Miners Basin – Changing
by Marcia Hafner
you’re in a hurry, don’t take the road into Miners
Basin. Even though it has been greatly improved since the
construction started on the original road in 1897, it is
still a steep, jolting three-mile drive. It is accessible
to high clearance vehicles but motor homes and trailers are
advised not to go this way for good reason. Sharp switchbacks
make it difficult to negotiate and when the going gets tough
which doesn’t take long, good luck finding a spot for
a large rig to turn around in.
Squeezed in a narrow mountain canyon in the northern range
of the La Sal Mountains, this rubbly rock road is vulnerable
to avalanches and spring run-off. Consequently it stays closed
eight to nine months of the year. The first heavy snow in
the fall buries it and not until the winter’s accumulation
has melted off usually by mid-June is it navigable again.
It is slow going but finally there’s the combo of parking
lot, outhouse and forest service kiosk. I get out on rubbery
legs and take a deep breath of cool, fresh air. I’ve
been here before and it all looks familiar: the small stream-fed
pond that is so clear the fish are easy to see along with
the majestic peaks staring down from the north, south and
east with the flank of Mineral Peak stretching out to the
The Trans La Sal Trail goes north to south through Miners
Basin and my hiking partner and I head north up towards Bachelor
Basin. Crossing the road we came in on, there’s a red
gate and this section of the trail begins here.
weather is still warm but the seasons are changing. In the
high country it comes early and there are unmistakable signs
that it is time to get ready for fall. As the many switchbacks
wind us through the aspens, fir and spruce, we find lots
of columbine but their glorious blooms are long gone. A few
flowers are still in bloom and we savor the yellow daisies,
hairy golden aster, lavender asters and blue flax. Before
long their colorful fling will be over, too. Much of the
vegetation is just starting to take on a brown-yellow tone
and there’s even a faint glimmering of yellow in some
of the aspens. If we have a good year, in a couple of weeks
they will be blazing in golden colors. The snow plant still
has a few white berries left but the berry picking time for
the Oregon grape is over and their leaves are turning a bright
red. I sampled those berries once and found them bitter but
the birds seem to relish them.
Equally noticeable is the lack of bird song but we do occasionally
hear the mutterings of Steller’s jay, mountain chickadee,
red-breasted nuthatch and Clark’s nutcracker.
trail hasn’t been maintained and many trees are down
as we straddle over, under or around them. A dry stream crossing
comes just before a talus slope and we finesse our way across
a short passage of rocks. Now the trail improves as we follow
a long, straight stretch through a green meadow with views
of peaks to the south and glimpses of the once-upon-a-time
town below. Back then it was referred to only as “The
Basin,” when the lure of gold had created a short-lived
mining boomtown. A few of the old buildings have managed
to survive, just enough to spark the imagination of what
must have been. By July 1899, the population had exploded
to almost 70, with twelve of them being women. At that time
this bustling town had 27 cabins, a grocery store, two restaurants,
two saloons, a hotel and boarding house where dances were
held, livery and feed stable, shoemaker’s shop, mining
office, recorder’s office, deputy sheriff, post office,
Dr. Richmond’s office and a Sunday school. The gold
discovered in 1897 turned out to be low-grade ore and with
an economic downturn in 1907, the bust had hit. By 1910,
probably less than a dozen people remained.
Back in the trees we lose sight of Miners Basin. We have
two more dry streambeds to cross and then several switchbacks
that wind back and forth along the edge of a meadow filled
with the wonderful scent of mint. There is the unmistakable
evidence that both bears and turkeys have passed this way,
One more dry stream crossing and a sign asking hikers to
respect private land and structures in this area and we’re
on the road that goes from Miners Basin to Bachelor Basin.
Now just a few more steps and we’re at the pass where
we stop for a refreshing break. While eating our munchies
we watch a red-tailed hawk land in a tree. This is also a
favorite hangout for elk and years ago in the twilight of
the day I watched them come out into the meadow that we’d
just walked through.
choose to walk up Horse Mountain rather than go into Bachelor
Basin where a lot of the mining activity took place. Following
a distinct trail west through the firs and spruce to a rock
monument, we experience the explosive flush of a blue grouse.
After that the faint trail to the top is hard to follow.
After returning to the pass we take the road down to Miners
Basin, which is now closed to vehicles. With only one wide
switchback it is steep and gets us down at a quick pace.
Near the bottom of the road, we stop at the Dillon Tunnel
where a stream lined with petite yellow flowers gushes out
of the tunnel. We wander around inspecting the compressor
building and other decaying wooden structures.
Almost at the end of our hike there are two streams to cross
before we get into town and meet up with Bob Sherman, caretaker
of the property who is a walking encyclopedia of the area.
He’s been here since 1971 and loves to talk about the
history of Miners Basin and the importance of protecting
the few buildings and properties that remain.
A hike in Miners Basin is a favorite of mine because it is
an outdoor experience that is steeped in history.
With bridge construction on the La Sal Loop Road, the best
way to get to Miners Basin is to go north on highway 191
about two miles out of town. Turn right on to highway 128
and go approximately twenty miles. Shortly past Red Cliffs
Lodge, take the right hand turn for Castle Valley. Follow
the Castle Valley Road to the intersection of the Gateway
and La Sal Loop Road. Turn right on to the La Sal Loop Road
and go seven more miles to the sign to turn left on to Miners
Basin Road. The sign doesn’t make it clear which road
to take so look for the “motor homes and trailers not
advised” sign at the beginning of the road.
Soil Crust (aka)
Cryptos (krip’ tose):
The surface of
Moab’s desert is held together by a thin
skin of living organisms known as cryptobiotic
soil or cryptos. It has a lumpy black appearance,
is very fragile, and takes decades to heal when
it has been damaged. This soil is a critical part
of the survival of the desert. The cryptobiotic
organisms help to stabilize the soil, hold moisture,
and provide protection for germination of the seeds
of other plants. Without it the dry areas of the
west would be much different. Although some disturbance
is normal and helps the soil to capture moisture,
excessive disturbance by hooves, bicycle tires
and hiking boots has been shown to destroy the
cryptobiotic organisms and their contribution to
the soil. When you walk around Moab avoid crushing
the cryptos. Stay on trails, walk in washes, hop
from stone to stone. Whatever it takes, don’t
crunch the cryptos unless you absolutely have to!