The Mineral Mountains are concealed from the eyes of I-15 passerby, however this southern Utah granite sanctuary beckons to more then just rock climbers
“Are we in Middle-Earth?” I ask my climbing mate Josh. We’re now about 30 minutes west of Beaver, Utah and I swear at any moment we’ll see a heard of Orcs trotting through these pine-studded towering granite pinnacles before us. For the past year, my mind had formed visions of this south-central Utah range based off whispers I’d heard from climbers in southern Utah. Now that I’m amidst the Mineral Mountains, I realize my imagination didn’t do them justice.
The mere presence of these colossal stone castles, flanked by innumerable coliseum-sized domes seems to have slowed down my sense of time – or maybe my mountain-lust just forced me to involuntarily lift off the gas pedal – yeah, that’s it.
I’m just stunned – these are pinnacles that belong in the Sierras – or in the glacier shaped mountains of Gondor, not in the background of a crumbling old-west mining town known as Milford. Who would have known this glorified Union Pacific railroad station was a gateway to such a treasured rock climbing paradise, and a rock-hounds treasure trove.
As a rock climber, I am stunned by these jagged mammoth peaks in front of us. On the other hand, my co-adventure-pilot seems surprisingly oblivious that the car has slowed down. Josh loves to climb but is more importantly a certifiable treasure-hunting zealot. He’s too intoxicated by the exceptional gem collecting prospects of the Mineral Range to look up from the pages of his rock-hounding book. I’m a climbing junkie and I can’t contain my giddiness over the castles of stone in the sky. We’re both in separate worlds – each stuck in our own funnel of elation.
As we continue toward the colossal white stone face of the Mineral Mountains the sooty town of Milford fades in a dust cloud behind my car. Josh can’t help but put the book down and gawk at the peaks. Our desire to get intimate with this stone wonderland propels us across a wide-open sagebrushed valley, gradually up through the junipered foothills towards the base of the mountain.
Miles before we reach the base, a myriad of house-sized stone trolls and petrified rock wooly mammoths appear. The foothills expose and overwhelming array of individually unique and spectacular ivory-white domes.
The first significant sized dome, a mile before the base of the mountain, demands our attention. Towering above the dirt road stood a rugged, stadium sized, stegosaurus that climbers call “Never Never Land.” The jagged, contorted fins, of the rockosaur’s backbone called on us to saddle up. Josh’s desire to ascend overcame his treasure itch and our combined goal now was to stand atop this stegosaurs pinnacle and ride the prehistoric beast. We couldn’t contain ourselves, and veered off the main dirt road onto a 4X4 track to a primitive camp spot at the base of the dome.
From its base the stegosaurus fins were massive. They hosted enough stone for hundreds of multi-pitch routes to exist, and we hadn’t even arrived at the main mountain yet – this was only a sub-dome. Overwhelmed by the abundance of cliffs on this dome, not knowing where to start, we spotted several shiny bolts adjacent to what looked like a natural low-angle staircase gorged into a 150-foot fin of the stegosaurus. A short, scrambly bushwack to its base and we were subdued by the beast.
This route quickly became a humbling reminder that real-life adventure for the everyman doesn’t play out like a Red Bull commercial. The granite here has its own cruel character which is about as far as you can get from the customary granite that climbers often gush over from California’s Sierras.
Rock-quality snobs beware; the Mineral Mountains are not for you. The stone is deceptively brittle and leaves a torturous bite.
The texture of the rock is like, loose, weather-torn, coarse-grit sandpaper. No matter how delicately I propelled myself up the route, my feet were always unstable – about to slip out from under me. Every movement I made sent down a sprinkling of loose glassy gravely particles onto Josh below.
This route followed a natural line of rickity old contorted low-angled steps that ran up a beautiful aesthetic vertical dike, which cut a seam straight up the dome. The steps were toaster-sized rock-blocks which seemed to be held in the cliff by Elmers glue. Several of the blocks, which were sheathed in crumbling gravel, broke free while we delicately tip-toed upwards.
Our first climb in the Minerals crushed our spirits. But we both long ago accepted that failure is an elemental part of climbing. In fact, failure is a positive step towards the goal of ascending anything worth doing.
Although we both backed down on a particularly fragile run-out section with committing moves, Josh earned his badge of honor by finally pushing through the rickety footholds. His send broke both our mental barriers and led to a second ascent by me.
I wouldn’t consider that route fun, but it was certainly an adventure.
The great thing about an adventure with a longtime climbing partner is that there is no judgment. We weren’t there to swap burns on a steep line. We weren’t there to pitch our flag on top of a route that’s never been sent before. We had total freedom to interact with these rocks however we pleased. And this weekend, our objective was simply to have an authentic rock adventure.
Mineral Mountain in its nature is an adventure climbing spot. For a place that has enough lines to fill an entire guidebook, there’s hardly any printed beta, other then a few ambiguous pages in the back of one of my favorite climbing guidebooks – “Utah’s West Desert,” by James Garrett. Also, there is a little climbing info online, but mostly vague references – and mystical sounding names.
As mediocre climbers, Josh and I fancy this type of adventure – it’s our version of climbing into the unknown. Maybe since we’re no good at the nifty looking – overhung, gymnastic climbing – adventure climbing satisfies our need for glory – even if it’s just glory in our own little worlds. Then again, maybe we just crave anything that breaks up the habitual routines of our day jobs.
The next day we attempted a couple harder routes on what Garrett dubs the “Epoch Dome,” which were both delightfully treacherous. Both were delicate balancing acts, on brittle rock that forced us to hold our breath and pray that our feet wouldn’t slip out. Like so many amazing climbing spots, the character of the stone is one of the major factors that make the experience unique – which ultimately makes it an adventure.
Our favorite climb – “Farming the Filthy” – was so strained and delicate, it took more hyper-focus then it would to climb up your mothers glass china cabinet.
I’ve always known that slab climbing separates the bulls from the cattle, but I’ve never experienced slab on such a crumbly surface. This terrifying style of climbing wreaked havoc on my nerves. The mental hysteria overcame all my senses. The head noise finally reached a tipping point and I was rewarded with a fleeting period of silence. This was more then silence, it was serenity – something that I often seek out when I’m climbing.
After several failed attempts, I managed to push back the fear and send the route, on the sunset of our second day. There was nothing in this world but the breeze and the beat of my heart – a pause from my reality – where the rock became me – and we were eternal.
The next day we found out that these rocks were magical for other reasons. Hardly known, except to locals, the Mineral Mountains are Utah’s largest exposed mass of solidified molten rock – aka: plutonic body – but they also make up one of the most mineral rich mountain ranges in the state. It’s a sanctuary of precious stones.
The Minerals have been a magnet for precious stone hunters since the 19th century. The first ever documented mine in Utah, which unearthed silver and lead, originated in the Minerals in 1858. This led to an ore mining frenzy that has morphed over the years from formal mining ventures to small-time dig sites, to gem-hounding by rock-lovin’ hobbyists like Josh and now myself, who search the numerous easily accessible hounding sites nearby.
The most prized gem in the world – blue beryl – has been found here, and countless extraction operations from gold, smoky quartz, pyrite, silver, feldspar, and obsidian have been successful here as well.
There are two astonishing documented digs that we easily found nearby, among numerous others that are undocumented. The sites we found are documented in a book called “Rockhounding Utah,” in which the author William A. Kappele has to restrain from getting carried away gushing about sites on the Mineral Mountains.
Using his direction, Josh and I found one purple Opal site 15 minutes away from the climbing area. This site yields such a profusion of colors and patterns, Kappele said, he can’t attempt to name them all. “It is impossible to take a step without walking on opal,” Kappele continues, and boy was he right.
Another nearby site has so much glassy, black obsidian coming from the mountain, that you can open your car door and literally pick it up straight off the top of the dirt road. After rock-hounding for most the day, when we returned to the cliffs, our eyes noticed another magical aspect of the area we’d missed before – visible crystals of smoky quartz found in cavities of the cliffs. We selfishly contemplated trying to harvest some, but our conscience got the best of us.
On our last night there, we laid around the fire, exhausted beyond belief, our climbing gear intermixed with gems laid out in front of us, we relived the last few days with glee. After running out of things to say, our surroundings spoke for us. A cold and complicated lingering dusk illuminated the rocks. Shadows danced upon the stone trolls and toadstools and awoke the petrified goblins around our camp – an eerie melancholy settled in.
Our thoughts left the present, and flew towards the future. The reality we had to return to the next day seemed like a cruel convoluted daydream. Unfortunately it was painfully real. Not that life was bad for either of us, but the real world lacked the majesty of the mountain and the splendor of adventure we craved. The rocks and solitude had awakened a futile song in our souls. Our song had reached its explosive crescendo and we’d taken our bows. The adventure had come to an end. Exhilaration of the human spirit is painfully futile.
Even if you’re not a treasure seeker, or a rock climber, this is pristine wilderness for any non-motorized explorer – the rugged topography doesn’t allow for much human damage other then those who are willing to climb or hike. The Mineral Mountains are hidden from I-15 travelers by a deceivingly normal-looking east side, however, the west side holds all the charm. With the added bonus of well-maintained dirt roads, and numerous family friendly camping spots, this easily accessible wilderness area is a southern Utah treasure.
From Center Street in Beaver, Utah travel west on Highway 21 for approximately 29 miles. Turn right at the “Rock Corral Recreation Area,” sign. In .8 miles, turn right onto a well graded gravel road marked with another “Rock Corral Recreation Area” sign. For the next 9.8 miles, there are several forks in the gravel road – at each fork follow the signs that point to the Rock Corral Recreation Area, which eventually leads you to the Rock Corral Picnic Area. For climbers, this is your best access point to the largest majority of climbs. For casual hikers, or those who want to scramble or just enjoy the best part of scenery, park and picnic here.
For campsites, start looking for little 4X4 roads, and turnouts approximately 2 miles prior to the Rock Corral Picnic Area. There are too many good sites to count. Pick a 4X4 road or a turnout and it will lead to a site. All camping is free but is primitive. Most sites have a pre-existing fire ring. The nearest bathrooms are at the Rock Corral Picnic Area. There is no running water; however there were several streams nearby in June.