"The Unknown Mountains"
The Henry Mountains rise directly out of the barren, but scenic deserts of Southeast Utah. A certain mystique has always surrounded the mountains and they are steeped in history. These mountains are located in Southeast Utah south of the tiny town of Hanskville, west of Lake Powell and east of Capitol Reef National Park.
Before the mountains were known as the Henry Mountains, they were known as the “Unknown Mountains” and for a good reason. The Henry Mountains were the last range in the United States to be “discovered” (1869) by John Wesley Powell and didn’t appear on any maps until 1872. Since the first attempt to settle Moab by the Mormons occurred back in 1855 so it is possible and probable that some of the Mormon explorers could have seen the mountains before these dates. The Old Spanish Trail also passes to the north of this area and was used between 1830 and 1850 or so, so it is possible that explorers along that trail may have viewed the mountains before Powell, albeit from quite a distance. Even so, the region was the last in the United States to be mapped and remains isolated even today.
The Henry Mountains have many natural attractions as well. The geology is interesting since granite intrusions pushed directly up through the sandstone layers in a rather spectacular fashion. There are no foothills and the mountains rise straight out of the desert.
This is a land of contrast. There is just something interesting about walking through a snowbank in late June when only a few miles away the desert bakes in 110 degree heat. With the exception of glaciers, there is a bit of everything here.
The northern mountain such as Mount Ellen rise well above timberline and are of a very alpine appearance. The southern mountains such as Mount Holmes and Ellsworth are very rugged, but more desert in nature.
One of the best attractions of the Henry Mountains is that they are all public land (there is a ranch or two around the base of the mountains, but they don’t block any access). You can hike, climb, ski or camp anywhere you want without having to worry about private land signs or fences.
Mount Ellen as seen from the east.
Mount Hillers as viewed from near the highway west of Mount Ellsworth and Mount Holmes. The snowy peak far left is Mount Pennel. Notice the tilted landscape below the peaks (the photo is not tilted, the land is). These mountains are made of granite intrusions known as laccoliths and tilted the surrounding layers of sedementary rock.
The Mountains of Legends
Perhaps because the mountains were and are so remote, many legends (some of them true) have arisen in the mountains. Outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid used the surrounding area to hide out and gun battles have been fought near the base of the mountains. Cass Hite settled an area just east of the mountains and was constantly on the hunt for lost silver mine, many of which believed existed and which dispute ended in a gun battle. Mormon settlers struggled to settle the areas and have many tales to tale as well.
Besides verifiable history, many tall tales and legends exist as well. There is gold dust in the sands of Glen Canyon (there was a minor gold rush there in the late 1800's). Naturally, since the fine gold dust is found in the sands below the Henry Mountains, prospectors began to turn to the mountains themselves. Further fuelling the “gold fever”, a legend of the Lost Spanish Gold Mine in the Henry Mountains was floating around. This time though, a rich gold vein actually was found in 1893. Unfortunately for the miners, the vein ran right into a fault line after not too long. The gold vein has never been relocated despite people ripping up the mountains for decades (which is still continuing today).
The historian Wolverton went as far as publishing a book in 1928 which also mentions the story of the Lost Spanish Mine. Supposedly a rancher was taken to it in the 1860’s by an Indian boy who was working on his ranch. The boy told the rancher about the curse of the mine and that the Spanish had enslaved the Indians and forced them to work there in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. The rancher was killed by drinking bad water before he could show anyone else where the mine was.
In addition to the history, there are yet other aspects of the mountains adding to the vision of the old west. The Henry Mountains have one of the last wild bison herds left in the United States and the mountain remains the only place in the world where wild buffalo are hunted.
View from Mount Holmes.
Introduction to Hiking, Peak Climbing and Rock ClimbingHiking
There is a little bit of everything here, but one thing that described the routes through the Henry Mountains is that there aren’t many trails around. Because of this, make sure to use low impact forms of travel (unfortunately ATV’s have scarred some scattered locations in the range). Most “trails” are old wagon, mining and logging roads.
Hiking on Mount Ellen.
Of all the peaks in the Henry Mountains, only Mount Ellen (the highest peak in the range) has a trail to the top. Most peaks are between class 2-4 in difficulty via their easiest routes. Although Mount Ellen is the highest mountain in the range, it is the easiest to climb as well (both the main summit and the southern summit) although Mount Pennell is just as easy if you have a tough 4x4. The southern mountains such as Mount Holmes are more difficult to climb.
Some of the crags around Mount Holmes.
While much of the rock around the Henry Mountains is quite loose, there are solid rock walls as well. The Horn and some areas around Mount Holmes offer solid rock climbs on granite-type rocks.
Mount Ellsworth as viewed from near our campsite at Fourmile Spring.
My Favorites and Where to Go if You are Short on Time
The best place to go to see alpine scenery is the area around Mount Ellen in the northern section of the range, but my vote for the most spectacular peaks of all, goes to the southern peaks of Mount Ellsworth, Mount Holmes and the south side of Mount Hillers.
Some of the less conspicuous mountains in the range are quite interesting as well. Just some choices are Bull Mountain, Ragged Mountain and the Horn. The Black Table is also very interesting.
While all of the Henry Mountains are interesting and beautiful, the least interesting of the major peaks is probably Mount Pennell. It has fine views, but is not as spectacular as the above mentioned mountains.
View of Mount Holmes from Starr Springs Campground.
There are only three official campgrounds in the entire area. Lonesome Beaver and McClellan Springs campgrounds are in the northern ramparts of the range near Mount Ellen and Star Springs Campground is in the southern portion of the range near Mount Hillers. With the exception of one tiny section of land near Mount Ellsworth and the mining claims in Bromide Basin, there is no private land within many miles of this area, you can literally camp anywhere you want to. Just leave a clean campsite.
Mount Ellen in early July.
Because the mountains rise straight of the desert, there is an enormous range of climate and seasons here. Summer temperatures at the base of the mountains often soar to 110F. Summer temperatures on the highest peaks are always cool and snowbanks usually last until late June or early July (later in heavy snow years) on the highest peaks.
Snow restricts access roads to the northern peaks until late June or later in most years and summer is the normal time to climb those peaks. For the southern peaks of Mount Holmes and Ellsworth, summer temperatures are quite warm and spring and fall are the best times to climb.
The Henry Mountains do get enough snowfall in the winter to provide cross country skiing and snowshoeing on the northern peaks. Even though access roads in the northern section of the range are closed, they can be skied or snowshoed in a relatively short time.
[img:145072:aligncenter:medium:Mount Ellen in early July.]