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Unknown Mountains: Return to the Henry Mountains

Laccoliths in the Desert | Friday – Saturday, June 21-22, 2024

Directly east of us, beyond the domes of the flexure [Waterpocket Fold], rise the Henry Mountains. They are barely 35 miles distant, and they seem to be near neighbors. Under a clear sky every detail is distinct and no finer view of them is possible. It seems as if a few hours of lively traveling would bring us there, but it is a two days’ journey with the best of animals. They are by far the most striking features of the panorama, on account of the strong contrast they present to the scenery about them. Among innumerable flat crest-lines, terminating in walls, they rise up grandly into peaks of Alpine form and grace like a modern cathedral among catecombs — the gothic order of architecture contrasting with the elephantine.

C.E. Dutton, 1880


The Henry Mountains are a laccolithic mountain range that stand high above a sea of sandstone cut by deep canyons on the Colorado Plateau and were one of the last-surveyed and last-named mountain ranges in the contiguous United States. In 1869 John Wesley Powell made note of the range during his initial voyage down the Colorado River and called them the Unknown Mountains at the time. Then in 1871 he returned to the area on his second trip down the Colorado and renamed them to the Henry Mountains after Joseph Henry, a close friend who was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Last year I was planning to head back up into the Henry Mountains after Jared and I had spent a nice weekend there in 2022, but other trips came up and I never made it. This year I was determined to get back early in the summer to hike a couple new peaks and highpoints and chose to go this weekend. I left from work on Friday afternoon and made my way to Hanksville, and even though there were a lot of storms throughout the area this afternoon, some which caused flash flooding around Moab and the San Juan River, I managed to miss them all- aside from the wind. It seems that it’s frequently very windy out when I stop in Hanksville, and today was no exception!

Although all the storms mostly missed me today, I did drive by some interesting dark clouds over the San Rafael Swell on my way to Hanksville.

Edge of the Storm

After topping off my gas tank in Hanksville I drove through a dust storm on my way to the foot of the Henry Mountains.

Dust Storm

The Henry Mountains seen through the sandstorm.

Henry Mountains Through the Dust

Dry Valley Sandstorm

It wasn’t nearly as windy up in the mountains and I made my way over to the high point of Copper Ridge before starting to look for a campsite.

Copper Ridge

There was a good view of The Horn and Mount Pennell as I drove around the South Summit Ridge of Mount Ellen to the west side of the range.

The Horn & Mount Pennell

When I reached South Creek Ridge I got a good look at the ridge I would be hiking up in the morning, which follows part of the Hayduke Trail.

Hayduke Trail Ridge

I still had plenty of daylight left, so I continued on to the McMillan Spring Campground to see if there were any good campsites around.

Below the South Summit Ridge

As I turned a corner in the road near Dry Lake Flat I scared up a herd of bison that quickly took off, and I was just barely able to get this photo of them running away. This is the first time I have ever come across the bison in the Henry Mountains, which is one of only four free-roaming bison herds on public lands in North America.

Herd of Bison

I returned to South Creek Ridge to watch the sunset and spend the night.

South Creek Ridge Road

Henry Mountains Two-Track

The haze, dust or smoke in the air made for a spectacular show at sunset this evening!

Hazy Light

Subtle Layers

Sun Rays

There were beautiful layers looking toward Thousand Lake Mountain.

Flat Top Layers

There were also amazing colors and layers looking west to Boulder Mountain.

Colors of Sunset

It was a very colorful sunset from South Creek Ridge.

South Creek Ridge Sunset

Sunset from the South Creek Ridge

On Saturday morning I was up early and went for a short drive to take a couple photos at sunrise.

Henry Mountains Morning

Ragged Mountain

Ragged Mountain

Mount Pennell at Sunrise

Mount Pennell at Sunrise

Mount Hillers & Ragged Mountain

Mount Hillers & Ragged Mountain

There were great views over the Waterpocket Fold Country as I started hiking up the Hayduke Trail to the South Summit Ridge.

Waterpocket Fold Country

It felt great to be following a ridge above treeline again and I’m looking forward to doing much more of this the rest of the summer.

Hayduke Trail Ridge Walking

Spotted light over Tarantula Mesa.

Tarantula Mesa Spotted Light

My destination this morning was Kimble and Turner Peak (11,140).

Kimble and Turner Peak

A view from the summit of Kimble and Turner Peak.

Kimble and Turner Peak Summit

Following the ridge as I made my way back down to my Jeep.

On The Ridge

Next, I drove around to the saddle between Kimble and Turner Peak and Bartons Peak so I could hike to the summit of the latter.

To The Saddle

It was a short walk to the summit of Bartons Peak (10,039) from the saddle.

Bartons Peak Summit

Looking across the saddle to Kimble and Turner Peak.

Kimble and Turner

Bartons Peak

Bartons Peak

Next, I went for a scenic drive up to Bull Creek Pass and stopped to walk to the highpoints of the Granite Ridges along the way.

Granite Ridges North

Mount Ellen Peak

Mount Ellen Peak

After making a complete loop around Mount Ellen, I continued following the backroads all the way through the Henry Mountains until I reached the southern end of Mount Hillers. It’s been over 14 years since I drove many of these roads, so it was nice to see them again and refresh my memory.

The Horn.

Below The Horn

Ragged Mountain

Around Ragged Mountain

Mount Hillers

Mount Hillers

Below Mount Hillers

As I made my way back to Hanksville and then home, I could see that the predicted afternoon thunderstorms had begun over the Henry Mountains.

Afternoon Thunderstorms

Obscured by Rain


If we stand upon the eastern verge of the Wasatch Plateau and look eastward, we shall behold one of those strange spectacles which are seen only in the Plateau Province, and which have a peculiar kind of impressiveness, and even of sublimity. It is not the wonder inspired by great mountains, for only two or three peaks of the Henry Mountains are well in view; and these, with their noble Alpine forms, seem as strangely out of place as Westminster Abbey would be among the ruins of Thebes.

C.E. Dutton, 1880


>> Return to the Henry Mountains Photo Gallery


  1. P Bergh
    P Bergh June 26, 2024

    Some great photos here. Thanks!

  2. SteveR
    SteveR July 1, 2024

    Over many years we have observed them from all sides, but never visited, so they really are the “Unknown Mountains” to us. Inspiring photos as always!

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