Traveling through the wilderness areas of the west does present a few dangers to be aware of. Spring through fall are when the herd animals are on the move in the mountainous regions, so it is best to keep an eye out for wildlife crossings when cruising down the road! In spring and early summer, the Mule Deer and Elk migrate from the warm low elevations that were home during the winter to the higher elevations where the feed will be plentiful in the summer season. Inevitably the animals end up having to cross a few roads to get to where they are going, so this presents a traffic hazard to watch out for. This is especially true in wilderness areas that border upon lush green ranches or farms.
Recently in mid May, I drove from Colorado to the Canyonlands National Park to hike a few trails and do some camping. As it turned out, the Moab region of Utah was having a record breaking spring tourist season and overcrowding was a real problem. I ended up camping just one night, because the campgrounds were packed like sardine cans. Since my home in the Rockies was just a few hours away, I decided to postpone the rest of the Canyonlands trip till the heat of summer sets in and the crowds thin out.
There are a few ways to get to the San Juan Mountains in the Rockies from Canyonlands and one route passes through part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest on the way to Ridgway, Colorado. Ridgway where it is easy to get on the Million Dollar Highway and this travel route is a nice scenic drive in itself. From Highway 191 near Moab, the road to look for is Utah SR 46, which becomes CO SR 90 across the border. There are plenty of National Forest and BLM campgrounds along this road, which is good to keep in mind when the neighboring National Parks are at full capacity.
On the way back to the Rocky Mountains from any place that I go, I always expect to see wildlife crossing the road, just to be on the safe side. Sure enough, near the Colorado border in the Manti-La Sal National Forest region, a large herd of elk were standing on the road, so I pulled off on the shoulder to watch the show. Pulling off on the road shoulder with the hazard lights turned on is a signal for other drivers to beware, so this is a good practice.
Elk can be panicky in the presence of humans, so it is best to just stay inside the vehicle and keep quiet when a large herd is crossing the road. Even so, there always seems to be one elk in the herd that spastically goes into a panic mode without warning. While watching the herd cross the road during my trip, one such animal actually missed jumping the fence cleanly on the first attempt. This elk was so shook up, that it leapt awkwardly on the second try and got a hind leg caught in the fence wire. All I could do was dread the moment of having to cut the elk free, which is like asking to get beat up with a baseball bat, then having to repair the fence to boot. I had a sigh of relief when the elk doe finally broke free and by then the rest of the herd was well off the road.
The Manti-La Sal National Forest covers a lot of ground in a few separate regions of southeast Utah and western Colorado, so this vast wilderness area is well worth checking out. The campgrounds often are practically empty in the high elevation forests, so if the crowds are too big at the neighboring National Parks, the campsites in the Manti-La Sal National Forest are a nice choice. If you do head down the road in this National Forest during the spring or summer season, be sure to watch out for the elk, because they certainly are on the move! Hitting a big herd animal with a car while speeding through the mountains will result in certain disaster, death or even worse, a hefty fine. It does pay to slow down and watch out for the big animals that call this place home!
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