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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Drive Backroads Into Grand Staircase


Pahreah townsite
The next several weeks will bring perfect conditions for exploring Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The monument is huge, covering some 1.7 million acres, and can be explored in many different ways. It's a great place to hike, mountain bike and ride horseback.

It also has remote, rugged backroads that beg to be driven. I chose to do that yesterday, taking the long way home after a trip through southern Utah. I had a great time and enjoyed seeing new country.

This is dry country that gets very hot during the summer. Now, as temperatures wane, days will be very pleasant and nights will start to get cool. Most days will be very nice through October and into November, but an occasional storm may blow through. Roads can become treacherous when wet.

I started at the old Pahreah townsite just off Hwy 89 east of Kanab. Not much is left from the old town but the scenic spot has been used as the setting for several Western and adventure movies and part of an old movie set can still be seen there. Movies like Sergeants 3 and The Outlaw Josey Wales were filmed there.

Upper Johnson Canyon
Next I drove up Johnson Canyon, skirting along the western edge of Grand Staircase National Monument. Lower Johnson Canyon has picturesque farms on the flat ground, bordered by caramel-colored sandstone walls. In some spots the canyon is reminiscent of the Mt Caramel area just east of Zion National Park. Red and pink cliffs in the background blend features of Zion and Bryce Canyon, which is located just to the northeast.

The Johnson Canyon Road is a Utah Scenic Backway. It is paved for the first 16 miles north from US 89. After that it becomes improved dirt and gravel. One fork cuts over to the town of Glendale, along US 89. Another heads up to the town of Alton and then connects with US 89. The longest fork becomes the Skutumpah Road, which runs 34 miles through Grand Staircase, past Kodachrome State Park and connects with Highway 12 at the town of Cannonville. All of these routes are scenic and worth driving.

Three other backroads probe different areas in Grand Staircase and offer excellent opportunity for backcountry exploration. I've driven the Hole In the Rock Road many times, since it provides access to some of my favorite slot canyon hikes. This fall I also hope to explore the rugged Smoky Mountain Road and the Cottonwood Canyon Road. Both run from Hwy 12 down to US 89 between Kanab and Lake Powell.

In most areas you can expect that roads lead somewhere. If you keep driving you will eventually eventually reach civilization of some sort. Not so in this area. The Hole in the Rock Road runs for 62 miles, out to the rim above Lake Powell, and then dead ends.

The main Smoky Mountain and Cottonwood Canyon routes eventually lead somewhere, but spurs from these roads dead end in very remote country.

High clearance vehicles are recommended for these roads. Four-wheel-drive is not usually needed but may become necessary during wet weather or sand storms.

Lately I've been using the GPS on my phone as I travel the country. It works very well in cities but breaks down in these remote areas. I need cell coverage to chart a GPS route on my phone and there is no cell service in most of the national monument.

If you travel here be sure to bring a good map and a real GPS. Also bring emergency supplies. These main roads see daily traffic but it may be days before someone finds you if you break down on one of the many spurs.

- Dave Webb

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