GPS Unit Leads Couple Into Trouble Near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

GPS units aren't always aware of backcountry road conditions.

Sometimes that GPS unit doesn't know that you can't get from here to there. A Pennsylvania couple in their 60s learned that the hard way when they tried to take a backroad in southern Utah.

The couple apparently left Big Water, an eye-blink-sized town just west of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, with hopes of negotiating the Smoky Mountain Road all the way to Escalante. The GPS unit in their two-wheel-drive rental sedan told them it was doable. However, 45 miles down the road, which is decidedly rough and rugged and suited for four-wheel-drive rigs with decent ground clearance, the couple ripped the oil pan off their rental and seized the engine.

This happened in late May. After four days out in daytime temperatures that reached the high 80s with only a few bottles of water and soda with them the couple was spotted by a dirt-biker rider, who summoned help with his cellphone.

NRA rangers called on Classic Lifeguard for assistance, and the company launched two helicopters from Page to fly the couple out. They were extremely dehydrated and were kept at the hospital overnight for observation.

According to rangers, the couple never stopped at any of the various visitor centers to ask for information, nor did they did turn back when they came upon signs on this backcountry road that said the road was impassable. Rangers say that if they hadn’t encountered the person on the dirt bike, it’s likely that they would have perished.

According to acting District Ranger Eric Scott, rangers are increasingly dealing with visitors who rely on navigation systems that may provide misleading information, often with tragic results. While navigation systems such as GPS units can be fine tools, nothing can replace up-to-date information from informed personnel as well as using common sense when out in remote areas. (emphasis added.)

Comments

Oh my goodness. While I am glad that this story had a happy ending, it really brings to light the need to not become totally dependent on technology.

Years ago our GPS unit (one of the first on the market because I married a technology geek) told us that we could take Mosquito Pass, near Leadville, Colorado, as a real travel route for the average driver. Having climbed Mosquito Pass, which is a difficult 4 wheel drive road at best, in a fully equipped Jeep, we laughed and laughed at the GPS unit and thought that surely no one could mistake Mosquito Pass for a regular road and attempt it in anything but an off road equipped vechile with an experienced driver. Well... if someone would try the Smokey Mountain Road... I hate to think how many rental cars have died on Mosquito Pass.

Don't blindly trust technology, it is only as knowledgable as it's programmer.

I'm also glad that this story has a happy ending. But it is beyond my wildest imagination that people will venture FAR off the beaten path with NO preparation. Hopefully their near-disaster will be a valuable lesson to others!

I have one of the earliest Motorola handhelds with the mounting unit for the roof of the Jeep Wrangler ($1,200 if that tells you how old it is) and even with topo maps find that GPS is good for getting into trouble or documenting where to send the coroner for people with no common sense. Have rescued two such individuals and one had shot his own foot off while hunting. Nothing to signal with and no first aid. His buddy just happened to find him and I carry LOTS of first aid gear and bolt cutters for wilderness gates. Mans life was saved because you don't go into dangerous areas depending on rental cars and gadgets. I did take the coordinates with my GPS since I was there! Engraved it on my Campmor S/S cup for another trail memory.

Beyond civilization you have to think for your own. No navigation tools can do that for you. But with a GPS unit at least you know exactly where you are dying.

Unfortunately, we will likely read more similar stories in the future. People are increasingly using GPS navigation technology. The technology is quite reliable, so it is easy for users to let their guard down. But an inevitable map error, combined with a driver who is not using her or his better judgement at the moment, may result in a traffic fine, traffic collision, and sometimes even much worse.

The problem is not going to go away.

Police urge motorists to use maps instead of GPS

I'm glad this story has a happy ending.

Its also worth advising people to not just ask once about backcountry roads, but to get "second opinions" from multiple sources, and even then, still travel fully prepared and constantly observe your surroundings and exercise sound judgement as you observe the conditions around you.

More than once, I've had a Ranger from one of the Federal land management agencies tell me that I would have "no problem" with a backcountry road, only to still find the experience quite tricky and difficult.

Road conditions change often, and there is just no substitute for your own common sense.

There's nothing quite like a happy ending. But this is exactly the type of incident that is going to propagate as technology savvy rookies venture into the real world guided by electronics instead of preparing with advance research. The more techy gadgets we give people, the less they tend to actually think for themselves, somehow figuring that the gadget knows more about conditions that the local sinage, info / tourist centers, and local patrons. Lucky only begins to describe this couple. Those washboard roads are difficult enough at 20 MPH when dry and the path is somewhat visible, let alone after they wash out in a storm, or when the temps climb into the 100's and your engine overheats. Makes you wonder why they had water and nothing else.........

I wonder the same thing Lone Hiker. You wouldn't believe the number of people I've met on the trail, miles from the trailhead, who are wearing sneakers and carrying a cellphone in one hand and bottle of water in the other and nothing else. No pack, no compass, no chart, nothing. Amazing.

I am very happy that everything turned out for the best. The same thing almost happened to my wife and I last October. We took a month long trip from Florida to many places out west, especially Utah. Microsoft Streets and Trips did the same thing to us. I always use Streets and Trips to lay out a trip because it allows you to program overnights, time for sightseeing, eating, etc. It wanted us to travel from Escalante to Big Water by the same Smokey Mountain Road. When I put the route into Mapsource, Garmin's mapping program, to program my GPS, it showed the same route. However, I got suspicious when Mapsource showed it as a broken line, which means unpaved. Since we are from Florida and not used to mountain driving, I then checked out all of the roads in our route that were not Interstates, US Highways, or state highways to make sure that we could traverse them. What I found was that this road ran mainly through the middle of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Mounment, a BLM property. This is a relativley new monument with mainly very rugged roads and almost no development. In fact the BLM map shows this road as an ATV road. I even looked at the road on Google Maps satellite view and I could see that it was very rugged. I found this to be true all over the southwest, especially BLM properties. BTW, the BLM calls it Smokey Mountain Road where the mapping programs and Google Maps calls part of it Missing Canyon Road. By either name, it goes from Big Water to Escalante. If they were 45 miles from Bigwater, they were definitely in BLM territory and only about 21 miles from Escalante. I am amazed they got that far in a sedan.

The problem seems to be with Navteq, the company that supplies the mapping for Garmin and Streets and Trips among others. They seem to consider these unpaved roads as viable routes regardless of condition. Also, the newer and cheaper GPS units only allow you to put in your destination and it picks the route. My old Streetpilot and my new Nuvi 750 allow me to make up the route.

The lesson here is to research where you are going and to check with the Ranger stations about current conditions. Had they done their research, they could have used the route avoidance procedures available in most GPS units.

Unfortunately Fred I believe every bit of your experience, as I've encountered much the same, especially over the past 5 or so years. The frequency as of late isn't just alarming, is scary to someone who knows that they possess the training and experience to survive in the wilderness, and would NEVER be so bold as to attempt even a day hike without the required "essential" gear; food, water (or something similar), first aid kit, maps, etc. I'd sooner leave the cell phone and other electronic gear behind than get stuck without nutrients if things were to go unexpectedly wrong. Can't live on off a cell phone battery very long!

Don't get me wrong. Some of those roads throught the BLM lands in that area offer spectacular scenery and wilderness opportunities, especially those running from US 89 up to Tropic. One of them, Cottonwood Canyon Road is an awesome experience, for camping, hiking and photography. Another road who's name escapes me at the moment, that's basically a SW-NE through the southwestern tip of Escalante from near Kanab to Tropic along the Pink Cliffs might be even better, but with more cattle ranches. But if you're dumb enough to attempt traversing these paths on a summer's day in the late morning / early afternoon, without stocking up the cooler, using your Camero or BMW or Taurus, you'll be thinking radiator fluid is a gourmet drink come sundown. Granted the ethylene glycol won't kill you, in small quantities. So be sure you share!

And buy the Indian Country Road Maps, available almost everywhere in the area, BEFORE you plan your route. Provided you can actually read a map, these publications far outshine ANY maps for these areas that I've ever tried. Rand McNally? Sure to get you lost. Garman GPS (or RouteFinder or any of the others)? I wouldn't stake my life on them, which is exactly what you're doing in that area. BLM maps? Not bad, but not worth the money. This was not a paid endorsement...........

I was on Cottonwood Wash Road in October of 2008. We had a great drive from 89 S to Tropic. It was a bit rough in Kane County section, but smoothed out. There is no reason to trust any kind of electronic navigation system unless you are with the CIA or the Army out in the backcountry west. You need to use a good map and a compass. I also have an altimeter in my car and a car compass (they are not fancy but they work and are reliable) and pay attention to my senses, odometer and judgment. I do not even understand why you would try this (entering addresses and looking at an electronic map). It's a waste of energy, just get a good map, ask around about conditions.

We saw the AP article in Kanab BLM station about those people from California that dead-ended staring at their GPS units. I'm glad its finally up on the internet where all can learn from their pathetic arrogance.

I was on Cottonwood Wash Road in October of 2008. We had a great drive from 89 S to Tropic. It was a bit rough in Kane County section, but smoothed out. There is no reason to trust any kind of electronic navigation system unless you are with the CIA or the Army out in the backcountry west. You need to use a good map and a compass. I also have an altimeter in my car and a car compass (they are not fancy but they work and are reliable) and pay attention to my senses, odometer and judgment. I do not even understand why you would try this (entering addresses and looking at an electronic map). It's a waste of energy, just get a good map, ask around about conditions.

We saw the AP article in Kanab BLM station about those people from California that dead-ended staring at their GPS units. I'm glad its finally up on the internet where all can learn from their pathetic arrogance.

Provided you can actually read a map, these publications far outshine ANY maps for these areas that I've ever tried.

To me, the problem isn't so much their relying on a GPS unit, as it is not being able/willing to get the various clues given to them. Would they have had a map, they might've seen that road and figured it would be ok. They would still have passed the information points without stopping and they would still have ignored the signs warning them of the impassable road. And when the road turned dirty and rugged, they still didn't think of turning around, even driving a 2WD sedan.

This is not two people relying too much on modern technology, but too much on their own judgment. Happy they survived, but they should be ashamed of causing that two chopper rescue operation.