The Crazy Bird Lady of Elephant Hill
By Matt Marine, with Dale Brech, Travus Knotts, Scott Duecker and Larry Narcus
Note: Although this adventure took place in southern Utah, I believe it still applies to any state where you may go exploring alone.
Life is full of risks. It is also full of opportunities. The trick is walking the fine line between the two. Sometimes that line can be fuzzy and difficult to determine.
I don’t believe this was one of those cases.
Below is the story of our brief encounter with the Crazy Bird Lady of Elephant Hill. The question is: was she being bold and courageous or lacking common sense? You make the call.
Before I describe what happened that faithful day, I need to set the stage.
Late April, 2015. We were on a five day four-wheeling trip to southern Utah to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday. Southern Utah is a Mecca for 4WD enthusiasts who enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery the west has to offer.
Elephant Hill is a tough 4WD trail along the southern edge of Canyonlands National Park (in the Needles district) and is one of my favorite trails in the Moab area. It’s spectacularly beautiful with enough challenges to make it exciting. I would rate it a 3.5+ out of 5.0, which I call a “Challenging 4WD” trail. Most stock vehicles are not suited for this trail. Lift kits, aggressive tires and traction devices (limited-slip or lockers) are recommended. Elephant Hill also has steep and sharp switchbacks which can be a problem for long-wheelbased vehicles. There are sections of the trail where you have to backup along a particularly steep and narrow switchback. Another section of the trail takes you through an extremely narrow natural rock wall cut that leaves only inches between your vehicle and the immovable rock walls. The numerous scratches and gouges in the rock can attest to the trail’s difficulty. In addition, Moab rental companies won’t allow rentals to be taken on the trail – too much chance of body damage, rollovers and personal injury.
The trail is in the shape of a balloon on a string. The bottom half (the balloon’s string) constitutes the two way section, before it splits into a one way counterclockwise loop, creating the actual balloon. The balloon loop has trails that tie into it from other areas in the Park. Most people start and end from the string as we did, but you can gain access to Elephant Hill from the trails that tie into the balloon section also.
This is not a trail I would feel comfortable running alone due to the difficult nature of the trail and its remoteness.
We took three vehicles on this trail: a highly modified older Bronco, a stock 2 door Jeep Rubicon and a modified Toyota Tundra.
1971 Ford Bronco
The Bronco had a five and a half inch lift, aggressive 34 inch mud tires, fuel injected 302 V8, winch and a limited slip differential in the rear. Even with the limited slip, the Bronco initially had some difficulty going up the steep, rocky ledges. We aired down the tires from 15 psi to 12 psi. That seemed to do the trick and it performed wonderfully the rest of the trail.
2000 Toyota Tundra
This is the older, small style of Tundra. It has a two inch lift, 33 inch mud tires and an aftermarket rear locker. The Tundra did surprising well given its long wheelbase, mostly due to a very experienced driver and the rear locker. It only had one significant issue where its forward progress was impeded for about 10 minutes on one of the steep switchbacks. With its nose in the air and rear trailer receiver buried in the rock, he couldn’t go forward or backward. It took careful placement of helper rocks and all three tires to coax it up the hill.
2010 Jeep Rubicon
The 2 door Jeep was completely stock except for the Warn winch and Mopar bumper bolted to the front end. But stock for a Jeep Rubicon does not compare to most 4WD vehicles version of stock. Rubicons come with front and rear lockers, 32 inch mud tires and upgraded drive train and suspension. Even with a super short wheelbase, the Rubicon got pretty banged up underneath on the ledges given the smaller 32 inch tires.
All the drivers had more than 10 years of 4WD experience under their tires. Three of the six people had been on the trail before. Inside each vehicle was a spotter/navigator who had similar 4WD experience and could spot the drivers through the more difficult sections of the trail.
We had maps, GPS navigation systems, GPS emergency locators, CBs and HAM radios, tools, jacks, winches and other safety gear.
The Bottom Line
We were prepared. Maybe not for a zombie apocalypse, but I felt comfortable we could handle most situations. Even so, I get a little nervous while running Elephant Hill. It can throw a lot of different challenges at you and you’re a long way from anything of significance. If things went wrong, they could really go wrong.
Running Elephant Hill
Our trip began with navigating a series of steep switchbacks up the side of the mountain. As soon as you reach the top, you begin a descent down the other side. This is typically the most difficult section of the trail with tall ledges, steep drops, sharp turns and narrow switchbacks. There’s one section of the trail that you must back up for about 100 feet due to the turn being too sharp and narrow to complete. A few years ago the park filled in some of the larger holes and ledges with concrete since it was becoming too difficult for anything but highly modified vehicles to successfully navigate. We made it through without having too much difficulty (after we aired down the Bronco’s tires) and created a few new scratches on the underside of the Rubicon.
As per usual, there wasn’t much traffic on the trail and by the time we had lunch in the shade of the boulders at Devil’s Kitchen, we had only seen two hikers and a couple small groups of 4WD vehicles.
The Road to Chesler Park
After lunch, we decided to take one of the intersecting trails (Bobby’s Hole) to an area called Chesler Park for a short hike into one of the nearby canyons. None of us had been on this section of the trail before and as we made the turn I was in awe as the trail opened up into a beautiful valley. We were running in the tail gunner position and we let the others get a little ahead of us so I could take some pictures.
I took my photos and we were back on the road again. It wasn’t long before we came up to a high rock wall to the right of the trail with a couple of Jeeps and the other two vehicles from our group parked next to it. A few people were gathered by a small overhang, which turned out to be some wonderful pictographs.
By the time we parked there was a third Jeep backing out of a narrow slot in the rock wall. His winch cable was looped around his front bumper and it was obvious he had been using his winch. And he was not a happy person.
I got out of the Jeep and asked the Bronco driver what was going on. “They just winched out a lady in her Explorer,” he replied.
I stopped, not thinking I’d heard him correctly. “A Ford Explorer?”
He shook his head. “Yep. A lady driving it all alone.”
"Since I was in the front of our group, I was fortunate enough (or unfortunate?) to happen upon the scene as some of the action was still unfolding: I pulled up and I saw a Jeep with its winch cable out, but I couldn’t see what it was attached to. I got out of my truck and walked up to see what was going on. I heard a loud scrape of metal on rocks and then I heard people yelling “No, no, no – LEFT” and then a loud crunch. I walked around the corner just in time to see the front corner of the Explorer clip a large rock as it finally was pulled free from the rocks."
- Scott Duecker
I passed the Jeep, turned a slight corner and there was a white Explorer Sport Track parked aside the trail. The Sport Track is the Explorer/truck hybrid. This truck looked completely stock, with fairly worthless tires and low step boards. The truck’s OEM jack lay discarded on the ground next to a bunch of camping gear. A couple of large clear containers that looked half full of Fruit Loop cereal were stacked next to the truck. Then there was the bright blue kayak sitting on the ground. Huh? I said to myself again. The closest water was the Colorado River, but the only access that was close by was via a thousand foot vertical drop.
"Is it wise to argue with your rescuers about how to extract your vehicle and ignore the advice of the spotter while being towed out of situation that your same 'sound' judgment landed you in? "
- Travus Knotts
A woman was standing next to the truck talking excitedly to a mixture of people from the Jeeps we’d encountered and our group. I guessed she was in her 40’s and did not fit the picture I had in my mind of a backwoods outdoors woman braving a new world. She looked like she had just come from lunch at Denny’s.
"Busted headlight - $150, new side steps - $400, skid plates - $0 (that's what there for right?), desert pin stripping - $0 ( poor decision making is a great way to add these), look on the birds face when you tell it God told me to- priceless"
- Travus Knotts
In Explorer’s driver’s seat, was a medium-sized bull dog panting heavily. Not unusual. Dogs can be great four-wheeling and camping companions. But it was what completely filled up the passenger’s seat that floored me – a large bird cage. A bright white cockatoo sat on a perch in the cage. Huh? I said to myself a third time. Who brings a bird out four-wheeling? And why? I felt sorry for the bird, imagining it trying to hang on to its perch as the truck bounced along the trail.
As I passed by the group I caught snippets of the conversation.
“I camped near Chesler Park,” the woman was saying. “It was magical. I spent the night beating my drums to the rhythm of nature and singing with the Lord Jesus.”
“Ok.” Someone said awkwardly.
“I came in through Bobby’s Hole and it wasn’t too bad until I got to this section and got hung up on the rocks.”
"It was truly a bizarre scene that just got stranger the more you looked at it – first of all the stock Explorer, then I noticed the kayak laying on the ground, then I saw the dog and the bird in the truck…it was like one of those children’s activities – How many things can you find wrong with this picture?”
- Scott Duecker
I kept walking. Just beyond her truck was an obstacle that the locals call “SOB Hill.” And for good reason. If the large boulders you had to negotiate over weren’t enough to hamper your forward momentum, in the middle of the obstacle was a sharp 90 degree turn. After the turn was a short, but steep hill with some good-sized rock ledges. I looked down at my feet. Deep scrapes and gouges only minutes old lined both sides of the boulder garden. I shuddered at the thought of what the underside of her Explorer looked like. I couldn’t imagine trying to take a stock Explorer through this.
A person from our group joined me while I surveyed the damage. “She tore the shit out of her steps,” he said reading my mind. “I talked to the guys who winched her out,” he continued, then pointed to one of the larger boulders in the 90 degree turn. “She was hung up really bad right there. I guess she’d been here for a while before the Jeeps found her. She had unloaded her truck and tried to jack up her wheels to stack some rocks underneath, but it didn’t help.”
That explained the boxes of Fruit loops (which turned out to be bird and dog food, I believe), camping gear and kayak sitting aside the road. Okay, not the kayak, but everything else. I’m still wondering about the kayak.
"At one point, just after the lady was pulled from her high center perch, she was talking with the fellow who pulled her off, and at one point he stated that they thought they might have to "pull the rock" from underneath her vehicle. At that point the bird, which I had not seen until now, vociferously announced to the gathering of people, "PULL THE ROCK"!
- Larry Narcus
“The guy with the winch couldn’t find his controller, so they had to yank her out using the cable as a strap. It took them more than an hour to pull her through. She was really stuck.”
Seeing the length and depth of the marks on the rocks I could understand their difficulty.
“They are pretty pissed off. Not only for not being able to find his controller, but now they don’t have time to visit Chesler Park since it took so long to get her out.”
And it wasn’t like they didn’t have the option. Not only was it the right thing to do, but the trails were barely wide enough for one vehicle. With her Explorer blocking the trail, there was no way around. There was also no way to pull her back through and down SOB Hill.
From behind me I could still hear parts of the conversation going on. She was asking what was ahead of her. It was obvious she had never been on the trail before and didn’t have a plan. Nor had she researched the trail in depth. The Jeep people were telling her about the camping at Devil’s Kitchen and how beautiful it was, which was the truth. They were trying to convince her to head there instead of trying to complete Elephant Hill that day. This was admittedly a little selfish. If she proceeded to try to make it out of Elephant Hill, we would be behind her. We all imagined her getting hung up on a wide variety of obstacles, with us stuck behind her. It could be a very long day.
Someone asked her why she would attempt such a difficult trail all alone and with such a obviously under-equipped vehicle. She said she wasn’t alone. She had her bird, dog and the Lord Jesus to guide her. He would always provide her with a way to get through.
Huh? I said to myself for the fourth time in less than 10 minutes. Then I told myself I should really stop saying that to myself.
Now before anyone gets any their feelings hurt, this isn’t any judgment on her belief system. It is about common sense. If you want to bang your drums to the rhythm of nature and whatever deity you believe in, have at it. Just use some common sense before you put yourself, your animals and others in a high risk situation.
Some of the others in our group caught up with me and we walked through the obstacle, first deciding IF we wanted to attempt it. The combination of rocks and sharp turn looked intimidating, especially for the long-wheelbased Tundra. The shorter Rubicon would do fine in the turns, but I knew he was going to get a few scrapes on his skid plates going over the boulders due to clearance issues.
I asked myself if I would have attempted this all alone with my own Rubicon. And the answer was no. Although fairly confident of my vehicle’s prowess, the risk would not be worth it. One small mistake on my part and I could be hung up on the rocks similar to the Explorer. And yes, I do have lockers and they are a huge asset, but I have also been high centered on a rock where they offered no assistance whatsoever. Now, maybe if I had done the obstacle before, or if the trail was more heavily traveled, or the obstacle was closer to the start of the trail… Maybe. But in this case, the risk far outweighed the opportunity.
"I heard the Jeeper's wives talking to each other and they said they'd thought the lady had been spent a night stuck on a steep shelfroad/switchback until she heard someone say, "Use your jack." An overwhelming sense of peace overcame her, and just like that, she was unstuck. And that's when she found Jesus."
- Dale Brech
I polled the others in my group. They all agreed. This was something they would not feel comfortable doing alone for the first time, even given their driving experience and modified vehicles.
As I walked down the last of SOB Hill, I called out to my friend who was about twenty feet in front of me, “I can’t believe she did this alone and in a stock Explorer. There’s a fine line between courage and being crazy … and I think she crossed that line by a long shot.”
He looked back at me and got a huge grin on his face. “You know she’s right behind you, right?”
I turned around and there was the Crazy Bird Lady only about five feet behind me. Didn’t hear her come up on me.
She had a mixture of anger and disbelief in her eyes. She stopped walking, put her hands on her hips and shouted, “I am not crazy!”
I continued walking down the hill.
“I made it through just fine!” she continued. “I’ve done trails a hundred times worse than this!”
Without stopping I called back over my shoulder, “You didn’t make it. You needed help. There’s a big difference between the two.”
I think she tried to respond, but I had already tuned her out. I wasn’t going to get into a debate with someone that, at least in my mind, had lost their grip on reality. It’s like arguing with a drunk. You never win.
When I got down to the bottom of the hill, I turned to look back up the trail. She had returned to her truck (which was out of sight) and we never saw her again. I do not know if she went to Devil’s Kitchen or how/if she made it out of Elephant Hill.
During the rest of the day, we spent way more time than you would think talking about her and how we couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed. Between the bird, the dog, the kayak and the drums – it was too much. It was during these discussions that someone called her The Crazy Bird Lady of Elephant Hill. Not politically correct, but the term stuck.
"I remember at one point when Larry was walking down the Hill, he tripped and almost fell. I yelled at him, "If you break your leg, you're riding with the bird lady!" She, unbeknownst to me, was at the top of the hill, as she laughed audibly to this."
- Dale Brech
We teased each other that if you somehow messed up, your punishment would be to sit between the bird and the lady for the rest of the way through Elephant Hill. That threat seemed to keep everyone in our party in line.
We made it to Chesler Park, did the hike and began our return trip along Elephant Hill later in the afternoon. As we were driving along the two-way section, we passed some Jeeps just starting the trail. They asked us if we had seen The Crazy Bird Lady of Elephant Hill and knew where she was (they wanted to avoid her).
I found this almost unbelievable. We had not met anyone since our encounter with her. And somehow word of her had spread down to the parking area. Maybe it was from the Jeep people who had winched her out or maybe someone else had meet along the trail. We never found out. It didn’t matter, her reputation had spread like wildfire throughout the park.
For better or worse, that’s the story of The Crazy Bird Lady of Elephant Hill.
Her story made me think a great deal about my own life and recent adventures. I believe life without risk is boring and stagnant. And too much risk can cut your life short. There’s a fine line between the two. And this line is different for each one of us. What would be reckless for me (due to lack of experience and courage) would be a cake walk for someone like Bear Grylls.
Sometimes people (usually my wife) accuse me of crossing that line. And maybe I do. But I can tell you that I put a lot of thought into my decisions and mentally calculate the risk. But there is always risk. Shit happens. When is it too much?
What are your thoughts? Was she being a bold explorer? Or was she being reckless, putting herself and others at risk? What would you have done if you were here?
Video of SOB Hill
Pictures from the Trip
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
No member comments yet.