A Forest Oasis in the Heart of the Desert
The Fishlake Loop is a retreat to a serene place in the high-elevation forest near Capitol Reef
This road trip through lush mountain scenery and high sagebrush flats is highlighted by a visit to a very pretty alpine lake. When the eminent geologist-soldier Clarence Dutton first saw Fish Lake he was prompted to write: “No resort more beautiful than this lake can be found in southern Utah. Its grassy banks clad with groves of spruce and aspen; the splendid vista down between its mountain walls with the massive fronts of mounts Marvine and Hilgard in the distance; the crystal-clear expanse of the lake itself, combine to form a scene of beauty rarely equaled in the West.”
It was like that in 1875 and remains so to this day. There are a few more folks visiting the lake resorts now than in Dutton’s day, but the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains and the clear air have been preserved for the public’s pleasure.
This road trip is described as a loop continuing to Loa. The main roads are paved, well maintained, and suitable for all vehicles. Traffic is light to moderate except for weekends in the immediate area of the lake resorts. Winter driving may be slowed by icy conditions, especially beyond the Fish Lake basin, but the inconvenience is compensated by the beauty of the area in snow. Several unpaved scenic backways branch from this drive, providing a fine variety of alpine driving experiences.
Location: Central Utah, in the Fishlake National Forest.
Overview: A 40-mile alpine and high-desert drive that features the Fishlake Scenic Byway.
Travel Season: Year-round, though heavy snow may be a problem between Fish Lake and Highway 72.
Special Attractions: Beautiful Fish Lake, with abundant opportunities for fishing and boating.
GPS of Start and End: 38.472306, -111.833128 (intersection of Highways 24 and 25 northwest of Loa)
Drive Route Number & Name: Highways 25 and 72, Fishlake Scenic Byway.
Camping: Numerous national forest campgrounds along Fish Lake, primitive campsites at Mill Meadows Reservoir.
Services: All services in Loa and Richfield; basic services at Fish Lake.
Nearby Attractions: Grass Valley/Otter Creek, Cove Mountain Road Scenic Backway, Gooseberry-Fremont Scenic Backway, Thousand Lake Mountain Road Scenic Backway, Loa to Hanksville Scenic Byway.
The Road Trip
A Pleasant Approach
The Fishlake Scenic Byway begins at the intersection of Highways 24 and 25, just north of Loa. Most travelers will reach this intersection via Richfield on I-70 or from US 89 in the Sevier River Valley. This approach from the north is a pleasant drive and deserves mention.
Highway 119 east from Richfield is a scenic route, starting out through pretty farmland then climbing into wild, open, undeveloped desert hills. It is 9 miles to the intersection with Highway 24. Angle to the right, signed for Fish Lake, Loa, and Capitol Reef. Highway 24 is very scenic, through mostly undeveloped public land, high-desert prairie covered with pinyon, juniper, and sagebrush. A few miles farther you reach the northern end of Koosharem Reservoir. If you drive through this valley in the right sort of evening light, it just might strike you as bucolic perfection.
At about mile 17 the road begins to climb into the foothills of the Fishlake Plateau. At just under mile 23 you reach the well-marked turnoff on the left for Highway 25, the proper start of the Fishlake Scenic Byway.
The Fishlake byway, somewhat narrow but paved and well maintained, continues climbing and enters Fishlake National Forest 4 miles from the start of Highway 25. By this point you have completed most of the initial altitude gain on this drive. From here the road actually descends slightly to Fish Lake at mile 7. Dense stands of aspens make this drive especially attractive in the fall. At this elevation even summer nights are brisk, and the days are cool and pleasant.
Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake, lies in a down-faulted valley (technically known as a graben) at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state, attracting as many as 7,000 visitors on summer weekends. It is well known for trophy lake trout that often exceed 20 pounds. Across the lake, the long ridge of Mytoge Mountain forms the eastern limit of the Fish Lake basin. To the north, Mounts Marvine and Hilgard, both well over 11,000 feet, remain snowcapped for most of the summer.
The lake shore is dotted with three commercial resorts, two RV parks, three campgrounds, and numerous picnic areas and boat launches. At just under mile 8, note the large board locating the several campgrounds within the Fish Lake Recreation Area. Though camping is abundant, count on the campgrounds filling up quickly on summer weekends. There’s a full-scale National Forest Service brown-log-cabin resort development here, but it is on a low-key and fairly unobtrusive scale. Here you will find a gas station, general store, marina, RV park, cabin rentals, and even a laundry.
At about mile 8.5 from the start of the scenic byway is the truly outstanding Fish Lake Lodge. The current lodge (the third on this site) was built between 1928 and 1932 and still retains a distinct rustic charm. In many ways the lodge is reminiscent of some of the classic Adirondack or White Mountain resorts built around the same period — like something right out of a 1930s movie. The dining room is rustic perfection and is open to the public for all meals. There are also 25 wooden cabins for rent here. An amphitheater hosts evening programs every Friday and Saturday during summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day). The lodge is also the best place to pick up national forest information, including detailed maps outlining the numerous area hikes and biking trails. A useful self-guided auto tour brochure will help explain the geology of the Fish Lake basin.
About 2.5 miles beyond the lodge, past Bowery Haven Resort with its cafe, RV park, and gas station, you leave most of the hubbub of the Fish Lake resort development behind. Even as laid-back as the development is, it’s nice to be past the cabins, marinas, and paved bicycle paths. Here you can see the unspoiled northern end of the lake as you drive through gorgeous meadowland and sagebrush flats. The marsh and meadowland is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this entire basin and a real delight for bird-watchers. Keep your eyes open for moose.
In another few miles you reach the lake’s northern limit and leave the recreation area. Two miles farther is Frying Pan Campground, and 1 mile beyond you descend to 1-square-mile Johnson Valley Reservoir, the source of the Fremont River.
Just at the northern edge of Johnson Valley Reservoir, on the left, is the northern end of the Gooseberry-Fremont Scenic Backway. This backway runs about 37 miles between Salina Canyon on I-70 to the north and the intersection of Highway 25 and Highway 72 just north of Fremont. Here, your choice depends on whether you’re headed generally north or south. To the north, the Gooseberry Road is a combination of good graded dirt and pavement. The backway is in the process of being paved from north to south, giving recreationalists of all kinds easy access to Fish Lake from the north. The road is fine for most passenger vehicles, but it is best to check on current conditions at Fish Lake. The road closes in winter. This backway accesses some of the region’s finest forest and meadow scenery and is locally renowned as a spectacular fall drive. Blankets of wildflowers appear below the surrounding mountain peaks in summer.
To go south toward Fremont, take the fully paved southern section of the backway. A mile or so beyond the high point above Johnson Valley Reservoir, Highway 25 crosses the Fremont River at Zedds Meadow. The road rises quickly and steeply for about 1 mile, then begins a long descent into the valley on the other side. The landscape is drier on the far side, with fewer trees and more open views. The views to the south are especially fine. The more you descend, the more this begins to look like desert. There are no pine trees here. A few aspen are up high, but trees at the lower elevations are mostly pinyon and juniper.
The river bottom is lush and dense with cottonwood and box elder. The road crosses the Fremont River again, where the now greatly expanded stream announces the small earthwork dam, Mill Meadow Dam, just downstream. There are lovely spots to camp along the little reservoir here. It is 3 miles farther to the intersection with Highway 72, where you can turn right to reach Loa. From this intersection you may also choose to drive 27 very scenic miles north on Highway 72 to join I-70 at Fremont Junction. This is a little-traveled but convenient link to I-70, with desert and mountain views along the way often supplemented by wildlife sightings.
About 4 miles north on Highway 72 is the start of another attractive side trip: Thousand Lake Mountain Road Scenic Backway. This 35-mile backway loop runs over the northern flank of Thousand Lakes Mountain, then descends to loop through the northern tip of Capitol Reef National Park. The scenery along this backway is an impressive combination of high alpine and high desert. The road is rough, can be very dusty, and is impassable when wet. High-clearance vehicles are required.
Headed south toward Loa, Highway 72 is as scenic as Highway 25 began. From here you can see south into Canyonlands. The land here is a mix of BLM and private, though it is hard to distinguish one from the other. It’s all mostly pasturage and rugged desert hills. About 2 miles from the Highway 25/Highway 72 intersection you come into the irrigated valley at the community of Fremont, an eclectic mixture of new ranch homes and old ranches, trailer homes, and log cabins spread out for about 3 miles along the valley. There are no services. From Fremont to Loa it is 9 miles of ranchland and farmland.
Settled in the 1870s, Loa was named for Mauna Loa volcano by a fellow who had served a Mormon mission in Hawaii during the 1850s. The Wayne Stake Tabernacle is a classic LDS community church.
In order to complete this drive as a circle, head west on Highway 24, 12 miles, back to the Fish Lake turnoff. The last leg of your drive traverses undeveloped BLM land, mostly sagebrush-covered desert hills. A possible option for a scenic return to Richfield might include a side trip along Cove Mountain Road Scenic Backway, a popular drive during fall colors. The backway runs from Koosharem north to Glenwood, 10 miles east of Richfield, offering beautiful views of the Koosharem and Sevier Valleys. Reach Koosharem from the well-marked intersection of Highway 24 and Highway 62, 7 miles north of the start of the Fishlake Byway. The Cove Mountain backway, though unpaved, is suitable for most passenger vehicles when dry. If you’re headed south, Highway 62 sets off through a deserted high-elevation valley similar to the Sevier and Sanpete valleys but with even fewer people.
Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.