When asked which road within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was the best and most scenic, a Ranger at the Cannonville Visitor Center said without hesitation, “Cottonwood Canyon!” This was a little surprising to me since the Burr Trail is widely regarded as the crown jewel in this part of Utah, but she was insistent. “This is the best, most scenic drive in the Monument! You won’t regret exploring it.” Since I was first given this advice back in 2014, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the Cottonwood Canyon Road twice—in April 2014 and October 2017. I don’t know if I would say that the Cottonwood Canyon Road better than the Burr Trail, but it certainly ranks as one of the best drives in all the state of Utah, and that’s saying a lot.
Cottonwood Canyon Road is a designated scenic backway for the world-renowned Utah Route-12, National Scenic Byway. The 46-mile-long road, which stretches from the town of Cannonville to the US 89 near Church Wells, provides access to several attractions within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The best of these include Kodachrome Basin State Park, the Grosvenor Arch, the North and South Cottonwood Narrows, the Cockscomb monocline, and Hackberry Canyon. It was constructed in the early 1960s to facilitate the construction and future maintenance of power lines delivering electricity from the Glen Canyon Dam to several communities in southern Utah. Since then, the road has become a vital route for explorers, hikers, ranchers, geologists and others desiring to access this remote, incredibly unique area of the world.
Cottonwood Canyon Road is located in southern Utah in the western half of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 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 5,800 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 bulk of the Grand Staircase remains a wild frontier. For the overlander and explorer this is a good thing as there are few areas in the United States that are as remote and undeveloped as the Grand Staircase. This means you won’t see any gas stations, restaurants, or hotels within the monument, just unspoiled natural beauty.
A word of warning about driving the Cottonwood Canyon Road. Signs posted by the Bureau of Land Management at the north and south entrances warn “impassable when wet” and they mean it. Avoid this route the day of and the day after a heavy rain. The first 9 miles from Cannonville to Kodachrome Basin State Park are paved. Thereafter the 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 friend driving a 4×4 truck camper rig who got stuck on this road back in 2011 after a rainstorm, said it was like trying to drive on “butter with Teflon tires.” However, when conditions are dry, most vehicles can safely navigate this route, including SUV’s and small, two-axle RV’s like truck campers and camper vans. To be on the safe side, a high clearance 4×4 vehicle is recommended. Check with the nearest Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor center—you can find them in Cannonville, Big Water, and Kanab—before leaving on your trip or click here for the latest National Park Service road report.
The Cottonwood Canyon Road is fairly easy to navigate and can be safely driven in three hours, though I recommend taking more time to enjoy the views and to stretch your legs. Due to the elevation, which varies between 4,600 and 5,800 feet, spring and fall are the best times to explore the road (fall is particularly great due the changing leaves of the Cottonwood trees). Exploring during the the other seasons is possible, of course, but the summer can be risky due to the monsoons and the winter too cold and snowy. The two times we explored the road—in April and October—we enjoyed temperatures in the mid-60s during the day and in the low 40s during the night. You can’t get much better than that.
For those who plan to explore Cottonwood Canyon Road in a small rig and who want to camp along the route, you’re in luck. Boondocking is permitted in the national monument, but requires a free permit. These can be obtained at any Monument Visitor Center or at one of the kiosks located at either the Kodachrome Basin State Park turnoff or at the US 89. There are over a dozen pull-offs and numbered spurs along the route where you can set-up camp for the night. Regulations require that you use established campsites and fire rings. If full hookups are preferred, there are a few options before or after embarking on the drive. The aforementioned Kodachrome Basin State Park offers an excellent campground, but due to the scenic location vacancies are hard to come by (we’re batting .500 the four times we tried to get a spot there). You can usually find a vacancy, however, at the nearby Cannonville KOA or at the RV Park located near the White House Ranger Station on US 89 about four miles west from the intersection.
The Cottonwood Canyon Road offers several attractions. The Grosvenor Arch, a rare sandstone double arch, is probably the most visited. It’s named in honor of Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, past president of the National Geographic Society and publisher of the National Geographic Magazine. The arch, which is located 9 miles south of Kodachrome Basin State Park, can be reached via Four Mile Bench Road approximately 1 mile east from Cottonwood Canyon Road. A day use area is located on the grounds that consists of an outhouse and cement benches. A cement sidewalk connects the day use area to the base of the arch where you can take some pretty stunning closeups. If you’re expecting to see a large, red and orange-colored arch like those found in Arches National Park, you’ll be disappointed with Grosvenor’s. This arch is a muted khaki color with a slight tinge of orange, but it’s still pretty cool because there aren’t many double arches in Utah or anywhere else for that matter.
About 4 miles south of the Grosvenor Arch, you’ll come to what is easily the highlight on the Cottonwood Canyon Road—the dazzling, technicolor world of the North Cottonwood Narrows. Here the amber-colored road takes a rapid dip down and a quick climb up. In between you’ll see a bizarre, multi-colored world of rock called Candyland. The formations along this stretch are quite unlike anything you’ll see at Bryce Canyon or Kodachrome Basin. The rock formations in Candyland are jumbled and out-of-place. White, cottage-cheese textured rocks shoot out of smooth red and orange-colored ones. Some formations are sharp and jagged, while others are rounded. It’s really a sight to behold.
If this visual smorgasbord isn’t enough, there’s also a neat, little slot canyon at the bottom of this dip that you can explore on foot. Dubbed the North Cottonwood Narrows, the canyon is easy to reach by foot and can can easily be hiked in a couple of hours. Watch for the tiny trail-head sign on the east side of the road and park your vehicle in the pull-off area near it. This canyon is appropriately named. Indeed, the canyon is so narrow in places you can actually touch both sides at the same time. The canyon was formed by Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Paria River, which over time carved its way through the colorful sandstone. The hike itself is about 3 miles round-trip and would be classified as easy and one the whole family would enjoy. This is a popular hike and one that is featured often in Utah hiking magazines and websites.
The area just north of the North Cottonwood Narrows actually marks the start of the Cockscomb monocline, named after the ridge’s resemblance to the colorful “comb” on a rooster’s head. The Cockscomb, which is about 149 miles long, is similar to the Waterpocket Fold found in nearby Capitol Reef National Park, but isn’t as massive. The strata along the monocline dips abruptly eastward at angles from 15 degrees to slightly overturned, with an average dip of between 40 to 60 degrees. The crust on the east side of the Cockscomb has been displaced downward as much as 5,000 feet. Cottonwood Canyon Road runs parallel with and in some places over the Cockscomb with the land forms along it consisting mainly of closely spaced hogbacks and valleys. Like I said, the Cockscomb isn’t as massive as the world-renowned Waterpocket Fold, but it’s still pretty spectacular and worth seeing. It certainly is the main reason why the Cottonwood Canyon Road is so scenic.
About 10 miles south of the Narrows you’ll come upon Hackberry Canyon, a popular destination for campers and hikers. The two times we were there we saw several tents and truck campers camped there for the night. This canyon is a prime boondocking location as well as a popular cattle grazing area for ranchers. The first time we were there back in 2014 we saw a large herd of cattle and a couple of cowboys on horseback keeping watch. It was pretty neat. The trail itself, which follows Cottonwood Creek, is moderately difficult and rewards the hiker with one of the more scenic and popular canyon routes in the western half of the Monument. The trail is about 20 miles long, though most who undertake this hike venture only 1-2 miles upstream to enjoy the shallow flowing water and steep canyon walls. We didn’t hike it this time, but it’s definitely on our hiking bucket list.
Cottonwood Canyon marks the last significant attraction you’ll see as you travel south on the road. Here you’ll descend into a beautiful, wide open valley where the Paria River merges with Cottonwood Creek. You’ll also see large numbers of Cottonwood (Poplar) trees in the canyon. The views in Cottonwood Canyon are pretty spectacular. When’s the best time of year to see it? That’s hard to say. When we first explored this area in April 2014 the leaves on the cottonwood trees were budding which gave the canyon a distinctive bright, greenish hue in contrast with the grayish shale and sandstone in this area. But October, when the leaves are changing, is a pretty spectacular time of year to see the canyon as well. I suppose if I had to choose, I’d prefer to see it in the fall.
In conclusion, the Cottonwood Canyon Road is an enjoyable, must-see drive that should be on every explorer’s bucket list. The drive, though technically easy for your average truck camper rig, still provides breathtaking views to places where few RV’s have been. I’ve driven many scenic routes and trails throughout North America and Europe, but few compare with the color, geologic diversity, and stark beauty of the Cottonwood Canyon Road Scenic Backway. Is it better than the Burr Trail? Not quite, but it comes in a very close second. On a scale of one to 10, I’d give the Cottonwood Canyon Road a difficulty rating of two. This is due to the numerous washes you’ll be required to pass through as you traverse the route.