The Times-Independent

Tales of Trails: Onion Creek to Rose Garden Hill

A drive on the Onion Creek Road involves about 30 waterway crossings and spectacular views of geologic colors and forms. Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts should be prepared to get wet and sandy. Photo by Sena Hauer


It’s anyone’s guess how the smell of rotten eggs became associated with the pungency of onions, but that’s the story of the naming of Onion Creek, located northeast of Moab.

Onion Creek Road is a ranch access, and a popular four-wheel drive, ATV and mountain bike route. The creek itself begins in the boggy areas of Fisher Valley at the foot of the northern La Sal Mountains, springing from salty, mineral-rich grounds that are laced with sulfur, arsenic and alkali.

Onion Creek Road begins at mile marker 20 on Highway 128 not far from the Colorado River. The dirt track criss-crosses the creek about 30 times as it winds its way through giant, sand-castle-like hoo doos near Fisher Towers for about eight miles, topping out in the spectacular Fisher Valley below the northern La Sal Mountains.

Rose Garden Hill is a gnarly road. The ascent is strewn with large rocks and ledges, to be conquered only by the best of four-wheelers. The hill is accessed after trekking up Onion Creek. Photo by Sena Hauer

In the valley, adventurers have options to continue farther into the La Sals via North Beaver Mesa—also part of the Kokopelli Trail — connecting to what is known as the Gateway Road. Or they can visit the gnarly Rose Garden Hill that curves back toward Top of the World. Lacking substantial four-wheel-drive, high-clearance capacities, most folks should avoid either of those options, and turn around and enjoy the Onion Creek Road in reverse.

As of late March, the road from Fisher Valley to North Beaver Mesa was closed due to mud and snow conditions. The option of Rose Garden Hill was accessible, but not for the faint of heart. On a recent visit, the motorized portion of my journey ended at the foot of Rose Garden Hill. Friends and I hiked to the top of the monstrosity, marveling at how anyone could possibly drive it.

Likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the area was devoid of other travelers on a recent spring day that otherwise might have seen lots of action. Views from the top of the hill overlook Thompson Canyon and the far-away Uncompahgre Plateau. From there, skilled four-wheelers have the option to continue past the Top of the World area to the Dewey Bridge, with options of forging the Dolores River a couple of times while traveling through Cow Skip Canyon.

Rose Garden Hill is a popular route for the Red Rock 4-Wheelers organization that sponsors local Jeep Safari events. The group’s website addresses it as thus: “How often do you encounter a hill so mean you can get stuck going downhill? If you are familiar with that concept, then focus on the reality of first having to ascend this mean, long hill, then having to descend this same hill. Lines change, and it becomes a new ball game going back down. Lots of stuff in Moab involves slick rock shelves that have solid bases, letting vehicles climb crazy steep angles. Very seldom is an ascent so strewn with very seriously sized rocks on loose soil that dictate the approaches to really tall exposed shelves. Still fewer trails feature so long an ascent. Lately nature has been adding some serious ruts caused by water drainage from several wet winters and springs.”

Wild rock formations such as the Totem Pole, above, create scenery that has been described as something from a Disney film. Photo by Sena Hauer

To add further caution, the Red Rock 4-Wheelers advises this: “The driver has to continually pick a good ‘line’ up this nearly half-mile hill. This usually results in a serpentine path as the vehicle ascends the hill, depending upon the vehicle’s size, equipment and capabilities. The choices get narrowed to a very narrow path during the upper third of the hill. The nastiness of the hill severely restricts the ability of a buddy to assist via a tug. It’s not uncommon to have four vehicles stuck on this hill at the same time.” The organization advises four-wheel enthusiasts to “bring all your toys (high lift jacks, snatch straps, winches, pulley blocks) and a few friends to help use them when you choose to run this trail.”

The website admonishes motorized users to give a nod to mountain bikers who are navigating the Kokopelli Trail. It notes the “entertaining spectacle” of four-wheelers struggling to get up the hill, estimating that a typical Jeep Safari event would cause a motorized participant two to three hours to navigate the hill alone. The trail is rated as “difficult.” Drivers are told, “Expect to be bounced, tossed and challenged. Lockers and very high clearance is required. Common breakage includes axles and driveshafts. Best in dry weather. Not for stock vehicles. Go with a small group of capable, winch-equipped vehicles.”

Rose Garden Hill hasn’t always been quite as difficult as it is now. According to the Red Rock 4-Wheelers, “This trail evolved from a longer trip that went up Cottonwood Canyon to visit sites on Sevenmile and Waring mesas. Weather and travel took its toll, so now the trip has become a stand-alone full-day trip just to reach and conquer the hill itself.”

Aside from the destination of Rose Garden Hill, a person can be fully entertained on a day outing simply by exploring and enjoying the Onion Creek Road. It’s been described as something akin to a Disney theme park, and its grandeur has been recorded in many advertisements and films, notably John Wayne’s Rio Grande, in addition to Cheyenne Autumn and Geronimo.

Grand County road crews have very recently graded the road, so there are few washboards on it at this time.

The history of Onion Creek has been described by author Steve Allen in his book, “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names.” The waterway has also been known as “Salt Creek,” a popular moniker for lots of areas throughout the desert Southwest.

Views from atop Rose Garden Hill, in this case looking toward the La Sal Mountains. Photo by Sena Hauer

The late Dick Westwood told Allen, “Onion Creek originated with a few seeps in a swampy area at the lower end of Fisher Valley called the Meadows. Farther down, more small springs fed into it here and there, to create a small running spring. On down, near the Narrows, a larger spring welled out. This larger spring was saturated with sulfur, arsenic, alkali and other minerals. It gave the water a bitter taste and a foul odor, and from this the stream got its name.”

Old-timers referred to a specific section of the area as “Stinking Spring,” and cited instances when sheepherders lost livestock to its toxins.

The late Joe Taylor, whose family has ranched the area for many generations told Allen, “There is a spring that is sulfurous and it smells terrible, like rotten eggs. How it made the transition from rotten egg stink to onion stink is lost in history. In the early days, a family started a farm at the mouth of Onion Creek. They tilled the land and planted corn. The corn was about this high,” he said, gesturing to his hip, “and they put that Onion Creek water on it and it all died. They left. It broke them.”

This is a rich part of Grand County in terms of folks who have struggled to make a living here, and people who try to conquer its rock fortresses. While it might not break anyone’s bank today, it might break your vehicle.

This view from atop Rose Garden Hill looks back toward Fisher Valley. Photo by Sena Hauer

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