Interstate I-70 From Cove Fort to Crescent Junction, Utah
On the second day of my April 2012 tour of the Four Corners, I drove the 377 miles between Mesquite, Nevada and Moab, Utah. During the first leg of that journey, I traveled Interstate I-15 North for 163 miles between Mesquite and Fort Cove, Utah. As I drove north through St. George, Cedar City, Parowan and Beaver, the human population dwindled.
Through my right side-window, I could see snow squalls forming in the mountains to the east. As I proceeded, I saw intermittent snowfall in both the Dixie National Forest, and in the Fishlake National Forest. At almost 6000 feet in altitude, I felt nothing more than a rain shower near the town of Beaver. Knowing that Emigrant Pass on Interstate I-70 topped out at over 7500 feet, I feared that heavy snow could meet me at that altitude. With no other options for crossing the Wasatch Plateau, I continued.
Near historic Cove Fort, Interstate I-70 peels away on a broad arc to the east. With such an inconspicuous beginning for a 2200-mile long interstate highway, I almost missed the off-ramp. Had I stayed on I-15, from Cove Fort to Salt Lake City was 176 miles. Although I love to stop and see the sights, I had webcam business awaiting me in Moab. In the interest of time, I skipped the Cove Fort highway rest stop at, which is also the sole remaining nineteenth-century Mormon fort.
In 1867, Mormon prophet Brigham Young called Ira Hinckley and his family to come and direct the building and operations of Cove Fort. Even today, the place symbolizes rest and refreshment to travelers. Situated as it was at the confluence of the Mormon Trail (Salt Lake City to Rancho Santa Ana del Chino near Los Angeles) and the Old Spanish Trail (Santa Fe to Los Angeles), Cove Fort appeared to be a natural place for commerce to flourish. Sometimes, plans do not work out. Today, there is no development of any consequence near the old Cove Fort.
As I-70 East climbed up and on to the Wasatch Plateau, I watched as snowstorms formed in the mountains to my south. If I could make it to the farming town of Sevier, my first brush with mountain snows would be over. Still, another series of high passes waited between Salina and Fremont Junction. Only east of the junction would I be safe from spring snowstorms. As I continued through the high country on I-70 that day, the pavement remained dry. From that omen, I knew I could make it to Moab before dark.
As I drove past the Salt Wash Overlook, afternoon sunlight brought the appearance of lush greenery to that desolate valley. Such spring greenery may have fooled early Mormon emigrants as well. Although the area almost defines the term “hard scrabble”, early Mormon settlers briefly farmed the lower reaches of Salt Wash and valley. After several crop failures, wiser heads prevailed and the settlers moved on to greener pastures.
As I crossed the San Rafael Swell, I encountered a long series of steep grades. Pulling my travel trailer up and over the huge anticline, I could almost see needle on the gas gauge heading toward empty. If I opted for economy, I would have to drive less than forty miles per hour, which is unsafe on an interstate highway. If I opted for power, I might burn all of my fuel before reaching Green River, fifty miles east. Coaxing what economy I could from my Nissan Titan’s V-8 engine, I dropped the transmission into third gear and kept rolling at forty-five miles per hour.
After what seemed like an interminable number of climbs, I approached the top of the San Rafael Reef. The “reef”, a landform named for its appearance, is a geologic fold at the eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell. Before engineers blasted the I-70 roadbed through a narrow breach in the reef, a person could stand at the bottom and simultaneously touch each canyon wall. By my estimation, the current roadway often exceeds the interstate highway maximum of a six-percent grade. If you overload your vehicle or if you gain too much speed, descending through the reef on I-70 can be a harrowing experience. Unlike many descents, some of its tightest turns are near the bottom of the canyon, rather than the top. Until you are safely out on the flats, personal concentration and conservative speeds are essential.
Upon safe arrival at the bottom of the San Rafael Reef, it was only seventeen miles farther to the town of Green River, Utah. After another check of my fuel gauge, I skipped a stop in Green River, opting to fill up upon arrival in Moab. As I passed over the Green River highway bridge, afternoon sunlight hit the escarpment of the Book Cliffs. With time to spare, I decided to turn north at Crescent Junction for a visit to little known Brendel, Utah. Formerly comprised of not much more than a railroad siding, Brendel is now the location of what I call Moab Mountain. Although it is technically not a mountain, Brendel is the final repository for Cold War uranium tailings removed from the UMTRA Superfund Site, also called the Moab Pile.