Two familiar rock formations on the north side of Highway 313 – the Monitor and Merrimac - were named for their remarkable resemblance to the two ironclad warships. The Monitor was actually the first of a series of ironclads that was originally designed by John Ericson in 1861. Hurriedly built in Brooklyn in only 101 days, it was the first ironclad to be commissioned by the United States Navy, and the first to be equipped with gun turrets. Neither fast nor strongly armoured, this relatively small boat was designed for use in shallow waters.
The Merrimac, originally a powerful steam frigate, was converted to an ironclad by the Confederates and renamed the Virginia. During the Battle of Hampton Roads she rammed and sank a number of wooden ships in the Union’s blockading squadron with practically no damage to herself. But things changed when she met up with the Monitor, which involved a four hour duel resulting in a draw – the first meeting in combat between ironclad warships.
Contrary to what you might expect from its name, the Monitor and Merrimac Trail does not travel to the base of the two buttes. Instead it gradually climbs to a spectacular viewpoint of those haunting Entrada Sandstone configurations. This easy-going single track, with just a 500 foot gain in elevation, is an ideal loop for hikers and bikers on a route that is well marked with carsonite posts, white painted blocks on the slickrock and occasional cairns. It is important, however, to keep in mind that portions of this repackaged bike trail are still used by jeeps.
To get there from Moab, drive north on Highway 191 for about fifteen miles and turn left (west) just past highway mile marker 141. Then drive across the railroad tracks and at the intersection with a big parking area, go left and follow the signs for Mill Canyon and the Dinosaur Trail. At the next intersection follow the signs for the Half Way Stage House and then the Monitor and Merrimac.
When I walk up the road to the remnants of the Stage House time suddenly flashes back to April 1883 when the Rio Grande Railroad started running trains to Salt Lake City and stopped at Thompson en route. From there it was a jolting eight hour stage coach ride to Moab - hot and dusty in the summer - treacherous with mud and snow in the winter - and uncertainty as to conditions in the fall and spring. At the halfway point in their journey passengers were more than anxious for a breather to stretch their legs and work out the kinks - a much anticipated break to eat a meal, change horses or sleep overnight.
Immediately after the Stage House, two wooden posts and an M & M sign mark the beginning of the single track. It is here the upper end of Courthouse Wash carves a wide passage between towering sandstone walls that rise above a wetland where the leafless cottonwoods, tamarisks, tall grass and fluffy cattails thrive along the still partially frozen pools. Weaving my way through a dense zone of vegetation, I catch fleeting glimpses of a scrub jay as he whizzes in and out of a protective barrier of rabbitbrush, desert holly, sagebrush and greasewood.
It doesn’t take long before the dirt path switches to slickrock and shortly after that transition I stop to investigate a balanced rock only ten to fifteen feet high. I am fascinated with the perfect poise of this hefty giant perched precariously atop his small pedestal.
After that intriguing pause, I’m back to my hiking agenda, and before long I find myself alongside Courthouse Rock. Now the wash gradually disappears into oblivion, suddenly revealing a far reaching landscape of rocky buttes and mesas.
At an unsigned junction I swing left to head in a southerly direction – the most obvious route to reach a viewpoint of the M & Ms. At this point the first thing that meets my eyes is a big bowl, a depression below that looks like a huge gray-rock amphitheater and I’m thinking, What a great place for a performance!
Almost three miles later, I am stepping along on a sweeping band of gray slickrock. Then, as I swing up and around a big bulbous dome – at last - there they are! – the Monitor and the Merrimac. With their long length and squared ends, from a distance they definitely do look like battleships.
Having finally reached my goal, I am ready for lunch and plop down to enjoy this spectacular scene while savoring the late winter gift of a gloriously warm t-shirt and shorts day. The surprising boost in temperature has put the house finches in a frivolous singing mood, while a lone raven perched on the dome above broadcasts in his booming voice to other nearby ravens, “I am here. I am here. Where are you?”
Comfortably seated in my slanted rock chair enjoying the solitude I feel like I am a million miles from civilization. Even my noisy raven has departed and I think I’m all by myself, that is, until a teeny-weeny lizard ventures just inches from my feet before scurrying off to the safety of a pinyon.
The trail continues, but I decide to retrace my steps, and return back to the junction, where I pick up the other fork. This is the trail that leads to Mill Canyon. Almost immediately Determination Towers, a popular rock climbing destination, pops into view striking a dramatic pose, and looking beyond them I can see the prominent landmark aptly named Big Mesa.
A little further down the trail I bear right to make my entry into the canyon. I’ve been here before so I look for the familiar sights of the remnants of the late 1800’s copper mill for which Mill Canyon was named, and the sign for the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, an explanatory self-guided outdoor natural history museum that has 15 interpretive signs.
Leaving the canyon I follow the road out, and as I stroll along I relish the highlights of a memorable walk: It was a unique blend combining the era of the stage coach, the history of two battleships, a balanced rock, the copper mining years of long ago and the stunning realization that dinosaurs also walked along this pathway! With these thoughts filling my mind, before I know it I’m back at my car.