Scenic Road Trip: Utah Byways

Route Details Length: About 450 miles in total, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round. Words to the wise:

Canyonland National Park.
Formed as soft, underlying layers of sandstone eroded, Mesa Arch is in the heart of the Island in the Sky section of Canyonland National Park.

Route Details

Length:

About 450 miles in total, plus
side trips.

When to go:

Popular year-round.

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.

Nearby attractions:

Dead Horse Point
State Park (off Rte. 313).
Valley of the Gods (off Rte.261).

Visitor centers:

Arches, Capitol Reef,
and Canyonlands national parks. Natural
Bridges National Monument.

Further information:

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.

2. 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).

5. Lake Powell Overlook

Along the lonely highway connecting
Capitol Reef to Hanksville,
the Henry Mountains rise
in arid desolation to the south.
Outlaws once hid rustled cattle
in the shadows of these weathered
peaks. Bison still wander in
the foothills, where prospectors
have sought gold for a hundred
years and more.

Fifteen miles south of Hanksville,
off Rte. 95, an unpaved side
road leads to the russet-hued
canyon of the Dirty Devil River, so
named in the 1800s by explorer
John Wesley Powell because of its
mud and stench.

At the overlook some 35 miles
to the south, the panorama of
Lake Powell (named for the explorer)
comes into view. Nearly
200 miles long, the lake took 17
years to fill Glen Canyon after
the Colorado River was dammed;
in the process, it wandered into
so many side canyons that its
shoreline extends for a staggering
2,000 miles — longer than the
entire West Coast. The rich red
walls of those inundated canyons
rise abruptly from the waterline,
contrasting sublimely with the
lake’s cerulean waters.

6. Hite Crossing

Named for Cass Hite, a prospector
who in the 1880s ferried wayfarers
across the Colorado River,
Hite Crossing is now the northernmost
passage across the portion
of the river that has become Lake
Powell — but instead of a ferry, a
bridge now takes traffic across the
transformed canyon. For travelers
on Rte. 95, Hite Crossing is
the threshold of the Glen Canyon
National Recreation Area, more
than a million acres of wilderness
playground surrounding Lake
Powell. The local marina rents
houseboats and smaller craft, enabling
visitors to explore the endless
array of azure bays and ruddy
canyons that branch out all along
the lake.

7. Natural Bridges National Monument

Spanning the twisting streambeds
of White Canyon, three natural bridges attest to
the persistence of flowing water. Fashioned of tawny
sandstone millions of years old, the
bridges — called Sipapu, Kachina,
and Owachomo — are the centerpieces
of Natural Bridges National
Monument, some 50 miles southeast
of Hite Crossing. Atop a
6,500-foot-high plateau that commands
a southerly overview of
Arizona’s Monument Valley, a
road and hiking trail link the three
bridges, which were formed by
silted floodwaters that scraped
out shortcuts between tight loops
in the canyons. Sipapu, first along
the drive, is the second-largest
such bridge in the world; its height
is equal to that of a 20-story
building, and its span is nearly
the length of a football field.
Kachina, the youngest bridge, is
the least worn down by wind
and water. Owachomo, the oldest,
is apt to be the first to fall: at
180 feet across, its span is a comparatively
delicate strand barely
nine feet thick.

Human engineering, too, shaped
the scenery at Natural Bridges.
Along Bridge View Drive the entrances
to ancient Anasazi dwellings
gape from a steep rock slope.
Few places on earth can boast a
climate and an architecture in
such perfect harmony.

8. Mule Canyon Rest Area

Another abandoned Anasazi
settlement survives in the South
Fork of Mule Canyon, a 15-minute
drive from Natural Bridges on
Rte. 95. Among the stone and
adobe structures — scarcely different
in hue and texture from the
rock that surrounds them — are a
circular tower and a kiva, an underground
chamber where members
of the community met. Drought
most likely drove the Anasazis
from the area in the 13th century.
More of their sun-baked ruins are
found in Arch Canyon, visible from
a side road found off Rte. 95 a mile
to the east.

9. Comb Ridge

Comb Ridge rises with
daunting abruptness from the
floor of Comb Wash, east of
Mule and Arch canyons. Rte. 95
ascends the 800-foot-high ridge,
where the view encompasses this
massive upthrust of the earth’s
c rust as it extends toward the
southern horizon.

10. Edge of the Cedars State Park

The sense of a forgotten age
permeates the Anasazi ruins at
Edge of the Cedars State Park, in
Blanding off Rte. 191. Here six
complexes of residential and ceremonial
structures have been noted
by archaeologists, and a sizable
Anasazi pottery collection is
housed in a park museum. Each site has its kiva, and one
even possesses a “great” kiva, a
cathedral among its kind and the
spiritual focus of a world that
has since passed into history.

11. Monticello

Head north 22 miles from Blanding
to reach Monticello, the little
San Juan County seat perched
high in the foothills of the Abajo
Mountains. The early Spanish
explorers who saw these rounded
summits as abajo (“low”) must
have been duped by a desert illusion;
Abajo Peak itself, accessible
on foot or by four-wheel-drive
vehicle, rises to an elevation of
more than 11,000 feet. Today
these Blue Mountains, as they
a re also called, are part of the
1.2-million-acre Manti-La Sal
National Forest, where cool pine
woods offer respite from arid
canyons and sun-seared plateaus. A haven for campers year-round
and a winter magnet for skiers,
Manti-La Sal represents the
green side of a land that, while
beautiful, is typically limned in
shades of ocher and vermilion.

12. Canyonlands National Park

About 60 miles from Monticello by
way of Rtes. 191 and 211, Canyonlands is the largest yet least developed
of the national parks in Utah.
It encompasses a vast expanse of
mesas and canyons surrounding the
muddy confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

The rivers divide the park into
four unique districts: the Island in
the Sky, the Needles, the Maze,
and the rivers themselves.

Among the strangest of these
districts is the Needles, a surreal
jumble of stone turrets, towers,
and minarets fashioned from Permian
sandstone that is banded in shades of cream and rust. Here
awed visitors gaze at giant spires —
some up to 30 stories high.

Historic people of many cultures
have visited Canyonlands over a
span lasting more than 10,000
years — relying on and exploiting
the rich resources that hide in
the desert landscape. Many prehistoric
campsites exist within
the park’s boundaries.

For several miles after entering
the park, Rte. 211 snakes by sites
with such names as Wooden Shoe
Overlook, Squaw Flat, and Pothole
Point and reaches a dead end at Big Spring Canyon. Four-wheel-
drive roads and trails lead deep into the Needles backcountry — among them the harrowing Elephant Hill Road, where one
particular turn can be made only
after backing up to the edge of a
sheer precipice that has no guardrail.
Short trails lead to an ancient
Anasazi granary and to an abandoned
cowboy’s camp that features
century-old wooden and iron handmade
furnishings.

13. Arches National Park

Returning to Rte. 191, the drive
heads north to Moab, then crosses
the Colorado River and arrives
at the entrance to Arches National
Park. Given the singularity and
variety of the rock formations
here, it’s not surprising that early
explorers mistook them for the
ruins of an ancient civilization.
Within the park are more than
2,000 named arches, as well as
other natural sculptures — domes,
walls, spires, precariously balanced
rocks, and figures resembling
monumental chess pieces.

In the section of the park called
The Windows stand several giant
arches, and a few miles north is the
often-photographed, freestanding
Delicate Arch, regarded by many
as the parks crown jewel. Farther
to the north, at Devils Garden, is
another collection of awesome
arches with such names as Dark
Angel, Pine Tree, Tunnel, Double
O, and the long, graceful but
alarmingly thin Landscape Arch.

Departing from Arches, the
drive heads south for a few miles
on Rte.191 before turning northeast
on Rte.128, a 44-mile scenic
byway that terminates at I-70.
Paralleling the Colorado River
most of the way (look for rafters
in summer), the route skirts Castle
Valley, a famous backdrop for
Hollywood films; the high mudstone
ramparts of Fisher Towers;
and the old Dewey Bridge, a one lane
wood-and-steel suspension
bridge built in 1916 and now
closed to all but foot traffic. From
the perspective of the route just
traveled, this retired structure reminds
us that man-made bridges
are short-lived compared to arches of sandstone fashioned by nature.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest