Sampling the best of southwest Utah is simple. Just follow its network of scenic byways.
Utah’s vast wilderness draws outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe.
St. George has become one of the more popular retirement communities in the country. Located in extreme southwestern Utah, it has spectacular red rock bluffs overlooking the town, a mild climate in winter, and terrific recreational opportunities such as hiking in the nearby Zion National Park and many golf courses.
Heading north from St. George, Interstate 15 rises through the Pine Valley Mountains toward the storybook town of Cedar City. At exit 40 you can take a detour along the short Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway to the picturesque Zion Kolob Canyons. The best time to view the canyons is early morning.
The quiet town of Cedar City, also known as Festival City, is renowned for its old pioneer feel and the Utah Shakespearean Festival. Held in an outdoor theater, the 54-year festival hosts a variety of plays running from late June to late October.
From Cedar City the 40-mile-long Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway (Highway 14) climbs east through the Dixie National Forest’s thick stands of aspen and spruce to the top of 10,000-foot-high Markagunt Plateau. The byway then continues across Cedar Mountain to several points of interest including Navajo Lake, a favorite for fishing.
Going north on the Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway (Highway 148), you’ll find Cedar Breaks National Monument, a 3-mile-wide and 2,500-foot-deep chasm carved into the western ridge of the plateau. The amphitheater, especially when viewed in the morning or evening, glows with hues of orange, coral, rose and white. Small stands of bristlecone pines grow along the rim.
This natural amphitheater, with its highly hued sandstone walls and columns, inspired the Paiute name uncapi cunump or “circle of painted cliffs”.
A few miles north of the monument, the Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway (Highway 143) slices east across the plateau to Panguitch Lake, about 20 miles east of the Highway 148 turnoff.
Panguitch Lake is a popular summer and winter fishing spot and recreational area. Paiute for “big fish”, the lake is known for some of the largest rainbow trout in the state. The forests of the vast Markaugunt Plateau surrounding Panguitch Lake are brilliant with color during autumn, including yellow and orange-red aspen leaves. They have drawn photographers from all over the country. Seventeen miles northeast of the lake is the tiny farming community of Panguitch, the gateway to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Leaving the “Land of Hoodoos” for another day, we meander north on Highway 89 along the banks of the Sevier River to Circleville, Butch Cassidy’s boyhood home.
Just north of Circleville, Highway 62 follows the Otter Creek River east before turning north near Otter Creek State Park Reservoir. The park offers year-round fishing and boating.
Skirting the Fishlake National Forest, Highway 62 ascends into the 11,000-foot-high Parker Range toward Burrville and the junction with the Capitol Reef Scenic Byway (Highway 24). About 10 miles southeast of the junction is the 27-mile-long Fishlake Scenic Byway (Highway 25) that loops around Fish Lake, another worthwhile detour. Surrounded by the 11,000-foot peaks of the Fish Lake Mountains, the cold, clear waters of this stunning mountain lake offer great trout-lake fishing.
The loop returns to Highway 24 at Loa, the small town named by Franklin W. Young after Hawaii’s famous Mauna Loa. Young lived on Hawaii’s Big Island for years before relocating to Utah. From Loa, Highway 24 sweeps southeast across the Awapa Plateau before descending into Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.
The Paiutes called the Capitol Reef area with its multicolored rock formations, “the land of the sleeping rainbow”. Early pioneers named the region after the impassable ridges they called reefs and the limestone dome that reminded them of capitol buildings back East.
Near the visitor center in Fruita, you can explore the restored one-room Torrey Log School and Church, built in 1889 and pick fresh fruit from the surrounding orchard.
Winding south from Torrey, Scenic Byway 12 climbs to high elevations in spots on its journey to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park.
And these my friends, are the subject of another post.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.