Of all the roads and trails I’ve explored in southern Utah, the Smoky Mountain Road is the longest, roughest, and most challenging of them all. The Smoky Mountain Road is a designated scenic backway for the world-renowned and very popular Utah Route-12. The entire 78 miles of the road can be driven in six hours in a truck camper though I recommend taking more time to enjoy the views and to stretch your legs. The elevation of the route varies between 4,500 feet and 6,500 feet, meaning you’ll find relatively moderate temperatures in spring and fall, but it can get quite hot in the summer and cold in the winter. When we explored it in mid-May we enjoyed temperatures in the mid-70s during the day and in the low 50s during the night.
The Smoky Mountain Road passes through the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres, the Grand Staircase was established in 1996 by Presidential Proclamation when it became the Bureau of Land Management’s first National Monument. The Grand Staircase is comprised of five “steps” of multi-hued cliffs and plateaus that rise some 5,500 feet in the southwestern part of the monument. It’s a high, rugged, and remote region that was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped. Even today, the unspoiled natural beauty of the Grand Staircase remains a frontier. What’s the bottom line? For those who love the great outdoors, the Grand Staircase is one the best areas in the country to explore.
A word of warning about driving the Smoky Mountain Road. Signs posted at either entrance warn “impassible when wet” and they mean it. Avoid this route the day of and the day after a heavy rain. The surface of this road is graded dirt with an underlying base of clay that can quickly turn into a slick and muddy quagmire after a downpour. Even those driving 4×4 vehicles lose control and become immobile. A high-clearance, 4×4 vehicle is recommended. Small, two-axle RVs like truck campers can safely navigate the trail though the pace can be very slow in places. Do not attempt this drive in a passenger car, the surface of the road is simply too rough and rocky in places. Check with the nearest Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor center–you can find one in Big Water and Escalante at the beginning and end of the route–before leaving or click here for the latest National Park Service road report.
Additional caution is warranted before embarking on the drive. The area where the road is located is remote and completely undeveloped. There are no services anywhere along the route. Gas stations can be found in both Escalante and Big Water, so you’ll want to make sure your fuel tank is full before leaving. Cell phone coverage is sporadic and available only at the top of the Kelly Grade on the south end and near Escalante on the north side. Bring along plenty of water, especially if you plan on tackling the drive in the heat of summer. Leave your itinerary with family or friends who can look out for you in the event that you suffer a breakdown or run into trouble. If you need a tow or other emergency service, it may take several hours before help can arrive.
For those who plan to explore the Smoky Mountain Road in a truck camper and who want to boondock along the route, you’re in luck. Boondocking (aka Primitive camping) is permitted in the Monument, but requires a free permit. These can be obtained at either the Escalante and Big Water National Monument Visitor Centers which are at either entrance to the road. There are numerous places along the Smoky Mountain Road where you can set-up camp for the night. Excellent locations can also be found at Warm Creek Bay on Lake Powell near the south entrance. Regulations require that you use established campsites and fire rings if you come across them.
At the south entrance, the Smoky Mountain Road traverses through both the Glen Canyon Rec Area and in the GSENM. In Glen Canyon, the road is designated Route-230 and begins in the small town of Big Water, Utah. To find the road look for Ethan Allen Road off of the US-89 and turn north, the Smoky Mountain Road splits off from it. The first five miles of the drive are paved and after passing through a huge wash the road rises and turns into a well-graded dirt surface. This first part of the drive is called the Moon and if you saw it you would know why. Here the rock formations are smooth and dark gray and are largely barren of any color or vegetation. Still, the eerie landscape is beautiful in its own right and isn’t something you see everyday. Apparently, several movies were filmed in this area, including “Planet of the Apes.”
Designated BLM Road 300 in the GSENM, we found the Smoky Mountain Road sometimes thrilling, often rough, but always beautiful. About 78 miles long, it’s the toughest, longest, and most remote road in the Grand Staircase. This isn’t a drive for the faint of heart. Soon after leaving the Glen Canyon Rec Area, the road climbs the Kelly Grade to the top of the Kaiparowitz Plateau, a 5-mile-long, 1,200 foot grade with numerous switchbacks and steep drop offs. We found the climb up the narrow twisting road hair-raising and nerve-racking. In fact, the road is so narrow going up this grade that I don’t know what we would have done if we had encountered a vehicle going in the opposite direction. In spite of our frayed nerves, we found the views atop the 6,500 feet high Kelly Grade Overlook well worth it. At this overlook you can gaze upon Page and Lake Powell to the south and Navajo Mountain in the far distance to the east.
After a quick-lunch and discussing the Kelly Grade ascent with a passing Jeeper and his wife, we hit the trail again. A short distance after departing, we came across a short sandy spur, dubbed BLM-332, which branches off to the east. We didn’t take it this time, but we are told that along this spur you can see open seams and gaping holes in the earth that still emit smoke from coal fires that are perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years old. This smoke is what gives the mountain and the road its name. Along this stretch atop the Kaiparowits Plateau, the road is smooth and sandy and the pace is fast. Here you’ll zip by a forest of Juniper and Pinion Pines, but after about 10 miles this changes abruptly as the remainder of the route passes over and through several rocky canyons. The progress in these canyons is much, much slower, but the scenery is better. The trail along this part of the drive features numerous peaks and valleys with the high and low points in most cases going over rough and exposed rock. You’ll also pass through numerous washes, some very large. Because of this I wouldn’t recommend taking a passenger car on this road, a high-clearance, 4×4 vehicle like a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota FJ Cruiser would be better.
The biggest challenge of the entire drive was tackling the so-called Last Chance Draw. Here the rough road descends sharply when traveling south to north. We took this steep, slick-rock covered grade slow, inching our way forward. Still, it was nerve-racking to say the least. After completing it, I turned to my wife, Karen, and said, “Whew! I’m glad we didn’t have to climb that sucker going the other way.” I should add that we did encounter a couple of slow and very steep climbs that were a challenge even for our Cummins turbo diesel. After passing the turnoff to the so-called Death Ridge, we found ourselves driving the last nine miles at a fast pace along and through the Alvey Wash. We found the surface of the road here smooth and sandy and the Cottonwood trees and sights along this wash beautiful. Five hours and 68-miles after leaving Warm Creek Bay, we reached the town of Escalante, exhausted yet feeling good about exploring this little-known trail in the Grand Staircase.
Would I recommend taking the Smoky Mountain Road hauling a truck camper? Absolutely, but I would air down and take it slower and take in the entire trail over a course of two or three days rather than one day like we were forced to do because of impending rain. The trail is rough in many locations and because of this the pace is slow in a truck camper, but the scenery is worth the time and effort if you’re willing to go through it. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest, I’d give the Smoky Mountain Road a difficulty rating of 7 for truck campers. If you’re looking for a quick and more relaxing scenic drive off of Utah Route-12, skip this road and take the Hell’s Backbone Road or the paved portion of the Burr Trail instead. But if you’re looking for adventure in a lightly traveled, lesser-known road where the boondocking, hiking, and scenery are first rate, then the Smoky Mountain Road is for you.