An Epic Scenic Drive
So we started doing a series of in-depth reports on Utah’s national parks earlier this year. At this point we’ve written about Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. (Zion National Park is almost done.) In the Capitol Reef post, we mentioned the Burr Trail as one of the scenic drives that we recommend in the park. But that got us thinking, the Burr Trail is partly in Capitol Reef, and partly outside of it, it’s also a long, and somewhat complicated route. Maybe the Burr Trail deserves it’s own in-depth blog post? After all, there are many fantastic scenic drives in Southern Utah, but in our opinion, the best one is the Burr Trail.
Where to Start
Most people who drive the Burr Trail begin in Capitol Reef, and drive the trail clockwise, ending in Torrey, Utah. (Check out this Google Map to see the route.) But we at the Lodge recommend that you do it in the opposite direction. All of the best overlook views will be in front of you as you drive, so you won’t have to turn your neck, or pull off the road to see the “big picture” behind you. (Of course, we do highly recommend that you do stop occasionally and look around. But if you drive the route counter-clockwise, you won’t have to.)
So start in Torrey, and head toward the town of Boulder, on top of Boulder Mountain.
The Boulder Section
The Burr Trail can be divided into three logical sections. The Boulder Section, the Grand Staircase Section, and the Capitol Reef Section. The first section is accomplished by driving up Boulder Mountain. There are several designated overlook pull-offs on the way up the mountain. Stop and check out the views. You’ll reach Boulder after about an hour.
There are a couple of cool things to see in town, like the Anasazi Village Museum and the cool artist shops. If you want lunch, consider Hell’s Backbone Grill. After you’ve seen what Boulder has to offer, you can start on the Burr Tail again. You’ll see the turnoff to the trail clearly marked. And this is where the fun really starts.
Escalante-Grand Staircase Section
This section will take you through the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, which is a sparsely vegetated, sandstone mesa. The sandstone stretches impossible distances on either side of the road. There are occasional mounds, but it’s mostly pretty flat through here. But eventually the road will drop into Long Canyon. This is one of the highlights of the drive for many people, and it’s our second-favorite descent.
The drive through the canyon takes about twenty minutes (depending on how often you stop to take pictures and walk around.) Toward the end of the canyon is a great view of the Waterpocket Fold, the geological formation that makes up most of Capitol Reef.
Drive for about another hour (with frequent stops) down into the high-desert juniper forest. You’ll see the Henry Mountains more clearly as you draw nearer to the Capitol Reef section.
Capitol Reef National Park Section
Just before entering the park, there is a little turn off with some information on the history of the Burr Trail. You can thank John Atlantic Burr, his cattle, and his mines for this modern scenic route. The road up to this point has been paved asphalt, but as you enter Capitol Reef, you’ll be on dirt roads.
Soon after you enter the park, you’ll come to several pull-outs and trailheads. Both Upper and Lower Mulley Twist can be accessed from the Burr Trail. These are usually considered multi-day trails, so if you want to work a couple days of hiking into your plans, this is where we recommend you do it. If you’re looking for a much shorter day-hike, consider heading to the Strike Valley Overlook. Here’s an excellent guide on how to do it.
Whether you stop and stretch your legs, or keep on driving, you’ve come to the best part of the entire trip – the Burr Trail switchbacks! Look at that view. And look at those steep switchbacks! Drive down them slowly, and while it’s not likely that you’ll encounter too many other vehicles here, remember that those driving up the switchbacks have the right of way.
At the base of the switchbacks the road diverges. If you head south, you’ll eventually find yourself near Lake Powell. And while there are some great hikes that direction, to complete the loop you need to head north. There is a sign indicating which way to go.
Now you get to drive through the Waterpocket Fold proper – our favorite part of Capitol Reef. Take the time to stop and admire those slanting cliffs and canyons. You won’t regret any time spent in this sparse, beautiful place. If you want to hike into any of those canyons check out our post about hiking in this area here.
After a good hour of driving, you’ll connect back to the main road (Highway 24) that runs through Capitol Reef. Turn left here and head back to Fruita, the main section of the park. If you have time, jaunt down to the Gifford House and grab some home-made treats. Then maybe have a picnic in the park? And when you’re ready, drive back to Torrey, Utah to complete your Burr Trail Loop
Since the Burr Trail is pretty remote in places, it’s a good idea to think about safety.
- If possible, bring a high-clearance vehicle.
- Make sure your vehicle is up for the task. Towing fees are incredibly expensive.
- Bring lots of water, some food, and a first aid kit.
- Let people know what your plans are for the day.
- Have a good map.
The Burr Trail is definitely worth taking the time to check out. Plan on a solid day to make this round-trip journey. Longer if you want to do some serious hiking. The views are simply incredible.