On Leaving Bryce Canyon we continued east on Highway 12. There are many designated scenic drives in Utah, and I’m sure that all are deserving of the designation, but Highway 12 (A journey Through Time Byway) is in a class of its own. As the road descends from the high plateau on which Bryce Canyon National Park is sited, you get an awesome view of the red rock amphitheatre which defines the park. As you continue to descend, the road enters the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and in an instant you are in a bizarre lunar landscape, surrounded by folded rocks, giant boulders and inexplicable rock formations. As if driving through such terrain wasn’t excitement enough, Jim had the fortune to celebrate his half million kilometre birthday right in the middle of it!
Past Escalante, the road starts to rise again, following a narrow ridge with steep drops and fantastic landscapes on either side. Beyond boulder, the ascent begins in earnest, and before long the road has risen to 10,000 feet and you get staggering views over the huge expanse of Grand Staircase.
As with Bryce Canyon National Park, we noticed a road on our map, which connected Highway 12 to a remote corner of the Capitol Reef National Park, via a dirt road through the Dixie National Forest. We pulled off Highway 12 about 19 miles north of Boulder, and headed east into the forest, towards the Lower Bowns Reservoir. The road down to the reservoir was a wide, well graded gravel road, and we had no trouble finding a secluded spot near the lake to spend the night.
Walking Boris around the lake we met a group of guys out trout fishing. Not wishing to repeat the mistake we had made at Bryce, I enquired about the dirt road up to Capitol Reef, and whether it had a gate on it. I was glad I asked, as I was told fairly unequivocally that there was no way we’d make it down the track in Jim. The section that you could see from the road to the reservoir looked narrow and rutted, and I was told that it only got worse. In the morning we drove back up to the highway and continued towards the conventional entrance to the National Park.
Capitol Reef is a large park, and much of its area is only accessible using long, poorly maintained dirt roads, many if which start more than 20 miles north of Highway 24, the road that bisects the main body of the park east to west. There are more beautiful canyons and hikes in accessible parts of Utah than we could do in a lifetime, and so we decided to forgo a long, uncomfortable drive into the backcountry and instead opted to drive south along Capitol Reef’s scenic drive. After about 4 miles, we turned east onto Grand Wash Road, and took a short but beautiful drive along a gravel road following the river bed in the Grand Wash Canyon. We parked at the end of the road, and walked the steep trail up to Cassidy Arch, enjoying stunning views over the canyon throughout the trail. Many national parks are rightfully protective of their arches and natural bridges, but in Capitol Reef we were able to walk across the giant arch in the red rock walls of the canyon.
Capitol Reef and much of the surrounding region is considerably lower than the areas through which we had recently passed, and whilst the National Park has a great campsite, beautiful scenery, and a multitude of hikes, we decided not to spend more than a day there as the heat was bordering on uncomfortable. We left the park, stopping at the site of some petroglyphs, before continuing our journey east.
The south of Utah as a whole has extremely low population density, and there are areas of wilderness so huge that they could swallow large swathes of the UK. But the area which we were now driving towards was particularly sparse. We stopped at the small town of Hanksville to stock up on food before heading south on Highway 95. The next town after Hanksville on the 95 is Blanding, more than 125 miles away. Neither town has much more than a general store and a gas station, which is surely a mark of how undeveloped the area is.
We had planned to drive until Lake Powell and find somewhere to spend the night, but at gone six in the afternoon, the temperature was still over 37°C. As we headed south an isolated cluster of mountains began to appear on the west of the road, and we decided to chance our luck heading upwards to find some lower temperatures. The closer we got to the mountains, the bigger they began to appear, and by the time we found a dirt road heading in the right direction, it was clear that there were some huge altitude gains to be had. We were looking at the Henry Mountains, with Mount Ellen, the tallest peak, standing at over 11,500 feet tall. 11,500 feet is not enormous, particularly by Colorado standards, the state to which we were now heading, but with the valley floor at under 4,000 feet, the mountains are an imposing site.
Just before Highway 95 splits, with the 276 forking off to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Lake Powell, we took a dirt road which appeared on our map to head up to the mountains. The road started as a reasonably level gravel road, with the only rough sections being the dry riverbeds where the road had been washed out in heavy rains. A couple of the washes required the use of the diff-lock, to ensure that we had sufficient traction climb the steep sandy bank on the uphill side. From the highway, it had appeared that the mountains were just a mile or two away, but it was closer to ten miles before the track began to start climb steeply. As we approached the peaks, we finally entered the shadow of the mountains, giving our eyes a rest from the low afternoon sun; the road steepened and we were soon crawling upwards in first gear along a narrow and rocky trail.
We passed a few small mine sites on our way towards the summit, the road becoming ever steeper and rockier. At 6,500 feet we decided that we had had enough. The road had become so steep that if I let the engine revs fall too low, we would be unable to hill start without reversing to a less steep section of the road. This is acceptable on variable sections, where the reverse may only be a few hundred meters, but beyond where we stopped it was clear that the road continued for miles at a gradient that was beyond what Jim was comfortable with. With a lower first gear, or the use of low ratio transfer box we may have been able to continue further, but we agreed that we had come far enough this time.
Roughly 15 miles from the highway, where we stopped for the night, the road forks. The left fork continues into the Henry Mountains, eventually joining the 276 near Lake Powell, or the Notom-Bullfrog Road east of Capitol Reef, and the right fork becomes the Bull Creek Pass Road, heading up towards Mount Ellen. It had been our plan to head upwards towards Mount Ellen, but the turn onto Bull Creek Pass Road was so sharp that it would have required us to take the left fork, find somewhere to turn around, and then cross back over the road we had driven up. This was another indication that we had come far enough. We found a place to park on a remarkably flat clearing, adjacent to a small stream and surrounded by Ponderosa Pines and Quaking Aspens.
On our first morning in the mountains we awoke to the truck rocking from side to side. We were not shaking violently, but it was clear that something was pushing the truck around with enough force to make it sway from side to side. Many terrible scenarios rushed through my mind, but on opening the curtains, the answer was less serious and more humorous than I had anticipated. A large group of bemused cows had congregated around the truck, presumable wondering what the hell it was, and why it was on their patch. Some of them had decided that it was a scratching post, and had busied themselves using the air deflectors on the front to relieve their itches. Seeing a group of cows congregating around the truck was strange enough, but seeing them scamper into the trees when I disturbed them was bizarre. I am used to seeing cows as immense but useless animals, placid giants perched on spindly legs, only good for munching grass on flat pastures. As these cows scampered they disappeared into the forest, immediately climbing a slope that we would be impossible for a human without climbing gear. They ran upwards in a manner more like a mountain goat than a cow, and it was clear that these lean, muscular bovines were nothing like those I see grazing in the British countryside.
The ascent into the mountains had succeeded in getting us cooler temperatures both in the day and at night, and we spent two night parked on the mountainside, walking into the peaks, toasting marshmallows on a fire, and trying to find Boris after he had chased another deer into the trees.
On our second morning in the Henry Mountains we descended the way we had come, sitting for nearly an hour on the engine retarder, only slowing with the foot brake for the occasional rocky section or wash. Back on Highway 95, we continued south and east, headed for Lake Powell and the Natural Bridges National Monument.