Completed in 1976, Utah’s Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway runs 133 miles from Hanksville to Blanding. South of Hanksville the highway offers fine views of the Henry Mountains to the west, then winds through rugged canyon country before crossing Lake Powell at Hite Crossing. The road surface is excellent the entire route, and traffic is generally light in this sparsely populated part of the state, though you may see trucks pulling boats to and from Lake Powell, especially around weekends. This drive can be done in half a day, with few stops and just a quick breeze through Natural Bridges National Monument. Plan on a full day if you decide to do a hike in Natural Bridges and poke around some of the Ancestral Puebloan ruins between there and Blanding.
This drive begins at Hanksville, the last stop for reasonably priced gas and supplies until you reach Blanding. You should definitely check out the gas station and convenience store dug into the rock wall: a desert architectural classic. If you’re in the mood for lunch, know that milk shakes are a Hanksville specialty.
At the eastern edge of town is the intersection of Highway 24 and Highway 95, where Highway 24 hooks north (left) and Highway 95 (signed for Hite, Ticaboo, Glen Canyon) is the right/south turn.
As you drive south from Hanksville, the Henry Mountains loom to your right. Mount Ellen is the first high point, Mount Pennell the second. This was the last mountain range in the lower 48 to be explored and named. One of the nation’s few free-roaming buffalo herds makes its home in the Henrys. Don’t strain your eyes too hard looking for them; unless you are willing to penetrate their mountain preserve, it is doubtful you will see them.
If you do want to make the effort, the BLM has designated the Bull Creek Pass Road into the Henrys as a National Backcountry Byway. One access road starts in Hanksville (where it is clearly marked as a Henry Mountains access road), and there are additional access points on Highway 95 about 20 miles south of town, and farther south along Highway 276, which branches off from 95. Anyone considering this rough and very remote drive—you may not see another human being along the entire route—should first check with the BLM office in Hanksville for detailed information (it’s open weekdays 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). It is not recommended in anything but a stout, high-clearance vehicle. There are three developed but remote campsites along the backway, including the evocatively named Lonesome Beaver Campground, and many primitive ones. As well as animal life and solitude, there’s some hiking and the remains of a few mining camps; the range is still very much the province of explorers.
You will notice, as you drive south on Highway 95, the huge mesa on the right called “Little Egypt.” The formation was named by early cowboys who were reminded of the Egyptian Sphinx.
At the prominent fork for Lake Powell/Ticaboo, take the left-hand branch; right will take you to Highway 276 toward Ticaboo and Bullfrog Marina (where you can continue your drive to Natural Bridges by taking the ferry to Hall’s Crossing, if you have plenty of time, or join the Burr Trail). You have returned to a more characteristically Southwestern landscape. Below the fork, the road winds through a gorgeous redrock canyon whose walls, though not particularly high, are magnificently carved and pockmarked. This is one of the outstanding portions of this drive. About 6 miles south of the Bullfrog fork is the well-maintained Hog Springs rest area, which, according to the BLM map, also functions as a camping site. There is no water, though there are toilets and a few shaded picnic areas. While it does not look particularly good for tenting, this could serve for an overnight stop.
South of Hog Springs the canyon opens up wider and the mesas on both sides become much higher, with colorful cliffs rising dramatically over the valley. About 3 miles south of Hog Springs, you cross into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Within a few miles you will start to notice a brownish-green body of water on the right; at about 4 miles into the area you get your first really big vista. It is tempting to stop here for pictures, but you are better off waiting until Hite Overlook (4.5 miles past the recreation area entrance) to stop for snaps, as this is the best viewpoint you will have of Glen Canyon.
The enormous body of water you see below is part of the much-widened 200-mile stretch of the Colorado River now known as Lake Powell. In 1956 construction began on the Glen Canyon Dam some 90 (air) miles to the southwest. The dam was finished in 1964 (it took three years of round-the-clock work just to pour the concrete) and began generating power two years later. By 1980 Lake Powell was full; droughts in the late 1990s and early 21st century depleted much of its water. The lake was named for the indefatigable explorer of the Colorado River Basin, Major John Wesley Powell, who named this rough stretch of the Colorado Glen Canyon.
Since Glen Canyon is designated a national recreation area, not a park, you can camp virtually anywhere. About 2.5 miles beyond the descent from Hite Overlook, there are all sorts of undeveloped campsites on the right, above the water.
About 10 miles from the overlook is the turnoff on the right (just after the second bridge) for Hite Marina. At Hite you will find a campground, gas station, basic convenience store, cafe, and boat rental; unless you are into boating or in desperate need of gas or a cold drink, there’s no reason to go down to the marina, which is closed when water levels are low. Camping is free but, like the rest of the lake, completely treeless with no shade, no drinking water, and no picnic tables.
As popular as Glen Canyon is with boaters, it is remarkably undeveloped, partly because this is all public land.
A little more than 6.5 miles beyond the Hite Marina turnoff you leave the recreation area. Just 24 miles from Hite you will pass the cafe/gas station/motel at the non-town of Fry Canyon — don’t blink! The place may or may not be open, so don’t count on it. Canyoneers know that the Fry Canyon area is also great for exploring slot canyons. Be sure to do your research before you attempt any of them.
Past Fry Canyon the landscape gets a little greener with a sparse covering of juniper/pinyon, but there is still not much chance for a shaded picnic site until you reach Natural Bridges. Twelve miles past Fry Canyon, at the turnoff on the right (Highway 276) for Hall’s Crossing, continue straight ahead for Blanding and Mexican Hat.
Natural Bridges National Monument
As you start to descend toward Natural Bridges National Monument, the groundcover becomes more luxuriant and the trees taller. You cannot see the chaotic landscape of Natural Bridges from the highway, tucked away as it is off to the north. The entrance to the monument, with visitor center and scenic drive, is approximately 44 miles from Hite Marina, on the left. Then it’s a 4-mile drive in.
There is ample evidence that ancient people occupied this complex system of canyons from about 500 BC until around AD 1270. The earliest inhabitants probably lived in pit houses on the mesa tops, while the later Ancestral Puebloans built cliff dwellings that can still be seen today. They likely farmed up on the broad mesas, not in the narrow canyons. Cass Hite explored the region in 1883 while on a gold-prospecting sortie from his camp on the Colorado.
Given its remote location, it’s no wonder the park has some of the world’s least light-polluted night skies. The International Dark-Sky Association named Natural Bridges the world’s first “International Dark Sky Park.” Accordingly, park rangers not only give interpretive discussions on astronomy but also changed out the park’s light fixtures to reduce their own light pollution.
There are few facilities at Natural Bridges and no services at all; a small fee is charged to enter. At the visitor center (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct through Mar and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Apr through Sept) you will find nice interpretive displays to introduce the area and describe the attractions of Bridge View Drive. An attractive (but spartan) 13-site campground here has no water, but campers can fetch up to five gallons per day from the visitor center. It has the only drinking water within the monument, so fill your water bottles here. It is also requested that you leave trailers here rather than pull them along the Bridge View Drive.
Bridge View Drive is sensibly organized as a one-way loop, so you can rubberneck all you want and not worry about head-on collisions — not that you can see much from the road. The paved 9-mile drive leads to overlooks and trailheads above the three bridges that are the park’s chief attractions. The easiest hike is to the last bridge, Owachomo. Whatever else you do, leave a little time at the end of the drive and walk the half-mile trail to stand under its massive span.
Now back to Highway 95 continuing east. About a mile or so past the Natural Bridges turnoff is the intersection on the right with Highway 261. This is the much-recommended Moki Dugway Scenic Backway, which presents something of a logistical dilemma for road trippers. It is a recurring problem in Utah whenever you reach a crossroads: too many interesting things to see down too many roads running in too many different directions. So some choices need to be made!
At the lower end of the drive down Highway 261 is the very dramatic (read: “steep, scary, unpaved, and with no guardrail”) 1,000-foot switchback descent of the Moki Dugway. The views from the Dugway Overlook and nearby Muley Point are among the finest in southern Utah, if not the world, and the view of the meandering San Juan River from Goosenecks State Park is unique. But once you have driven as far as Goosenecks, you probably will not want to retrace your route back up to finish the Highway 95 drive to Blanding. This is especially true if you are driving an RV or pulling a trailer, since you will not want to re-ascend the gravel, 10 percent grade of the Moki Dugway.
If you do take this side trip, by all means stop in at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, on Highway 261 about 3 miles south of the turnoff, for information on the fascinating wilderness through which you will drive. The Grand Gulch Primitive Area, accessed by dirt roads and trails near the station, is one of the richest areas in Native American artifacts in all of southeastern Utah. This entire plateau is scattered with them. The ranger station is open April through September; backcountry permits are required to hike to the archeological sites, the closest of which are 4 miles from the station.
About 15 miles south of the ranger station on Highway 261 is the turnoff on the right for the 5-mile drive on maintained gravel out to the Muley Point overlook. The pavement ends and the road begins to descend, but most vehicles, with the exception of larger RVs, should have no difficulties reaching Muley Point. Here, on the very tip of Cedar Mesa, are mind-bogglingly beautiful views of Monument Valley’s redrock spires rising from the vast desert floor.
So, decisions, decisions . . . If you are still driving to the eastern end of Highway 95, from the intersection with 261 to Blanding, you will pass a succession of well-preserved archaeological sites, part of a large loop known as “the Trail of the Ancients” that circumnavigates much of southeastern Utah. East of Natural Bridges the landscape opens up and way off to the east you may notice the snowcapped peaks of the San Juan Mountains in neighboring Colorado.
At 10 miles from the Natural Bridges turnoff is a nice short stop at the Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Mule Canyon. Just 100 yards from the road, they can be seen in 10 minutes. The ruins include a partly restored kiva, a tower, and a small block of rooms. Just beyond this site is Cave Towers viewpoint. Seven Anasazi stone towers perch on the canyon rim, three of which are clearly visible here. Just 10 miles east of Mule Canyon is Butler Wash Indian Ruins, another nice archaeological attraction, this time involving an easy 1-mile trail walk leading to an overlook of several ancient dwellings. The signage for these turnoffs seems to disappear (both the ruins and signage are susceptible to vandalism in this remote part of the world), so if these ruins interest you, bring a map that notes where they are or ask about them at Natural Bridges or the Kane Gulch Ranger Station.
One more important archaeological site is worth a visit on the way north to Blanding. About 2 miles north of the Highway 95/US 191 intersection, watch for Blue Mountain Trading Post. A few blocks past the trading post is a paved road on the left. The road is unsigned, but the street is called Old Ruin Road. The overlook for fairly extensive ruins is just 2 miles down this road.
The town of Blanding, originally settled by the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers, has a distinct aura of “somewhere-elseness.” It is a fairly substantial community of nearly 4,000 residents but a long way from any urban center. Blanding does have an attractive and comprehensive visitor center and pioneer museum in the middle of town, right off the highway. It’s open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (until 8 p.m. during the summer).
Museums to Visit
The chief attraction in Blanding is the very fine Edge of the Cedars State Park. Actually, this is more a museum than a park, with outstanding exhibits describing the various inhabitants of the region: from prehistoric Ancestral Puebloans through the later Navajo and Ute Indians to the more recent Euro-American settlers. The museum houses one of the finest collections of Native pottery in the entire Southwest. Behind the museum is an interpretive path leading through an actual excavation, some of which is open for exploration. Open Mon to Sat, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costing $5 per person, Edge of the Cedars is located on the northwest edge of town; just follow the many signs.
On the south side of town, is a dinosaur museum with life-size models, fossils, skeletons, and a nice free exhibit called the “Nations of the Four Corners Cultural Center.” This attraction features a self-guided walking tour that leads to a Navajo hogan, a Ute tepee, a Mexican hacienda, and a settler’s log cabin.
If you are headed north from Blanding, the drive to Monticello is scenic though not spectacular. Just south of Monticello you begin to catch glimpses of the snowcapped La Sals to the northeast. If you have 2 hours to spare (and a high-clearance vehicle), a more interesting alternative to US 191 is the Abajo Loop Scenic Backway. This 22-mile mountain drive loops up through the forested Abajo Mountains north of Blanding, climbs to nearly 11,000 feet, then descends to Monticello. The road is single-lane dirt/gravel and is impassable when wet. The mountain scenery and the views of the southern part of Canyonlands National Park are superb. Inquire in Blanding about road conditions to determine whether your vehicle is up to the task.
Travel Season: Year-round. Summers are very hot.
GPS of Start: 38.373878, -110.705729 (Hanksville)
GPS of End: 37.625292, -109.477996 (Blanding)
Drive Route Number & Name: Highway 95, Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway.
Camping: National recreation area campground at Glen Canyon, national monument campground at Natural Bridges, BLM campground at Hog Springs, commercial campgrounds at Hanksville and Blanding.
Services: Most services at Hanksville and Blanding; limited services at Hite Marina.
Nearby Attractions: Goblin Valley, Henry Mountains, Bullfrog Basin Marina, Trail of the Ancients, Moki Dugway Scenic Drive, Hovenweep National Monument, Abajo Loop Scenic Backway.
Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.