The passion to discover new obstacles that put man and vehicle to the test draws many drivers to one of the most popular and difficult routes - Hell's Revenge, a 12-mile trail that winds along the eastern slickrock rim above Moab, with access to challenging side routes including The Escalator, a series of deep potholes worn into a sandstone crevice, and Hell's Gate, a narrow V-shaped sandstone crack that requires nerves of steel and cautious tire placement to ascend.
And for every driver willing to give these obstacles a try, dozens more pull off the road to watch. In recent years, public lands officials say the traffic from spectators has turned much of the surrounding desert landscape into a dust bowl, destroying natural vegetation, and trampling fragile desert soils.
This year, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have joined forces with Sand Flats Recreation Area employees and volunteers from the Moab Friendly 4-Wheeling off-road club to construct barriers designed to keep off-road vehicles on the designated trail. The Escalator and Hell's Gate will remain open, but some other changes have been made in the area. A dirt road leading into Sand Flats that bypasses the fee booth has been restricted to one-way traffic out of the fee area, and Sand Flats visitors this year will receive a new color brochure that includes detailed trail maps.
The group spent Saturday and Sunday installing 1,100 feet of "buck and rail" fencing in areas surrounding The Escalator and Hell's Gate. Volunteers brought in generators and power tools, and hauled heavy logs, which had been delivered to the site by Moab's three Humvee rental and tour companies.
"People are seeking out obstacles and testing their machinery. We're trying to allow them to use the places that aren't going to be impacted as much, and get them to stay off the more fragile desert areas," said Sand Flats employee Joe Englbrecht. "The damage is not from people driving The Escalator, it's from people gathering to watch. We're trying to contain this to one route and not let it become a huge gathering place for spectators."
In recent years, off-road use has increased exponentially in Sand Flats Recreation Area, a swath of county and public lands managed jointly by Grand County, the BLM and the state's Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Englbrecht said. The surge in off-road vehicles has presented many management challenges to the area best known as the home to the famous Slickrock bicycle trail. Officials are constantly struggling to find ways to balance multiple uses with protecting the area's natural resources.
Fencing some areas is a start, BLM officials say, but the success of the effort depends largely on the willingness of users to follow the rules. If they don't, travel in some areas might be prohibited, said BLM ranger Jon Sering.
"This is an experiment," Sering said. "We've talked with the off-road groups, and we're hoping that putting up fences will put a stop to the major damage. We're just trying to use a positive approach to manage this for everyone's use."
He pointed out that travel in area of The Escalator and Hell's Gate has never been officially authorized.
Sering acknowledged that fences might annoy some off-road users, but he said the move is a compromise designed to meet the needs of public lands managers as well as public lands visitors.
"The trade-off is that the fence will be constructed and it will be maintained by the users. In exchange, they get the privilege of using The Escalator and Hell's Gate," he said. "As long as they maintain the fence, they maintain the privilege. If this falls into disrepair and the surrounding area is not protected, then the privilege would end."