When asked which drive within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was the most scenic, a Ranger at the Cannonville Visitor Center said without hesitation, “Cottonwood Canyon Road!” This was a little surprising to me since the Burr Trail is widely regarded as the crown jewel in this part of Utah, but she was insistent. “This is the best, most scenic drive in the Monument! You won’t regret exploring it.” I was already excited to finally get a chance to drive this well-known road, but after hearing her glowing opinion, I was positively stoked.
For those unfamiliar with this route, Cottonwood Canyon Road is a designated scenic backway for the world-renowned Utah Route-12, National Scenic Byway. Cottonwood Canyon Road (Route 400) stretches 46 miles southward from the town of Cannonville, Utah to the US 89 near Church Wells, Utah. The backway provides access to Kodachrome Basin State Park, Grosvenor Arch, the Cottonwood Narrows, the Cockscomb monocline, and Hackberry Canyon. The road can be safely driven in three hours though I recommend more time to enjoy the views and to stretch your legs. The elevation of the route varies between 4,600 feet and 5,800 feet, meaning you’ll find relatively moderate temperatures in spring and fall, but can get quite hot in the summer and cold in the winter. During our visit in mid-April we enjoyed temperatures in the mid-60s during the day and in the low 40s during the night. You can’t get much better than that.
A word of warning about driving this road. Signs posted at either entrance warn “impassible when wet” and they mean it. Avoid this route the day of and the day after a heavy rain. The first 9 miles from Cannonville to Kodachrome Basin State Park is paved. Thereafter the road is graded dirt with an underlying base of clay that can quickly turn into a slick and muddy quagmire after a downpour. Even those driving 4×4 vehicles lose control and become immobile. A friend driving a 4×4 truck, who got stuck on this road back in 2011, said it was like trying to drive on “butter with Teflon tires.” When conditions are dry, however, most vehicles can safely navigate this route, including passenger cars and small, two-axle RVs like truck campers, though a 4×4, high clearance vehicle is recommended. Check with the nearest Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor center–you can find one in Cannonville, Big Water, and Kanab–before leaving on your trip or click here for the latest National Park Service road report.
The drive itself poses a few challenges as well. Numerous washes cut through the route and some of the larger ones, like Dry Valley Creek Wash, hold water several days after a rain. You’ll also encounter a few blind turns along the way as well as several steep hogbacks, so you’ll need to be on your toes when navigating them. We encountered a few hikers at the top of one steep hogback and almost hit one who was walking in the middle of the road. The road itself is generally in pretty good shape though a few areas are badly rutted from recent rains and a few stretches have the dreaded washboard surface, but it’s nothing like nearby Bullfrog-Notam Road or some forest roads I’ve driven on.
Additional caution is warranted before embarking on the drive. The area where the road is located is remote and completely undeveloped. With the exception of Cannonville on the north end, there are no services, so you’ll want to make sure your vehicle is running well and that your fuel tank is full. Cell phone coverage is sporadic and available only on the higher elevations of the drive (at one point we got as many as three bars of service through AT&T). Bring along plenty of water, especially if you plan on tackling the drive in the heat of summer. Leave your itinerary with family or friends who can look out for you in the event that you suffer a breakdown or run into trouble. If you need a tow or other emergency service, it may take several hours before help can arrive.
Cottonwood Canyon Road is located in the western half of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres, the Grand Staircase was established in 1996 by Presidential Proclamation when it became the Bureau of Land Management’s first National Monument. The Grand Staircase is comprised of five “steps” of multi-hued cliffs and plateaus that rise some 5,500 feet in the southwestern part of the monument. It’s a high, rugged, and remote region that was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped. Even today, the unspoiled natural beauty of the Grand Staircase remains a frontier. What’s the bottom line? For those who love the great outdoors, the Grand Staircase is one the best areas in the country to explore.
For those who plan to explore Cottonwood Canyon Road in a small RV and who want to camp or boondock along the route, you’re in luck. Boondocking (aka Primitive camping) is permitted in the Monument, but requires a free permit. These can be obtained at any Monument Visitor Center or at one of the kiosks located at either the Kodachrome Basin State Park turnoff or at the US 89. There are over a dozen pull-offs and numbered spurs along the route where you can set-up camp for the night. Regulations require that you use established campsites and fire rings. If full hookups is more your style, there are a few options. The aforementioned Kodachrome Basin State Park offers an excellent campground, but due to the scenic location vacancies are very hard to come by. We’ve tried twice and struck out both times. You can usually find a vacancy, however, at the nearby Cannonville KOA or at the RV Park located near the White House Ranger Station on US 89 about four miles west from the intersection.
Most people who chronicle their travels on the Cottonwood Canyon Road forget about the first 9 miles of pavement and that’s a mistake. Technically, the drive starts in Cannonville, a small farming community with a population of only 150. The town features a small store, a few gas stations, and a decent sized KOA campground with wireless service. Unfortunately, there’s no cell phone coverage in Cannonville for those who work on the road like myself, so don’t bothering trying (we did get 5 bars in the nearby town of Tropic, however). Some of the farms you see on the east side of Cottonwood Canyon Road are well established with a few log cabins that appear to be over 100 years old. The natural views along this stretch are beautiful with multi-colored orange, red and white Navajo sandstone, a nice prelude to the stunning views you’ll see in nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park and beyond.
After passing the Kodachrome Basin State Park turnoff, the pavement ends and the dirt and clay graded surface begins. Here you will also find a kiosk for the Cottonwood Canyon Road which includes a map of all roads in the area as well as some information on the drive. You can also obtain overnight camping and backpacking permits here, too, if you didn’t already do so at one of the nearby visitor centers. There’s not much to see the first 9 miles past the Kodachrome turnoff. The first part is relatively flat until you climb up a mesa and follow the road along the so-called Round Valley Draw. A few miles after this you’ll come to the first big attraction on the drive.
The Grosvenor Arch is a rare sandstone double arch and is the largest arch located in the Grand Staircase. It’s named in honor of Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, a past president of the National Geographic Society and a publisher of the National Geographic Magazine. It can be reachd via Four Mile Bench Road approximately 1 mile east from Cottonwood Canyon Road. A day use area is located at the arch that consists of an outhouse and cement benches. A cement sidewalk connects the day use area to the base of the arch where you can take some pretty stunning closeups. If you’re expecting to see a large, red and orange-colored arch like those found in Arches National Park, you’ll be disappointed with Grosvenor’s. This arch is a muted khaki color with a tinge of orange, but it’s still pretty cool because there aren’t many double arches in Utah or anywhere else for that matter.
About 4 miles south of the Grosvenor Arch, you’ll come to what is easily the highlight of the drive, the dazzling, technicolor world of the North Cottonwood Narrows. Here the road takes a rapid dip down and a quick climb up. In between you’ll see a bizarre, multi-colored world of rock. The formations along this stretch are quite unlike anything you’ll see at Bryce Canyon or Kodachrome Basin. Everything here is jumbled and out-of-place. White, cottage-cheese textured rocks shoot out of smooth red and orange-colored ones. Some formations are jagged, while others are rounded. It’s really a sight to behold, so make sure your camera is charged and ready to snap lots of pictures.
If this visual smorgasbord isn’t enough, there’s also a neat, little slot canyon at the bottom of this dip that you can explore. Dubbed the North Cottonwood Narrows, the canyon is easy to reach by foot and can can easily be hiked in a couple of hours. Watch for the tiny trail-head sign on the east side of the road and park your vehicle in the pull-off area near it. This canyon is appropriately named. Indeed, the canyon is so narrow in places you can actually touch both sides at the same time. The canyon was formed by Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Paria River, which over time carved its way through the colorful sandstone. The hike itself is about 3 miles round-trip and would be classified as easy and one the whole family would enjoy. This is a popular hike and one that is featured often in Utah hiking magazines and websites.
The area just north of the North Cottonwood Narrows actually marks the start of the Cockscomb monocline, named for the similarity that the exposed rocks have to the feature found on the head of a rooster. This monocline, which is about 35 miles long, is similar to the Waterpocket Fold found in nearby Granite Reef National Park, but isn’t as massive. The strata along the monocline dips abruptly eastward at angles from 15 degrees to slightly overturned, with an average dip of between 40 to 60 degrees. The crust on the east side of the Cockscomb has been displaced downward as much as 5,000 feet. Cottonwood Canyon Road runs parallel with and in some places over the Cockscomb with the landforms along it consisting mainly of closely spaced hogbacks and valleys. Like I said, the Cockscomb isn’t as massive as the world-renowned Waterpocket Fold, but it’s still pretty spectacular and worth seeing. It certainly is the main reason why the Cottonwood Canyon Road is so scenic.
About 10 miles south of the Narrows you’ll come upon Hackberry Canyon, a popular destination for camping and hiking. During our short visit to this beautiful canyon we saw a few tents and a Lance camper camped out for the night. This canyon appears to be a prime boondocking location as well as a popular cattle grazing area for ranchers. When we were there we saw a large herd of cattle and a couple of cowboys on horseback keeping watch. It was pretty neat. The trail itself, which follows Cottonwood Creek, is moderately difficult and rewards the hiker with one of the more scenic and popular canyon routes in the western half of the Monument. The trail is about 20 miles long, though most who undertake this hike venture only 1-2 miles upstream to enjoy the shallow flowing water and steep canyon walls. We didn’t hike it this time, but it’s definitely on our hiking bucket list.
Cottonwood Canyon marks the last significant attraction you’ll see as you travel south on Cottonwood Canyon Road. Here you’ll descend into a beautiful, wide open valley where the Paria River merges with Cottonwood Creek. When we explored the area in mid-April the leaves on the cottonwood trees were budding which gave the canyon a distinctive bright, greenish hue in contrast with the grayish shale and sandstone in this area. Several other treats were found along the road itself, including flowering bushes that were violet in color as well as large clusters of wild flowers. The US 89 is about 8 miles south of Cottonwood Canyon and officially marks the end of the drive.
The Cottonwood Canyon Road Scenic Backway is an enjoyable, incredibly scenic drive that should be on every overlander’s bucket list. The road was constructed in the early 1960s to facilitate construction and future maintenance of powerlines delivering electricity from the Glen Canyon Dam to several communities in southern Utah. Since then, the road has become a vital route to explorers, hikers, ranchers, geologists and others desiring to see this remote, incredibly unique area of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I’ve driven many scenic routes and trails throughout North America and Europe, but few compare with the color, geologic diversity, and stark beauty of the Cottonwood Canyon Road Scenic Backway. Is it better than the Burr Trail? Not quite, but it comes in a close second. On a scale of one to 10, I’d give the Cottonwood Canyon Road a difficulty rating of two.