Scenic Backways of the Grand Staircase
Despite covering nearly 1.9 million acres, much of the sweeping Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is quite remote. Very few trailheads can be reached on paved roads. All others are accessed by dirt roads that range from good graded roads to unmaintained, rocky, or sandy doubletracks. These backroads not only offer access to trailheads, they also offer tremendous scenic driving potential.
Nearly all the trailheads in the monument are usually accessible to 2WD cars in dry weather, though a four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicle is recommended when traveling off the pavement in southern Utah. You should also carry plenty of extra water for everyone and some emergency supplies. That said, conditions typically permit relatively easy access to some of the most popular hikes, like Spooky Canyon and Peek-a-boo Gulch on Hole-in-the-Rock Road and Grosvenor Arch on Cottonwood Road.
The 47-mile Cottonwood Canyon backway connects the All-American Road Scenic Byway 12 in the north with Highway 89 on the south, passing by Kodachrome Basin State Park and numerous opportunities to get out and explore the monument that range from short hikes to backpacking excursions. Popular destinations include Cottonwood Narrows on the south and Grosvenor Arch toward the north. There are many rugged stretches of Cottonwood Canyon that are damaged by storms, so travelers are advised to check at the monument's visitor centers for current conditions.
Hole-in-the-Rock is a 62-mile drive one way, and follows the general route of of the pioneer Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition to search for a route across the river, what is now Lake Powell. Most of the road is in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, however the last approximately 5 miles are within the boundaries of Glen Canyon NRA. Most visitors travel the 11 miles to Devil's Garden (see below) and 26 miles to the turnoff for Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch. The BLM recommends high-clearance, two-wheel drive vehicles in dry weather. Should you decided to continue further, the road gets trickier. The last few miles within Glen Canyon are best traveled by foot, bicycle, or four-wheel drive vehicle. There are also numerous side-roads that leave Hole-in-the-Rock, but these are best traveled with a good knowledge of the region and four-wheel drive.
What was originally developed as a cattle trail blazed by stockman John Atlantic Burr, the Burr Trail Scenic Backway is now one of the most picturesque drives in Utah. A paved and graded, gravel and dirt road, it extends from Boulder to Bullfrog Marina, passing through the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Burr Trail also connects with the Notom Road in the Waterpocket Fold backcountry of Capitol Reef.
Numerous stops abound along the trail, including family-friendly excursions, scenic viewpoints, and general meandering through juniper-laden desert. It's about 70 miles (more than 3 hours) from Boulder, Utah to either the junction with S.R. 24 near Capitol Reef National Park or Bullfrog, a popular marina on Lake Powell.
Visitors to the backways of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument should carry plenty of water (at least one gallon--4 liters--per person per day) and be equipped to get themselves out of any difficulty they might encounter. The NPS cautions that this road is not routinely patrolled by any agency. Summer temperatures can range over 100° F (38°C) and winters can drop well below freezing at night. Perhaps most importantly, sudden heavy rains, especially in summer months may make this road impassable -- even for high-clearance, 4WD vehicles.
Learn more about driving these fascinating scenic roads, including more information about driving in isolated places.