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Follow the Red Dirt Road (Utah & Arizona)

Author: Amelia
Date of Trip: May 2010

Follow the Red Dirt Road!

We (Safetyman Ken and Adventuress Amelia) just got back from a 10 day trip visiting Southwestern and Southeastern Utah, plus a little Arizona, during the middle of May, 2010. It was an amazing experience; we tried to travel mostly backroads and ended up following the roads much less traveled. We followed the Red Dirt Road! We visited Zion, Bryce, Glen Canyon, the Trail of the Ancients, Vermilion cliffs NM, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), Grand Canyon’s North Rim, The Paria River Valley, Page and Lee’s Ferry (don’t miss Lees Ferry), Monument Valley, Navajo National Monument (Betatakin), Hovenweep National Monument, Lowry Pueblo in Colorado, The Grand Gulch area including Wolfman Petroglyphs and Lower Butler wash road, Edge of the Cedars State Park (don’t miss), Bullfrog Marina at lake Powell via the Halls Crossing ferry, The Burr trail through GSENM, Capitol Reef NP and the Notom road through the Waterpocket fold. Whew. Along the way we spotted lots of Lizards, a few Rabbits, one Coyote or Mountain Lion which was too far away to ID for sure, one Golden Eagle, a few Condors, and a possible Wolf, depending on which of us you ask!

From Los Angeles we headed directly to Zion NP, which was a zoo and already very crowded. We took the Zion Park Scenic Byway (HWY 9) from I 15 through the park. We stopped briefly at Zion, if you take HWY 9 you will have to pay a $25 dollar park entrance fee regardless of whether you enter the park or not. There is no driving allowed in Zion and you must take the shuttles into the park to access all the trails. Before we hit the park we took a back road to the ghost town of Grafton, off the Smithsonian Butte Scenic Byway out of Rockville. This is the site where Butch Cassidy was filmed and very interesting. If you want to avoid the toll at Zion, you can follow this road all the way to HWY 59 and avoid the Zion traffic Jam. There is road construction happening at the East tunnel at Mt. Carmel, especially if you enter the park from the east side, beware of long delays all summer. At the east end of the Mt. Carmel tunnel there is a slot canyon which we tried to enter but there was too much water to walk in and we did not have the equipment (nor desire) to repel! This area is completely different from the area west of the tunnel; it is filled with slickrock and looks like a checkerboard.

Rather than drive the main road to Kanab, we decided to drive north from Mt. Carmel a few miles to Glendale and take the Glendale Bench road to the Johnson Canyon Byway. This is a beautiful back road and passable by passenger car, you will drive on the “bench” and then down through the Johnson river canyon which will take you to HWY 89 just a few miles east of Kanab. At the junction of Glendale Bench Road and Johnson Canyon is another road called Skutumpah Road, this road leads north to Cannonville and Bryce NP, and for us it leads to several Slot canyons! Towards the end of Johnson Canyon close to Kanab you will see an old “Gunsmoke” set as well. It’s a good road that my high clearance—non 4 wheel drive 4 Runner had no problems with. We passed one person on an ATV on the entire back road! Don’t miss this one.

We stayed the first few nights at the Holiday Inn Express in Kanab, this is the best hotel in town and we like it a lot. Kanab was an excellent base to explore the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, the Paria River section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We tried to get passes to hike the infamous “wave” on the Arizona/Utah border but couldn’t. This is a difficult endeavor to do if you cannot get the passes online (do that months before you visit) and it involves going to the Paria BLM on HWY 89 close to Big Water and submitting your name into a lottery draw for the following day. Only one person in the group is allowed to put their name in and on the day we were there, 78 other groups were also trying to get those passes and we did not get them. We almost hiked a part of Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world but it was too windy and the air was filled with much red dirt.

We drove the HWY 89/89A loop from Kanab around the Vermilion Cliffs NM, with a side trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, making this a very long day. There was a lot of snow at the North Rim, and I did not take into account how difficult it is to go from Sea level to 10,000 feet above Sea level and hike! I huffed and puffed my way to “Angels Point” and realized that this makes a bad side trip unless you are used to the altitude or have more time to spend there! It was beautiful, and this was the first time I was able to get there because it is always closed whenever I am in the area. Definitely worth a longer visit, next trip.

The Vermilion Cliffs HWY is amazing, these are some of the highest cliffs in the USA and the colors are brilliant. Many people ignore this relatively new National Monument and I don’t know why. The Vermilion Cliffs surround the Paria River Valley, and Buckskin Gulch which is the longest Slot Canyon in the world. Along this HWY we saw California Condors which are regularly released in these areas. We stopped at Lee’s Ferry and dipped our feet into the mighty Colorado River. Lee’s Ferry used to be the only way to cross the river but in the early 1900’s the Navajo Bridge was build and Lee’s Ferry was no longer used. Later, a newer bridge was build and today you can walk across the Navajo Bridge and look for Condors. There is a nice Visitors center at the bridge as well. Today Lee’s Ferry is the main “put in” for Rafting trips down the Colorado River. The Paria River dumps into the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry creating some “whitewater currents” and this area is called “Marble Canyon”. There is a nice slot along the road leading into this area called Cathedral Canyon and it is a fairly easy hike, you can walk into it rather than repel. We could have easily spent the entire day at Lee’s Ferry.

As you are driving back to Kanab on HWY 89 you will pass a turn off (milepost 31) for Pahreah Townsite and Movie Set. This 10 mile roundtrip back road is beautiful and quite interesting, drive it slowly because there are some ruts in the road but you can make it in any car and it is well worth it. This road leads to some very colorful areas, right through a beautiful Canyon and you can explore the townsite and movie set at your own pace. Kanab was used extensively by Hollywood to film westerns and there are many abandoned film sets all over the area. I remember going on vacation to Kanab as a child and my Father (who worked in the film industry) bumped into his boss who was filming a western starring John Ford. We spent that entire day watching them film a movie called “The long Road Home” which I believe was never released!

Our next overnight was in Monument Valley at Gouldings Lodge; a nice enough place to stay but the food is really bad there! I would suggest bringing your own food, or suffer the bland and expensive stuff they serve at the lodge. The lodge is nice but the rooms are very expensive and if you are budget minded you might want to stay in Kayenta (Arizona) or Bluff (Utah) rather than Monument Valley, or check out the Valley of the Gods B&B which I heard was very nice.

We had planned to stop at Antelope Canyon right out of Page but decided to skip it because of the strong wind storms and also because it got very expensive since we were there a while back. 10 years ago we paid $17 PP just to walk into it but we were allowed to visit at our leisure. Today it costs $6 pp to park, $25 pp to enter the Canyon, and you are not allowed to be on your own in the Canyon anymore because people started tagging the walls in the Canyon! If you have not been in a slot canyon, you must visit Antelope Canyon, it is totally worth the price just to see this most unusual and beautiful place. We also stopped at Navajo National Monument where one can find the ruins of Betatakin. These are impressive ruins but you need to go on a Ranger led hike in order to see them in detail and the day we visited it was too windy to hike.

Monument valley was too windy to enjoy, we could not see a thing but have been here so many times we knew what we were missing. The nearby “Valley of the Gods” is just as scenic as Monument Valley but much less traveled, however in a wind storm there in no good place around here. We didn’t drive up the Moki Dugway Switchbacks, instead we found back road that followed the bench above the San Juan River Gorge! This road was stunning, scary, and very scenic as it followed the San Juan River Goosenecks! I had to drive because it triggered my husband’s issues with heights! This happened a few times on this trip.

Our Next stop was Bluff, Utah. We stayed at the “Desert Rose Inn” and enjoyed the room which was reasonably priced and comfortable. My car was vandalized in this town, somebody pulled my electronic antenna out and for the rest of the trip the “check engine” light was on, but there was nothing wrong with the car’s fluids so we figured it was a computer problem and we ignored it. There were only two places to eat in town; one is a funky coffee shop which was sold out of all their freshly prepared breakfast, so I assume this was the better restaurant. The other was OK, plain and boring food that was fairly tasteless but not bad, called the Twin Rocks Cafe and Trading Post. There is a historical loop in Bluff which passes a Fort and some interesting Victorian homes build out of stone.

The only real reason to stay in Bluff is that it provides easy access to Hovenweep National Monument which is part of the “Trail of the Ancients National Monument”. This trail leads through the canyons of the Four Corners area that are filled with Ancient Relics from the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan, interchangeable terms used to describe the ancients groups. Anasazi in Navajo means “enemy” and they prefer to use the term Ancestral Puebloan to describe these people, but in all the other Native American Nations such as the Hopi, Anasazi refers to the “old ones”. We had originally planned to visit Mesa Verde but decided that it was too far and too high in elevation to explore in one day so we visited Hovenweep instead, leaving Mesa Verde and the complete trail of the Ancients for another time. There is a higher concentration of ancient relics in the area than any place in the world, most people don’t know this and it is a secret that most locals prefer to keep quiet. It’s no wonder the character Indiana Jones grew up in this area and learned to love discovery through his exploration of the vast canyons of the ancients where you can still hike and find shards of pottery, Petroglyphs, rock art, and other relics lying in plain sight. Don’t touch them, they must be left where they are found so Archeologists can see the context of the find, this helps them determine many things.

We loved Hovenweep National Monument for its isolation and complete lack of crowds. We hiked the 2 mile Little Ruin Canyon loop which took us through some amazing dwellings that were different than Cave dwellings; these were Stone laid buildings shaped in squares, circles, and even “D shaped” units which were entered from the top by ladder. The trail originates from the Visitor center and is easy, but it’s at a 6000′ elevation so you might need to take your time here. We also visited the Cut Throat Group which was accessible via a dirt road off of HWY 10 and was easy to drive with a high clearance vehicle. This group of dwellings was very intriguing and we had the whole place to ourselves! Hovenweep is in both Utah and Colorado and there are many other canyons filled with undiscovered relics and ruins all around this area. I highly recommend spending time here if you like the thrill of discovery; you can hike these canyons for days and find places nobody has been in hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

From the Cut Throat group in Hovenweep, it was an easy drive to Lowry Pueblo in Colorado and again, we had the entire place to ourselves. Lowry Pueblo is wonderful because they have dwellings you can enter and see what it was like to live in these homes. There is also a huge Kiva, a circular structure that served as a place of worship, a place of learning, and a place for socializing! Lowry Pueblo is very family friendly and completely a hands-on kind of place and we were glad we drove to it. Driving back to Bluff, I noticed many canyons in the seemingly flat land because I had learned that this deceptively flat looking land is actually filled with huge canyons everywhere. Now I started noticing things I had never noticed before.

Today if you ask people how to find the ruins, they will act dumb like they don’t know where they are. They don’t want people to find and destroy these precious artifacts so it’s very difficult to find sights. One has to be devoted to hiking and tuned into seeing things you might not normally notice. Sometimes just turning around and looking behind you yields a discovery, a sight which you might not notice from any other direction, or maybe a pot recently uncovered from the last rain. Back in the 1960’s the BLM published maps identifying all the ancient sights that were known until people started stealing the relics. Now getting info on these sights is like getting water from a rock, almost impossible! If you can find an old BLM map from the 1960s you will have a plethora of knowledge on these places, otherwise you will mostly have to go out and discover them yourselves, Indiana Jones style. After all, this area is where the fictional character of Indiana Jones was born and raised.

Our next stop was Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell where we spent a few days relaxing by renting a boat and zooming through the deep red canyons surrounding Bullfrog. This is by far the best area of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area because it is off the main lake and up around all the cool canyons like Moqui and Forgotten canyon filled with ancient Pueblo/Cliff dwellings.

The drive to Bullfrog was incredible; we headed north from Bluff to Blanding where we visited the Edge of the Cedars State Park, another wonderful hands on place filled with more ancient dwellings, and here you can climb down ladders and enter the Kiva as if you were an ancient yourself. This is a great place to bring kids, and a special treat here is that they have the most extensive collection of relics found in Utah on display in their 2 story museum. Take a few hours here, it is worth it.

As a side note, we had wanted to take Lower Butler Wash road to Blanding rather than the main road, because Butler wash follows Comb Ridge and it is filled with so many ruins. We decided to avoid the road because it was dirt and the weather looked like it might rain; you never want to be caught in these canyons in the rain because flash floods are probable, as well as lightning strikes. If you ever get to an area where the hair on your arms is standing this means there is heightened electrical activity and you should get out of there because this is a warning sign that lighting can strike! I learn something new on every trip I take.

Leaving Blanding, we took HWY 95 west past Butler Wash ruins, Mule Canyon ruins, and the Grand Gulch area which is another group of canyons filled with relics, geology, and beautiful colorful rocks. Grand Gulch and Natural Bridges NM is at the junction of HWY 95 and HWY 261, if you want to hike the Grand Gulch you must stop at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station on HWY 261 and get permits to hike as well as check weather reports to make sure conditions are favorable. There are at least 10 different places to enter the Grand Gulch, some easier than others and you will have to research this according to your fitness level. From the Grand Gulch area we followed HWY 275 to Halls Crossing where we caught the ferry to Bullfrog. Along HWY 275 I spied some ruins right off the road, no signs pointing to it but in this area it is easy to find ruins, glyphs, and rock art.

We stayed at the Defiance House Lodge in Bullfrog, part of the National Recreation Area and a very nice place to stay. The restaurant at the lodge was excellent, nothing fancy but very good food. We rented a boat for the day and had the best time because at Bullfrog you can quickly get to the interesting narrow canyons which are more difficult to find from Wahweap Marina down in Page. We like this part of Lake Powell best because it is not as congested and easier to navigate. The lake was pretty low and when we visited Forgotten Canyon where the “Defiance house ruins” are located, we were not able to get to them without potentially ruining the rented boat! Safetyman Ken would not risk harming the boat and adventuring Amelia was not allowed to drive! ?

Our next stop was Capitol Reef National Park. We drove the Burr Trail from Bullfrog to Boulder and hiked some amazing slot canyons along the way, ones that were easy to enter and required no repelling. Headquarters Canyon is an easy 2-3 mile round trip hike to a great slot canyon and I highly recommend seeing this slot. Secret Canyon is another good one but I think Headquarters is the best. The Burr Trail is part paved and part dirt but easy to drive and very scenic. At the end of this road is the best food around; stop in at the Burr Trail Grill on HWY 12 in Boulder, Utah and you won’t be disappointed. You may decide to linger longer in this area after you taste this food. They serve local meat and wonderful vegetarian food grown locally as well, by the time we got there in the afternoon they had sold out of all the local Angus Hamburgers and I settled on the incredible Madres Veggie Sandwich which was so good I had to go back the next day for another!

After our fabulous meal we continued on HWY 12 north to Capitol Reef, staying at the Best Western close to the park. This hotel was nice, had great views, clean rooms, and was priced reasonably. After a brief stop at the Capitol Reef visitor’s center, we followed the main road to the Grand Wash which you can drive up so we followed the wash all the way up because we had our high clearance vehicle which is all you need to explore these back roads in dry weather. I did see some people driving it in their cars but I would not take a car on many of the roads I found because of the rocks. We couldn’t find any decent food in Torrey and ended up eating at Subway which was very good!

The next day we headed back to Boulder and Escalante following the Notom back road around the Waterpocket Foldan amazing geological landmark called a monocline which exposes many layers of different rocks and fossils. The Waterpocket fold is 100 miles long but only a few miles wide and it spans from Capitol Reef to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It’s quite colorful and contains some incredible narrows and slot canyons as well. Notom road is one of the only ways to see this geologic wonder, it is a dirt road but definitely passable for any car as long as it is not raining. Most of these backroads contain Bentonite Clay which becomes very slippery when wet, then they are not passable with even a 4 wheel drive. We picked up a guide to this drive (Notom and Burr Trail) at the Visitors center and this showed us how to find the reef filled with fossilized clam shells, an interesting thing to see in the middle of the USA, a thousand miles from any ocean. Thus the name Capitol Reef!

We stayed in Escalante at the Slot Canyons Inn B&B, a destination in and of itself. The building, which is off the main road HWY 12, is hardly noticeable because it fits so well into the landscape you can hardly see it, it is a beautiful place filled with cows and lovely green fields, rocks and even a hidden canyon with a waterfall. We missed the grand opening of their new restaurant by one day but the breakfast food was fantastic and I imagine the restaurant food would be divine. You need to book early for the best rooms.

Throughout this trip we visited much of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a relatively new park that many people have not discovered. This is one of my favorite parks around, it is loaded with ancient relics, Dinosaur bones and tracks everywhere, and geologic wonders at every turn. Throughout the GSENM you will also find narrow canyons and slots, and never many people. Most of the roads through this park are dirt, and suitable for passenger cars but it is important to visit a GSENM visitor center and check conditions the days you visit. There are 7 GSENM visitor centers throughout the park; one in Paria (between Kanab and Page on HWY 89), one in Big Water, 2 centers in Kanab, one in Blanding at Edge of the Cedars State Park, one in Boulder at the Anasazi State Park, and one in Cannonville. All the visitor centers follow different themes such as geology or culture and offer displays and plenty of info.

The conundrum of this trip was the weather and time of year. While it is less likely to rain in the springtime (a good thing) it also tends to be the more windy time of year (a bad thing) and breathing all that dirt is gross! Ideally you have the flexibility to change plans depending on the weather, especially if you want to hike the canyons. One day we had 60-80 knot winds then the next day it was perfect weather without any wind at all! I downloaded some great apps on my iphone for this trip including a National Parks App which gave me maps and info on every park we visited. I checked the weather daily because of rain; you never want to be caught in a slot canyon in the rain.

We averaged about $150 a night for hotel rooms, although we had a two bedroom suite at the wonderful Slot Canyons Inn B&B in Escalante and this cost almost $200 a night, and Gouldings was $200 as well. Gas was a little more expensive in Utah because we visited out of the way places. The one day boat rental at Lake Powell cost almost $600 including boat rental, gas, and insurance. Safetyman Ken just turned 62 so we got a lifetime National Park pass for $10 and this was a great bargain. We saved hundreds using the National Parks Pass and I did not realize how expensive the parks had become in this poor economy. Zion and Grand Canyon were both $25 to get in. Cha-Ching!

National Parks & Monuments

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

GSENM Visitor Centers

Go Utah (back roads, byways, activities, and more)

City of Kanab

Kanab Guide

Desert Rose Inn (Bluff)

Slot Canyon Inn (Escalante)

Burr Trail Grill in Boulder (best food on whole trip)

Defiance House Lodge at Bullfrog (the good Restaurant is located here)

Gouldings Lodge at Monument Valley

Best Western Capitol Reef Resort

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