd seen this part before.  (A few years ago we'd had a similar plan to end a trip at White Pocket but I got quite sick and the girls weren't up for driving the road without me.)

Right at the Arizona / Utah border there's a BLM campground that's free and conveniently located for any of the attractions in the area.  In addition to White Pocket you also access The Wave, Coyote Buttes, and Buckskin Gulch from this same area.

Someone came over and introduces themselves while we were unloading as a BLM safety officer and asked if he could share our fire for a while.  He brought over some firewood and we sat around for a few hours trading stories.

Tomorrow White Pocket at long last!

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