Ernie Benchmark

Parking spot near the bottom of the San Rafael Reef near Ernie CanyonIt’s been a few months since I had a really fun day. Yesterday was just such a day. For the past few weeks I had been wanting to go camping and hiking, but things kept coming up that prevented me from going (not the least of which was my aversion to camping in the cold). On Christmas day I finally decided that I would just go for a nice long hike the following day, and after opening presents with my family that morning, I got all my gear ready for the hike the next day. I might have been persuaded to camp on Christmas night but I wouldn’t allow myself to miss Christmas dinner at my mom’s. I awoke early on Monday morning and left Price before 7:00 AM on my way to the San Rafael Reef near Ernie Canyon, where I’d wanted to hike since I became aware of the benchmark at the top of the Reef several years ago.
Old truck and drilling rigBy 8:50 AM I was already hiking up the San Rafael Reef. The dirt road from UT-24 was in the best shape I’d ever seen it in. In October 2008 the Iron Wash crossing was rocky and rough, and in October 2010 it was wet, sandy, gravely, and still required 4WD, but yesterday I drove the whole road in 2WD. After parking my truck at the end of trail 921, I hiked slightly out of my way to see the rusty old truck/drilling rig that I’d seen the past two times I was in the area. After that, everything was new to me.
Fins inside the San Rafael ReefFrom the drilling rig I hiked northwest until reaching the crest of a ridge of Navajo Sandstone, which then dropped down into a small, sandy valley. This became the theme of the day–up a hill, over a ridge, then back down into a valley or canyon. I should note here that it took quite a bit of planning using Google Earth and USGS topo maps to plan my route. I created a series of waypoints in Google Earth that I uploaded to my GPS, which I then followed very closely in order to get to my destination, which was the “Ernie” benchmark at the top of the San Rafael Reef about 2.6 miles (as the raven flies) from where I parked the truck.
Crossing the boulder fieldIn the sandy valley I found a frozen waterhole (which would have made for the perfect swimming hole in the summertime) and had to bypass a slot canyon-like feature that I wasn’t expecting. I followed the bottom of a wash for a while and saw some relatively recent human footprints in the sand. It became time to climb out of that canyon, over a ridge, and into the next canyon to the north. That up-and-down wasn’t too bad, but before I reached the bottom of the next canyon, I realized that on the other side was a boulder field that I would have to cross. It looked rugged and daunting from the opposite side of the canyon, but when I was working my way through the boulder field it wasn’t too bad.
Bobcat track in the snowI crossed the boulder field and continued gaining elevation until I reached a saddle on the ridge above me. From the saddle I hiked along the top of the ridge without dropping down the other side into the next canyon. I saw some bobcat tracks in the snow along this ridge, which made me glad I was keeping Torrey on her leash. This was one of only a couple of areas along the hike where there was little elevation gain/loss, even if only for a short while. I was basically hiking along the rim of the next canyon to the north, but eventually I was going to have to cross that canyon. The cliffs on the opposite rim looked too tall for me to cross the canyon, and I started getting discouraged. Eventually the canyon floor rose to meet the ridge I was hiking along and I found a place to cross it and scramble up the other side through a weakness in the cliffs.
Henry Mountains and Gilson Buttes in the far distanceIt was about 11:30 AM by then and I stopped to rest and eat a small lunch. I was relieved to be across the last large drainage along my route. Once I started moving again I encountered the steepest terrain on the entire hike. I kept a slow and stead pace until the terrain leveled out after a while. From that point on there were only some small ups and downs until I got close to the benchmark. I’d seen a lot of bighorn sheep tracks in the dirt before then, but within a quarter-mile of the benchmark I saw the first sheep tracks in the snow–it was surprising to see that at least one sheep was up in the high elevations during the winter.
Final scramble to the Ernie benchmarkI was a tenth of a mile from the benchmark before I could see the hill on which it sits. This is where I really started getting anxious. I’d been able to find no information on whether the benchmark was reachable by hiking, though I knew it had been placed by surveyors who landed there in a helicopter in the 1950s. Upon seeing the sandstone knoll where the benchmark resided, I still wasn’t confident that it could be climbed easily. I skirted around the knoll to the southwest and took in the view all along the San Rafael Reef. It was breathtaking and already totally worth the hike up there. I then steeled myself for a possibly difficult and dangerous scramble up the last short but very vertical section before reaching the benchmark. I could already hear my wife admonishing me not to do anything dangerous.
Ernie benchmarkThe scramble to the top turned out to be a piece of cake. Perhaps my eyes were playing a trick on my brain, but the height of the vertical portion before the relatively flat top was a lot shorter than it appeared from a distance away. I found the benchmark and two reference markers easily, and there was even a summit register in a small glass jar that had been placed there exactly one month earlier by some Colorado hikers. I spent a lot of time soaking in the view and reveling in the accomplishment of successfully planning a route to the top. I placed a geocache there, right next to the summit register, then started the hike back down.
Beautiful winter skyOn the return trip I mostly had to closely follow my GPS tracklog because there had been so many small cliffs where there was only one easy place to climb past them. On the relatively flat areas where I could stray from the GPS track, I saw a few footprints that looked recent enough that they must have been from the Colorado guys who placed the summit register. I figured they must have taken almost the exact same route as I did, but the abundance of slickrock left a dearth of tracks to see along the way. Since there was a lot more downhill and a lot less photo taking during the hike down the Reef, I made excellent time.
Pictographs in the San Rafael ReefWhile following a sandy, gravely wash about two-thirds of the way back to the truck, by chance I spotted what looked like a common flake of chert half-buried in the sand. I picked it up and it turned out to be a nicely formed arrowhead with a small break on one side that is probably what caused it to be discarded. I searched the immediate area on one side of the wash for more chert flakes or arrowheads, but found nothing. It must have washed there from farther up the wash. I was feeling great for having accomplished my goal, and finding the arrowhead gave me the push I needed to explore the area a little more, rather than hiking straight back to the truck. I took a side-trip up a nearby canyon while searching for other signs of Native Americans, and to my surprise I found a nice pictograph panel. Icing on the cake, baby. The rest of the hike back to the truck was a bit of a trudge. At the end of the hike I’d covered 8.1 miles, taking about four hours to get to the benchmark and less than 2.5 hours to get back to the truck. What a way to end 2011.


Photo Gallery

GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Earth .KMZ Format)

GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Maps)

3 thoughts on “Ernie Benchmark

  1. Way to go Dennis and thanks for sharing this trip and all the trips of 2011 with us. I want to know why in the world a survey marker (benchmark) was put out in the middle of no-where.

  2. You might be surprised at how many survey markers there are in remote locations. They’re part of the NSRS, so even unpopulated areas received a scattering of benchmarks to round out the system. As you can probably tell, I did a fair amount of benchmark hunting before I got a GPS and started geocaching. ­čÖé

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