This was my fourth autumn to meander down through southern Utah in the Winnie. With each trip, I would stare longingly at the map, wishing I had the nerve to drive Utah’s National Scenic By-way, Hwy 12. Considered one of our nation’s most scenic by-ways, Hwy 12 has achieved the status of being named an “All American Road,” a distinction reserved for roads having unique attributes to stand alone as tourist destinations.
This 124 mile stretch of highway begins near Torrey just outside of Capitol Reef, and continues all the way down to Red Canyon, connecting two national parks, three state parks, one national recreation area, a national monument, and a national forest. Its elevation change of over 4,000 ft takes the traveler through diverse scenery from evergreen and aspen forests to desert sage to red rock canyons and petrified sandstone sand dunes…if, that is, one has the nerve to look down!
Each season, I would attempt to gut up and drive it. “Be brave!” I would tell myself. “You can do it!” But sobering descriptions from my Mountain Directory West guide warning of 14% grades, 10 mph hairpin curves, and what I imagined to be sheer “fatal” drops with no guardrails would give me cold feet every time. I let fear take over, thinking no one driving an 11,000 lb rig towing a car had any business voluntarily driving a highway with stretches bearing names like “The Hogs Back.”
But this year I was determined, so I began collecting intel. The woman at the Torrey Visitor Center said “Big rigs and cattle trucks drive it every day.” The young man at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center said “There are so many pull offs, you won’t even get up to speed.” So I decide to get an early start and go for it. As long as there are pull offs, I always know I can turn around and go around the long way if it becomes too stressful.
To sweeten the pot, there are two other scenic drives that have piqued my curiosity, the Burr Trail and Hell’s Backbone Road, intersecting with Highway 12. All three roads come together within the tiny town of Boulder, Utah at the epicenter. With a population of only 225, I didn’t expect there would be much going on in Boulder, but if I could find a place to boondock nearby, I would unhitch the Tracker and drive the other two “Scenic Backways.”
Boy, was I ever wrong about Boulder! A stop at the BLM office there (one needs a free permit to boondock in this area) reveals a cool little enclave in the middle of nowhere. I first realize I am in “friendly territory” when I see signs plastered all over town, “Save the Grand Staircase-Escalante” that would have made Edward Abbey’s Monkey wrench Gang swell with pride. Next, I see the local food truck with outdoor fire and live music. Finally, when I ask the woman at the BLM office if there is a good place for lunch (the food truck had just closed) I learn this small town of 225 is home to a James Beard Award semi-finalist masquerading behind the ominous name, “Hell’s Backbone Grill.” Had I ever wrongly judged this book by its boring cover. Boulder is a happenin’ place!
Boulder was another one of those places where I came with the intention of maybe staying one night if I could find a place to park. I ended up staying three, and would have stayed longer were I not trying to make a deadline. But I left with a mental “bookmark” to return one day. Maybe next time with a little less tonnage, a tent, and a wilderness permit.
Here are scenes from the other two Scenic Roads Less Traveled that all converge in Boulder:
THE BURR TRAIL
The Burr Trail, named for John Burr, a cattleman who developed the livestock trail to move cattle back and forth between winter and summer ranges and to market, starts as a spur off Hwy 12 in Boulder and travels all the way to Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell. This part paved, part gravel road passes through magnificent Long Canyon, enters the back door of Capitol Reef National Park, across Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and down through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The most famous section of this road is the Burr Switchbacks, where the road descends 800 ft in less than a mile by way of half a dozen hairpin curves.
I reach the Burr Switchbacks at the wrong time of day for photographing. Unfortunately the switchbacks are in the shade, and therefore difficult to capture the depth and breadth of the stacked loops reminiscent of Christmas ribbon candy. But when I arrive in Boulder mid-day, I learn from the BLM office that a cold front is on the way with rain in tomorrow’s forecast. The switchbacks are made from bentonite clay, making them impassible to all vehicles after a rain. The one consistent bit of advice I have read and heard is “Whatever you do, don’t try to drive them in the mud, you will never get out!” So it’s go in the afternoon shade or not at all…
HELL’S BACKBONE ROAD
Continue on down Hwy 12 just about three miles outside of Boulder, and you come to another turn off to the right known as “Hell’s Backbone Road.” Built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), this gravel road was the first automobile access between Boulder and Escalante. But it wasn’t passable during winter months, so residents had to return to using pack mules along wagon trails through the canyons in winter. In 1940, the CCC completed Hwy 12, making all-season passage possible.
Hell’s Backbone travels through thick pine and juniper forest to an elevation of over 9,000 ft. While it’s a lovely drive along the twists and turns through the woods, the scenery on Hwy 12 between Boulder and Escalante is vastly more beautiful. So why drive Hell’s Backbone Road, one might ask? Because I want to see the Hell’s Backbone Bridge. Just 14 miles from my boondocking location, about halfway between Boulder and Escalante is the scary concrete span across the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness. Who could resist such a place?
In order to span this 1,500 deep chasm between Box-Death Hollow Wilderness and Sand Creek, the CCC felled two tall, straight pines. After leveling them off topside, they placed them across the span. When equipment was needed on the opposite side of the chasm, a bulldozer was driven pulling a compressor across the backbone on two pine logs with nothing more than a rope tied around the driver’s waist.
I think bears repeating that each of these three stunning roads passes through public lands. Whether it be the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, they are all PROTECTED. That’s why it’s possible to gaze out across the buttes, mesas and canyons all the way to the horizon (or even view these photos for that matter) without seeing billboards and condos, ziplines and skywalks, casinos and ghettos. Imagine, if you will what these views would look like without these federal agencies charged with preservation, conservation, and protection.
These roads were built at the hand of the Civilian Conservation Corp whose name, but more importantly, whose mission centered around “conservation,” of our natural resources. Federal branches under the Department of the Interior (excepting Zinke) have been working ever since to keep the wilderness areas pristine. It’s important to do all we can to support the efforts to continue to preserve and protect these public lands such as Grand Staircase-Escalante, which the Trump administration plans to reduce by more than half, allowing all terrain vehicle traffic and mining claims to be staked. Yep….there’s coal under that there plateau!
“This Land is Your Land.” Let’s please work together to love, honor, respect and protect it while we still can, so future generations can experience the joy and appreciation of what’s left of our wilderness.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” ~Edward Abbey