What does Utah’s famed Hole in the Rock trail have to do with reducing the state’s teen suicide rates?
Plenty, according to a Utah heritage group. The challenge is connecting youth with the epic journey pulled off at the site by their 19th century counterparts, when 70 pioneer families blazed a path across some of the nation’s most unforgiving terrain to settle San Juan County.
Stuart Matheson, who serves on the Hole in the Rock Foundation board, reminded lawmakers on Tuesday that suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17.
“Access to this trail provides a significant experience for today’s youth to appreciate the sacrifice and difficult times and hard work of these pioneers, and to learn that applying those universal principals that helped these early pioneers — faith, obedience, courage, strength, perseverance, and hope — helped those hardy pioneers succeed,” Matheson told lawmakers, in support of the state acquiring or leasing the 140-mile Hole in the Rock trail from Escalante to Bluff.
Utah’s Hole in the Rock is not just a place on a map, according to Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem.
The site, she said, also tells a heroic story that is not adequately reflected in a law passed last year, instructing the Utah Division of State Parks to study taking over federal land near the trail’s namesake geologic feature on the western rim of Glen Canyon.
Dayton’s SB220 would expand the scope of lands targeted for state control to include the entire trail the San Juan Expedition carved in the winter of 1879-80 on circuitous pioneer trip across Garfield and San Juan counties, through remote lands that later became Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
“It was the last covered-wagon expedition in the continental United States, an event of heroic proportions,” Dayton said fellow lawmakers. The trip ran west to east, a direction opposite of the great Western migrations of the 19th century.
Until recently, the historic trail fell almost entirely within national monuments. But that changed with President Donald Trump’s Dec. 4 executive order trimming Utah’s two big monuments, which also stripped the trail out. The middle stretch spanning the Colorado remains in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Utah’s Rep. Chris Stewart has sponsored a bill in Congress that would cede the Garfield County portion of the trail, from Escalante to Dance Hall Rock, to the state as part of his plan to write into law Trump’s Grand Staircase proclamation and establish a new national park at Escalante Canyons, north of the trail.
“It is a continuous trail. It doesn’t end at the actual Hole in the Rock. It extends all the way to Bluff,” said Matheson, with the Hole in the Rock Foundation. “This trek was an important part of the historical, cultural, traditional and religious history of not only of San Juan County but the state of Utah itself.”
Some 220 pioneers cut a trail though the cleft in the canyon rim down to the Colorado River and safely lowered 80 wagons. And that’s when the real challenges began as the expedition crossed uncharted territory, broken by sandstone canyons, mesas and ridges, lands that remain undeveloped to this day.
“Many of the most challenging and also most rewarding parts of that trail are on the east side of Hole in the Rock, crossing the Colorado River, getting out of the gorge, crossing Gray Mesa, getting off Gray Mesa, getting across the Cedars and on into Bluff,” Matheson said. “What was intended to be a six-week adventure turned into a six-month ordeal. This gives us an opportunity to include the entire story.”
His organization operates a visitor center at Fort Bluff and leads trekking tours along the historic route in San Juan County. Rules enforced by the Bureau of Land Management limit group sizes, which complicate the foundation’s operations on public land. Those challenges would be lifted if the trail were controlled by the state, but some environmental groups oppose easing restrictions on group size because of the desert’s ecological fragility.
For the last several years, State Parks has been mandated to operate in a profitable manner. Running a park at the end of the bumpy 50-mile Hole in the Rock road without subsidy would be difficult. Yet officials with State Parks have embraced Dayton’s proposal, despite uncertainty about how to pay for a park.
“There are lessons to be learned from the Hole in the Rock Expedition that we need in our society,” State Parks director Fred Hayes told senators. “This will not be a typical state park, but I believe with the partners we have in place, with your help and various state and federal agencies, and at least three counties, we can make a really choice experience for those who choose to visit Hole in the Rock.”
Matheson suggested private groups could maintain the trail with supervision from the state, and manage the site through private-public partnerships.
That model is already in place at This is the Place State Park, commemorating the first Anglo settlement built by Brigham Young at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in 1847.
Correction: Stuart Matheson serves on the Hole in the Rock Foundation board. A prior version of this story misspelled his name.