Hiking the Honecker Trail

Southeastern Utah - San Juan River

Text and Photos by Tom Klein

A lot of time has passed since September 11, 2001 but even now, that awful memory lingers in my mind indelibly, painfully, almost eerily.

When the terrorists struck, I happened to be Bluff, Utah, where I had gone to seek solitude in a brief hike in the state’s splendid canyon country. Instead, I had spent two days in a motel room, glued to the television until it became almost too much to bear. I had to get out.

I rented a subcompact car and drove out to Gooseneck State Park where I struck a dirt road to drive up to the trailhead for the Honecker Trail, which leads from the rim of a canyon down to banks of the San Juan River. I drove as far as the little car could take me safely. I parked it on a flat spot about two miles short of the trailhead, which, I knew, is marked by a large cairn. I could reach it by an easy hike.

Perhaps because of my preoccupation with September 11, I blundered off the path which led to the trailhead, my map and a custom-welded sign notwithstanding. I must have hiked for at least two miles the wrong way along the rim. Finally, I realized that I had gone astray. I turned back and eventually reached the trailhead cairn, having managed to stretch a two-mile hike into six miles.

I sat down to rest, marvel at the grand view, and revisit my errant ways on my map. I heard overhead the sound of a plane, normally an unwelcome intrusion in a search for solitude, but now it seemed like a welcome step back toward normalcy, especially since air traffic had been shut down following the attack. I could see the contrail. Somehow, I felt reassured, but I still had a hard time reconciling the mind-numbing outrageousness of the terrorists’ attacks with my being here in what I consider the most beautiful place in the world—Utah’s Red Rock Country, my Red Rock Country. I was banking on the healing powers of Mother Nature to restore a resemblance of balance.

The Honecker Trail was built more than 100 years ago to connect the San Juan River with the highlands above the rim, a difference in elevation of more than 1000 vertical feet. Its construction was a substantial effort meant to facilitate a prospective gold boom, always a magnet for the adventurous. The trail was no sooner completed than the gold boom busted. The adventurers never really turned up to use the trail. Today, the pathway is best known as the namesake of the Honecker Formation, one of the many intricate layers in the Southwest’s geologic cake. In this particular area, the Honecker Formation rests on top of the Paradox Formation, a stratum of limestone named after the Paradox Valley in Southwest Colorado, some 100 miles to the Northeast.

The sun began to sink toward the western horizon. I needed to make my way on down the trail to the river. But with little more than a mile to go, I was not terribly concerned. I could easily reach my planned campsite before nightfall. The trail wound through switchbacks and traverses, passing layers of limestone and shist. On the way down, I kept passing strange yellow numbers. I could not determine whether someone had used them to count turns, mark geologic features, measure elevations, or serve some other purpose.

Reaching the banks of the San Juan River, I looked forward to a nice dinner and a cold beer (I had carried three down with me in my backpack). I placed a couple of cans in the water at the river’s edge, secured them with a few rocks and went for a quick stroll while they cooled.

I could see that a lot of people used the area. The many river runs, which originate in Bluff and Mexican Hat, must all stop over here, perhaps for lunch, maybe for the night, and possibly for a day-hike up Honecker Trail. The river runners, however, keep the area clean. I found no litter.

I ambled upstream, enjoying my surroundings and the falling dusk. When I returned to my campsite, I discovered to my alarm that one of my beers had floated away. I raced downstream, hoping to recapture it. Finally, I gave up. I still had two out of my three beers. I figured that some lucky soul would eventually find my lost beer somewhere in the upper reaches of Lake Powell.

Returning to my campsite, I now saw that the river level had started to rise, reaching for my backpack. I quickly moved everything higher up on the shore. I should have anticipated the higher water. There had been thunderstorms in the area in the last couple of days, triggering runoff into the river.

Now I found that my remaining beer had not cooled off at all. The water was just too warm. Oh well, I leaned back, exhaled, and popped the can anyway. Time for a quiet and relaxing dinner!

The night among the cottonwoods passed pleasantly and restfully. I felt lucky. I have spent many nights in these parts pestered by stubborn insects, heat, or the marauding ringtail looking for an easy meal in my pack. But for now, I just could just lie back and enjoyed the signs of air traffic returning overhead. The next morning, I had a quick snack for breakfast and watched the unusual sight of bats hunting their prey during daylight.

Soon, I made my way back up the trail, hoping to complete the climb in the cool morning air. As I climbed, I could see how the trail builders had constructed the path without the use of explosives. They had found a natural route, managing to build a trail which could be followed not just by people, but by pack animals as well.

Once I reached the rim, the sun was out in full force. I rested at an overlook right at the rim. I could see across the San Juan River into the lands of the Navajo. I could see up the river for a full meander. I tried to trace the Honecker Trail down the canyon face, but the path was so tenuous and winding that I could scarcely see it without binoculars.

Slowly, the sun drifted across the sky. It moved the shadow of the near canyon rim down the opposite slope until it rested in the exact middle of the San Juan River. I could see the shadow bisecting the river, 1000 feet below me, for half a mile. At length, I hiked back to the car, draining my last water bottle along the way and looking forward to the little vehicle’s air conditioning and beyond that, the luxuries of Bluff.

This had been a welcome escape, a moment’s sanity in a world changed forever by the events of September 11. Now I felt ready for the three-day Annual Bluff Bluegrass Festival at Sand Island State Park, located on the banks of the San Juan River.

Other Hikes by Tom

Utah’s White Canyon Country
Copper Canyon



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