Baxter Pass Ghosts and the Crookedest Railroad in the West
Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was the fact that we had been listening to Mysterious Universe for 2 hours straight, but something spooky creeped into my veins while standing at the pinnacle of Baxter Pass. The old radio tower rattled and moaned a warning I couldn’t quite decipher as I snapped a quick panorama of the area with the La Sals mountains in the far distance. Then I jumped back in the truck to get the hell back down the far side of the pass.
We set out to find some ghost towns, but discovered much more. This trip has deserts, mountains, wild horses, and hoodoos galore. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more remote area for a day trip. You just need a good 4X4, lots of water, a camera, and a spine.
A Little History
The Baxter Pass road used to be the Uintah railroad, which ran from 1902-1939 from Mack to Dragon, Utah, hauling Gilsonite out of the rugged mountains. The camp towns of Atchee and Wendella were the only stops on this 63 mile railroad. It winded through steep canyons at a 7.5 grade in some places, so it’s no surprise that many lives were lost in the building and operation of the railway.
Maybe it was the ghosts of the fallen who were whispering to me at the top. Either way, we decided to push on and find another way back to the highway to get home. The pass was bad enough going up… we weren’t excited about going back down.
Take I-70 west to the Mack exit. Ignore the fact that everyone living there has a junk yard for a front yard. Head west on Highway 6&50 until 8 road and take a right. Take a left on S Road. That will turn into 4 road at some point and head north into the bookcliffs. Stay on this road for many miles… it is a well-maintained road (NOT in the winter) that turns into Baxter Pass road (and even later, 208) and takes you through what’s left of Carbonera and Atchee before beginning the long windy road over the pass. Make sure you stop at the top to snap a photo. It will look like this:
Then head down the mountain on the other side. This part is all private land for about 10 miles so stay on the road. You will pass McAndrews Lake on the left at the bottom, and about 3 miles later you’ll be on public land again. When you reach the Utah border, take the road to the right to get into wild horse country.
About 1/2 mile from that intersection there is a really cool hoodoo that you should explore. On the east face of it there is a big, creepy cave with a pretty small opening, but it’s easy to spot. The climb is hard but worth it. I didn’t go in there but if you do, be careful and take some photos for me. I’m pretty sure a Sasquatch lives in there.
Up the hill a little further there is an old inscription on a rock that says “Curtis Engelton, 1939.” A little further up and to the right, you’ll see my contribution.
Back in your vehicle, continue on the 30-ish mile road that eventually takes you to highway 139. On this section of road I saw 3 separate herds of wild horses, right by the road. They were curious and held their ground, but when I started walking towards them they would run away, so it’s best to take your photos from your vehicle or on the road. If you have a camera this would be a good part of the trip to keep it close and ready. We also saw several herds of elk and a coyote.
Back at the highway, take a right to head back to the Grand Valley. If you are feeling adventurous , stop at the top of Douglas Pass and take the road running back up the mountain on the left to do some fossil hunting, but if not, pick up a 6-pack of Hop Nosh, my favorite IPA from Uinitah Brewery, and look through all the great photos you took.
Want to make a panorama (or wide-angle landscape photo)? I usually stitch several photos together in Photoshop, after taking these steps:
1. Start at the left edge of your landscape. Use the auto-focus (if applicable) to set up your first shot, then turn it to manual focus before you snap the first photo.
2. Slowly and steadily move to the right, taking another photo each time you reach the edge of the landscape in the last photo. You can do a whole 360 pan if you like, but for wide landscape photos, I like to do just slightly more than 180, so, maybe 4-5 photos total.
3. Back at home, follow these instructions.