It’s a tough hike, but the view from Mt. Garfield is spectacular
Stretching more than 200 miles from Palisade to Price, Utah, the Bookcliffs encompass the longest continuous escarpment in the world.
What, you may ask, is an escarpment? Well, according to my good buddies Merriam and Webster, who know about these things, an escarpment is “a long cliff or steep slope separating two comparatively level or more gently sloping surfaces and resulting from erosion or faulting.”
Well, that certainly describes the Bookcliffs range that forms the northern edge of our Grand Valley. It also describes the largest mountainous range running east and west in the United States. If you’ll look at a map of North America, you’ll see other U.S. mountain ranges — including the mighty Rocky Mountains —run north and south.
One of the most photographed features of the Bookcliffs is famous Mt. Garfield. It’s that big one looming over Palisade as you enter or leave the valley along the Colorado River corridor just north of Interstate 70.
The strenuous trek up Mt. Garfield is my buddy Nick’s favorite hike in the valley. He says it’s great.
My son, Austin, has a different opinion. He says it’s a death march.
From the valley floor at 4,740 feet in elevation, the trail climbs 2,000 feet within two miles of the top of Mt. Garfield at 6,740 feet in elevation. It’s steep and that loose dirt up the nose of old Garfield is tough on the balance and the knees and the ankles and the hips and the rear end — if you slip, you slide.
But once you make it up there, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. You get a fabulous view of the entire Grand Valley. Most of the time you can see the San Juan Mountains a hundred miles to the south. You can darn near see all the way to Price and Moab, Utah, to the west and you can really get a feel for the grandeur of the entire Bookcliffs Range, from the top of the Roan Plateau to the bottom of the Grand Valley.
Most people view this trail as Austin does — a death march. However, there’s another way. You can go up the back side, take a trail that leads to the Gearhart Mine, then hook up to the Mt. Garfield Trail for the last pitch to the top. As a bonus, you may also see wild horses. Nick and I found them the other day grazing around the old, abandoned mine.
If you travel east on Interstate 70 to the Cameo Exit (No. 46) in De Beque Canyon, and head north, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the Little Bookcliffs Wild Horse Area. I wrote about this area a few weeks ago.
Turn off the Interstate at Exit 46, the Cameo exit, then turn left and travel under the highway. Head east for a short way along a frontage road before crossing the Colorado River in front of the Xcel Cameo Steam Power Plant.
Go past the power plant and follow Bureau of Land Management signs to the Little Bookcliffs Wild Horse Area and Coal Canyon Trailhead. It’s 2.2 miles from the interstate on an old dirt road that leads to a parking area and trail heads for Main Canyon, Spring Creek Canyon, Coal Canyon and Hoodoo trails.
Though hikers and horseback riders are welcome year-round, the gate is locked here from Dec. 1 through May 30 to protect wintering wildlife and foaling areas. So, until the end of November, you can drive a little farther, but understand this is really an ATV trail.
Only ATVs or very small four-wheel-drive vehicles can navigate this narrow, winding path beyond this point. Your big pick-up truck with that long bed won’t make it. However, if you’re in a small Jeep, you could drive another 2.7 miles to the Hoodoo Trail turnoff, then another 1.1 miles to the trail that leads to the Gearhart Mine.
If you don’t have that rugged, small 4WD vehicle, start your hike at the Coal Canyon Trailhead and hike in the creek bottom for 3.8 miles to a backcountry trail that leads to the mine. There’s a Carin (small stacked pile of rocks) on the left hand (south) side of the streamed that marks this trail. Watch closely!
Here, you’ll leave the gentle incline of the stream bed and head up. It’s strenuous, but not as strenuous as hiking up — or down — the nose of Mt. Garfield from the Grand Valley.
It takes about 45 minutes from the stream bed to the mine, then another 45 minutes or hour to the top of Mt. Garfield.
The Bookcliffs will amaze you. The wild horses will astound you. The hike up this trail will exhilarate you. Yet, one question remains. Is Bookcliffs one word or two?
Merriam or Webster couldn’t tell me.