Riding the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail on an ATV is a journey of discovery. Built by an expedition of pioneers in 1879, the end of the trail culminates at a point where these early engineers blasted a hole to widen a rock crevasse to make a 45-degree descent to the Colorado River in their trek to colonize what is now southeastern Utah.
Located about 5 miles east of Escalante, the trail travels southeast to the Hole-in-the-Rock — a total of 62 miles. If that is your reason for travel, enjoy, but the last 5 miles is best covered in a jeep, UTV, ATV, bike or on foot. It is not suitable for most highway vehicles.
I took part of this trail with a group led by Sam Steed, a native of Escalante. Sam took us to the Devil’s Garden, through Missing Canyon to some Anasazi granaries, and to a site dotted with dinosaur tracks. Still, there are plenty of reasons to go back: Cathedral Dome, Coyote Gulch, the Escalante River and several amazing slot canyons. A little research before you go will open the hidden treasures of this trail to you.
One more site we visited with Sam was a short distance west of the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. It was the home of two modern cliff dwellers.
This story starts back in the late 1940s when Utah’s uranium mining boom began. Two German brothers, Bill and Cliff Lichtenhahn, left Colorado in the early 1950s in hopes of finding uranium.
Bill, at 68, was Cliff’s older brother by 10 years. They found a sandstone hill on a ledge above a canyon 34 miles from Escalante. Thinking it a likely spot for uranium, they started digging.
As the story goes, when they had a sizable hole dug into the rock, it started to rain. They had no shelter except a leaky tent, so they dug faster and further until they gained shelter for themselves from the storm.
They did not find uranium, but what they did find and what they did with it made them a legend in the Escalante Desert. They found petrified wood in abundance on the desert floor.
In 10 years, they blasted three caves out of the rock wall. Using a power-driven half-ton wheelbarrow, they hauled the rock out of the caves until they had three sizable caverns. Each had a ceiling 12 feet high and a room roughly 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide with cement floors. They used one to live in and converted the other two into workshops. Heavy wooden doors enclosed the caves as protection against the elements.
With cutting tools, they turned the petrified wood, jasper and other semiprecious stones they found in the desert into beautiful tabletops, checker boards and other articles to brighten a home or office.
To polish the stones, they created an ingenious rock polisher out of the rear end of an old truck. Fastening it to a rock with the drive line vertical to the ground, they took an industrial wooden spool and lined the inside with large pieces of tire tread. Once the cavity of the spool was lined, they attached it to a wheel on the setup. Bringing their truck close, they would jack it up, take off a rear wheel and replace it with a tireless rim. Using a strap around the rim and around a wheel on the differential of the old rear end, they would start the truck, put it in gear and let it idle. The strap would turn the differential and the spool, filled with rocks, became a huge rock tumbler that polished rocks for their creations.
Their workshops were well-equipped with a power drill press, lathes and saws. They used gas and propane for fuel and they put a wood stove in their living quarters with a 30-foot pipe that extends through a hole they carved in the top of the hill.
The Lichtenhahns made the trip to Escalante once a week for supplies and, like good boys, they visited their mother in Kit Carson, Colorado, for a few months each winter. Sam met these boys when he was 8, but they are gone now. The caves remain with some of their equipment as evidence of their life as “cavemen.”
This is just one of the many treasures to discover on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down and try to imagine living in these caves and paying no taxes.