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

Most recent Utah travel stories

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

The Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park

Hiking, camping, and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park

Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind, and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado Rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires, and deeply incised canyons.

Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression, and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers, and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history also comes alive in Canyonlands National Park with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos, and communities are associated with the land in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.

Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.

But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region—the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s.  Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is essentially three parks in one separated by the Green and Colorado rivers which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.

No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance) and no bridges span the rivers. 

Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or by driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.

The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.

Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Moab is the closest big town to the park. 

Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of Canyonland’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north many visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora, and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.

The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its visitor center inside the entrance to this section about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet, and a picnic table. There are no paved roads there although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands National Park experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods. 

Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit Canyonlands and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep but the park recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.

There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive depending on carrier but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles and almost none in The Maze except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Take a driving tour

You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive which makes a Y shape with access to Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon, and Grand View Point.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go hiking

Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through Canyonland’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below.

Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site.

At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slick rock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park. 

In Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. When you’re in The Needles, you’re down in the canyon walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa. This also means many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.

A top pick for a shorter hike is the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail which loops among eerily twisted formations.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch sunset or sunrise

The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk. 

Go stargazing

Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, Canyonlands National Park goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities. 

Visitors are encouraged to take a DIY approach to stargazing. Every night that isn’t cloudy there is a dark-sky show in the park whether there is a ranger there or not. On a moonless night, all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go cycling

An ever-expanding network of mountain bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. You’re surrounded by trails everywhere you look and there is so much to do at every skill level. A favorite ride is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of Canyonlands and continues into the park winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below.

Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go river rafting

Some visitors choose to see Canyonlands National Park and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Wildlife sightings are common with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead.

Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.

Older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting could check out J-Rig trips. The J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping options

With numerous camping options, an RV trip to Canyonlands is a breeze.

Let’s start with identifying the best time to plan your Canyonlands camping trip.

Winter can be challenging due to low temperatures that could harm an RV’s water system. Additionally, snow and ice can make travel difficult and potentially dangerous.

Summer camping in Canyonlands is a popular choice. However, Utah’s summer heat requires ample water and cooling methods. Note that in-park campgrounds do not offer hookups so if you need to run your RV air conditioner, consider staying outside the park.

I recommend spring and fall for Canyonlands camping. During these seasons, you’ll experience sunny days and cool nights, perfect for dry camping. If possible, plan your visit in April, May, October, or November.

Now that you know the best times for your Canyonlands camping adventure, let’s explore the best places to camp. The area offers a variety of options including in-park campgrounds, boondocking, and full-service RV parks.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are my top picks:

Island in the Sky Campground

Island in the Sky Campground is a small in-park campground near the visitor center. It offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites at $15 per night. While there are no hookups, you’ll find potable water outside the visitor center and amenities like toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. This is really not a big rig-friendly campground but it is easy to maneuver and there are a couple spots that will accommodate a big rig.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Campground

The Needles Campground, another in-park option, offers 26 individual campsites and three group sites. Reservations are accepted from spring through fall with first-come, first-served availability during the rest of the year. The camping fee is $20 per night and amenities include toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.

Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites

For free camping on government-owned land just a few minutes outside of Canyonlands National Park, consider Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites. While amenities are non-existent, the location between two national parks and proximity to Moab makes it a fantastic choice for boondocking.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sun Outdoors Moab Downtown

If you prefer a full-service camping experience, Sun Outdoors Downtown Moab is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Moab, you can easily access shopping and dining. The campground offers full-hookup sites, a swimming pool, and clean restrooms with showers, ensuring a comfortable stay.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway town

Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events such as the Moab Folk Festival in early November. 

Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, and a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about.

Moab offers a wide range of camping and lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining.

Come morning, before heading into the park fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros, or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café. After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs, and stouts, and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.

If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles Park entrance offers several quality RV parks including Mountain View RV Park and Campground and Devil’s Canyon Campground.

En route

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park

Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsula like spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as Canyonlands National Park.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

When traveling to Canyonlands from the north replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down State Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Arches National Park

Most people traveling to Canyonlands National Park combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished, and ice-chiseled rock markings.

Canyonlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Location: Southeast Utah

Acreage: 337,598 acres

Highest point: 7,180 feet (above Big Pocket in the Needles District)

Lowest point: 3,900 feet (on the Colorado River)

Main attraction: Stunning canyon views and unusual rock formations

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go: April through early June and late August through Novemer, for more temperate weather

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

Most Scenic Road Trips in Utah

Make plans now to take all 10 of the best road trips in Utah—you won’t regret it

 Utah presents an array of scenic drives that will leave roadtrippers salivating for more. The terrain is vast and scarred with stunning canyons, defiant mountains, random but complex rock formations, fossil and archeological remnants from distant eras, and plenty of cool pit-stop or side-trip lookouts, interpretive sites, hikes, towns, parks, and even additional branching roadways.

Utah is a valued chunk of many inspiring National Scenic Byways and All-American Roadways. Also, it contributes its slew of state-sponsored drives across a wide spectrum of lengths and intensities. Depending on your odometer goals and gas fund, these are the best, most scenic road trips to undertake in the Beehive State. 

Zion National Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Zion National Park Roadways

Picturesque and world-famous Zion National Park has a few great options for exploring with wheels. A lovely lead-up to the East entrance is the Zion National Scenic Byway (State Route 9) which begins at the intersection with State Route 17 in the city of La Verkin and cruises for 54 miles to the park entrance and then onwards to Mount Carmel Junction. Along the way, the byway passes through the towns of Rockville and Springdale and the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Also en route is the turnoff for Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. If adventuring after the Thanksgiving long weekend, motorists can continue in their own car along this cherished route. However, during peak season (late spring through early fall) visitors must transfer to the official shuttles to ease the congestion in the heart of the park. 

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

The Utah segment of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway provides an extensive tour through the past and present stomping grounds of the Ancestral Puebloan and other Indigenous peoples of the Four Corners region (the meeting point of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico).

It’s best to break this over 400-mile drive into two or three-day chunks to hit all of the amazing stops spread across sections of U.S. 191 and 163 and State Route 261 and 262. Such highlights include the cliff dwellings of the Canyonlands region, Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, Hovenweep National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Valley of the Gods, and Natural Bridges National Monument to name a few. Round trippers can return the way they came perhaps saving certain stops for the return journey or jumping on this next entry to switch up the scenery.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bicentennial Highway

Southeastern Utah’s Bicentennial Highway (U.S. 95) is a perfect complement to the culturally-focused Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway. This highway goes for 133 miles from the small town of Hanksville back to the San Juan city of Blanding (where the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, a highlight shared with the Trail of the Ancients can be found).

To the West, views of the Henry Mountains can be enjoyed. The road then dives into classic canyon country before booting across the long and lean Lake Powell/Colorado River at the Hite Crossing Bridge (near the arresting Hite Overlook). As with the Trail of the Ancients, a side-trip loop around Bridge View Drive in Natural Bridges National Monument is a must. 

Arches Scenic Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Connecting Arches, Dead Horse, and Canyonlands

This one is more of a makeshift road trip based out of Moab with a bunch of cool stops that can be made at your leisure. For starters, head north into Arches National Park and make the out-and-back journey on Arches Scenic Drive.

Depending on how much time you invest in the various viewpoints and hikes either return to Moab to enjoy the offerings of this pretty desert town or head up to the turn-off for UT-313, marked by the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park. Shoot all the way down to Dead Horse State Park, and then backtrack to Grand View Point Road and descend into Canyonlands National Park/the Island in the Sky mesa. 

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Scenic Byway 12

Utah’s State Route/Scenic Byway 12 is designated as an All-American Road meaning it exemplifies particularly unique features of the country’s landscape. This 123-mile stretch links U.S. 89 just south of Panguitch (the Western terminus) with State Route 24 just east of Torrey (the Northeastern terminus). Travelers will get a taste of the Dixie National Forest, the army of hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, a view of the Henry Mountains, the sandstone cliffs of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the pastel hues of Capitol Reef National Park plus the state parks of Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Petrified Forest, and Anasazi Museum with random tunnels and eye-catching rock formations randomly punctuating the drive. 

Potash Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Potash Scenic Byway

If a short, Moab-based, add-on road trip is all that is desired, scoot off on the Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway for 17 miles of bliss. State Route 279 or simply Potash Road is a hidden gem drive and given the low density of traffic is also a favorite among cyclists. This route follows the curves of the Colorado River to the border of Canyonlands National Park.

The river is contrasted by prominent sandstone cliffs and a popular climbing spot known as Wall Street. Right out of the gates, this drive offers terrific views of Moab Valley. Next, jump out at Potash Road Dinosaur Tracks and Petroglyphs to appreciate the accidental imprints left behind by the extinct giants and the intentional markings left behind by some of the area’s first human inhabitants. And all the while, keep a keen eye for those amazing arches and creative rock formations that Utah is famous for. 

Upper Colorado Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (State Route 128)

This spectacular route along the Colorado River gorge begins at the Colorado River Bridge on the north end of Moab. For the first 13 miles, it parallels the Colorado River within a narrow section of the gorge providing breathtaking views of the surrounding red sandstone cliffs. Popular attractions along this portion of the route include viewpoints of the river, public camping areas, and Grandstaff Canyon.

After 24.7 miles the highway passes a viewpoint for an amazing view of the red rock spires of the Fisher Towers. After leaving the valley, the road winds farther up the river gorge until arriving at the site of historic Dewey Bridge at 29.8 miles. Unfortunately Dewey Bridge was destroyed in April 2008 by a brush fire. The road then follows the northern bank of the river before exiting the Colorado River gorge. The highway proceeds across open desert toward the ghost town of Cisco at 44 miles. After another 5 miles the route intersects Interstate 70.

Patchwork Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Patchwork Parkway

Very few routes in the U.S. exhibit a 4,500-foot elevation change that crosses six major life zones in 51 miles. The Patchwork Parkway (State Route 143) skirts lava flow only a few thousand years old before passing Panguitch Lake, a spectacular, large mountain lake renowned for its excellent fishing.

This topmost rise of the geological Grand Staircase showcases the 2,000-foot-deep Cedar Breaks amphitheater with its vibrant hues of pink, orange, red, and other coral colors carved from the Claron Formation.

This highway is also known as the Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway.

Prehistoric petroglyphs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Nine Mile Canyon

Cutting through the Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah is the must-see Nine Mile Canyon, dubbed the longest art gallery in the world. In this already seemingly sculpted place, the prehistoric Fremont Culture, Ute people, and other indigenous groups inscribed over 10,000 petroglyphs onto the canyon walls.

The 46-mile-long (one-way), winding Nine Mile Canyon Road brings these ancient and captivating works of art into view. Yes, despite the name, this road trip will chew up some solid miles. Thankfully, the road has been recently paved which makes the going a little easier for casual motorists but also spares the petroglyphs from harm that the kicked-up dust was causing over the years. Nine Mile Canyon Road can be accessed off Highway 191 near the Utah/Colorado border towns of Helper and Price. 

La Sal Mountain Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. La Sal Mountain Loop

From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this back road is an adventure. This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR 128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab.

It takes about 3 hours to complete this drive. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs. The La Sals are the most photographed mountain range in Utah, providing a dramatic background to the red rock mesas, buttes, and arches below.

With so many chart-topping national, state, and native parks/monuments, having a car is essential for taking in all Utah offers. Sometimes the trick is to drive just a little bit at a time, taking many breaks along the way or transitioning to an adventure on foot (rope, boat, or bicycle). But on other occasions, it can be rewarding to bank a ton of miles and appreciate how much the landscape can change with the climbing odometer. The best road trip is the one that calls to you but these ten entries are a great place to start.  

Worth Pondering…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

Moab’s Scenic Byways

Every trip to Moab should include a drive along at least one scenic byway

The Moab area is blessed with four scenic byways­. National and state scenic byways help recognize, preserve, and enhance selected roads throughout the U. S. based on their archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (SR-128)

Length: 44.0 miles

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This spectacular route along the Colorado River gorge begins at the Colorado River Bridge on the north end of Moab. For the first 13 miles it parallels the Colorado River within a narrow section of the gorge providing breathtaking views of the surrounding red sandstone cliffs. Popular attractions along this portion of the route include viewpoints of the river, public camping areas, and Grandstaff Canyon. At 13 miles the gorge widens as the highway proceeds past Castle and Professor Valleys.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After 24.7 miles the highway passes a viewpoint for an amazing view of the red rock spires of the Fisher Towers. After leaving the valley, the road winds farther up the river gorge until arriving at the site of historic Dewey Bridge at 29.8 miles. Unfortunately Dewey Bridge was destroyed in April 2008 by a brush fire. The road then follows the northern bank of the river before exiting the Colorado River gorge. The highway proceeds across open desert toward the ghost town of Cisco at 44 miles. After another 5 miles the route intersects Interstate 70.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway (SR-279)

Length: 17.0 miles

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Scenic Byway provides great views of the Colorado River, ancient rock art, and dinosaur tracks. A late afternoon start is rewarding as the sunset on the reddish-orange sandstone cliffs along the route is especially beautiful on the return drive to Moab. The byway begins 4.1 miles north of Moab where Potash Road (SR-279) turns off of Highway 191. After 2.7 miles Potash Road enters the deep gorge of the Colorado River. At the 4 mile point, look for rock climbers on the cliffs along the section of Potash Road.

At 5.1 miles several petroglyph panels are visible on cliffs on the right side of the highway. At 5.9 miles the Poison Spider Trail Parking will be on the right. A kiosk on the end of the parking lot will have a map for a short trail to dinosaur tracks and rock art. Trailhead parking for the trail to Corona and Bowtie Arches is available at 9.9 miles.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look for Jug Handle Arch at 13.5 miles. Shortly beyond Jug Handle Arch, the canyon widens and the sheer cliffs below Dead Horse Point State Park become visible in the distance. The paved highway ends at the Intrepid Potash Mine where potash, a mineral often used as a fertilizer, is extracted. From the end of the byway drivers with high clearance vehicles can continue on a dirt road to Canyonlands National Park.

Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway (SR-313)

Length: 35.0 miles

Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway (SR-313) takes you through miles of incredible red rock canyon country. To reach the byway, head north from Moab on US-191. After about 9 miles look for the “Dead Horse Point State Park” sign and turn left (west) onto SR-313. This is the start of the byway.

Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a series of hairpin curves as you begin to ascend the plateau, the road mellows out allowing you to appreciate the scenery. At about 14.6 miles from the beginning of SR-313 a fork to the left leads to Dead Horse Point. Towering 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the overlook provides a breathtaking panorama of Canyonlands’ sculpted pinnacles and buttes.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After leaving Dead Horse Point State Park, backtrack to Highway 313, turn left, and head toward the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, ultimately ending at Grandview Point. This section of the park sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa—quite literally an Island in the Sky.

La Sal Mountain Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Sal Mountain Loop Road Scenic Backway

Length: 60.0 miles

La Sal Mountain Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The La Sal Mountain Loop Road Scenic Backway features spectacular scenery ranging from the forested heights of the La Sal Mountains to expansive views of the red rock landscape below. This paved Scenic Backway begins on US 191, six miles south of Moab, and winds north over the La Sal Mountains through Castle Valley, ending at Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway U-128.

Returning to Moab provides a 60 mile loop drive that requires approximately 3 hours to complete. Note that several hairpin turns on the Castle Valley side of this route are unsuitable for large RVs.

Worth Pondering…

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.

—Confucius