Expert Journal: Driving to Trailheads

Driving to Trailheads in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Trailheads in the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument range from paved parking lots alongside major roads to remote turnarounds at the end of poor, rough, seldom-used dirt roads. Very few trailheads can be reached on paved roads. All others are accessed by dirt roads that range from good graded roads to unmaintained, rocky, or sandy doubletracks. These backroads not only offer access to trailheads, they also offer tremendous scenic driving potential. The region is very remote, and once you leave paved highways, you are entering isolated country.

Nearly all the trailheads in the monument are usually accessible to 2WD cars in dry weather, though a four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicle is recommended when traveling off the pavement in southern Utah. Keep in mind that flash floods can deposit rocks and debris onto roads, so actual driving conditions can change quickly. Nearly all the trailhead access roads pass over clay beds, and during and shortly after rainfall these roads become slippery, sticky avenues of mud. Avoid driving these unpaved roads when they are wet. The clay can become impassable when wet, even to 4WD vehicles. If you find yourself on a wet dirt road, be prepared to wait a day or two for the roadbed to dry out.

Most trailhead access roads are graded only twice a year: once in spring and again in autumn. Expect road damage following significant rainfall, and particularly following an active summer monsoon season. Flash floods and runoff from heavy rain will make desert roads impassable to all but high-clearance 4WD vehicles. Always inquire about road conditions with the local BLM office and visitor centers prior to driving any unpaved road.

Be Prepared

Unexpected storms, washouts, mud, rocks, and sand can stop you or strand you in the desert. Drivers have been stranded in their car for days at a time on remote roads after only one afternoon of heavy rain. Travelers must come prepared to wait out inclement weather and impassable road conditions. Before setting out be sure to have a full tank of gas, a tow rope or chain, a tool kit, jumper cables, a roll of duct tape, a tire pump, ample water to sustain your group for two to four days, and plenty of food, clothing, and other necessities, such as matches and fuel for your stove. Always carry a shovel when driving remote desert roads. A little road work with a shovel can save you hours of digging out should you become stuck or high-centered.

4WD Driving Tips

For the best traction, 4WD vehicles should be equipped with wide, deep-lug tires. Maintain your speed and forward momentum when driving sandy or muddy roads to avoid getting bogged down. Quickly steering the wheels of your 4WD vehicle back and forth will provide a better grip and help pull you through. If you do become stuck in the sand, first dig a path ahead of your tires, then deflate them to 10 to 15 psi. If you have extra water, wet the ground in front of your vehicle. This will provide a firmer tread. Use your floor mats under your tires for extra traction. If your 4WD vehicle has a winch, it will do you little good on the open desert where there are few anchor points. Always carry at least two winch pins — solid anchors with a flange welded to the bottom — and a sledgehammer to drive them.

Remember that you are far from assistance should you need it. When in doubt, stop your vehicle and scout ahead on foot. Walking an extra mile or two to the trailhead is far better than getting your vehicle stuck or damaged. Be prepared, travel wise, and self-sufficient.

Cell phone users generally get a good signal from high ground in the region, particularly in areas that have a line of sight to Navajo Mountain.

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