Patchwork Parkway: The Steepest Road in Utah

Driving State Route143 will put your brakes to the test with 13 percent grade; it’s the steepest paved road in the state

Starting and ending points: Parowan to Panguitch

Steepest section: Area around Brian Head Ski Resort

Max grade: 13 percent

Go up this road that tops out at 10,567 feet at Cedar Breaks and your engine will grind to let you know this is no ordinary route. Come down this road and your brakes will be constantly tested.

Climbing 4,600 feet in about 18 miles from Parowan to Cedar Breaks National Monument in Iron County, State Route 143 is the steepest paved state road in Utah with a maximum grade of 13 percent.

The highway is among about a dozen roads in the state that have a geographic distinction.

Patchwork Parkway near Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most major U.S. highways don’t exceed a 6 percent grade, the magic number for the preferred maximum steepness of a road. Parleys Canyon (I-80) has a maximum grade of 6 percent.

In the U.S. only the grades of interstates are required by law to remain under a certain percentage. A grade is based on the number of feet that a road changes every 100 feet at its steepest part. The interstate system in the United States must maintain roads with no more than a 6 percent grade. However, the steepest road in Utah will make you grip your steering wheel tight!

Originally an old pioneer road used to transport logging materials, Utah Route 143 winds its way through the Dixie National Forest. The highway can reach grades of over 13 percent as it ascends to the top of the ski resort. As a result, drivers frequently overheat their brakes and large trucks will try to avoid the byway altogether to keep them from catching fire.

Patchwork Parkway near Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and of course, having fresh snow and ice on the ground really doesn’t help matters. Neither do the out-of-towners with two-wheel-drive cars and no winter driving skills trying to make their way in late at night on Fridays.

Utah Route 143 is so steep that the toughest parts only have a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit. This highway is also known as the Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway or as the Patchwork Parkway Scenic Byway.

The state highway climbs drivers over 10,500 feet into mountainous terrain near Cedar Breaks National Park. It’s also traversed by skiers headed to Brian Head Resort.

If you’re planning on traveling Route 143, remember that it’s not the drive up to the top that’s the scariest. Most hairy incidents happen while descending as inexperienced drivers may burn their brakes out. It’s not unheard of for freight trucks to have their breaks catch on fire while navigating hairpin turns with no shoulders.

Patchwork Parkway at Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Route 143 is the second-highest paved road in Utah. The highest, State Route 150 is the highest paved road by a few hundred more feet.

An unpaved gravel road that travels around Mount Brigham may be the highest in Utah. It reaches over 11,100 feet above sea level as it travels around Mount Brigham. The unpaved road breaks off of Tushar Road on Highway 89 south of Marysvale.

If jeep routes are considered unpaved roads, some jeep passes go higher. There are no official records about exactly how high these routes go, however. 

State Route 143 is a meandering drive between the small cities of Parowan and Panguitch. Parowan is 70 miles northeast of St. George a little more than 230 milessouthwest of Salt Lake City.

Fall colors and lava flows along Patchwork Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brian Head Resort is a small ski area that gets most of its business from surrounding desert cities. It is only accessible via Route 143 and the steepest grade on the route must be traversed to get there. 

The main drag into Cedar Breaks National Park is Route 143. The highway also skirts Panguitch Lake about 30 minutes outside of the City of Panguitch.

Route 143 has a stretch with a grade of 13 percent. This is over twice as steep as allowed on any interstate in the nation. Between the town of Parowan and Cedar Breaks National Monument, travelers ascend around 4,600 feet in approximately 18 miles.

Because the road takes drivers up high into the mountains, it’s important to carry chains in the winter. The Utah Department of Transportation issues chain controls during bad weather conditions.

Panguitch Lake on the Patchwork Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panguitch Lake is a reservoir on Route 143 that’s a well-known spot for fishermen. The word panguitch means big fish in the Paiute language and this is an apt name as Panguitch Lake is popular for its huge trout.

Before the 1900s, the western part of Route 143 was used by pioneers. In 1933, it officially became a state highway. By 1985, and after two additions, the road had become the length that it remains today. 

Route 143 is known as the Patchwork Parkway after the perilous journey that a group of Mormon pioneers undertook in the winter of 1864. In desperation, a group in Panguitch decided to walk to Parowan in thick snow for needed food. Everyone back in town was starving to death.

After traveling so far that they were too committed to their journey to turn back, the snow became so thick that it was impossible to navigate. Fortunately, the pioneers discovered that the homemade patchwork quilts they had with them for warmth also allowed them to walk on the snow without sinking. It took them almost two weeks but the men methodically used their quilts to inch their way to Parowan and back with the desperately needed flour.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Besides Utah Route 143 being Utah’s steepest paved road with a 13 percent grade, the following tidbits about other Utah highways have been gathered from Utah maps, the Utah Department of Transportation, and other sources:

  • Highest paved road in Utah: Mirror Lake Highway (SR 150) which crosses Bald Mountain Pass, 10,715 feet above sea level. The road is usually open June to early November depending on the weather. Its latest-ever opening was June 29, 1995.
  • Highest paved road along the Wasatch Front: The Mount Nebo loop road that reaches 9,353 feet above sea level at the Monument trailhead.
  • Highest gravel road in Utah: From Big John Flat to a high ridge in the Tushar Mountains between Beaver and Marysvale at 11,500 feet above sea level.
  • Highest gravel road along the Wasatch Front: Skyline Drive in Davis County between Farmington and Bountiful. A spur road that heads north to the Francis Peak radar domes above Fruit Heights tops out at almost 9,500 feet above sea level. The road is passable by cars in the summer.
  • Lowest elevation paved road: River Road in Washington County south of Bloomington Hills and St. George at 2,697 feet above sea level.
  • Lowest elevation unpaved road: Several jeep roads in the Beaver Dam Wash area, west of St. George that approach 2,500 feet in elevation.
  • First Utah roads to be hard-surfaced: Richards Street in downtown Salt Lake City from South Temple to 100 South and also State Street from South Temple to 400 South—both in 1891 and probably paved with a combination of granite blocks, asphalt, and brick. Main Street in Salt Lake City from South Temple to 300 South was the next street paved.
  • Longest straight stretch of road: I-80 on the Salt Flats between Wendover and Knolls with an approximately 50-mile straightaway.
  • Longest tunnel: Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel (SR 9), 5,613-feet long, the nation’s fifth-longest land tunnel. It opened in 1930 and is in Zion National Park.
  • Best paved road test for acrophobiacs: Probably Scenic Byway 12 between Escalante and Boulder where the highway traverses a knife-edge with high cliffs on both sides of the roadway and no guardrails.
  • Most likely roads to get a speeding ticket: Salt Lake’s North Temple (600-650 West) and State Street (2700-3000 South) plus Syracuse’s Allison Way (1525 West) and West Valley City’s 2700 West at 4650 South are all mentioned as the state’s newest speeding traps on the speedtrap.com website.

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