The Mountains of Utah •
Mount Ellen • Highpoint: Garfield County
• Highpoint: Henry Mountains

Date: June 3, 2002 • Elevation: 11,522 feet • Prominence: 5,842 feet • Distance: 4 miles • Time: 1.75 hours • Gain: 1,100 feet • Conditions: Localized snow flurries • Wildlife: A bison!


Mount Ellen is the highest peak of the Henry Mountains, deep in the heart of the last Terra Incognita of the United States, the last region to be fully mapped and explored by man. I was here after a morning hike of Grays Peak in Colorado, then 400 miles driving west along Interstate-70 into Utah. I was intending to climb this peak the next day, but first needed to get close and set up a camp. A cold front was moving in from the northwest.

From Green River, I travelled south on state route UT-24 to Hanksville, then UT-95 south to Sawmill Basin Road, which was poorly marked (at the time) by a sign set too far back in from the highway. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived here, about 4 p.m..

I drove west on this road, which was pretty good, but I had to go slow as the road went in and out of a few creekbeds. After six miles, I came to a junction and took another dirt road south into the Henry Mountains. The road was good for the first few miles, then became rockier, bumpier and steeper, so I put my truck into four-wheel drive for better handling. I followed this road nine miles to the Lonesome Beaver Campsite, which was closed for repairs. Bah.

So I decided to drive two more miles to Wickiup Pass, then right a quarter mile to a flat open area at elevation 9,340 feet, a perfect campsite. Mount Ellen's ridge-line was visible about a mile away. It was about 5 p.m., and I debated whether I should hike the peak before darkness fell, but decided to force myself to relax and enjoy the cool campsite, which I had all to myself.

Sleeping in the back of my truck, I could hear soft pattering against the fiberglass shell. Didn't sound like rain. I opened the door, a little surprised to discover it was snow. I got a little worried that if it snowed too much, I'd be stuck here a few days. By 5 a.m., when the sun was barely rising, I stuck my head out again and was relieved that just a bare trace of snow had fallen, just enough to make the place white around the edges, but not enough to cover anything.

Since I was up, I got myself dressed properly, had a bite, then decided to go for the hike now. I was not sure how long the snow flurries may last and being stuck here still concerned me. I started the truck and slowly drove the remaining road to Bull Creek Pass, elevation 10,485 feet, about two miles.

Rounding a bend, I came upon a beast standing in the road. It was too shadowy to make out what it was. It was big and I at first thought it was a bear. Then it turned a little and I could see its profile—it was a bison! The Henry Mountains host one of the last free-roaming bison herds in the United States, and here was one of them. And he was just standing there, facing my truck down.

I didn't move or anything, waiting to see what he would do. He didn't move either. It was a Mexican Standoff. I didn't want to rile him for fear he may headbutt my truck and do some actual damage to it. I couldn't really back up either. I didn't honk or rev the engine either. I just sat there, in the safety of my truck, in darkness with barely enough light to view this beast. The first move would be his.

This went on a minute or two, I am not really sure. I could see his breath. He took a step toward my truck. I inched forward a tiny bit. Then he snorted and bolted up the slope, out of the road. What a thrill to see a bison in the wild, and what a relief to see it while in my truck. Had I been walking, which I sometimes do in the predawn on lonely mountain roads, and encountered this guy, I probably would have died of a heart attack. Getting to the Bull Creek Pass was anticlimactic afterwards.

From the pass, I found a good trail that headed north toward the lower peaks of the range, alternately passing through scrub and talus. After a few minutes, a small squall came in and started to drop sleet, then snow. As I was so high up on the ridge, the winds blew the snow horizontally at about 15 knots. I hiked quickly. The trail ends about two-thirds of the way to the summit. From the trail's end, it's easy cross-country on the rocky ridge to Mount Ellen's summit.

Along the way there were a couple of false summits, and I had about fifty feet of visibility in the tiny blizzard. If I was on the ridge, it was intense. If I hiked down about twenty feet on the lee side, the wind completely abated and the snow fell as gently as (pardon the tautology) gently falling snow. I ascended one hump I thought was the summit, with rock shelters, only to see the true top another hundred yards away. Soon, I achieved the true summit, signed in and started down. The actual highest point is just a bland hump of rock. A little to the north is a distinctive conical summit called Mount Ellen Peak. This is more noticeable from the desert floor, but is about 15 feet lower than where I was.

I didn't waste time. I was back to my truck quickly, a round trip of four miles and 1,100 feet of gain taking about an hour and 45 minutes. The snow let up and the clouds lifted, granting me awesome views of the range and the valleys below. I took plenty of photos, then tragedy: my camera dropped, opened up and exposed the film. I lost most of my Mount Ellen photos as a result. What a bummer. Yes kids, back in 2002, many of us still had film cameras.

The drive down went well and the snow wasn't a factor. I drove out of the mountains and had a breakfast in Hanksville. From here, I drove the rest of UT-24 west through Torrey, Bicknell and Loa. Later in the day, I had a successful hike-&-drive of Mine Camp Peak, then drove 300 miles back to my folks' place in Henderson, Nevada, the culmination of a very successful 10-day, 4,500-mile trip.

(c) 2002, 2019 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.