The following originally appeared in the April 16, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
by Clint Thomsen
“Be careful, pal.” Dad’s words carried a certain confidence tempered with fatherly wariness. For better or worse, he knew I’d scale the perimeter of the limestone pillar until I eventually clawed my way to its summit. He knew I’d do it because even though I was only six years old, the climbing gene was a dominant one. He knew I’d do it because that’s exactly what he did when he was my age.
He spotted me on a semi-technical stretch above the smaller of two caves. The final ascent went quick, and I soon stood, scuffed knees and burning quads, on what might as well have been the top of the world.
I was always intrigued by the view from atop Adobe Rock, but as a kid I never imagined that I’d grow up to raise my own children in its shadow. Nor could I have imagined that it would be so long before I would return to explore it again.
Aside from the salt flats, Adobe Rock may be Tooele County’s most recognizable landmark. The tallest of a cluster of outcroppings along SR-36 near Stansbury Park, the stack rises with castle-like prominence to 4,298 feet above sea level. Its rugged, seemingly out of place situation in the valley creates a striking scene—particularly when approached from the north.
The origins of Adobe Rock are unclear. Some experts theorize that the massif is the result of seismic activity. Some think it may have rolled down from the Oquirrhs during a colossal ancient landslide. Still others speculate that it’s actually the exposed peak of an underground mountain range.
According to the Utah Geological Survey, Adobe Rock is composed largely of stone from the Pennsylvanian-Permian Oquirrh Group, which formed roughly 250 to 320 million years ago. The rock as a land form is much more recent, owing its current shape to Lake Bonneville’s surf.
For most people commuting between Lake Point and Tooele, the rock provides a few moments of geological awe and a surefire way for Stansbury Park residents to give Salt Lakers directions to their neighborhood. Perhaps few drivers-by consider its historical significance.
A bronze plaque placed on the rock in 1947 by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers reads:
“On July 27, 1847, three horsemen from the scouting party sent out by Brigham Young, obtained an excellent view of the surrounding valley from the top of this rock. In 1849, Captain Howard Stansbury of the United States Topographical Engineers, built a small adobe house by this rock for his herders, hence the name “Adobe Rock.” The nearby highway follows the same route as the old pioneer trail used by explorers, trappers, emigrants and gold seekers. A spring nearby made this a favorite camp site.”
While historians agree on the origin of rock’s name, some confusion exists as to the location of Stansbury’s adobe cabin. Some sources place it adjacent to the rock, with the rock itself acting as one of the walls. The majority of accounts, however, place it about 400 feet to the west, near the spring across present SR-36. It’s possible that a temporary shelter was built adjacent to the rock while the permanent herder residence was constructed near the spring.
Growing up, I knew the pillar as “Easter Rock” because our family visited it every year on the Saturday before Easter. The tradition dated back to at least the mid 1940’s with my great grandparents and continued until the area was fenced off sometime in the 1980’s.
We’d bring lunch and a softball and spend hours exploring the strange formations. My brothers and I would play in the two caves on the rock’s southern face, then we’d look for routes to the top. More often than not, we’d get ourselves stuck and need Dad to lift us down.
“Remember,” he’d say every time, “It’s much easier to climb up than it is to come back down.” That advice has probably saved my life a thousand times since.
The land surrounding Adobe Rock is privately owned and remains fenced off, but its lessee granted my sons and me one-time access for this article last Friday. When we arrived, the boys immediately began looking for the caves.
We walked clockwise around the rock, stopping to investigate the larger cave and the DUP plaque, which was in good shape for its age. Seeing no way to the top from the north face, we continued around to the smaller cave and the only viable route I could remember.
“You’re going to want to watch out for rattlesnakes,” Bridger, 7, told his 6 year old brother Weston. The boys analyzed the striations of the smaller limestone clusters below while I continued to the top. Taken by the joy of returning to this magical springtime playground, I took a self portrait with my cell phone and sent it to my dad.
It was strange to be climbing so close to what is now a heavily trafficked highway. The flatter sections of the summit were carpeted with a vibrant, almost manicured-looking grass, and I noticed thick gray lichen growing on several surfaces. The center was marked by a half-intact copper survey marker.
I imagined the view that Captain Stansbury and Brigham Young would have experienced 160 years ago. Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult to mentally Photoshop the roads and houses away. The distant views remain mostly unchanged from those days.
I climbed back down to the cave and lifted the boys up to let them take in the view (being sensitive to any land owner concerns, I did not take them to the top). I pointed out our neighborhood, the Great Salt Lake, and the mountain ranges.
We circled the shorter pillar behind Adobe Rock, stopping at a large overhang on its north side. I wondered how many weary travelers might have utilized this natural shelter.
The areas between outcroppings were covered with the same buzz-cut grass. Faint ruts of long abandoned roads disappeared in the taller, drier grass. But my memories remained vibrant. And as we closed the gate behind us, Easter was in the air.
Hat tips to Jaromy Jessop and UGS geologist Mark Milligan. More pics to come…