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LA SAL MOUNTAINS

By Robert McPherson
Straddling the Utah-Colorado border and spanning Grand and San Juan counties in Utah, the large laccolith called the La Sal Mountains dominates the view of the surrounding canyonlands. Formed some twenty-four million years ago, these towering peaks reach a height of over 12,700 feet (Mount Peale) and provide resources of water, timber, grazing lands, and minerals that have attracted people to this region for thousands of years.

Native American occupation started as early as 12,000 B.C., as Paleo and Archaic Indians left behind campsites as well as Clovis, Folsom, and Plano points on the mesas and benches below. The Anasazi (1000 B.C.-A.D. 1300) found the flat valley floors with their irrigable lands and water suitable for crop production, and so they built their homes in the lower elevations and used the mountains above for seasonal hunting and gathering. Later, the Weeminuche Utes laid claim to this territory, depending for subsistence on wild plants and the deer herds that ranged across the mountains, while the Navajo ventured onto the slopes for medicinal plants and food. They named the La Sals the Five Mountains, though it is not clear to which of the many peaks they were referring.

The earliest Euro-American name comes from the Spanish, who called it Sierra de la Sal, or "Mountain of the Salt." Frays Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Dominguez passed by the mountain in 1776, mentioning in their diary that it was "so called for there being salt beds next to it from which . . . the Yutas hereabouts provide themselves." Highway 1919 follows the general path of the old Spanish Trail as it makes its way through Spanish Valley where caravans of traders used to camp on Mill and Pack creeks before venturing across the Colorado River.

The first Anglo-American settlers of the area were Mormons, who formed the Elk Mountain Mission (1855) at present-day Moab because of the availability of water and timber there. Their settlement had lasted less than a year when neighboring Utes destroyed their fort and drove them back to the Wasatch Front. Other settlers followed in the late 1870s. Many of them were Mormons, but unlike the previous group, they were not officially called but rather drifted east from Sevier and Sanpete counties in search of resources. There was also a substantial population of non-Mormons who came from the mining and livestock industries of Colorado.

The towns of Old La Sal and Coyote also sprang at the base of the mountain range because of its water and location on the southern Colorado-Utah mail route. Farming, ranching, and mining on or near the mountains gave spurts of growth to nascent industries as did also the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad that passed through Thompson seventy-five miles north of Moab. Cattle, sheep, and agricultural produce made their way through the canyons and sagebrush flats to both eastern and western markets.

Although there were mining strikes in 1892 in the La Sals and other nearby mountains and rivers, cattle and timber proved to be of more lasting economic benefit. The Pittsburgh Cattle Company started in the mid-1880s and ran as many as 20,000 head of livestock on the mountains until the company sold out to the La Sal Cattle Company in 1895. Lemuel H. Redd and other stockmen from Bluff continued to range cattle there, until eventually Charles Redd assumed control of the entire operation. Redd Ranches continues to use the La Sals to this day.

With the increase of lumber operations and livestock grazing, ecological damage increased dramatically. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt created the La Sal National Forest Reserve out of 158,462 acres of land, approximately one-sixth of which was located in Colorado. Two years later it was made part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Although the Forest Service began to regulate mining and lumbering, flooding and erosion reached a peak between 1918 and 1920; thus it was natural, starting in 1933, that the Civilian Conservation Corps should spend four years in developing flood control projects, roads, and to a lesser extent, recreation facilities in the area.

Today Moab still nestles in the midst of canyon country at the foot of the La Sals. The mountains provide water, mineral, and lumber resources, as well as recreation facilities under the auspices of the Forest Service. To the people of southeastern Utah, the mountains remain an important part of the wealth and aesthetics of the region.