Driving Tour: Skutumpah & Johnson Canyon Roads

  • Start Hwy 89, 9 miles east of Kanab
  • End Cannonville
  • Length 51 miles; 2½ hours

Together these two roads comprise Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument’s westernmost route. Paved Johnson Canyon Rd trundles north for 16 miles to intersect Skutumpah (scoot-em-pah) Rd. This very rutted dirt route (4WD recommended, and sometimes required) continues for 35 miles to Cannonville on Hwy 12. Driving south–north provides the best perspective.

Start out in very scenic Johnson Canyon, which has distant views of the coral Vermilion Cliffs. About 6 miles along, you’ll see the crumbling wooden buildings of the old Gunsmoke set, where the TV Western was filmed. They are on private property, but are easily visible from the road. Soon after, the landscape changes color as the White Cliffs appear to the east.

Those who don’t have the time, or a proper vehicle, to tackle Skutumpah Rd could turn off at the junction onto the 15-mile Glendale Bench Road, a much easier 2WD dirt track that leads east to Glendale on Hwy 89.

Once on Skutumpah Road, there are numerous old side roads, so pay attention and keep to the main road. Here the Gray Cliffs rise to the north and you pass through pastureland before reaching the trailhead for Lick Wash. It's 8 miles round-trip on this trail, turning around at Park Wash junction. Uneven stones line part of the way and it can be broiling hot in the canyon but it's worth doing just the first section to see the scenery.

The road gets steep and rocky before Bull Valley Gorge. Stop at the wide spot in the road and walk left along the gorge rim; after about 50ft look back at the debris beneath the ‘bridge’ you’re about to drive across. Exploring the gorge itself requires rock-climbing skills.

Soon after, on the road north, is the trailhead parking lot (and pit toilet) for Willis Creek, an easy slot-canyon hike. The dramatic Pink Cliffs are the last thing you see before the sharp descent to the valley intersection with Cottonwood Canyon Road, just south of Cannonville.

Driving Tour: Hole-in-the-Rock Road

  • Start Hwy 12, 5 miles east of Escalante
  • End Hwy 12, 5 miles east of Escalante
  • Length 114 miles; 8–9 hours

A much-traveled, washboard-rough road follows the route of a historic wagon trail, providing access to area attractions and trails. Expect to be sucking at least a little dust behind other cars.

The history is wilder than the scenery along this dust pit of a road. From 1879 to 1880, more than 200 pioneering Mormons followed this route on their way to settle southeast Utah. When the precipitous walls of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River blocked their path, they blasted and hammered through the cliff, creating a hole wide enough to lower their 80 wagons through – a feat that is honored by the road’s name today. The final part of their trail lies submerged beneath Lake Powell. History buffs should pick up Stewart Aitchison’s Hole-in-the-Rock Trail for a detailed account.

The road is passable by ordinary passenger cars when dry, except for the last 7 miles, which always require 4WD. Even if you don’t drive the entire route, at least visit the freely accessible Devils Garden, 12 miles in. Here rock fists, orbs, spires and fingers rise to 40ft above the desert floor. It’s a sandy but fairly short walk from the parking lot to the formations. When climbing on, over and under the giant sandstone slabs, nature becomes your playground.

About 26 miles in, turn left for Dry Fork with the most well-known slot-canyon day hikes on the road. While there are no facilities on the road, dispersed camping is permitted with a free backcountry permit. The last section of this road may be really rough, in which case you should park and walk the final half-mile to the trailhead parking lot.

The last 7 miles are so rugged, they can take almost as long to traverse as the first 50. The road stops short of the actual Hole-in-the-Rock, but hikers can trek out and scramble down past the ‘hole’ to Lake Powell in less than an hour. Sorry, no elevators for the climb back up.

Driving Tour: Burr Trail

  • Start Hwy 12, Boulder
  • End Hwy 12, Boulder
  • Length 60 miles; 3 hours

The most immediately gratifying, dramatic drive in the area, the Burr Trail heads east from Boulder as a paved road, crosses Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument’s northeast corner and, after 30 miles, arrives at Capitol Reef National Park, where the road becomes loose gravel. This first section is quite a challenging road-bike ride, as well.

Once you enter the monument, it’s not far to the two trailheads: the 7-mile-long Deer Creek trail and the 52-mile trek through Grand Gulch, popular with backpackers. Check with rangers for details on these spectacular hikes through riparian zones and red-rock desert. Deer Creek also has a tiny campground.

Just past the creek, the road enters Long Canyon beneath towering vertical slabs of red rock. At 11 miles look for an unmarked pullout on the road’s left side. You’ll see the opening for a side slot canyon north across a scrubby wash. Poke about the narrowing red-rock slot as far as you like.

Driving out of Long Canyon, stop at the crest for views beyond of the sheer Circle Cliffs, which hang like curtains above the undulating valley floor. Still snowcapped in summer, the Henry Mountains rise above 11,000ft on the horizon. Wolverine Loop is a 25-mile, 4WD road that circles south through an area riddled with scrubland, canyons and nearby cliffs. Several hiking trails lead off from there, and the area is popular with mountain bikers. Continuing on Burr Trail, you cross the White Canyon Flat plateau before the pavement ends and the road meets the giant, angled buttes of 100-mile Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef, the feature that blocked 19th-century settlers’ passage west. Trailhead access to Muley Twist Canyon is nearby. Just ahead, the Burr Trail Switchbacks follow an original wagon route through the fold. You can continue onto Notom-Bullfrog Road and north to Hwy 24 or south to Glen Canyon. But if you plan to turn around and return to Boulder, first drive the switchbacks – the magnificence and scale of the landscape will blow your mind.

Driving Tour: Cottonwood Canyon Road

  • Start Hwy 12, 34 miles west of Escalante
  • End Hwy 89, 45 miles east of Kanab
  • Length 46 miles one way; 3 hours

Sculpted red sandstone monoliths, pale beige-and-yellow towering arches and charcoal-gray peaks: mile by mile, Cottonwood Canyon Rd unfolds as a striking geology lesson. Don’t forget to get out and look around.

If you make only one of the three cross-monument drives, we suggest it be Cottonwood Canyon Rd, with its stunning geological sights, interesting hikes and ever-changing geography. The rough road is passable only when dry. Usually 2WD vehicles will do, but 4WD is never a bad idea.

The first 9 miles of road to Kodachrome Basin State Park are paved. Stop at the park to see a wonderland of red-rock spires, balancing rocks and mini-buttes. South from here, the road gets bumpy. After about 20 miles, and a short side detour, you’ll reach the 90ft-high Grosvenor Arch. Follow the level sidewalk to stand beneath this rare yellow- and sand-colored stone double arch towering so far above. Definitely a Kodak moment. (Picnic tables and pit toilets available.)

The main road continues south, weaving in and among rock formations (look for the stark white pinnacles contrasting with red hoodoos, for example). You’re traveling along the west side of the Cockscomb, a distinctive, long, narrow monocline caused by a fold in the Earth’s crust. Cottonwood Narrows is a worthwhile 1.5-mile hike through a sandstone slot canyon that takes about an hour and a half. There are signposted parking areas at both north and south entrances.

Soon after, stands of cottonwoods appear in the wash on the right, and the rutted road rises along a narrow shelf.

Lower Hackberry Canyon is another good day hike, right before Yellow Rock, a tough, steep but climbable light-hewn peak made of Navajo sandstone, with elaborate cross-bedding and fracture lines. It's a 2 mile round-trip.

From there, interesting features abound as the landscape morphs from jagged rock into coal-colored dirt hills before the road reaches the pastoral Paria Valley and Hwy 89 beyond.