Ascent of Wagon Road Ridge on 2013-09-26

Climber: Edward Earl

Date:Thursday, September 26, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Wagon Road Ridge
    Elevation:9503 ft / 2896 m

Ascent Trip Report

A few minutes looking at a road map of UT will show a huge part of the state that is all but roadless between I-70 and US-40 and from US-191 to the Colorado border. Wagon Road Ridge is buried deep within this massive tract of wild land, guarded on all sides by a maze of canyons, cliffs, and sheer remoteness. The primary challenge in reaching the summit of Wagon Road Ridge is simply getting near it. There are two possible approaches:

1) A northerly approach requires driving 60 miles each way on unpaved roads in the Uintah and Ouray “Ute” Indian Reservation plus a permit from the tribe. A handful of acquaintances of mine have done this, and they said that signs on the road prohibited tribal non-members from entering into the part of the reservation in Grand County (where the peak is located). They said the signs looked ominous, and they doubted that the permit would allow non-member entry into this area. The hike, however, is very short, with only ~100’ elevation gain, and can be done in minutes.

2) A southwesterly approach is shorter, involving a “mere” 25 miles each way of unpaved road driving and no access issues or red tape (it's on BLM land), but those 25 miles are brutal: most of them follow the totally unimproved sandy wash in the bottom of Tusher Canyon and require the whole nine yards of off-road vehicle capability: high clearance, 4WD or AWD, granny gear, and either a differential lock or traction control. The hike would be ~10 miles R/T with ~2000’ elevation gain.

I first tried the SW approach, taking paved Hastings Road north from the town of Green River about 7 miles to an unpaved road that heads into Tusher Canyon. An acquaintance who went this way described this as “a decent dirt road”, but I found it anything but decent after the first couple of miles. The road usually follows the sandy wash in the bottom of the canyon, but it frequently takes an alternate route, climbing out of the wash and rejoining it many times. When the road is out of the wash its condition is usually good, but whenever it climbs in or out of the wash it surmounts a sandy step where any flooding erodes under the edge. The sand in the wash is very soft and often wet, and the “road” is no more than a pair of wheel tracks that occasionally thread their way between boulders where a vehicle that’s too wide will not be able to fit. After a total of 7 miles on this road, I reached a difficult wash entry followed by a steep, badly rutted climb out. I was a few tenths of a mile short of the bifurcation between the left and right hands of Tusher canyon, less than a third of the total distance. There would probably be many more challenges ahead that were at least as difficult, and probably more so. Even though I had 4WD and traction control, I considered it too risky to try to continue, so I opted to try the northern approach through the indian reservation.

The tribe’s website provides information about the permit:
including a recreation map of the reservation:

The map shows fishing and camping deep within the Grand County portion of the reservation and said nothing about entry into this area being restricted to tribal members, so I “decided” that the recreation permit would allow me to enter the Grand County portion of the reservation. If I should encounter a tribal officer there, my plan would be to show him my recreation map from the tribal website, and explain that it came from the same part of the website that describes the permit and that neither the map nor the website said anything about non-tribal permit holders not being allowed there.

I procured the required permit from the tribe for $10 at the Ute Tribal Plaza in Fort Duchesne, about 7 miles E of Roosevelt. The Ute Tribal Plaza is basically a strip mall consisting of a gas station, a supermarket, and a hardware store. The plaza is owned and operated by the tribe.

The tribe appears to be somewhat wealthy, at least compared to most others that don’t operate a casino. There is a lot of oil and gas activity on the reservation, which the tribe probably makes a lot of money from. Due to the oil activity, most of the roads on the reservation, while unpaved, are in very good condition and they seem to keep it that way, as I encountered one grader during my visit. There is also a lot of traffic that appears to be petroleum related.

In the road directions below, an “equal road” means a road whose condition and apparent frequency of use are approximately the same as the one you are on, whereas a “lesser road” is a road in worse condition and probably less frequently used. Since the directions involve navigating a complex road grid through a very remote area, most waypoints are described in terms of both lat/lon (for use with GPS) and road mileage (for use with your odometer).

From US-40 about 14 miles W of Vernal or 16 miles E of Roosevelt, I turned S on UT-88. After 17 miles I encountered the town of Ouray, which consists only of a few houses and no apparent commercial facilities. Zero your odometer as you cross the Green River in Ouray and continue S on the road.

At 8.8 miles (39.9739N, 109.6522W), I turned R on Uintah CR-5110 (Turkey Track), which is paved, but there is no centerline.

At 9.3 miles, the pavement ends. The condition afterward is very good; very wide, hard-packed gravel/dirt.

At 11.3 miles, (39.9418N, 109.6451W) there is a fork, both ways equal, I stayed straight on CR-5120 (Willow Creek); other way goes R.

At 16.3 miles (39.8846N, 109.6505W) is a fork, both ways equal, I went L and passed an oil pump soon after.

At 28.8 miles (39.7380N, 109.5825W) I turned R on an equal road which is CR-5340 (Agency Draw). About 500 feet later is a T-junction in which the road to the L is lesser and does not climb; I turned R on an equal road which immediately begins climbing around a buttress and gains a plateau above.

At 31.3 miles (39.7120N, 109.6082W) is a triangle junction where both ways are equal; R branch is CR-5340 to Agency Draw; I turned L on CR-5450 to Flat Rock.

At 42.3 miles (39.5850N 109.6374W), I crossed a cattle guard by an abandoned wooden shack on the R and a red stock gate on the L.

At 45.1 miles (39.5487N, 109.6568W) is a shallow fork where both branches are equal; I went L.

At 46.1 miles (39.5355N, 109.6628W) is a petroleum facility on the L; an equal road goes L at an angle; I stayed straight on an equal road.

At 46.5 miles (39.5308N, 109.6659W) and 47.8 miles (39.5152N, 109.6779W) an equal road goes R; I stayed straight on an equal road.

At 48.6 miles (39.5050N, 109.6849W), an equal road goes R and a much lesser road goes L at an oblique angle. I went straight ahead on a lesser road. Topo maps show this intersection as a triangle, but I saw no triangle. Shortly thereafter, the road had some sandy ruts that would probably stop most vehicles without high clearance as well as any vehicle that is prone to getting stuck in soft surfaces (e.g. a pickup truck w/o 4WD). Any vehicle that can get past this point will probably be able to make it to the peak (except for one bad mudpuddle less than a mile from the end, described below).

At 51.7 miles (39.4644N, 109.6946W), I stayed straight where a lesser road goes L.

At 51.9 miles (39.4619N, 109.6956W), I reached the Grand county line. A conspicuous sign said no oilfield traffic. A less conspicuous sign said the road is closed to tribal non-members. Continuing past this point would probably be less than kosher, but I was not as concerned as my acquaintances who previously came here appeared to be. If I were to encounter a tribal officer I knew what my story would be, and although it probably wouldn’t be airtight it was probably good enough to avert any real trouble.

At 54.7 miles (39.4233N, 109.7018W) is a double switchback, first R then L. The road then gained the crest of a ridge, which it followed for most of the rest of the way.

At 69.7 miles was a mudpuddle spanning the entire with of the road and having soft deep tracks. I was able to negotiate it successfully, but it was a close call. In hindsight I probably should not have tried to drive through it, as I was less than a mile from the peak, and I could have walked the extra distance in about half an hour R/T.

At 70.5 miles (39.2239N, 109.7708W), I reached a much lesser two-track branching uphill to the L. According to my GPS, I was only about 0.18 miles from the summit, and the side track headed exactly in the direction of the summit. I turned my vehicle around and parked.

I then hiked up the side track, which made an ascending traverse up the side of the summit cone. After about 5 minutes it stopped climbing. A one-minute scramble uphill to my L gained the mostly open summit.

I never encountered any sign of tribal law enforcement during the entire time I was on the reservation.

The round trip driving distance is a whopping 175 miles from US-40. The only gas is less than 10 miles from US-40, and it didn't look reliable - just a couple of tanks and pumps and no human attendant. Apart from that, the nearest gas is the Ute Tribal Plaza, and you're looking at ~200 miles between gas stops to bag this peak. Plan accordingly.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:103 ft / 31 m
    Round-Trip Distance:0.5 mi / 0.8 km
    Trailhead:9400 ft / 2865 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Open Country
Ascent Statistics
    Time:10 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:6 Minutes

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