Rural America ~ Desert Southwest Road-trips: Kanab to Ridgway   9 comments

On the Ralf Lauren Ranch near Ridgway, Colorado on a crystal-cold late fall morning.

America is a big place.  There are large swathes of it that retain a rural or even wild character.  In the rural areas you’ll primarily see homes surrounded by lawns and landscaping.  No garden, no chickens, goats or horses.  No dairy cow supplying milk to the family.  And in fact little visual evidence of a family.  Where are all the kids who once cared for those animals, and after chores roamed the woods and fields?   Most likely riding to yet another stop on their busy schedules or inside looking at screens.

Things have obviously changed.  But in much of rural America there remains just enough of the traditional character (and characters!) to allow a casual visitor to be transported back to a simpler age.  That is what this series of posts is attempting to do, at least with its pictures.  Since I believe in passing on some of what I know in this blog and not just waxing lyrical, I’m highlighting a few select road-trips that I’ve done several times, journeys that will get you off the main tourist routes while still hitting popular destinations that in my opinion are not to be missed.

Last time we traveled from one favorite national park to another: Death Valley, California to Zion in Utah.  Check out that post.  For an introduction to the geography, culture and history of the Desert Southwest, check out the previous post.  Now let’s continue our journey through the Southwest, traveling from Kanab, Utah to Ridgway, Colorado.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah.

Kanab to Ridgway

This trip begins where the last one left off, Zion Park.  Kanab is a short distance from Zion’s east entrance.  Unless you’ve already been there and want to save your time for new places, you’re going to want to begin with that scenic wonder.  Kanab is worth visiting for its movie history and small-town vibe.  Have breakfast at Nedra’s, where many old-time movie stars chowed down.  Rooms are fairly reasonable in town, but if you’re camping a great choice is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park just north of town (image above).

An old barn in Kanab Canyon sits in a pasture used by horses cared for by the folks at Best Friends.

If you have two or three extra days on your hands, consider volunteering at Best Friends animal shelter a short drive north of Kanab.  Click the link to go to their site.  You can book it ahead and stay there either in a room or if you have a camper there’s a couple nice sites free for volunteers.  It’s the world’s largest true no-kill shelter and houses all manner of orphaned animals from dogs & cats to horses & pot-belly pigs.

Taking a break while walking one of the residents of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Utah.

If you’re traveling east from Kanab, you have a big decision to make.  You can either drive down Hwy. 89 to Lake Powell through Page into northern Arizona.  Or you can follow this trip and head north on 89 to join with Hwy. 12 east.  Both are spectacular journeys, and with a little time you could go as far as Page and then join this trip by either returning to Kanab or cutting across Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on one of the rough dirt roads (high-clearance recommended).

An old western movie set slowly crumbles near Kanab, Utah.

So drive north from Kanab on Hwy. 89 and turn east onto one of America’s most scenic roads, Hwy. 12.  Head up through Redrock Canyon, stopping to take a short hike through hoodoos that are a preview of Bryce Canyon.  After a stop at Bryce a bit further east, continue to Escalante.  This is a very small town surrounded by stunning canyon country.  Stop and get a feel for what life was like for early pioneers in this isolated spot.  Self-reliance is still a prized commodity here, and you will meet some real characters.

Not far from the junction of Highways 89 and 12 in Long Valley, cows deal with the season’s first snowfall.

There is so much scenery and so many hiking and photographic opportunities in these parts that it is tempting to go off on a wilderness tangent.  I did a series on the Grand Staircase, so check that out for a little guidance and some image-inspiration.  Continue on to Boulder, a town subtly different than Escalante but still very much tied to its ranching roots.  The small towns around here are dependent on the steady stream of seasonal tourists.

Head up over Boulder Mountain, where you have a stupendous view out over the country you’re about to traverse.  The unique and spectacular Waterpocket Fold is at your feet up here among the aspens.  As you drop off Boulder Mtn., the country becomes greener.  Take one of the roads west off the highway and see some of the ranches and farms.  With a good map you can easily find your way to the little town of Torrey via the “back door”.  Torrey retains most of its original character and is less about tourism than most towns on this route.

Ranchland at the base of Boulder Mountain, Utah.

Bid a sad adieu to Hwy. 12 where it ends just east of Torrey.  Turn right on Hwy. 24 and drop down to Capitol Reef National Park.  Here you’ll find orchards and the preserved remains of Mormon homesteads, all clustered along the beautiful Fremont River.  Note that instead of going over Boulder Mtn. you can reach Capitol Reef by traveling the amazing Burr Trail.  Don’t worry, it’s a road perfectly passable in a passenger car.

Reefs in this part of the world are not underwater.  Quirks of the local geology, they are long, steep escarpments that formed a barrier to pioneers traveling westward in wagons.  Think of how reefs in the sea form a barrier to boats and you understand the name.  In this case the pass through Capitol Reef comes courtesy of the Fremont River.

A bit of the old west survives at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Going east on Hwy. 24 you enter arid, unpeopled country.  It’s the perfect place to prepare for exploring a desert planet, which is why not far off the highway lies the Mars Desert Research Station.  You can make an appointment to tour the MDRS.  Turn north at Hanksville to stay on Hwy. 24 and travel toward the Interstate along the San Rafael Swell.  This is a magical formation to explore, with great canyon hikes.  Since it is not protected expect to share it with off-road vehicles, but it is definitely off the tourist track.  At its base lie the strange hoodoos of Goblin Valley.

Turn east on I-70 for a short drive to U.S. 191, where you’ll turn south toward Moab.  Moab was for most of its life a small remote town.  It briefly boomed during the uranium mining boom of the early 1950s.  Despite its current tourist-town status, I like Moab.  It draws an interesting mix of rock climbers, mountain bikers and off-roaders.  Drop in to the Red Rock Cafe for breakfast and you’ll see what I mean.

Big beautiful cottonwoods grow in the canyons surrounding Moab, Utah.

Of course you’ll want to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  But there are many other worthwhile hikes and bike rides in the region.  A great driving loop from Moab heads up over the La Sal Mtns. Loop Road and down to Castle Valley and the Colorado River.  Turn east on Hwy. 128 to visit Fisher Towers, then return west along the river back to Moab.  Many of the ranches along this route have been converted to guest and dude ranches.  But they give you a glimpse into the rural life of SW Utah.

Near Canyonlands National Park an old fence reminds of a time when cattle herding was one of the few jobs available.

From Moab go south on 191 a short distance to Hwy. 46 and turn left (east) toward La Sal and the Colorado border.  Cross out of Utah on a gloriously uncrowded route that becomes increasingly green.  You are in a transition now, passing off the Colorado Plateau into the Rocky Mountains.

Welcome!

Drive through tiny settlements with names like Bedrock, Redvale and Placerville, rural Colorado at its best.  When faced with confusing junctions, always take the road that heads east.  At Placerville, after driving through a lovely little valley lined with Colorado blue spruce, turn east again onto Hwy. 62.

A late-autumn scene on the Dallas Divide, Colorado.

Take Hwy. 62 over Dallas Divide through some of America’s most beautiful rural mountain scenery (images above and below).  For a closer look, turn up toward the peaks on the West Fork Road and drive through Ralf Lauren’s spectacular ranch (image at top).  To avoid trespassing stay on the road until you reach National Forest land.  Back on Hwy. 62, continue on to Ridgway, a still-authentic ranching community.  If it’s autumn and the aspens are in leaf, you will run out of space on your camera’s memory card!

A ranch is nestled among colorful aspens high in the San Juan Mtns. near Ridgway, Colo.

An off-pavement loop drive from Ridgway heads east up gravel county road 8 to Owl Creek Pass.  You can free-camp up here and then continue north to rejoin pavement near U.S. 50.  Turn left (west) here and drive to Montrose, the largest town in these parts.  Stock up and then make the short drive back down to Ridgway.  I’m going to leave you in Ridgway, which while lovely is rather remote.  From here you can go south through the interesting town of Ouray, then over the high passes of the San Juans and down to Durango.  You could also head north and east toward Aspen into the high Rockies of western Colorado.

Rural SW Colorado is perhaps best in the fall.

There are two big towns (Durango and Grand Junction) near enough Ridgway to drop the rental and fly out.  Denver is farther away but with enough time a trip that begins in Vegas and ends in Denver would be memorable indeed.  Despite our little foray into the Rocky Mtns. the next leg of our journey continues the Desert SW theme.  We’ll travel south through the Four Corners into New Mexico.  Thanks very much for reading and have a great weekend!

A corral sits in a remote Utah canyon as a storm moves through at sunset.

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9 responses to “Rural America ~ Desert Southwest Road-trips: Kanab to Ridgway

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  1. I am thoroughly enjoying your series on rural America. I well remember the stunning remoteness of the drive from La Sal to Naturita to Placerville to Ridgway to Montrose. I made this drive after my first visit to the Moab area. At the time I was not familiar with the Dallas Divide, but I’ll never forget that jaw dropping view opening up, seemingly out of nowhere. It was late spring, the aspens had their new neon green leaves, and the San Juans were covered in snow and ice. A hard wind was blowing puffy white clouds across the deep blue sky, creating wonderful shadows and light across the valley. Obviously, this is a memory that I won’t ever forget!

  2. Extraordinary landscape compositions, the colors are quite spectacular!

  3. All great images, but that first shot is something else! I gotta get out to Colorado.

  4. Such beautiful places, Michael! The name “Kanab” has me intrigued – it sounds very much like a place in Namibia or the Kalahari, not Utah?

  5. Thank you so much for your Southwest insights along with the great, inspiring images. Makes me want to get on the road with gear.

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