Scenic Road Trip: Utah Byways

Canyonland National Park.Photo Courtesy Utah Division of Travel Development/Frank Jensen, photographerFormed 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


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,

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

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