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Dig it!
Utah's House Range Offers Fossils and Four-Wheel Fun
By Tony Huegel

Note: Be sure to visit my blog, Backcountry Byways Journal!

Only minutes after my daughter began splitting apart slabs of hard, gray shale in western Utah’s remote House Range, she made a discovery.

“I found a big one!” she declared as the light of an overcast June day illuminated the fossilized image of a trilobite for the first time in half a billion years.

“I found one, too!” my son echoed a moment later.

Then my wife found one. Eventually, so did I.

Early in the Paleozoic Era, some 550 million years ago, the shelled, oval-shaped creatures inched along the bottom of a now-vanished sea.

Today, all that remains of the extinct marine invertebrates are the impressions their segmented bodies left when they were buried in primordial mud that slowly hardened into layered, charcoal-gray limestone shale.

Great Basin 'Bugs'

The House Range rises more than 4,000 feet above the Sevier Desert and Tule Valley, about 42 miles west of Delta along U.S. 6/50. I’d first explored the little-traveled dirt backroads through these mountains a couple of years before, while researching destinations to include my adventure-driving guidebook, Utah Byways. The range's primary roads, my focus, typically require only two-wheel drive and high clearance in good conditions rather than four-wheel drive. Ever since my first visit, I’d wanted my family to see the range as well.

Best of all, I thought, would be a couple of hours spent probing for trilobites at U-Dig Fossils. The 40-acre family-operated quarry lies in the House Range’s renown trilobite beds, where high-quality “bugs,” as they are often called, and other fossils are abundant and easy to find.

Camp Delta

Before piling into the Toyota 4Runner Limited for the long drive to Delta from our home in Idaho, I called U-Dig’s Loy Crapo for a weather update and to arrange our visit.

It had been a wet and unsettled spring. So it might be buggy, he warned, no pun intended. But at least it would be cooler than June’s usual 90-degree temperatures.

Although there are plenty of places for primitive camping in the House Range, we prefer to end a day of backcountry exploring in some comfort. So we made Delta’s Best Western Motor Inn our base camp for the two days we’d be in the area.

Delta, a town of about 3,000, is named for the flatland it occupies along the little Sevier River. It sits at the eastern edge of the Great Basin, a geologic phenomenon of epic scale where water finds no outlet to the sea.

I think of Delta as the beginning or end of the long, lonely yet alluring drive on two-lane U.S. 6/50, an alternate route to Interstate 80 for the unhurried traveler.

Delta Dawn

Our first day in Delta, a quiet Sunday, dawned blustery and gray, and we could see faraway veils of rain drifting across the desert. The forecast included thunderstorms, which didn’t worry me. We would spend most of this day securely ensconced inside the 4Runner for a tour along the mountains’ scenic backways. I was anxious about Monday’s weather, however. That was the day we were to spend at U-Dig Fossils.

ibex campsiteWe followed the highway west into the Sevier Desert, toward the glistening pool of lifeless Sevier Lake. Through the haze loomed the ramparts of the House Range, scarred by the waves of that long-gone ice age sea, Lake Bonneville.

I could just make out Notch Peak, the summit of a sheer cliff some 2,700 feet high. It is home to hardy and ancient bristlecone pines, among the oldest living things on Earth.

I regretted that we wouldn’t have the time for a hike to the 9,655-foot summit of Notch Peak, called the “mountain with a voice” due to rumblings said to emanate from deep within.

House-Bound

At 31.7 miles west of Delta we saw a large sign on the north side of the road that announces the turnoff for U-Dig Fossils. From there we drove on a maintained dirt-and-gravel road, following signs northwest for another 19 miles into the mountains.

When we reached the U-Dig quarry, we stopped for a look around, and within minutes the kids were picking up fragments of trilobite fossils.

Just beyond U-Dig the road split, with the rockier and rutted right branch climbing past Antelope Springs, where campers can get water, along the base of 9,678-foot Swasey Peak to the magnificent overlook at the area called Sinbad. We went left, and let the single-lane dirt road take us across rocky grasslands to 6,650-foot Dome Pass.

From there, we gazed down into a corridor that meandered through the mountains below terraced battlements of sedimentary rock. Adding to the allure, we discovered as we descended into the canyon, were smaller and narrower tributary canyons splashed with the delicate wildflowers.

In 1859, while conducting a road survey, Captain J. H. Simpson noted that in some places, these mountains resembled houses and other structures.

“On this account,” Simpson wrote, “I call it the House Range.”

When Simpson gazed into this dramatic gap, he thought the towering bluffs resembled domes. So he called it Dome Canyon. Later, according to local lore, a group of emigrants froze to death here. Then it also came to be known as Death Canyon.

We made the gentle westward descent through Dome Canyon, craning our necks to take in the sights, and eventually exited through the canyon’s western portal. There, the road took us across a sloping alluvial fan to the pallid expanse of Tule Valley, beyond which loomed the Confusion Range, named for its jumbled geology.

At an intersection that was marked by the carcass of an old pickup truck, we turned south. Passing racing herds of pronghorn, we followed the mountains’ soaring western escarpment for 6.8 miles to one of the range’s more intriguing features, the old earthen leg of U.S. 6/50, which courses below the lofty, narrow walls of Marjum Canyon.

Cambrian Canyons

The day was windy and threatening to rain as I turned the 4Runner east into Marjum Canyon, named long ago for the boy who found the pass while riding horseback through the mountains. But its marbled, stairstep cliffs, rich in Cambrian Period (505-570 million years ago) fossils, provided a windbreak.

As we wound around rock outcrops on a gravely roadbed, I tried to imagine the trial that crossing the Great Basin must have been in the years before 1949-1950. That was when paved U.S. 6/50, about 15 miles to the south, was built, providing motorists an easier course over Skull Rock Pass, the starting point (at milepost 46) of a dirt-road tour that the state of Utah has proclaimed the Notch Peak Scenic Backway.

About 3.2 miles from where we turned into Marjum Canyon, a tiny two-track spurred to the north, taking us up a stunning high-walled crack that rivaled what I’d seen in southeastern Utah’s famous slickrock country. We followed it a short distance to the road’s end, then hiked a short way on a footpath.

Soon we reached a one-room cliff dwelling reminiscent of the Anasazi structures one sees in canyon country. But this one was the home of a hermit, Robert Stinson, from the 1920s until about 1946.

 

We followed the old gravel road east through Marjum Canyon and over 6,400-foot Marjum Pass, then turned north onto another dirt road that took us across rolling grasslands and back to the Dome Canyon road, near U-Dig. It was going on 7 p.m. now, time to call it a day. So we retraced our route into the desert, found the highway again, and soon were welcomed back to the comforts of the Best Western.


Off to the Quarry

We got a late start from Delta on the morning of our dig, and didn’t reach the quarry until 11 a.m. By then the surly spring sky was letting some blue show through, which raised our spirits.

When we arrived at U-Dig, near Antelope Springs, we met Loy Crapo’s son, Rhett. He gave us hammers, pails to put our specimens in, and a quick lesson on how to split the layered limestone to expose the fossils, which range from an eighth of an inch to two inches long. Then Rhett pointed to the piles of loose shale where we could hunt to our heart’s content.

First one hour passed, and then another. A few sprinkles fell now and then as the sky alternated from bright and blue to the gray of the shale. Taken by the thrill of peeling open long-sealed chapters of prehistory, we hardly noticed.

On average, the Crapos say, a four-hour dig will turn up 10 to 20 complete fossils at U-Dig. We stayed for only two hours, but by then our buckets were heavy with bug-laden rock.

There was more of the mountains to explore, so we loaded our booty into the 4Runner and headed off to the inspiring vista at an overlook dubbed Sinbad.

The 4.4-mile drive to the overlook follows a road that branches north from the road into Dome Canyon, just beyond U-Dig. It passes the remains of a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps camp, more trilobite diggings, an incongruous stand of spring-watered ponderosa pines, pinyon-juniper woodlands and more canyons.

The two-wheel-drive, high-clearance road eventually narrows and becomes rockier and rutted, requiring attention despite the distracting sight of soaring Swasey Mountain, a federal wilderness study area that looms north of the road.

Swasey Peak, named for local pioneer Rodney Swasey, was veiled in swirling clouds by the time we reached road’s end, in a high mountain “park,” or open area. Here, at about 8,100 feet, I parked the 4Runner in a grove of pines that include relatively young bristlecones, then climbed with my daughter, Hannah, to the very brink of the range’s uplifted west-facing cliffs.

From there we had an almost dizzying view across Tule Valley, 4,000 feet below the tips of our toes, to the Confusion Range and deep into the Great Basin and Nevada.

Eventually we returned to the base of the range, wandered various desert dirt roads, then found our way to the highway.

As I pulled the 4Runner onto asphalt for the drive back to Delta, I understood why early-day motorists would welcome a paved alternative to routes like that across barren Tule Valley and wind through rocky Marjum Canyon.

To them, no doubt, the journey was a chore. Yet to us, it was the chance to find off-highway adventure while journeying into the primordial past.

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All content © 2011 Tony Huegel. Permission to reproduce is denied without written consent.
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