Mount Ellen (Utah)
By: Bob Michael
Wherever you go in south central Utah, from Capitol Reef to Canyonlands, the long rambling line of Henry Mountain summits punctuates the horizon, their random peak shapes an anomaly in a country of flat skylines. They always seemed to me to embody the back-ofbeyond mystery of that country, especially when I read that they were the last-discovered (by Anglos) mountains in the Lower 48. So, when Ron Grau suggested another Utah canyon back-pack as a follow-up to our fantastic Buckskin Gulch/Paria adventure a couple years ago, I didn't have to twist anyone's arm to put 11,522' Mount Ellen on the menu considering how he married an Ellen this year.
After a 3-day backpack in glorious Coyote Gulch southeast of Escalante, Ron, Ellen, Neal Scott and myself took a day to drive over to the west side of the Henrys via Calf Creek Falls (a 6-mile RT hike up Calf Creek Canyon to one of the most stunningly colorful and beautiful waterfalls you will ever see) and Boulder (good eats at the Burr Trail Trading Post & Grill). East from Boulder, we took surely one of the most spectacular roads on the planet - the color-saturated Circle Cliffs road which goes across the crest of the Waterpocket Fold, and drops off the steep east side of the Fold on the tight acrophobic switchbacks of the Buff Trail - a place where I still can't BELIEVE someone actually built a road. We camped at the primitive (dry) Cedar Mesa camp-ground in the southern extension of Capitol Reef National Park.
The next morning, we turned east off the excellent dirt Notom-Bullfrog Road onto a well-marked BLM road past stark barren poisonous gray badlands and castellated tan sandstone cliffs of Cretaceous-era rock into the fabled Henrys. We'd heard all our lives how remote these mountains were, and we were ready for anything with two new 4WD truck. We were, instead, amazed at the quality of the roads; 4WD was not necessary on the rather steep and narrow, but well-maintained, road that led about 25 miles from the junction up through pinon, Ponderosa and, higher up, scattered spruce-fir-aspen forest to Bull Creek Pass (10,485'). This pass is the --low point,on Mount Ellen, which is a huge mountain many miles in length composed of three segments: "South Ridge", "North Ridge" (which has the actual high point of 11,522 feet), and, one mile further north yet across a 400' drop, "Mount Ellen Peak%, a conical pyramid of 11,506'. At the Pass, you're at the notch between North and South Ridge, near an ill-defined timberline. A trail heads due north from the pass, angling up a vast slope of arctic-alpine tundra. The antiquity of this trail was shown by the tundra plants growing inside it; as you know, they grow only slightly faster than fingernails high altitude. It must have been built to access the 19th century heliograph' station on the Peak.
The Henrys are the prime example of a bizarre type of igneous intrusive mountains called laccoliths. This sort of mountain is found almost nowhere else on Earth. But they are common in Utah; the Pine Valleys (Sept. 199 SAGE), the La Sals, Abajos and DPS Navajo are all laccolithic. During the Tertiary period, long after the building of the Rocky Mountains had warped the Plateau into broad swells and basins, molten magma welled up from the Earth's mantle along a north-south lineament into the stack of Plateau sedimentary rocks at the current site of the Henrys There is no evidence that this magma ever daylighted, forming volcanoes. Nor did it shove aside and assimilate the country rock and cool to form Sierra-like plutons. Rather, the rising magma found a formational contact it "liked" - often the contact with the Kayenta Formation at the base of the Navajo Sandstone -and made room for itself by lifting the rocks above this contact into a dome, and occupying the resulting void:
I oversimplify, of course; the geology of the Henrys is incredibly complex, on both large and small scale, but this is the basic idea. Erosion in the intervening tens of millions of years since the intrusions ceased has chewed away at the uplifted sedimentary domes, so we now mostly see the to ugh, resistant igneous cores that make up the five major Henry peaks: Ellen, Pennell, Hillers, Holmes and Ellsworth. However, Navajo for some reason is much less eroded, and well preserves the original domal shape. Remember what it looked like when you drove out to climb it... like a giant Galapagos tortoise squatting on the horizon? The trail climbs steadily up the west shoulder of North Summit Ridge, mostly in tundra with vast views; only one small patch of trees is crossed. We found a few "buffalo chips" way high up, evidence that the large Henry Mountain buffalo herd likes--td go up there in summer when the tundra is flowery and green and feast on it. The trail disappears completely when you reach the crest of the Ridge at about 11,350 1; we then simply followed the class I ridge north across tundra and talus to the sunmtit, where a mailbox register is found. The peak is climbed fairly often - the Henrys are no longer the Ultima Thule they once were. The weather was perfect - close to "California beach" weather above timberline in midOctober! So, we had no reason not to saunter a mile north, losing 400 feet, to the "Peak". Just when you're starting to ascend this pyramid, the trail magically reappears; this was welcome, as this last part would otherwise be a unpleasant scramble up loose platy talus. We had lunch on the Peak, admiring the almost infinite, view, especially to the north - you almost felt like an astronaut on a space walk. A good portion of the state of Utah was visible, limited only by a pervasive haze on the horizon that had been accumulating during the past few days of massive high pressure and almost no wind. Still, you could see from the Book Cliffs in the north to Navajo Mountain in the south; east across the Maze, the Land of Standing Rocks and the Needles, to-the.-La Sal Mountains, highest and grandest of the laccolithic mountains, almost to Colorado. The entire San Rafael Swell was visible to the north, outlined by its tilted white rim of Navajo sandstone. I don't know when I have seen so much territory from a single summit, anywhere. Ellen (Muffin) Grau has a mighty fine peak named after her! That night we dined again at the Burr Trail Grill and rested up for the LONG drive home. Going down 1-15, we were already planning our next trip. Utah is as addictive as heroin, but perfectly legal and a WHOLE LOT healthier! Another canyon trip/Henry peakbag (Mt. Pennel, 11,320’) Mt. Hillers, 10,650') is in the works.
*A cautionary note on the roads; although they were in fine shape in dry Indian Summer weather, they would be a terrifying slimy nightmare after a hard rain. Also, the route on Mount Ellen is very exposed to lightning for a long way, with no place to hide. Best to avoid the summer monsoon season on these peaks, and opt for a fall ascent, as we did.
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