Wandering the West
February 5, 2008
It’s one of the most beaten paths in Utah. Most anyone heading north to south from the Wasatch Front or Back to warmer weather and golf courses around St. George or Mesquite is simply going to get on I-15, set the cruise control, load the CDs and enter the land of red rocks, palm trees and unchecked growth in about five hours.
But if I’ve got the time, I’ll choose the more difficult route every time. As one who thinks half the fun of getting somewhere lies in the journey, I veer off I-15 almost as soon as I get on it. From Park City, my route leads through Heber Valley down Provo Canyon to I-15 only until it reaches Spanish Fork. From there it’s up Spanish Fork Canyon on U.S. 6 until it intersects with U.S. 89 and the journey begins.
Right there is the newest ghost town in the west. Until the big floods of 1983, Thistle was a small village where people had stone and frame houses, tended gardens and ran livestock. But the Thistle mudslide (visible to the right of the big road cut on U.S. 6 just before you turn onto highway 89) dammed the Spanish Fork River. The water backed up and inundated the town before it could be drained. Now, Thistle is abandoned and the buildings are slowly crumbling.
Thistle is the north end of what those who live along 89 are promoting as the "Utah Heritage Highway." There are a series of agricultural valleys dotted with small towns which hold surprises if you look for them. Veer a mile off the road south of Mount Pleasant and you’ll be in Spring City, an artists’ community where the whole town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Other town names tell of who settled here. There’s Ephraim and Manti, with Moroni and Nephi not far away all named for chapters or characters in the Book of Mormon. Ephraim’s main drag has the restored Ephraim Cooperative Mercantile Association store, crammed with the handmade goods of some 80 local artists and crafters. Next door, the historic town hall is now an art gallery.
Back out on the highway you’ll see the spectacular Manti Temple on the hill at the edge of town. Here the high school teams are named "The Templars." Looking for something a cut above gas station food, we found Cariann’s Texas Road House and some surprisingly good beef brisket, although my companion’s hush puppy and catfish dinner came frozen in the middle. Had we been able to hold out, we would have stopped a few more towns south, in Salina, where Mom’s Café (who could not eat there with that name?) has served up chicken-fried steaks, scones and homemade pies since 1936.
All along 89 look for great old pioneer homes, small galleries and antique shops that keep irregular hours and inventories. South of Sevier you’re into the drainage of the Sevier River, which forms the gateway to southern Utah’s red rock country. The first hint of it comes at Big Rock Candy Mountain, a colorful eroded mountainside said to inspire the depression era classic hobo song, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, "Where the cops have wooden legs, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.").
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The country opens up down here and the scenic miles roll by. Just south of Circleville you can stop at the boyhood cabin of outlaw Butch Cassidy (restored with funds from Paul Newman’s salad dressing sales). As the geology gets more interesting rock shops will start popping up along the roadside. If you’ve got kids, stop to buy a geode and have them cut it in half to reveal the crystals inside.
Of course, at some point you do need to get to St. George. Good cutoffs to get back to I-15 are Highway 20 south of Circleville, or Highway 14 from Long Valley to Cedar City. Both are slow and spectacular, but remember, the journey is half the fun.
Or continue south on 89 to Mount Carmel Junction and approach St. George via the Zion Canyon tunnels. But that’s an adventure for another day.
Main Street Park City to Mount Carmel Junction: 297 miles
Drive time (non-stop): 4 hours 50 minutes (*Source: Mapquest.com)
More information: http://www.utahheritage.com