Exploring while Returning
Old Escalante Road and Cedar Breaks - Monday, October 7
Final breakfast at the Prospector
Today was the day that Jenn, Kyle and I needed to peel off, to disengage from the trip. Our flight back left at 7pm from Las Vegas, and we'd be taking a leisurely day to make the drive. Arn and Gosia's family would be staying for an additional six days, exploring southern Utah for a few more days before heading south to visit relatives in Arizona.
So, today's breakfast was the final activity of our seven-strong group. I spent some time going over possible activities for Gosia and Arn's family, trying to impart knowledge of the interesting but "non-national park" places to visit (the federal government shutdown always in the back of our minds, of course). I suggested the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a visit to Goblin Valley State Park, and perhaps a quick visit to the lower parts of the so-called "Irish slots" south of Hanksville.
Waiting for departure
Kyle, Jenn and I had gone through the chore of carefully preparing our luggage for the journey home, re-balancing and re-organizing so that no one exceeded the airlines' checked-luggage maximum weight of 50 pounds (22.7 kg). Therefore, we were ready to depart from our motel room as soon as we finished breakfast.
The most straightforward, brainless way to proceed on our drive back to Las Vegas would be to follow a GPS' or Google's routing advice. That would have taken the most convenient route. We weren't feeling brainless today, though, and wanted to make the drive back an actual extension of our trip, filled with a bit of exploring and sight-seeing. So, we chose the road(s) less travelled.
Escalante is a remote town in the middle of the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, first settled in 1876. The narrow, remote and rough tracks that initially connected to this area morphed and changed over time. It wasn't until 1947 that the established modern routing of Utah state route 12 (although it was not called UT-12 at the time) connected eastwards to Escalante from the Bryce Canyon area.
Turnoff to Old Escalante Road
Before that time, the principle route to Escalante was via the Widtsoe-to-Escalante Road. Also known as the "Old Escalante Road", it was a route that started high on the Paunsaugunt Plateau near Bryce Canyon, crossed over the spine of Escalante Mountain - at over 9000 feet - and then descended through Main Canyon to a point just west of Escalante town itself. Now called Utah Forest Road 17 (FH-17), the route of the Old Escalante Road is still around. We decided that driving this historical route might be an interesting alternative to driving back on UT-12.
Quickly turns to gravel
There wasn't a lot of good, coherent online information that connected the term "Old Escalante Road" to the actual route that we needed to follow, so it took a bit of time on the Prospector Inn's spotty wi-fi to figure it out. In the end, it turned out to be quite simple.
Heading west out of Escalante for a few miles, we turned onto a road signed for 'Widtsoe'. Immediately we crossed a very nascent Escalante River (on a bridge), and the road turned to gravel. We turned left and started along a wide and straight stretch along what is known as Main Canyon.
Continuing up Main Canyon
Slopes of Escalante Mountain
The road up Main Canyon was - although gravel - wide and smooth. The scenery was a lot like the escarpment of Fiftymile Mountain - often a backdrop on our outings in the Escalante. We drove along, with long, tan cliffs with forested tops scrolling by on either side. In fact, a quick look at a geological map revealed that indeed, the walls of Main Canyon were comprised of the same formation as Fiftymile mountain: the John Henry member of the Straight Cliffs Formation.
We were driving "up" Main Canyon, and as we ascended, the walls became lower and our views ahead to higher elevations became better. We could now clearly see the eastern slopes of Escalante Mountain - a long, long finger of the big and high Aquarius Plateau. Higher elevation deciduous trees on the slopes of Escalante Mountain were just starting to change into their fall colours, providing little splashes of yellow here and there.
Slopes of Escalante Mtn
There were a few ranches and homesteads along the way in Main Canyon, but these were few. Mostly the land seemed untouched.
Thicker forest with Altitude
Soon (because the road was in remarkably smooth shape, and we could easily maintain a 40-50 mph speed), we climbed up out of the upper end of Main Canyon, and started a switchbacking ascent of the eastern slopes of Escalante Mountain. The short, sparse forest of the lower elevations had given way to a much thicker and higher forest of big Ponderosa Pines, augmented occasionally with shorter stands of Quaking Aspen.
The road continued to climb steeply, soon reaching an elevation of 9,000 feet (2800 metres). At a more exposed corner along the road, we got out to survey the broad view now available to us. We could see all the way east to the 11,000+ foot high Henry Mountains, far on the other side of the Escalante region.
Escalante Mountain slopes
Continuing on, it was not more than five minutes' worth of driving before we crossed over the narrow spine of Escalante Mountain, at 9,250 feet. A couple of lesser forest roads headed off north and south along the ridgecrest. We continued west, now starting a descent into Johns Valley.
A series of twists and switchbacks brought us rapidly down into a canyon draining Escalante Mountain's western slopes, called... Escalante Canyon (not to be confused with the Canyons of the Escalante or the Escalante Canyon River itself). As we descended, drier and more arid conditions returned, and along with it, fewer trees and more sagebrush. By the time we had reached the Dixie National Forest boundary sign, we had started to drive across the wide open flats of the northern Paunsaugunt plateau at Johns Valley.
Soon the Old Escalante Road route ended, at the old Widtsoe townsite (a long-removed settlement from the 1920s). Here we rejoined with the paved Johns Valley road.
In all, FH-17 (aka the Old Escalante Road) route had proven to be scenic, as we'd hoped, but it was also a remarkably easy and surprisingly fast drive, given its secondary and unsurfaced nature. For us, it was remarkably free of potholes, washboards or any other sort of irregularities, and it was fairly wide throughout. As a result, it hadn't taken us nearly as long to drive as we had expected.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Old Escalante Road - click map to view
Flat Top and Casto Bluff
A short and fast drive south along Johns Valley Road rejoined us to UT-12, where we merged with a bunch of vacationer traffic and headed west through always-scenic Red Canyon.
At the junction with US89, we decided to embark on another scenic alternative - a drive across the top of the Markagunt Plateau - another of Southern Utah's high altitude locations.
We drove briefly north on US89 to the town of Panguitch - another of Utah's backcountry little settlements, then south along a very nicely paved and moderately curvy highway - UT-143. The highway ascended gradually but continuously for many miles through the Dixie National Forest, past many multi-use recreational areas that seemed popular with anglers and ATVers.
Black Rock Valley Lava Flow
We ascended to well over the 10,000-foot elevation mark (3000+ metres). Large, extensive alpine meadows and an abundance of fir trees were now in evidence. We had entered a world with the look and feel of a cold, northern mountain forest.
Cedar Breaks NM
We reached a connector highway that led south along the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau. Here, the plateau's edge dropped away in very Bryce-like cliffs to form what is called Cedar Breaks. Cedar Breaks is contained within Cedar Breaks National Monument - a unit of the National Park Service. We knew that the park would be officially closed, but, because a through-highway passed through the park, we hoped that we'd still be able to drive along it and see some of the basic sights. I had never been to Cedar Breaks NM before.
Fortunately for us, the highway through the park was indeed open - although all facilities were closed. There seemed to be no [ridiculous] preventions about stopping at lookouts and taking in some views, so we did just that, stopping at the Chessmen Overlook to get a good look at one of the main amphitheatres of cliffs that form the bulk of Cedar Breaks. Very Bryce-like, but with more vertical and less variation in shape and color.