About 450 miles in total, plus side trips.
When to go:
Words to the wise:
On back roads bring ample water, food, and extra fuel.
Not to be missed:
Canyonlands by Night (sound and light show on a Colorado River cruise, from May through October), Rte. 191, Moab.
Dead Horse Point State Park (off Rte. 313). Valley of the Gods (off Rte.261).
Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands national parks. Natural Bridges National Monument.
Utah Travel Council, 300 No. State St., Salt Lake City, UT 84114; tel. 800-200-1160, www.utah.com
Sculpted by wind and water over countless millennia, the remote canyons and plateaus of southeastern Utah were among the last parts of the American West to be seen by travelers from the East — indeed, much of this country remained uncharted until well into the 20th century.
1. Fishlake Scenic Byway
Beginning at the little hamlet of Sigurd, the drive follows Rte. 24 southeast through miles of sagebrush country. After turning north onto Rte. 25, the road climbs to a lofty perch of nearly 9,000 feet. Here, cradled amidst the meadows and aspen groves of Fishlake National Forest, lies blue-green Fish Lake, its deep, cold waters teeming with four kinds of trout.
A shoreline path and numerous mountain bike trails lead to views of snowcapped peaks as well as to glimpses of wildflowers, waterfowl, deer, elk, and moose. Boat rentals, campgrounds, and cabins enable travelers to enjoy the area and take their time exploring the gemlike lake. To continue the drive, double back to Rte. 24 and head east toward Torrey.
The high Southwest is a landscape of surprising transitions, where cool wooded valleys can give way in a few short miles to otherworldly formations of sunset-colored sandstone. Rte. 24 makes just such a passage from one terrain to another as it follows the Fremont River, swinging south and east of a great plateau crested by the lofty ramparts of Thousand Lake Mountain. By the time you see the ruddy shaft of Chimney Rock rising high above the highway east of Torrey, the pine-scented woods surrounding Fish Lake will seem far away indeed. You are now at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park, where nature has practiced the fine art of sculpture but has left the horticulture to humans.
3. Capitol Reef National Park
Named for a white sandstone dome that suggested the U.S. Capitol to approaching pioneers, Capitol Reef National Park is a 70-mile strip of stark and surreal terrain whose “reef” is its centerpiece.
Vivid petroglyphs, drawings etched into stone that depict desert bighorn sheep along with human figures holding shields and wearing headdresses, testify to the presence of the mysterious Fremont Indians 1,000 years ago. Later came the Paiutes and the Navajos, who gave the multicolored rock layers a name that means “sleeping rainbows.”
As the last century closed, Mormon families sought solace in the shadow of Capitol Reef. In their tiny, optimistically named community of Fruita, these peaceable souls planted orchards, tended farms, and grazed livestock for more than 50 years, until the hamlet’s utter isolation made living here intolerable. At the site of their abandoned community, a restored one-room schoolhouse – empty since 1941 — and other wooden structures tell of a land brought to life by the Fremont River. Peaches, apricots, cherries, pears, and apples are still here for the picking, for a nominal Park Service fee.
4. Hickman Bridge
About midway along the main road through Capitol Reef National Park is a trail that follows the lush banks of the Fremont River, then climbs to Hickman Bridge, a graceful 133-foot natural span. The sandstone arc leaps from a jumble of rock and makes a grand symmetrical sweep above a streambed, framing Capitol Dome (the signature formation of the national park).