Utah’s rugged, dramatic canyons and cliffs are beautifully revealed on this unparalleled trek.
By Lazelle Jones
Each autumn during the 1870s, John Atlantic Burr moved his cattle herds down from Boulder Mountain, Utah, so they could winter on the warmer desert areas below. Burr’s winter retreat is now part of the southern reaches of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. And the road he used to travel between the mountains and the high desert is called the Burr Trail.
Today’s version of the Burr Trail is one of the most scenic byways found anywhere on the face of the earth. And autumn is a spectacular time to travel it. But it’s also a road that should be attempted only with the right kind of vehicle, such as a vehicle with four-wheel drive (other important caveats are listed below). It’s essential that you engage this magnificent but unyielding landscape “” and the dirt road that is carved through it “” in a vehicle equipped for the ride.
The Burr Trail is approximately 68 miles long, and its western and southern sections are paved. But the 22-mile portion that travels through Capitol Reef National Park is not, and that’s why you will need a proper vehicle.
The most awe-inspiring way to take this adventure is to begin at the north in Boulder, Utah, and end at Bullfrog Landing on the shores of Lake Powell. The drama of the topography, the vistas, and the radical geologic transitions and transformations that the Burr Trail takes you through cannot be overstated.
The Hills & Hollows General Store in the little mountain town of Boulder is a good place to begin your adventure down the Burr Trail. It’s one of two places where you can fill the vehicle with fuel before heading out, and you need to leave Boulder with a full tank. The store is on the south end of town on Utah’s Scenic State Route 12, and owners Eric and Cynthia keep freshly brewed gourmet coffee ready and waiting. They also offer an assortment of food, a cooler with beverages and dairy products, books and maps about the area, and gifts.
Next you will want to go through town to see the Anasazi State Park Museum, where the Bureau of Land Management office also is located. Open seven days a week, the museum displays Anasazi artifacts that date from A.D. 500 to 1500. You can see ruins that have been excavated, and re-creations of the typical dwellings that would have been found in this ancient village. Just for the record, Anasazi is a Navajo Indian word that means “ancient ones.”
The Bureau of Land Management maintains a small office at the state park, so while you are there, be sure to check with a BLM officer about Burr Trail conditions.
The beginning of the trail is well-marked, with signage that prepares you for the adventure ahead. Markers with warnings such as “Extreme grades, sharp curve, trailers not recommended”; “Travel at your own risk”; and “Next services 75 miles” greet you as you head east down a very innocent-looking paved road.
Immediately to the right is a giant rock formation the locals call “the brain,” and for good reason: it looks like a brain. Old, abandoned gas pumps from years gone by still reflect a time when gas was 42 cents a gallon (when was that?). To the left is the Boulder Restaurant, a log cabin eatery that is your last chance to get a hot meal. It is all part of the ambience as the trailhead sets the tone for what lies ahead.
Ten miles down the Burr Trail, you get a first look at Long Canyon before dropping down into the eight-mile-long winding crevasse that is lined on both sides by the red-and-white Navajo sandstone, unique to the canyon lands of Utah. Streaks and swirls of desert varnish (minerals) smeared across the canyon walls have been placed here by nature, creating images much like those of artist Frank Stella. It’s spectacular!
As you near the mouth of Long Canyon, you sense that something dramatic is about to happen, and it does. In an instant you are thrust out onto a high plateau, a cedar-and-juniper-carpeted landscape that in the distance meets the Henry Mountains. This was the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be named, compliments of John Wesley Powell during his 1869 journey down the Green and Colorado rivers. This one-armed Union officer (he lost his right arm in the Civil War) dubbed these peaks the Henry Mountains after Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who was instrumental in getting Powell government funding for the first of several river expeditions that he would make down the Green and Colorado rivers. During these expeditions, Powell catalogued and surveyed many of the vast unknown parts of what today includes Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.
Those who have an off-road-vehicle will be interested to note that a host of side trails branch off the Burr Trail, featuring vistas and land formations too numerous to name. Again, keep in mind that the key operative here is “four-wheel drive.”
The dirt road begins at the boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. From there it continues east to where it penetrates a geological reef, a rock wall that simply whets the appetite for what comes next: the switchbacks of the Waterpocket Fold (also named by John Wesley Powell).
The words “awesome,” “breathtaking,” and “unbelievable” prove insufficient when it comes to characterizing the drama of the Waterpocket Fold as it drops more than 1,000 vertical feet through a series of switchbacks to the floor of Capitol Reef National Park below. The Waterpocket Fold is a pushed-up, twisted, tortured piece of real estate that was created between 50 million and 70 million years ago by the tremendous forces that emanated from deep within the earth. You can’t help but marvel at how anyone (John Atlantic Burr in particular) could, year after year, have moved hundreds of cows up and down the Waterpocket Fold. But he did, and back then only he and a handful of cowboys and wranglers were left to try and explain to others the torturous path that they navigated.
The differences between the last 30 miles to Bullfrog Landing and the high plateau you have just come down from are as night and day. The vegetation, the type of rock, and the rock formations again signal that something awesome is about to appear, and it does: the blue waters of giant Lake Powell. The Glen Canyon Dam across the Colorado River created this man-made basin, with its 1,960 miles of shoreline and 161,000 surface acres of water.
Bullfrog Landing marina, on the edge of the lake, offers your first opportunity to refuel. The convenience store and gas station also service the boating enthusiasts who bring their boats here and the families who come to rent houseboats. Bullfrog is also where you will make one of three decisions. You can turn around and head back to Boulder. You can drive the paved highway (State Route 276) north to Hanksville, where you can make your exit. Or, you can take the ferry across Lake Powell to Halls Crossing, where you can then head over to Natural Bridges, Blanding, Monticello, and up to one of Utah’s premier playgrounds, Moab. I recommend taking the ferry across Lake Powell, as it’s a destination in itself.
The ferry runs periodically; the schedule is subject to change depending upon the time of year. You will want to call ahead to learn the schedule (435-684-3000). Reservations for space on the ferry are not available; it is first-come, first-served. Fares for vehicles less than 20 feet long were $25 as of August 2009. If you miss the last boat, you will have to wait until the following morning for the next one.
The boat ride takes about 25 minutes. After you board, you can sit in your vehicle or walk around the deck, lean on the rails, and celebrate the beauty of the red rock and the blue water as they meld into one. If you sit in your vehicle, you will miss a setting unlike anywhere else, even on the Nile.
If there’s an epilogue to this story, it would be that once you have seen and driven the Burr Trail you will forever be altered, and vow to one day do it again. It’s that good!
Planning your adventure
Be prepared. If you drive off the paved road, you’ll definitely need a suitable vehicle. In addition:
Leave Boulder, Utah, with a full tank of fuel, and verify your vehicle is in excellent mechanical condition (tires, belts, air pressure, fluid levels). Also, take plenty of water, snacks, and protective clothing.
Wet weather can make the road through Capitol Reef impassable, even for four-wheel-drive vehicles. In dry weather, the road is accessible to passenger cars.
Never cross a desert wash or gully when water is rushing through it. If it is raining and the water level is rising, wait it out.
Tell someone responsible about your plans and that you will call them when you reach your destination; be kind enough to call them once you do. Instruct the responsible party to call the BLM office in Boulder (435-335-7382) if by chance you don’t call after a reasonable amount of time has passed.
The Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef National Park is open year-round. For area commercial campgrounds, check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and available online at FMCA.com. Another helpful resource is www.go-utah.com, which has campground lists and more.
Capitol Reef National Park (current road information)
(435) 425-3791, ext. 111
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
(435) 684-7420 (Bullfrog visitors center)