Wandering the West
September 1, 2009
An outdoor magazine once said Utah has more topographical features named "hell" than any other state. Given the tortured landscape of the Colorado Plateau, I believe it. There’s Hell’s Half Mile on the Green River, Hell’s Revenge outside of Moab, several Hell Canyons, Hell’s Kitchen here in Summit County, a place called Hell n’ Maria Canyon in Millard County and probably many more. I haven’t had the full tour of all of Utah’s hellish places, but there’s a great circle drive deep in the Escalante canyon country that’s my favorite hell on earth.
Using the tiny, spectacularly situated village of Boulder in Garfield County as a starting point, you can spend a morning or afternoon driving a big circle through some fairly unknown canyon country. In the course of the drive, you may only meet a half dozen fellow travelers.
Drive south of Boulder two-and-a-half miles on Highway 12 and turn right on Forest Road 153, also known as Hell’s Backbone Road. It will climb and switchback until you leave the hot desert for cool forests of spruce, fir and ponderosa pine. The ponderosas are half the width of a car and five centuries old. The gravel road straddles Hell’s Backbone with sheer drops into the canyons below off both sides. If you’re the driver, save your ogling for the pullouts. The road circles a federal wilderness with an equally cheery name, Box Death Hollow, a maze of canyons twisting through the sandstone formations on either side of the Escalante River. There are great views into the wilderness from the road, or take more time and take a short hike in a ways. The canyons carved by the Escalante and its tributaries are deep and narrow and lightly traveled.
At the top of the drive, suck it in and cross the Hell’s Backbone Bridge, an engineering marvel from the Civilian Conservation Corps days of the Depression. The narrow bridge spans a chasm that kept the two towns of Escalante and Boulder separated for decades. The CCC engineers spanned the 135-foot gap and connected the two places years before equally marvelous Highway 12 offered a second route. In fact, until the road connection was opened, Boulder received its mail on the backs of mules led through the canyons. Until the bridge, Boulder was just about the most isolated town in America.
The road takes you as high as 9,100 feet, much cooler on a hot desert day than the canyons below. Stop along aspen-lined Posey Lake for a picnic before descending to the town of Escalante. At Escalante, if time permits (and why wouldn’t it?), you can visit Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, featuring fossilized wood and dinosaur bones left in place, along with displays of artifacts left by Fremont Indians five or more centuries ago. Escalante itself is another small pioneer era town with basic services on Highway 12. Take the road west to Bryce Canyon, or east and continue the circle back to Boulder.
The 26 miles of Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder bisect the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, containing more of the twisty canyons of the Escalante. This road climbs the sandstone to the top of a plateau called the Hogsback, which in one place is only as wide as the highway itself, with cliffs off either side. Along the way you’ll pass Lower Calf Creek Falls and one of the prettiest BLM campgrounds anywhere. A two-and-three-quarter-mile level hike from the Lower Calf campground trailhead there takes you to Calf Creek Falls.
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If you started out from Boulder in the morning, there will still be time to take in Anasazi State Park in Boulder, a large Puebloan community dating from 1160 AD to 1235 AD. Some 200 Indians lived there back then, and remnants of about a hundred structures remain. Seven hundred years later, present day Boulder has just about the same population.
This scenic circle drive isn’t featured in any brochures or highlighted on any websites. But it’s a logical route to take in some of the best of the Escalante River canyon country. From 5,700 to 9,100 feet it showcases an amazing variety of what makes southern Utah so stunning.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
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Insider tip: Hell’s Backbone Road is closed in winter and can get slippery in rainstorms. It is suitable for passenger cars, but inquire ahead about conditions.