Zenobia Peak

June 2006

By: Bob Michael



The great Uinta Mountain uplift which studs the northeast shoulder of Utah with 13,000-foot peaks dies out on its arid eastern margin in the northwest corner of Colorado into a wild geological jumble of folds and collapsed fault blocks at the juncture of three great regions of the West; the Middle Rockies to the west, the Colorado Plateau to the south, and the Gobi-like expanse of the Wyoming high desert to the north. The Green and Yampa Rivers just happen to flow together in the middle of all this grand structural chaos, and they have cut the northernmost of the great Utah canyon systems into it.

This may just be the best place in the world to view the classic "Laramide" structural style of the Rockies, typified by flat-topped asymmetrical uplifts with the sedimentary rocks on their flanks flexed into folds like formed plywood. Imagine a flat-lying stack of sandstone and limestone beds a thousand feet thick - a common Utah/Arizona sight. Now try to picture bending these rocks into a 90-degree flexure. BREAKING rock in a fault is no problem, easy to understand. BENDING ROCK like SHEET METAL is beyond all comprehension! (One of the few other places on Earth where this sort of thing is well exposed is in the desert ranges of....Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.)

Dinosaur National Monument preserves this grand wreckage. The Monument offers more in the way of river-running and canyon hiking than peakbagging, and some of the canyoneering - such as the 8-mile RT hike down Jones Hole Canyon to the Green River in Whirlpool Canyon, compares to the very finest Utah canyons anywhere. (Also not to be missed is the short hike out to Harpers Corner - if no rangers are to be seen, duck under the guardrail and go on out to the mildly exposed point for an Angels' Landing/Toroweap-level experience!)

But of course Edmund and Karen Mohr of Denver and I just HAD to bag a named peak in our recent Dinosaur ramble - and Zenobia Peak, the monument highpoint, was the obvious target. This peak is located north of the Yampa and east of Lodore Canyon on the Green in the remote, little-visited northeast quadrant of the Monument, at the end of a LOT of dirt road driving. In fact, a 4WD road goes to the very summit where there is a still-functioning fire lookout, so it's no mountaineering challenge, but still a marvelous scenic back country adventure in country that looks like nothing else in Colorado.

The peak is accessed via a road which shows optimistically on the map as the "Douglas Mountain Boulevard". (Calling this back country track a "boulevard" is rather like calling the Puente Hills a "mountain range"). The approach from Colorado Highway 318 is shown on the mid-scale map. It's really pretty simple to follow; after you climb onto the broad flat Ponderosa-dotted top of Douglas Mountain on County Road 116 (the "Boulevard"), just bear right at every juncture despite what the sometimes-confusing BLM signs might suggest. The road is increasingly rough but fine for 2WD high clearance until the last few miles to the peak. 18.0 miles from Highway 318, if you are on the right track, you will find a gate which, while unlocked, has "No Trespassing" signs; boldly go through. (We were assured by the lookout that the road into the Monument is public right-of-way.) 1.4 miles beyond the gate is an intersection in a flat where the better-looking road goes right; go left here. Although we were in a capable 4WD which could surely have made the top, we parked .3 mile further, where the road definitely deteriorated into wished-out ruts; after all, this is not the HPS and we wanted a healthy hike, not a decadent drive-up.

From where boots hit the dirt, it was a little under three miles and about 1400' gain to the top. The route passes through terrain and sparsely wooded vegetation reminiscent of northern Nevada and utterly unlike anything else in Colorado; we had to constantly remind ourselves we were in the same state as Aspen, Longs Peak, etc. Shut your eyes, breathe deep, and you were high in the Panamints or Toquimas; the air was perfumed from the mountain mahogany trees that formed scattered groves. Elsewhere in Colorado, mountain mahogany is a rather scruffy little bush; here it formed trees like I have only seen elsewhere in the high ranges of the Great Basin. Near the Monument boundary, the road passes through one little forested area with Ponderosas, Douglas firs and aspen, and then starts the very steep climb up the barren (but flowery!) conical summit. Surprise! There was a 4WD Chevy pickup on top and a lonely fire lookout who made us feel right at home. He surveys one of the most enormous views I've ever had, from the Kings Peak region of the high Uintas east to the Sierra Madre of Wyoming and the Park Range behind Steamboat Springs, Cob.; north to the buckskin barrens of the Red Desert; south to country that looks for all the world like the Mogolbon Rim. Below us to the northwest was the remote grassy prairie of Zenobia Basin with the deep maroon gash of Lodore Canyon beyond. As the West of the imagination ever retreats before unrelenting population growth, it's nice to know there are places like this left.

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