Unforgettable! Spectacular! Amazing! These are just a few of the superlatives that come to mind when describing the Burr Trail Scenic Backway in southern Utah. A former cattle trail, the Burr Trail provides the overlander and adventure seeker with incredible views of the Henry Mountains, the Circle Cliffs, Long Canyon, and the crown jewel of the entire drive–the world famous Waterpocket Fold. There’s no doubt about it, a long list of impressive, scenic drives can be compiled from the four Corners states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, but the Burr Trail has to be at or near the top of that list.
Located off the renowned Route-12 Scenic Byway, the Burr Trail stretches from the town of Boulder, through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, across the Capitol Reef National Park, and ends in the town of Bullfrog in the Glen Canyon Recreational Area. On the 68-mile long trail you’ll slice through deep, colorful canyons, roll across pine-covered plateaus, and twist and turn down steep, unpaved switchbacks. The elevation of the drive varies between 3,900 and 6,675 feet, meaning that temperatures can get pretty hot in the summer, mild in spring and fall, and cold in the winter. During our afternoon drive in late May, the high temperature was a comfortable 79 degrees.
The Burr Trail is composed of two distinct sections. The upper part of the trail, which is paved, is 31 miles long and extends from the town of Boulder to the entrance of Capitol Reef National Park. The lower half, which is 37 miles long, stretches from the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park to the aforementioned town of Bullfrog (the 22 miles from Capitol Reef National Park to 15 miles north of Bullfrog is unpaved). Most of those who tackle the drive, bypass the Bullfrog leg of the drive and instead take the Notom-Bullfrog Road north to Route-24. Taking this route rather than driving to Bullfrog and back to Route-24 reduces the drive from 135 miles to 69 miles. This is what we did when we drove the trail. The drive took us a little over 4 hours with several short stops for pictures.
Finding the Burr Trail is pretty easy with two entrances from which to choose. The most commonly used entrance is located in Boulder off Route-12 less than a mile from Anasazi State Park Museum, while the other is located off Route-24 by taking Notom-Bullfrog Road, just before you enter Capitol Reef National Park. Both entrances are well-marked with signs of various sizes and shapes, especially the entrance in Boulder. The Burr Trail Grill and Outpost also sits adjacent to the entrance in Boulder, making it nearly impossible to miss the entrance.
A word of caution before traveling on the Burr Trail. Numerous washes pass through the route and the unpaved portion of the road is very rough with washboard surfaces. Some stretches of the road pass through a mixture of dirt and bentonite clay as well, which can turn into a slick and muddy quagmire after a downpour. Most vehicles can safely navigate this route when dry including passenger cars and small RVs (24 feet or less), though a 4×4, high clearance vehicle is recommended. The drive, however, should be avoided completely if there is any chance of rain. All too often, motorists–even those driving 4×4 vehicles–have become stranded after a heavy rain. A park ranger who we spoke to said that this is a pretty common problem with all of the Route-12 backways. I recommend checking with the nearest Bureau of Land Management office before leaving on your trip or click here for the latest National Park Service road report.
Additional caution is warranted for those who are embarking on the drive. The area where the Burr Trail is located is remote and completely undeveloped. There are no services, including cell service, along the route, so you’ll want to make sure your vehicle is running well and that your gas tank is full. 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 are exploring the Burr Trail in a small RV who want to camp somewhere near or along the route, there are a few campgrounds from which to choose. The Deer Creek Campground, located six miles from Boulder, sits in a beautiful, wooded setting right off the trail. Deer Creek offers only seven campsites, but at only $7 a night you’ll want to get there early as the sites there go fast. On Notom Road the Cedar Mesa Campground, about 23 miles south of Route-24, is another option. With only five campsites, it’s even smaller and tighter than Deer Creek, but it’s free. Finally, if you’re in the Bullfrog area, the Stanton Creek Campground is a picturesque and popular choice where you can camp right next to Lake Powell, but will cost you $12 a night to camp there. None of these three campgrounds take reservations, sites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.
When it comes to overnight camping, boondocking provides far more options, and in my opinion, much better ones. Boondocking or Primitive camping is permitted in the Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. There are plenty of backroads and trails that branch off the main trail where you can pull off and set up camp for the night. During the warmer months, I recommend boondocking in the Juniper and Pinyon Pine highlands between Long Canyon and the Capitol Reef National Park where the elevation tops out around 6,500 feet. Or you can do as we did and boondock on Boulder Mountain in the nearby Dixie National Forest. Just a reminder that Boondocking is not permitted in most national parks and this includes Capitol Reef National Park.
A few miles after turning on to the Burr Trail in Boulder, numerous formations of ancient Navajo sandstone came rolling into our view. These bleached-white sandstone formations began as sand dunes millions of years ago, which over time, hardened and turned into stone. Erosion over time further exposed this sandstone into shapely domes and hills. With their varied textures, we thought that these rock formations were pretty impressive, especially when contrasted with the green Pinyon Pines and Aspens that surrounded them.
After passing by these Navajo sandstone formations and The Gulch we dropped down into a spectacular and colorful slot canyon known as Long Canyon. This particular part of the drive reminded me of the descent down Fish Creek Hill on Arizona’s Apache Trail, but the angular shape and stark color of Long Canyon was even more impressive than Fish Creek Canyon, and that’s saying a lot. Long Canyon is enclosed by walls of dark red Wingate sandstone which tower hundreds of feet above the trail. Some of the sandstone has become deeply pitted giving the appearance of sponge, while other parts of the rock has become fractured and eroded, creating alcoves. The stunning views of Long Canyon by itself would have been enough, but even more amazing views were awaiting us.
After passing through a forest of Juniper and Pinyon Pines, we entered Capitol Reef National Park where the road surface changed from pavement to gravel. Here we came upon the most spectacular geologic feature on the drive–the so-called Waterpocket Fold. About 100 miles long, and about 2 miles wide, this massive, geologic wonder of warped and bent rock was created some 50 to 70 million years ago, about the same time when the Rocky Mountains were being uplifted. The Waterpocket Fold is a classic monocline formation with the earth’s crust tilted to a maximum of 60 degrees. Indeed, the angle is so acute that the rock layers on the west side of the Fold are some 7,000 feet higher than the layers on the east. Weathering and erosion has created a fascinating collection of cliffs, canyons, alcoves, and basins or “pockets” in the Fold which hold and collect water. It’s a pretty amazing sight to behold.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the Burr Trail was the drive through Muley Twist Canyon and the associated Burr Trail switchbacks, a drop of 800 feet in one mile. Don’t think about taking a large motorhome or towing a travel trailer or boat down these steep, narrow switchbacks, the turns are just too sharp and the road too narrow to maneuver. The Burr Trail switchbacks aren’t as high or as nerve-wracking as the Moki Dugway switchbacks, but they’re still dangerous, so keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.
The view as you descend down the Burr Trail switchbacks is simply breathtaking. The best advice I can give you is to take it slow and take it all in as you twist and turn down the switchbacks. I had my wife take all of the pictures, while I did the driving. This arrangement worked well for us though I wish we had taken some video as well. The pics that my wife took are pretty impressive, but photographs don’t really do the switchbacks justice. The landscape is even more impressive in person. It really has to be experienced in person.
A short distance after driving down the switchbacks, you’ll come to a “T” in the road which gave you the option of taking either the Notom-Bullfrog Road north to Route-24 or the Burr Trail south to Bullfrog. This time we opted to travel north, which provided no shortage of awe-inspiring views. The Waterpocket Fold can be seen as you drive north with portions of the warped earth pushed up to the shoulder of the road. Portions of the road along this stretch were very rough, meaning washboard rough, so this part of the drive had to be taken slowly. Having to go slow, however, isn’t a bad thing when you visit this part of the country. The more time you have to take in the views, the better. As we drove further north we came across herds of cattle on and along the sides of the road. These bovines were a reminder to us on why the Burr Trail was created in the first place.
Do we have any regrets not taking in the entire drive down to Bullfrog? You bet! But we simply had too many stops still planned for the trip we were on and had only a few days remaining. We love exploring southern Utah and we’ll be back again to not only take in the rest of the Burr Trail, but also the 36-mile long Hell’s Backbone Road near Escalante and the 46-mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road that starts in Cannonville.
How did our truck camper handle the drive? Very well, though we did sustain some minor battle damage to the interior when one of our window valances vibrated loose from the wall. No doubt the teeth-rattling washboard surface we encountered on Notom-Bullfrog Road triggered this damage. In addition, near the end of the drive a tiny rock somehow got kicked up between the brake pad and rotor on our rear passenger side wheel which made a dreadful scratching sound as we drove. Fortunately the pebble-sized stone vibrated loose before we could take it to a shop.
The Burr Trail Scenic Backway is an amazing drive that should be on every overlander’s bucket list. The trail was blazed by cattleman John Atlantic Burr in the late 1800’s as a route to move his cattle from Boulder to the ford across the Colorado River at Hall’s Crossing. Since the advent of the automobile and the establishment of Capitol Reef National Monument in 1937 and National Park in 1971, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have enjoyed the fruits of John Burr’s labor. I’ve driven many scenic routes and trails throughout North America and Europe, but few compare to the uniqueness, geologic diversity, and stark beauty of Utah’s Burr Trail Scenic Backway.