Utah State Route 128 (Colorado River Scenic Byway) & How It Came To Be

Every twist and turn holds something new

This spectacular route along the Colorado River gorge begins at the Colorado River Bridge on the north end of Moab. Spending a day exploring this section of the river gorge will provide you with jaw-dropping scenery and take you to the sixth-longest natural rock span in the United States, world-famous movie locations, beautiful picnic and bouldering areas, a Film Heritage Museum, a large variety of hiking trails including one that goes to the breathtaking Fisher Towers, historical points of interest, guided horseback riding opportunities, outdoor dining, a brand new mercantile, and a ghost town.

Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah State Route 128 (SR-128) is a 44-mile-long state highway north of Moab. The entire highway length has been designated the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway as part of the Utah Scenic Byways program. This road is part of the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, a National Scenic Byway. Residents of Moab frequently refer to SR-128 as the river road after the Colorado River which the highway follows.

The highway was originally constructed to connect rural cities in eastern Utah with Grand Junction, Colorado, the largest city in the region. Part of the highway was merged into the Utah state highway system in 1931; the rest was taken over by the state and assigned route number 128 in 1933. Today, the highway is used as a scenic drive for visitors to the area.

As parts of the road are narrow with blind corners and no shoulders, the Utah Department of Transportation has prohibited trucks and vehicles over 55,000 pounds from the entire highway.

Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between Moab and Castle Valley, the Colorado River and indirectly Route 128 form the southern boundary of Arches National Park. Arches National Park is so named because of over 2,000 natural arches inside park boundaries. While the highway does offer views of several features in the park, there is no park access along the highway.

Popular attractions along this portion include Negro Bill Canyon with hiking trails to Morning Glory Arch, campgrounds, and boat docks at a curve in the river called Big Bend.

The gorge widens where the highway passes by Castle Valley and Professor Valley which have been the shooting locations for many western films (including Wagon Master and Rio Grande) and television commercials. Near the east end of the valley the highway crosses Onion Creek, a stream sourced by springs that contain naturally occurring minerals that produce a strong odor in the water. At the east end of the valley the highway has a view of the Fisher Towers, a set of dark red spires.

Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway crosses the Colorado River at the site of the Dewey Bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This bridge was the longest suspension bridge in Utah until April 2008 when it was destroyed by a fire.

One of the outstanding sites along the route is the Fisher Towers Recreation Area where you’ll find rock pinnacles that rise 900 feet above the red-and-purple canyons.

The towers are composed of three fins of Cutler Formation sandstone that is emerging from the greater mesa on a geological timescale. The Cutler sandstone is harder than the surrounding rock and is capped with a thicker layer of Moenkopi sandstone (which means that when the Moenkopi materials were being laid down these fins of Cutler sandstone were in a local low spot on the surface of the planet).

Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the Fisher Towers are famous around the world because of the photos taken of them and for the classic rock climbing routes they offer.

The Dewey Suspension Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in Utah but it was only eight feet wide from rail to rail. The bridge was constructed of iron and wood in 1916 and served as one of only three bridges that crossed the Colorado River in Utah for many years.

By the time the bridge was replaced and the highway rerouted in 1989, many drivers had lost their side mirrors to the bridge. In 1989 the bridge became part of the Kokopelli Trail, a bike and hike route along the Colorado River.

On the west side of the bridge is a park and roadside rest area. On the east side is an abandoned gas station and the ghost town of Dewey. Below the bridge on the river’s edge is a campground. In April, 2008, a 7-year-old was playing with matches in the campground and accidentally lit a brush fire that shortly burned all the wood sections of the bridge. Presently, the steel towers and cables that supported the bridge are still there but nothing else.

Today, the drive from Moab to Castle Valley along the Colorado River is a scenic thirty-minute drive, smoothly paved with numerous recreational attractions along the way.

Creating Utah 128 was a significant project over a century ago and a major milestone in the county’s transportation infrastructure.

Castle Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late 1800s, gold in the La Sal Mountains and upper Castle Valley lured prospectors to Miner’s Basin and Castleton. Moab began to see an influx of Euro-American settlers as well developing into a small agricultural community.

However, due to the rugged landscape traveling between Moab and Castle Valley took days. Travelers seeking to get from Moab to the mining and ranching settlements near today’s Castle Valley often traveled on horseback up through Grandstaff Canyon, overland over the fins and canyons of Sand Flats, and eventually down into Castle Valley via Pinhook Draw or the so-called Heavenly Staircase, a dramatically steep trail dropping over one thousand feet into Castle Valley.

Settlers were eager to make travel easier connecting the remote communities to one another more effectively. In 1900, Grand County petitioned for a new road to be constructed along the Colorado River corridor.

Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Early the following year, Captain Samuel King was allotted by the Grand County Commission one year to build this Grand River Toll Road along the south side of the river. King organized local laborers who used horse-powered equipment to carve a wagon road into the rugged, rocky landscape. King’s toll road was completed in 1902 making transportation for wagons and mule trains significantly easier.

In the 1920s, the road was rerouted to sit above the high water mark and the River Road was designated Utah State Route 128 as part of the Federal Highways Act in 1921. The influx of automobiles promoted road improvements eventually including paving the entire length of the roadway.

In 1989, River Road was designated a Scenic Byway and today it is both a popular tourist destination as well as remaining an integral thoroughfare connecting remote communities.

Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road