Utah Route 279 – Potash Road Along The Colorado River


Almost any road you choose in the Moab area, you’re bound to find something beautiful.  Even so, I was surprised to find such a scenic drive along a road that could easily go unnoticed, just outside of town.  Without knowing exactly what was ahead, I turned down Potash Road.

Potash Road is also Utah Route 279.  It turns off of US 191 about 1.5 miles north of the Colorado River.  From US 191 to the Intrepid Potash Plant is about 15 miles.

At the turnoff from US 191, you wouldn’t expect Potash Road to end up spectacular.  The first mile or two is shadowed by power lines, and travels across a barren patch of land, just north of the Colorado River.

Before long, though, the road and the river meet, and Potash Road runs alongside the mighty Colorado.  The landscape starts out wide…

… but quickly closes in on you, with a steep vertical sandstone wall towering over the side of the road.  Rock climbers love this area (appropriately enough, named “Wall Street”), and there’s a good chance you’ll find dozens of them honing their skills, just a few feet from the edge of the road (in other words, drive slowly through here).

I didn’t stop to climb a rock, but I did pull over to check out some ancient artwork.  Look closely at the dark varnish on the side of the cliff, and you’ll find some beautifully preserved petroglyphs.

Rock-climbing is off-limits in the rock-art areas.

A faded sign on the opposite side of the road explains that these petroglyphs were likely left by Native Americans from the Southern San Rafael Fremont culture, which began living in the area somewhere around 600 A.D.  Some are more modern, and may have been left by the Ute Indians.

Directly across from the petroglyphs, on the other side of the Colorado River, there’s a great variety of red rock features.

Dinosaur Tracks at Poison Spider Mesa

There’s a parking area and an off-road vehicle trail at Poison Spider Mesa, but for a quick visit, the best reason to stop here is to see the dinosaur tracks.  A road sign told me that they were around here, somewhere, but I had to do quite a bit of searching before I found them.  There are only two imprints, as far as I could tell, and they’re quite high up a nearby cliff.

The best (and possibly, the only) way to find the tracks is to look for this spot along the edge of the main road (not the parking area, which is above here).  Behind that bush, there’s a copper pipe mounted on the end of a post.  If you look through the pipe, you’ll immediately see the dinosaur tracks.

After you pass Poison Spider Mesa, you will soon come upon another parking area.  There’s a trail here that leads to two arches: Corona Arch and Bowtie Arch.  Both are about a 1.5 mile hike from the trailhead.  I didn’t have time to make this hike, although I wanted to — Corona Arch looks spectacular.  Here is another website with some info and pictures.

Jug Handle Arch

It’s quite obvious where Jug Handle Arch gets its name.  The arch is 46 feet high, but only about 3 feet wide.  Best of all, it’s easy to view from the road, without any extra effort.

Just after passing Jug Handle Arch, you’ll find a well-marked parking area.  What’s not well marked is the entrance to Long Canyon Road, which begins (or ends) at the parking area.  Long Canyon Road is a 4wd high clearance road, that takes you up onto the Island In The Sky plateau, and ends just outside of the entrance to Dead Horse Point State Park.  I guess they don’t advertise it, because it is a rather rough dirt road, and not the preferred way to reach the parks at the top of the hill.  I was looking for Long Canyon Road when I passed Jug Handle Arch, but didn’t find it — which is actually a good thing.  Long Canyon is much better driven downhill, since you constantly have the spectacular views of the La Sal Mountains directly in front of you.

Intrepid Potash Plant and Cane Creek Potash Mine

There’s a reason you’ve been following railroad tracks, as well as the Colorado River, for the entire length of Potash Road.  As the pavement comes to an end, you come upon a rather surprising sight — one that seems totally out of place in a landscape that’s been otherwise devoid of ugliness.  It’s the Intrepid Potash Plant.

If you’re like me, you don’t have a clue what potash is, let alone why it would be necessary to put a plant here, of all places, in order to mine it.  With a little research, I discovered that potash is potassium chloride (used as an ingredient in fertilizer).  The Cane Creek Potash Mine takes water from the Colorado River and injects it into the earth.  The water dissolves the potash, and is then brought back to the surface and funneled into some huge drying ponds, where the Utah heat goes to work evaporating the water.

From Dead Horse Point, you get a good (although unwanted) view of the drying ponds.

Once the water is evaporated, potash and salt are left behind.  It’s all scooped up with laser-controlled equipment (to prevent damage to the ponds’ liners), then separated inside the plant, then shipped out using those railroad tracks.

Intrepid Potash’s website explains the entire potash mining process, and also stresses the environmental friendliness of the plant.  Specifically, it would require a huge amount of electricity to provide the heat for the evaporating process, which is supplied for free by the sunny Utah skies.

As I mentioned, the pavement disappears after you pass the potash plant.  There’s a river access point, then the bumpy dirt road starts gaining elevation.  I only drove up the road for a short distance, until it reached a good viewpoint of the river.  A few miles further, and I would have gotten a closer look at those drying ponds.  But, the road was quite rough, and I realized I was driving into the vast, remote wilderness of Canyonlands — an area that was just a bit too risky for my SUV.  So, I turned around and headed back into town.

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