Like many restored villages in the American West, Bluff Fort in southeastern Utah gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the pioneers. What is remarkable about Bluff Fort, however, is not its reconstructed log buildings and remnants of wagons and implements of the 1880s, but the exceptional heroism and fortitude that brought the rustic settlement into being.
Bluff Fort is set amid vibrant red-rock bluffs, but the real color is in the story of its creation as told in a film that is shown to visitors. It is there that you learn of the epic effort by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—to settle in this remote corner of the Utah territory 16 years before it was granted statehood.
Church leaders in 1878 asked for families in Parowan in southwestern Utah to volunteer for an arduous 250-mile trek eastward to establish a settlement in the Four Corners region. To those who answered the call, it meant leaving their secure lives, selling everything they owned and setting out on a journey into the wilds that would involve unimaginable hardships.
An exploratory party of 37, including two women and eight children, made the first trip. Once they arrived, two families remained at what is known as Fort Montezuma on the banks of the San Juan River, while the rest returned to lead a larger contingent. The exploratory party felt the route they had taken south through Arizona was impractical for a larger group of men, women and children because of its length, the scarcity of water, and the hostility of the natives. So they sought a shorter and more direct route.
Seventy families set out on a journey they thought would take six weeks, but took six months. The first part of the trip was over established wagon roads between Parowan and Escalante. From there, they blazed a new route that was far more complicated and dangerous than expected. The path they created became known as the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail because of a crevice that they had to conquer to reach the land they had been asked to settle. Oxen, horses and expedition members all slid down steep embankments, but only after wagons were dismantled and dropped down over, around or between rocks to find the next possible link to their destination.
Children scrambling forward hand-in-hand formed a chain to stay together as they slid down precipitous slick rocks. Hillsides were battled with pickaxes and chisels. Mountainsides were blasted away with dynamite to form a mile-long descending trail too narrow for the wagons to traverse until water barrels were removed from the sides.
Through desert terrain they plodded. Late in the trip, they encountered thick cedar forests, where the line of wagons waited while members of the group chopped down trees to clear a path. At one point, the wagons and teams of oxen and horses were spent beyond their limits, yet made to climb over the next filled crevice and onto the next snowcapped hill.
That’s the history! And walking today through the re-created village, with its log cabins and other structures fashioned out of what was available in the unsettled territory in the early 1880s, helps bring it to life. Visitors see the film, and then docents are available to answer questions, including why anyone would have wanted to leave a prosperous life to follow the call of their religion’s leaders.
The little town of Bluff today is known for its quaint houses and a smattering of businesses, but the main attraction is Bluff Fort, the restored outpost settled by those intrepid pioneers. The outpost was built under the bluffs in a semi-circle, with the cabins’ entrances facing inward to the center. The well, in the center of the courtyard, provided water shared by all. The schoolroom, a blacksmith shop and other public cabins have been restored, along with simple log homes with their hand-hewn furnishings.
Bluff Fort is 13.5 miles west of Fort Montezuma, where the first settlers from that exploratory party spent a brutal winter waiting for the second, larger group to arrive. All survived despite the hardships.
Bluff Fort is open Monday through Saturday from April 1 to September 30. For information, visit the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation website at hirf.org.
If you’re visiting the area, there are two RV campgrounds within walking distance of Bluff Fort: Cottonwood RV Park and Cadillac Ranch, both offering full hookups and amenities. Bluff Fort, just 50 miles from the Four Corners Monument, is an enlightened stop for history buffs.
Barry Zander is a writer and photographer who was formerly a newspaper editor and owner of an advertising agency. He and his wife, Monique, are RVers who expect to have visited every state but Hawaii by the fall of this year.