By Gail Newbold
Utah’s Burr Trail is a 67-mile scenic drive between Boulder and Bullfrog into some of the state’s most beautiful and extraordinary country. You’ll see views of the Henry Mountains, the colorfully contorted Waterpocket Fold, red Circle Cliffs and Long Canyon. Along the way are numerous hikes and side trips. Visit https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/driving-the-burr-trail.htm for an excellent mile-by-mile guide.
One evening after dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, my friends and I spontaneously ventured onto the spectacular Burr Trail where we found ourselves sandwiched in by sheer walls of sandstone towering hundreds of feet above the road. Awestruck and exhilarated by the remote and mysterious beauty, we reluctantly turned the car around since night was falling. But I vowed to return someday and begin in the morning.
I made good on that promise in the spring of this year, and in spite of an entire day on the trail, was still left longing for more. Take my advice: Start early and stay late. The Burr Trail can be driven in as few as two hours without stopping, but I recommend channeling a New York subway — stop often even if for just a moment. And allow time for hiking and picnicking.
This blog details my favorite stops and stretches of road. It doesn’t mention the countless times we pulled over to exclaim over a view or rock formation, or photograph a patch of flowers. And on this day in mid-May, we almost had the Burr Trail to ourselves. We’d stop in the middle of the road to snap a photo and never cause another driver to wait.
Stop 1. Deer Creek Campground. After cruising slowly past gorgeous checkerboard sandstone sand dunes and a meandering roadside creek lined with lime-green cottonwood trees, we made our first stop at the Deer Creek Campground. We followed a babbling creek for awhile until my friend freaked at the sight of a snake and insisted we turn back. We weren’t hungry, but this would be a great spot for a picnic.
Stop 2. Singing Canyon. Don’t be surprised to see a flautist or ad hoc choir in this easily accessible slot canyon with incredible acoustics. But you don’t need to be a musician to appreciate its beauty. Green foliage contrasts with colorful walls that soar to 80 feet. It’s shady and cool even in the summer and makes for an enticing picnic spot. Look for a small, unmarked paved pullout on the north (left) side of the road then simply walk into the canyon for about five minutes on a wide, flat trail.
Stop 3. Long Canyon. About five miles further along the Burr Trail, we entered the narrow Long Canyon whose mystery and majesty so entranced us that evening years earlier. Its vertical multi-hued walls continue for seven magical miles. Be sure to notice the diadem — the golden sandstone crowning the red cliffs. Just before stop four (below), you’ll see the turnoff onto the 28-mile Wolverine Loop Road, highly recommended but only if you have a high-clearance vehicle. You might be able to drive 10 or so miles to the Horse Canyon Trailhead and hike far enough to see 120-foot tall trees, one with a 13-foot diameter trunk.
Stop 4. Western Boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. One of the things that makes the Burr Trail so uniquely fascinating is that in just 67 miles it passes through a variety of scenic vistas. After the sheer cliffs of Long Canyon, we drove through Pinon forests, fields of wildflowers and eventually, views of the jagged west side of the Waterpocket Fold, Henry Mountains, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Circle Cliffs (about the halfway point on the road). Stop to drink it all in.
Stop 6. Lower Muley Twist Canyon. Park just off the Burr Trail road and enjoy superb views to the east and a picnic area and trailhead to Lower Muley Twist Canyon on the west. Drop into the wash and hike for awhile, looking for geodes along the way. About one mile before Lower Muley is the junction into Upper Muley Twist Canyon — if you’re lucky enough to have a high-clearance vehicle. There are hiking trails, views and more arches.
Stop 5. Peek-a-Boo Arch. We nearly gasped at the beauty of the Peek-a-Boo Arch set off by the surrounding red rock and green underbrush in the foreground.
Stop 6. Scenic Switchbacks. Before embarking on this drive, I was only intimidated by one section of the road — the scenic switchbacks. I imagined us plunging or sliding to our deaths. Needless to say, I was happy and relieved to see that as long as I took it slowly, there would be no loss of life. And in fact, that section of road was one of my favorites. The views from the top look like a path through someone’s exotic Play-Doh creation. You’d be hard-pressed to find a view that surpassed this one anywhere in Utah.
Stop 7. High Desert. Just weeks prior to driving the Burr Trail, I spent a few days exploring Utah’s West Desert. After the Burr Trail, I decided I preferred the high desert landscape on this portion of the road — though both deserts have their beauty. Or maybe it was just that Ray Golden, president of Lake Powell Adventures at Ticaboo Lodge, made this high desert so fun. He pointed out petroglyphs, arrowhead rocks, Indian rock chips, colorful flowers, blooming yucca and petrified wood. We sped to the Halls Creek Overlook over three miles of rutted roads (off the main road) on RZRs feeling both exhilarated and terrified. Ray was careful to stop 50 yards from the overlook just before the boundary to Capitol Reef National Park, as required. We soaked in views of the Brimhall Natural bridge — a beautiful double arch, the Waterpocket Fold, the Grand Gulch and the tempting but difficult Halls Creek Narrows hiking trail.
Back in our car on the Burr Trail, we drove about 20 more miles before ending our delightful day at the Anasazi Restaurant at Bullfrog Marina. We enjoyed views of Lake Powell while eating chipotle mac and cheese, street corn salad and maple apple salmon while telling ourselves we’d start earlier and stay later next time around. And drive a high-clearance vehicle in order to explore more sights off the main road.
The Bookends: Before and After the Burr Trail in Southern Utah
Assuming you take my advice and spend from dawn to dusk enjoying this fascinating part of Utah, you’re going to need someplace to sleep and eat on either end. We spent our first night at the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch located about three miles off Highway 12 on a winding road through Pinon pines and a few miles from the start of the Burr Trail.
Co-owner Brandi Hardman took us on a tour of the 150-acre property, showing us where groups rent space for yoga retreats, weddings and concerts. We saw the organic garden, grass-fed cows and nature trail past beaver dams to a small waterfall. During the summer months, there are firepits, s’mores, yard games, bonfires, fishing and much more.
We stayed in a beautiful spacious cabin with massive windows, full kitchen and decks for relaxing outdoors. Guests can rent cabins, rooms in the lodge or upscale tents and teepees. We dined at Sweetwater Kitchen, the on-site farm-to-table restaurant presided over by Chef Eric Arballo and his team.
I’ve enjoyed few meals in my life as delicious as dinner that night. We ate a green salad with shaved parmesan and golden raisins tossed with a pine-nut vinaigrette; focaccia bread with herb butter; Utah red trout with agave tomato sauce, pickled sweet peppers and shaved watermelon radishes; braised short ribs with a hint of thyme and saffron with polenta, stewed red bell peppers with Indian spices and sage chips. Dessert was a flavor-exploding bruleed goat-cheese cheesecake with coriander blueberry compote with fresh mint and blueberries.
Our second night we slept at the Ticaboo Lodge, located 10 miles north of Lake Powell at the base of the Henry Mountains. It felt blessedly remote and blended beautifully into the surrounding desert scenery. There’s a pool, gift shop and S’Moki’s Grill. My room was surprisingly spacious with wood flooring, white bedspread, art, a pretty round table and chairs in the corner and even an artificial tree.
The reality is that most people use the lodge as a convenient and restful base camp for the huge variety of rentals and off-site guided adventures on land and water offered by North Lake Powell Adventures. The staff can tell you the best places to go or escort you to the beautiful Hite area of Lake Powell, the high desert or hard-to-find slot canyons. Guides are certified with Wilderness First Responder, Utah Master Naturalist, and Certified Canyoneering and Self-Rescue Training.