Finally…. My annual spring trip AND the inaugural voyage of the new truck. My anticipation level was off the charts.
I headed into southern Utah, a place I’ve been going for the last 20 years. I can’t say there is no other place on Earth like it because I haven’t been everywhere, but I will say is that if you can’t find something in all the incredibly varied geography there that suits your tastes, you should probably stay home.
Early spring is a challenging time to venture out, especially since Mother Nature wants to lull you into complacency about winter really being over – Don’t believe it for a minute! When I left Flagstaff, the forecast was for wind, rain, snow, wind, and did I mention wind? Of course no questionable weather was going to slow me down, because the beauty of Utah is that if it’s cold and nasty, you go to the desert. If the forecast calls for hot and sunny, the mountains and high plateaus offer relief. And as it turns out, over the course of 10 days I ended up doing both.
This trip covered old and new ground. I began by driving Highway 89 north to 160 across the Navajo reservation, turning onto 163 at Kayenta through Monument Valley and into Mexican Hat. Just north of town is Utah 261 up and over Cedar Mesa. Nearby are all kinds of incredible views – Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park, Valley of the Gods, and from the top of Cedar Mesa you get awesome panoramas of Monument Valley. Just driving the switchbacks (called the Moqui or Moki Dugway) up the mesa is a great experience.
On top of the mesa I camped on the rim of John’s Canyon, reached after turning southwest on a dirt road off the top of the dugway – a very isolated spot with expansive views across the gorge. No pictures, because unfortunately a head cold was just kicking into high gear, and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed – at 6:00 p.m. I slept right on through dinner, and awoke the next morning stuffy headed but ready to move on.
The drive over Cedar Mesa is pleasant, but the real scenery starts on Highway 95 up and over the northernmost arm of Lake Powell. On this section alone I could spend months exploring as there are many inviting dirt roads that lead into countless canyons. Crossing the Dirty Devil River above Hite I finally took my first picture of the new ride.
After much gawking and absorption of natural splendor, I reached Hanksville and turned west on Highway 24 towards Capitol Reef National Park. The park is wonderful and I recommend it highly, but it was not my goal on this trip. After leaving Hanksville, you traverse some of the most spectacular badlands anywhere, with stark moonscapes and wildly eroded mesas and buttes. Smack dab in the middle of it all is the Caineville Wash road. Here I left the highway and turned north.
Caineville Wash road leads to Cathedral Valley, where buttes and mesa have been shaped into gigantic monuments and spires, hence the name. The road is graded dirt, and requires high clearance. Just a note of caution to the unwary – many if not all of the backroads in Southern Utah become impossible (the signs say impassable) when wet. Four-wheel drive will NOT save you. Only patience and waiting for the surface to dry out will allow you to continue, so plan on staying a while or avoiding these dirt roads whenever wet weather is imminent. Also be aware that flash flooding and road washouts are very common during the summer thunderstorm season, so always check with locals before heading out regarding current road conditions.
I did not intend to make the journey all the way into Cathedral Valley (about 22 miles one way), but rather to camp just above the Bentonite Hills where the sandstone is eroded into beautiful formations.
The weather was deteriorating as promised when I arrived, so I found my spot and settled in.
A slice of civilization in the wilderness - Home Sweet Home
Even though the forecast was for snow and cold, I knew from experience that the desert areas would be least affected – and if I was wrong I was prepared to stay awhile. Fortunately the weather alternated between very light snowfall, clouds, some wind, and brief periods of sunshine. From my position you could see that surrounding mountains like Thousand Lake and the Henrys were getting clobbered.
After a few days, the weather began to improve.
A sunset view north toward Factory Butte
North Caineville Reef, Caineville Mesa, and the snowy Henry Mountains peeking out
I knew that if it stayed reasonably cool, I would be better off staying in canyon country. Some folks might not understand this, but I don't plan trips more than a few days out. In general I let weather and personal inclinations dictate my itinerary, leaving me free to go just about anywhere. So with reasonable temperatures on tap, I decide to explore the surrounding area further.
Many travelers have heard of or driven the Burr Trail but somehow in all my years of exploring the area I had never been on it. I was already on the east side of Capitol Reef, so I decided to do a loop using the Notom-Bullfrog road which runs north and south parallel to the park. The beginning of the road is paved, with mildly pleasant views. Once the pavement ends, the views get decidedly better.
You descend into Strike Valley, with the ramparts of Capitol Reef rising to the west, and Oyster Shell Reef to the east. These geological formations reminded the early pioneers of great ocean reefs, hence the names. There are several excellent slot canyons penetrating the reef, making for some great hiking opportunities.
As the road progresses it enters the national park, where at large camping is prohibited. There is a designated primitive campground just off the road called coincidentally Cedar Mesa, however there are no other options until you leave the park to the south or west some miles on. My path led me to turn west where Burr Trail intersects the Notom/Bullfrog road. Immediately after the junction the road begins to climb steeply in a series of switchbacks to the top of the reef. I found myself grateful that I was driving a truck camper as opposed to another type of recreational vehicle – The hairpin turns were tight even with a relatively short wheelbase.
At the top of the switchbacks you can look back over Strike Valley to the Henry Mountains beyond – a great panorama.
Moving on you are still in the park, where you’ll see Peek-A-Boo arch as well as several trailheads that lead to more slot canyons.
Quickly enough you reach the park boundary, where the road becomes “paved” and you are now on the Burr Trail proper. More importantly you’ve reached BLM land, where at large camping is permitted. Technically, since the Burr Trail is part of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument (GSENM), you are supposed to have a permit – but the logistics of getting one are not designed for spontaneous campers like me, and I think for the most part they are just looking to keep the honest folks honest.
I quickly chose a likely looking dirt road leading to the northeast, and started exploring. I settled on area overlooking the Circle Cliffs (the southwestern park boundary)
White Flats, overlooking more cliffs and westward towards Boulder Mountain. I spent a couple of days just poking around, and watching the pronghorn and elk graze in the valley bottom.
Warm weather began to settle in, and for canyon country the days get hot in a hurry, so I decided to move on. First I had to complete the Burr Trail.
Here is where I got the real “wow” factor for this leg of the trip.
Looking back on where you've just been:
I swear there are familiar faces in the rock - Whazoo, is that you?
Rock sentinels line the road, watching solemnly as you pass
Climbing out of the valley the road travels Long Canyon, and for several miles the canyon walls tower above you, heavily stained with desert varnish. I have driven through many canyons, but this section made me stop to “ooh” and “aah” more than once.
Looking back over Long Canyon (the "Gulch") as you climb out
Near Boulder township, you begin to experience the wild and sinuous cross-bedded sandstone that dominates the area
I highly recommend this drive, even if you come in from the Boulder side (Highway 12) and do it partway as a side trip.
For the final leg of the journey I chose the Aquarius Plateau, where Bryce Canyon is located. I was not interested in the park itself, although that is a decidedly worthwhile destination, but rather the surrounding Dixie National Forest. Located at an elevation of 8000 feet and more, it's a cool place to explore – literally.
Leaving Boulder, traveling highway 12 over the Hog Back is a great experience in and of itself. The area around and south of Boulder towards Escalante is as surreal as it gets. The cross-bedded sandstone formations of the Escalante Canyons are spectacular, and many side trips are possible in this area.
Escalante Canyons and Box-Death Hollow Wilderness
One notable excursion is the Hell’s Backbone road, which lives up to the name. In fact there are so many great places to explore in the vicinity it would take a lifetime to see it all – but I’m working on it.
High 12 from Escalante offers many potential diversions. Along the way you can detour down Cottonwood Canyon road at Cannonville, which penetrates the heart of GSENM. A short trip brings you to Kodachrome Basin State Park, a longer journey gets you to Grosvenor Arch, and really intrepid travelers can follow the road 47 miles to Highway 89, through rugged, isolated, and geologically spectacular areas.
As you pass through Tropic before climbing the Aquarius Plateau, you begin to see the vivid red and pink formations that give Bryce Canyon its characteristic color. The plateau itself is forested with a mixture of pinyon and ponderosa pine as well as a variety of juniper at the lower elevations, and sub-alpine conifers in the higher reaches. Surprisingly there was very little snow cover except for extreme north slopes and the highest peaks, and road conditions were relatively dry.
I chose Tom’s Best Spring Road, a Forest Service road on the north side of Highway 12. Following signs towards Casto Canyon (a mini “Bryce Canyon-like” area where OHV and mountain bike use is allowed), I traveled an increasingly rough dirt road about 10 miles to the northwest until I found a perfect spot overlooking Casto Bluff
....and the whole southern expanse of the Aquarius Plateau, at about 8700 feet above sea level.
For the next 2 days ravens, jackrabbits, coyotes, and pronghorns were my only company.
The view out my back (only) door
I am very fortunate – I live and work in a great part of the country. Unfortunately I will probably never realize my fantasy of owning a home high on a hill overlooking some million dollar view. But for a few days at least I can get away from it all, and thanks to my camper and new truck, I can live the dream.
Great stuff! Wonderful writing and descriptive pics.
You are the guy that is right in the pinion of why we do this.
For being seldom seen, I feel like I know you.
regards, as always, jefe
P.S. Seldom Seen Slim was a single blanket jackass prospector in Death Valley around the turn of the 20th Century. Is this where you obtained your moniker?