Southwest Utah and Beyond
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Southwest Utah is a pretty unique place to visit where the valley around Hurricane is just over 3,000 feet in elevation and just over a short drive one can be at elevations over 10,000 feet. With the diversity of the landscape, nearly every highway in all directions becomes a scenic byway. All within a short drive are National Parks and State Parks that can be visited in three different States, as well as local National Monuments and Museums which tell the story of early settlements.
Utah 143 is listed as a national scenic byway, yet its only 55 miles in length and resembles a high-altitude roller coaster, starting at 6,000 feet on the Western edge to elevations over 10,000 feet along the plateau and descending back to 6,500 feet on the Eastern slope. This very route was once a migration route used by Native American clans to leave their winter desert homes to summer hunting lands high in the mountains. Along the way is Brain Head Peak, the highest spot on the plateau at 11,307 feet which provides some spectacular skiing slopes. The north view of the colorful amphitheater of Cedar Monument is also along this route.
SR-14 connects US-89 to Cedar City along a 40-mile route known as Cedar Mountain. The byway passes through the Dixie National Forest with groves of Aspens and towering evergreens with an abundance of wildflowers, as well as lava rock. Crossing over the Southern side of the Markaqunt Plateau with elevations of 8,500 to 11,000 feet provides some spectacular overlooks of Zion national Park and out over the towering pine forests. Sitting at 9,200 feet is Navajo Lake, which viewed from the overlook high above it, makes for a picture-perfect crystal blue body of water framed with aspens and pines. Another photographic lake is Aspen Mirror Lake, which can be found about a half mile from the byway by a short drive down a dirt road and a short hike through an aspen grove. The most popular spot along this byway is Cascade Falls.
Reaching the falls is pretty easy and somewhat difficult. The easy part comes from the 3.5 miles of maintained unpaved road, yet very dusty. The hike to the falls becomes a little more difficult. The hike is just over a half mile one-way with steep inclines and descents, where the trail winds its way around the upper portion of a steep cliff; however, breath-taking vistas are along the entire trail. The falls is feed from Navajo Lake through cracks in the limestone bed and spurts out through a small cave high up on the cliff wall. The overlook is just a few feet from the cave and provides a spectacular view of the falls cascading 1000’s of feet down the mountain and through the forest to Zion Narrows.
Connecting Utah 14 and Utah 143 is highway 148 known as Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway, which for seven miles highlights the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. At over 10,000 feet in elevation the Monument overlooks an amphitheater a half mile deep and three miles wide from rim to rim, where the walls have eroded into carved spirals with dazzling multi-colored rock formations where the colors of orange, coral, rose, and white glow from the reflection of the sun. The amphitheater sits amidst lush meadows of wildflowers and sub alpine forest where small stands of bristle cone pines grow around the rim. Cedar Breaks National Monument is one of America’s special places with the crowning of the uppermost steps of the Grand Staircase and the wonderful views of the Great Basin Desert in the distance.
In between Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon is the 21-mile steep and windy scenic drive into the mountains through lush forest known as the Kolob Terrace Road. The highway starts in the small community of Virgin passing by homes and farms as it winds its way in and out of Zion National Park and ends at Lava Point, one of the highest elevations in Zion Park at 7,890 feet, with views of the Cedar Breaks, Pink Cliffs, and the Zion Narrows.
Johnson Canyon Road starts just East of Kanab and travels for 18-miles along the Western side of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with excellent views of the colorful cliffs of the Grand Staircase. Leaving US-89 behind Canyon Road passes by farm houses with horses grazing in fields with sandstone cliffs in the background before reaching the Old West set where Gun smoke was filmed. The film set is on private land but a good view of the dilapidated buildings can be seen from the highway. Eight miles in, the visual stimulus gets cranked up a notch as the highway starts the climb up the steep white cliffs which stands in contrast to the sage and Juniper trees below. After the 18 miles, one can take the dirt Glendale Bench Road for 15-miles back to North US-89 for quicker access to Utah 9.
The Northwest section of Zion National Park known as Kolob Canyon is located at exit 40 on Interstate 15, 40 miles North of Zion Canyon. The five-mile scenic drive one-way allows access to hiking trails and scenic overlooks. This stretch of road passes through a narrow parallel box of canyons cut into the Western edge of the Colorado Plateau with majestic peaks and 2,000-foot cliff walls. At the end of the byway is Timber Creek Overlook Trail. The trail is just over one-mile round-trip with a modest 100-foot elevation change. The trail follows a small ridge which provides spectacular views of the Pine Valley Mountains, Kolob Terrace, and the Kolob Canyons. At the end of the trail, looking to the South is MT. Trumbull at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon-Parasahant National Monument, some 100- miles away.
Utah State Route 9 starts at Mt. Carmel Junction on US-89 and ends just East of St George and is the access highway for the East and West entrance to Zion National Park, which showcases majestic mesa’s and towering sandstone cliffs. Entering the park from the East the highway cuts through the Checkerboard Mesa area to towering cliffs where the colorful rock formations change around every corner and some are so close to the highway you can reach out and nearly touch them. Passing through the Pine Creek Canyon area the highway passes through a short tunnel before reaching the every so impressive 5,631-foot tunnel which cuts right through a towering red-rock cliff wall, where gallery-like windows offer quick views of the outside throughout the tunnel. Upon exiting the tunnel and driving the steep grade around the switchback, the pullout provides a majesty view of the towering cliffs with the windows in the side that will take your breath away. As the byway drops into the desert floor of the canyon, there are beautiful trees along the highway with streams of the Virgin river running parallel to the byway.
Visiting Grand Canyon National Park should never be complete without seeing the North Rim. Not many people venture to the North Rim, not because it’s difficult to reach or such a short season, it’s just so time consuming to get there. Once there, the views make the long drive worthwhile. The Cape Royal scenic drive is just over 21-miles on a narrow twisting road through groves of Aspen and Ponderosa Pines which climbs its way to the top of a mesa with several overlooks which provide a grand view of the canyon. At Cape Royal Point is Angels Window, a natural arch which frames the sweeping turn of the Colorado River at Unkar Delta. A half mile hike takes one right over the top of the arch. Taking the left fork off Cape Royal Roads leads to Point Imperial, the highest point on the North Rim at 8,803 feet, with a view of the Painted Desert and the Eastern end of the Grand Canyon. Clearly visible are the narrow walls, appearing as only a winding gash is Marble Canyon where it opens to a grand sight, The Grand Canyon. Just behind the visitor center is Bright Angle Point. A quarter mile paved but steep and narrow trail leads to the tip of a mesa, where the views are awe-inspiring.
Looking to do a little sightseeing outside of Utah, just over a 100-miles Northwest of St. George are three Nevada State Parks which makes for a nice round trip drive. Just outside of Panaca is Cathedral Gorge State Park situated in a long narrow valley where unique and dramatic patterns have eroded in the soft bentonite clay. The walking trails allows for one to get up close to the cathedral like spires. Just a few miles to the North is a pullout where a view of the canyon is a photographer’s dream. Passing through Pioche, a small historic mining town is worth spending a short time exploring before the drive through some of Nevada’s back country to Spring Valley State Park, where the highway passes through a winding canyon with beautiful pink and light-gray colors before arriving at the 59-acre reservoir known for great fishing and an array of waterfowl. The journey continues through some of Nevada’s historic ranches dating back to the 1800’s before reaching Echo Canyon State Park, known for its year-round activities for boating, fishing, swimming, and camping in some of Eastern Nevada’s best country settings.
Just over 100-miles South of St. George in Nevada is bright red Aztec outcrops nestled in gray and tan limestone in the ever-so-popular, Valley of Fire State Park, which also displays ancient petrified trees and petroglyphs more than 2,000 years old. NV 169 is the main highway through the park with numerous pullouts with spectacular views of eroded rocky scenery. However, the park isn’t just about red rock outcrops, where along the six miles of White Domes Road features short hiking trails, narrow canyons, desert viewpoints, and a range of more colorful rocks with bright colors of yellow, pink, grey, white, and orange.
The hike along the petroglyph trail is a short three-quarter mile over loose sand and rocks to reach Mouse Tank, where along the way there are some amazing rock formations with petroglyph’s carved into the stone walls. As the road climbs further to the small summit of Rainbow Vista, here an amazing assortment of rocks with every color imaginable can be viewed and a one-mile hiking trail leads deeper into the colorful rock formations. Just past this vista is a short side road with a viewpoint of Silica Dome and an excellent view of the red-sandstone of Fire Canyon. At the end of the White Domes Road provides another wonderful opportunity to explore an assortment of colorful rock formations along the 1.25-mile loop, White Domes Trail. This hiking trail is pretty amazing, for it crosses over beautiful sand, then takes a steep drop down into the canyon where it turns and winds its way through a very narrow gorge before turning and slowly making its way back to the tops of the cliff.
Inside of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve just to the Northwest of St. George Utah is the 7,400-acre Snow Canyon State Park surrounded by ancient lava flows and colorful Navajo sandstone cliffs all in a fragile desert environment, which provides an abundance of opportunities for any outdoor enthusiast of all ages. Sitting at the intersection of the Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert, and the Great Basin Desert, makes this the home to a diversity of wildlife species and plants not found anywhere else in Utah. Snow Canyon proves to have a long history of human inhabits from the Anasazi Indians to the modern-day site for films such as Jeremiah Johnson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Electric Horseman.
People are always interested in the foundation that built America into what it is today, where each city and small town has its own story to tell. The Frontier Homestead State Park does just that for Cedar City and the surrounding area. The museum houses horse drawn buggies to some of Ford’s early day automobiles along with printing presses and the beginning of the railroad days. The outdoor homestead section displays some original log homes, a school, and a sheep shearing shed along with an antique sawmill to the replica of a blast furnace for producing iron. Sitting right by the highway is one of the two original massive cranes used for digging ore from the ground.
Established in the mid 1850’s and deserted in the mid 1950’s by the Mormon’s is now just the Ghost town of Grafton. Today there are just a few restored buildings still standing, which is a reminder of this area’s history of settlement and the hard times they faced in a desert environment who relied on religious faith and each other to survive.