story: Peter Matusov
photos: Mike Gorbunov and Peter Matusov
Back to Pritchett Canyon | slide show | pile of photos | On to Kane Creek
It is hard to get started writing about the Golden Spike.
First of all, to cover it, you have to also write about Poison Spider Mesa, and Gold Bar trails (or others, depending on how you got to it - Golden Spike does not begin or end near the higway). Each of these trails has its own obstacles or memorable spots - and if you don't keep a notepad at hand while you drive (which I certainly don't), your memory will inevitably fail you. I offer my apologies in advance for omissions, misplaced features, and spotty sequence of events - but these trail have been described in great length and detail elsewhere, so if you're after exact geography, please check 4x4 Now's webpage or do your Google fingerwork.
All of these trails are unbelievably scenic - to me, Golden Spike IS Moab; the scenery it offers is the most diverse of all - deep canyons, mesas, rolling sandstone hills, thousand-foot cliff edges, arches. Cracks, too. This trail is not claustrophobic like Pritchett or Kane Creek Canyons - for the most part, it is wide open. There are sections for adrenaline junkies - starting right away with that optional ledge climb overlooking Colorado River, and sections of Skyline Drive, where a "misstep" means several hundred feet of free fall.
Also, for me, it was my first meeting with Moab trails, about 7 years ago. I've conned my wife and kids into a trip to Moab from the Grand Canyon, under a premise somewhat like "There's a really cool place not too far away from here, and, unlike Grand Canyon, they allow dogs on the trails!" Sure it wasn't too far - about 300 miles, give or take some, or 5.5-6 hours of driving. I've known absolutely nothing about the trails, except for photos in the 4x4 magazines, so that's when I bought Charles Wells' book. After flipping the pages for half an hour, I liked Poison Spider Mesa the most, and off we went to the trail. Back then, the Disco sported street 29" rubber, 2" of lift, open diffs, and newly-installed rock sliders (using SafariGard's recommended rivet nuts). The trip ended pretty quickly - after I've banged up the sliders a couple of times, and found that I wouldn't be able to open the doors if I did it one more time. So, then, we haven't gotten as far as to the Wedge - but we've parked the truck, and hiked about a couple of miles into the trail.
All these years I had a guilty feeling wearing that Poison Spider Mesa red-dirt T-shirt bought in town later.
So... Let me pass to you a bit of knowledge I just gained from 4x4 Now's webpage: The trail was developed at the 1989 Easter Jeep Safari as a connection between the Poison Spider Mesa and Gold Bar Rim trails. A group of 4-wheelers started breaking trail from each of the original trails and worked toward each other until they met. Realizing the similarity to the meeting of the railroads coming from the east and west which was also in Utah, they christened the new trail the Golden Spike.
The trail is not too far away from town - but it's nearly 20-mile long, so we had to gather together relatively early. We didn't get too much sleep due to after-Pritchett "vehicle maintenance," and I felt a bit light-headed. This time, Dan brought back his red Rubicon Unlimited - which made me feel better about the day ahead.
We rolled through town North on U.S.191 and turned left on Highway 297 - which is a narrow and winding road at the bottom of the cliffs towering over Colorado River. The Poison Spider Mesa trailhead is well-marked; it starts to corkscrew upwards right off the bat. There are some tight switchbacks, and there are several hundred-foot drops - but nothing particularly difficult for quite some time. There's one adrenaline-pumping spot I've mentioned before - where one has to drive on the extreme left edge of the trail, about a tire width away from the drop. The right tires will be climbing up a rock ledge, which will tip the truck towards the canyon. The farther away is your left side from the edge, the tippier your truck is going to get - so it's really a spot between a rock (close by) and a hard place (several hundred feet below).
I've ignored the (real or perceived) peer pressure and chickened out of this one.
Later on, after a short drive in a narrow canyon with sandy bottom, the trail hugs the rock wall and climbs up a series of foot-tall ledges. It turned out much easier than I felt six years ago, especially when you can lock your diffs, and don't care about rock sliders bending the door sills. The Wedge was a short distance away, after a few steep climbs. By the time you get to the Wedge, you've already have leared of incredible traction offered by sandstone, and having the tire sidewalls running along 30-degree-sloped walls seems as normal as it can be. I imagine if the brief rainstorm that caught up with us on the Mesa happened to be earlier, and the Wedge walls were wet, it wouldn't have been so obvious.
Once out of the Wedge, we were almost at the top of the Poison Spider Mesa. We've stopped by the grave of the little girl who, according to a story, died here from a spider bite, and looked around. Here is the first appropriate place to insert the adjective of choice to describe the views - feel free to take your pick, after flipping through the images.
Just in case you might have a need like this - the Mesa had cell phone coverage good enough for me to take my wife's frantic call from San Diego, and elaborate on statistics of the traffic jams on Interstate 405 between Irwine and LAX. I barely began to express my rather strong opinion on the real-life value of two-hour-old traffic map on LA Times' website when the call was dropped...
Soon, Dan wrapped up his story about the Mesa, and we went on to Golden Spike. I am still uncertain as to where PSM ends and Spike begins; for the number-hungry, the sources say 5 miles from PSM's trailhead.
The first terrific obstacle on the trail was the Launching Pad. A vehicle in front of you suddenly disappears, and then you only see its roof on the way up the Pad. Then, it's your turn; it is not only very steep, but also long - for several seconds the only thing you see is the sky, not quite knowing what awaits you near, or after the top. By the way, at the top you have to make a hard right turn - but you have to be judgmental about where the top is.
Soon after, Dan's challenged us to drive up an obstacle called "Crotch" - like the Wedge, but narrower and steeper. This is one of the places where you might reassess Dan's spotting directions - of course he wouldn't want to see you upside down, but he wouldn't pick the easiest line, either. It was fun watching Nick to follow Dan's directions - about the time when you think the truck is about to flip, he'd tell that it was going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Some leap of trust is needed, for sure.
Now, what's really strange, I can't remember if I drove through the Crotch or skipped it. The prize for the smoothest ride through this spot goes to Carol - some people just know how to drive!
In a few minutes, we came upon the Zuk's Hill - a spot named after a fellow rolling his Samurai after having skidded off to the side. The fun of the spot is to hit it without climbing, and keep all four tires spinning while the truck is sliding sideways - a dance called "Suzuki Shuffle." I missed the chatter on the CB while watching Dan, and then Nick and Joe, do the dance - and drove straight through instead. Very boring. I've skipped an optional nasty-looking water hole just before the Zuk's Hill, too.
Once everyone was up the Zuk's Hill, we stopped for lunch - the timing was perfect. What looked from the Mesa like the only rain cloud in the State of Utah, caught up with us - first, with gale-force winds blowing through the canyon, and then - with a brief sprinkling. A group of jeepers led by Dan's son struggled up the Zuk's Hill, and then went on.
Dan treated us to some rather crazy hill descent, where I used my chance to describe my feelings towards air-infested brake lines. For me, it definitely was a two-feet-on-brake-pedal and eyes-wide-shut slope.
At the bottom, I've had time to bring the heart rate back to twice-normal while watching the rest of the grop to creep down.
There, Richard and his friends in his D2 parted company with us and headed back to their camping spot.
We made our way to the Overlook spot - right on the edge of the thousand-foot drop.
Dan conned Mike and me to walk up to the edge and touch a certain plant he emphatically called "The Lucky Bush." As we stood up wondering whether a sudden wind gust could blow us into the abyss, he took a bunch of pictures and then waved us to come forward and look around. It turned out that the "Lucky Bush" was on the edge of the two-foot-thick shelf, protruding about 15 feet into the air. I have some trust in cantilevered structures. I really do.
We've also peeked into a six-inch-wide, bottomless crack that separated the rock on which half of our vehicles were parked from the rest of the mountain. We could see through the end of this crack close to the edge - it was hundreds of feet deep! In the moments like that, you try to brush aside all doubts about tectonic stability of the area.
After an unsuccessful photo-safari with a bighorn sheep (I was late to the game enough for the sheep to be reduced to a couple of pixels in my camera), we've arrived to the Golden Crack.
I've seen this place in the photos hundreds of times. I've seen videos of vehicles driven across the Crack. But, somehow, when I saw it in person I felt badly unprepared for it.
Absolutely unfazed, Dan just walked his Jeep across the crack. He drove his front left tire over a soccer-ball-sized rock wedged in the Crack - but didn't really have to! With all the axle travel of his Rubicon, I don't think he's ever had more than a foot of air under his right front tire. Nick didn't seem to have any problems walking across the Crack, either - so Dan must have been feeling bored. He steered Roger Lai's Disco just a hair off to the right, and then walked around and pushed the Disco so its right front corner dove into the Crack! The Disco landed on its right-side rock slider and front bumper with a resounding bang, and Roger's got more adrenaline than he counted on. Driving out of the Crack is easier than driving into it - but then your truck's integrity depends on the hardware. I've resigned to losing the rear bumper after watching Roger's Disco generous back end dragged off the rock.
My turn was next. Surprisingly, I never felt like the truck was unstable; this was also the ultimate test of my use of the TruTracs - you have to carry the truck on two opposite-corner wheels across the crack and climb a steep hill at the same time.
As Dan was satisfied with my right front tire reaching its apex in the sky, he motioned me to get out, and for everyone to take a group shot sitting under the Disco. Then, he took the opportunity to thoroughly inspect the underside of the truck, noting the fixed drivetrain mounts, and a small crack in the exhaust manifold. Thanks for the inspection, Dan, I'll fix all that's broken, someday.
Then, I did thoroughly crunch the right side of the rear bumper, to the excitement of the crowd, and dragged the Disco uphill and away from the Crack. Mike duly recorded this ordeal on the video - which, in the retrospect, makes me wonder - what took me so long to get across?
The novelty of the Crack wore off somewhat, and nobody had any difficulties driving across.
I missed having climbed up the Golden Steps - so now I don't even know what they look like.
The last major obstacle on the trail is the infamous Double Whammy - a double-two-foot-step ledge that the nature sculpted millions of years ago in anticipation of the average wheelbase of a four-wheel-drive vehicles of today. The ugly part about it that, after you've climbed the first step, your truck hits both steps at the same time. So... there are three ways to deal with it:
- come back next time with a really long-wheelbase truck,
- take the bypass (which is not a garden-variety bypass, either), or
- nail the throttle and hope that, during several milliseconds before you get bounced back, you'll make enough forward progress that your drivetrain parts stay clear of the rock.
As a testament to bravery of the folks who take the last option, there's a considerable pile of drivetrain parts on the rock shelf near the trail. After having sized up our trucks' proportions against the terrain, we've taken the bypass, and settled to watch Joe's valiant attempt at scaling the Double Whammy.
Damn - that P38 is one big truck! I can't judge how close Joe's got to climb up both steps - he called it quits after parting with a few plastic parts of his front bumper and nearly sliding off sideways.
Meanwhile, Nick and I were sorting through the sacrificial pile of parts - there were some sizeable broken chunks of steel! Besides an assortment of broken glass and plastic, and busted U-joint caps and crosses, there were some manly driveshaft yokes broken in half, and irregularly-shaped chunks of cast iron that could only have been the steering knuckles! I wondered what did it take to tow a truck with a cracked steering knuckle all the way to town...
4x4Now webside lists two more obstacles that I barely remember - one of them must be shown in the photos at right. Soon, we were on to Gold Bar trail - just a rough dirt road eventually leading to Highway 191.
We've rolled into town already after dark, and went to a restaurant for dinner - knowing, very happily, that there would be no drivetrain repairs planned for the night!
Back to Pritchett Canyon | slide show | pile of photos | On to Kane Creek
Quasi-3D view of the Overlook, extracted from Google Earth.
Last stop at the trailhead.
Maybe I should have disconnected the front sway bar, after all...
Six years ago, I've seen a jeep standing on its front bumper in this spot.
On the way to the Wedge.
Nick's straddling the Wedge.
Frank climbs out of the Wedge.
All-terrain tires are just as good as mudders, or better, on slickrock.
On top of Poison Spider Mesa.
Oh, that must be the Launching Pad...
That's all the scenery you get on the Pad.
Nick must know something, trusting Dan's spotting here!
At least, if Roger doesn't back-flop, there isn't much room for roll on the side.
Carol makes it all look so easy...
That was my two-foot-brake descent. Believe me, it's steep.
A five-color palette - red jeeps look really good in Moab!
... white Defenders, too.
This overlook of Colorado River is actually many miles away,
but this ridge in Arches National Park is even farther.
I didn't know the underside of the bumper needed scraping up...
At the Overlook
That plant a foot away from the abyss is the "Lucky Bush," according to Dan.
I had to go back and check - my Disco was on the "continental" side of the crack.
Dan simply walked his Rubicon Unlimited across the Crack!
Nope, Nick's not going over!
I think Roger's adrenaline level peaked out about 1/10th of a second before his Disco rested in this position.
A group photo under my Disco. Can't remember - was it leaking any fluids before?
"Ah-huh, a cracked exhaust manifold!"
Joe was the only one to attempt the Double Whammy...
... and left the plastic bumper trim in the sacrificial pile of parts.
One of the last views of the valley before sunset.
Hmmm... I may have to take a line to the left of that...
... but then I'd have to make that sharp turn.
Snow-capped LaSal mountains are on the background.