Lakes, Stones and Desert Bones
Huntington and Eccles canyons through mining towns and high-alpine terrain
Location: Central Utah, in the Manti–La Sal National Forest. The drive includes Highway 31 from Huntington to Fairview, and Highways 264 and 96 from the intersection with Highway 31 to the old mining town of Scofield.
Overview: A traverse of the Wasatch Plateau’s alpine terrain (55 to 75 miles).
Travel Season: While roads are officially open year-round, snow closures are common from November until May.
Special Attractions: Beautiful alpine driving, access to backcountry drives and hiking, quaint Fairview, historic mining towns.
GPS of Start: 39.334507, -110.964865 (Huntington)
Drive Route Numbers & Names: Highways 31/264/96, Huntington Canyon Scenic Byway/Eccles Canyon Scenic Byway.
Camping: Four national forest campgrounds, state park campground at Scofield Reservoir.
Services: All services in Huntington and Fairview; limited services in Scofield.
Nearby Attractions: Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and Scenic Backway, Skyline Drive Scenic Backway, attractive old Sanpete towns along US 89, Manti Temple.
– The Road Trip –
The Wasatch Plateau is one of Utah’s most important geographical features, marking the division between the vast Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. This road trip combines the Huntington Canyon and Eccles Canyon Scenic Byways and provides an excellent introduction to the spectacular Wasatch Plateau high country. The length of your drive will vary from 55 to 75 miles, depending on which options you choose. The route is paved, two-lane highway, suitable for all vehicles, with generally light traffic on both branches of the drive except during hunting season. Expect icy roads and even temporary snow closures in winter; snow tires or chains are required October 1 through April 30.
Huntington Canyon is the longest canyon on the Wasatch Plateau, and Highway 31 is the only paved road across the plateau.
The Eccles Canyon drive, which branches from the high point of the Huntington Canyon drive (approximately 10,000 feet elevation) down to Scofield Reservoir, is impressive; lonely and desolate in all the best ways, it is perhaps the best part of this road trip and not to be missed. The only real decision you will have to make is whether to finish the standard route of the Huntington Canyon drive down to Fairview (strongly recommended).
In a conventional vehicle, I suggest doing both right and left forks of this drive, ending in either Fairview or Scofield, depending on which side of the mountain range you wish to finish this drive on. In a large RV, or pulling a trailer, you may not want to drive down one fork, then reascend to do the other. If you must choose one over the other, I recommend the Scofield branch.
In either case, the drive begins in Huntington, one of a few farming and mining towns along Highway 10. Highway 10 skirts the east side of the Wasatch Plateau and, to the south, the west side of the geologic uplift known as the San Rafael Swell. This makes it a relatively convenient alternative to the US 6/US 191 corridor from Price to Green River and the starting point for some of the state’s best backways. The Cottonwood Wash/Buckhorn Wash road, which runs from Castle Dale in the north (as the Green River Cutoff Road) to I-70 in the south, gives drivers a more intimate encounter with the San Rafael Swell. It leads to 2,000-year-old pictographs and petroglyphs, fantastic desert scenery, and the turnoff for the Wedge Overlook’s views of aptly named Little Grand Canyon. The main route is maintained by Emery County and drivable with most vehicles in good weather, some rougher spots might make it unadvisable for low-slung vehicles or RVs. Inquire about conditions and grab a free off-road route map and guide booklet at the regional visitor center in Price or at the Museum of the San Rafael in Castle Dale. Take plenty of water if you go.
For a shorter drive with a taste of the swell and its secluded mysteries, take the paved Moore Cutoff Road, which starts just south of Ferron on Highway 10 and ends at I-70. It features petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks.
Prehistoric Starting Point
Close to Huntington is an attraction that all area visitors, especially those with children, should take in: the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. The source of more than 30 complete skeletons and more than 12,000 individual bones from 70 different prehistoric animals, the quarry area is the greatest concentration of Jurassic-age dinosaur bones ever found. There is a small visitor center and museum, an attractive picnic area, and an informative self-guided nature trail. From Huntington, take Highway 155 to Cleveland, then follow the many signs to the quarry. The road to the quarry is unpaved but well maintained.
From Huntington, Highway 31 heads north and west through farmland and ranchland before trending upward into the mouth of a narrowing sandstone canyon with Huntington Creek flowing on the left. Just at the mouth of the canyon, about 8 miles from town, is a large, coal-fired electrical generating plant. After the power plant this drive takes on a mountain/canyon aspect as it enters Manti–La Sal National Forest.
Several basic National Forest Service campgrounds (none with drinking water) are located just beside the road. Just past Bear Creek campground is a turnoff to the left for the Crandall Canyon Mine, where in 2007, six miners were trapped when a mine shaft collapsed. Three rescue workers were killed and another six injured when the tunnel they were digging also collapsed. The six trapped miners were never recovered.
There are many nice picnic spots and places to fly fish, and the upper reaches of Huntington Creek for the final 4 miles to Electric Lake are designated “fly fishing only.” Near the Old Folks Flat campground, once the site of an annual LDS gathering, is the Stuart Guard Station, which now acts as a seasonal Forest Service station. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, this is a great place to take a break and ask any questions about the area (it’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
At mile 23 you reach a scenic pull-out at Electric Lake, named for its function as the storage reservoir that supplies the steam turbines at the Huntington generating plant.
Most summers the snows here last into July (making this a good place for a summertime snowball fight), but when summer does come to these high meadows, it comes full bloom. Few places in the American West rival the Wasatch Plateau for abundance and variety of wildflowers.
The road stays high between Electric Lake and past Huntington Reservoir, winding level at elevations of about 9,500 feet with impressive views of the Sanpete Valley, San Pitch Mountains, and Mount Nebo to the northwest. Just after Cleveland Reservoir (between Electric Lake and Huntington Reservoir), Miller Flat Road heads south on 29 miles of mostly level maintained gravel to Joe’s Valley Reservoir, a popular recreation site that can also be reached by paved road from the Orangeville/Castle Dale area.
The road finally tops out above 9,700 feet after winding along up high for about 7 or 8 miles from the southern tip of Electric Lake. Just before this high point, you will encounter a turnoff on the right, signed prominently for Scofield. This is an unpaved branch road, not the main Eccles Canyon road to Scofield. Shortly after that right, there is a left for the southern part of the Skyline Drive.
The Skyline Drive is one of the Wasatch Plateau’s featured scenic attractions. This unpaved road, a designated scenic backway, winds along the steep spine of the Wasatch Plateau for more than 100 miles, much of it above 10,000 feet. The most spectacular stretch of this drive is the 30 miles running from Highway 31 south to the Joe’s Valley–Ephraim Road, fairly consistently between 10,500 and 10,800 feet elevation. Some parts of this drive run along hogback ridges barely wider than the road itself, with outstanding views of lakes, cirques, and Sanpete Valley towns below. Portions of the Skyline Drive are passable in conventional vehicles in summer, but high-clearance is often required. If you intend to explore this very beautiful high-elevation road, check first in Huntington or Fairview (or any National Forest ranger station) for conditions.
Pause to take in the top-of-the-world views before the road starts to descend. Here you can see much of the Sanpete Valley as well as Mount Nebo to the north. An interpretive panel helps identify the many raptors that glide aloft here. Perhaps not surprisingly, this area is also very popular with kite skiers in winter. Just past this point is the well-marked turnoff on the right to Scofield, which is the righthand branch of this driving route. You can take this right and skip ahead to that leg or continue the descent to Fairview. Also here is the turnoff on the right for the northern part of the Skyline Drive, which is slightly less striking than the southern end but often better maintained.
The descent on Highway 31 to Fairview runs through a beautiful forest of aspen and fir. After 7 miles of descent, you reach the ramshackle outskirts of the greater Fairview metropolitan area. Do not be misled by the suburbs. With lots of old brick homes, this is a classic little Mormon country town.
The Fairview Museum, located at 100 North and 100 East, is huge, with everything from a mastodon replica to lots of Mormon pioneer artifacts. It really is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the Sanpete Valley, or in small-town western life in general. Admission is free, and it’s open Memorial Day through Sept, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (1 to 8 p.m. on Sun), and by appointment the rest of the year.
The Sanpete Valley is the best area in the state to see the cultural remnants of 19th-century Mormon settlement.
From Fairview, consider taking a drive south on US 89 through the picturesque old Mormon communities of Mount Pleasant, Spring City, and Ephraim to the regional center of Manti. Spring City’s numerous 19th-century buildings, many of which are now galleries or art studios, have earned Spring City the nickname “the Williamsburg of the West.” Ephraim (home of Snow College) and Manti are both attractive communities, settled early in Utah’s pioneer era, and preserving the architecture of the period. Manti is the site of perhaps the most beautiful of the state’s 13 Mormon temples. From Fairview, 400 North (Highway 31) heads back up and over the Wasatch Plateau. As you will have gathered from the earlier descent, the ascent of Highway 31 up Fairview Canyon is much steeper (to 8 percent grade) and narrower than Huntington Canyon. It is 8 miles to the Scofield/Skyline north intersection.
Just after this turnoff, make sure you angle to the right with the main road (100 yards past the turnoff); if you go straight here, you will head north on the Skyline Drive. Once past the Skyline Drive turnoff, the well-marked road to Scofield is straight ahead. You are now on the Eccles Canyon Scenic Byway.
The road descends through lovely meadows and high summer pastures, well watered with creeks and ponds (if you see signs for “MIA Shalom” and wonder that refers to, it’s an LDS girls’ camp). Flat Canyon Campground is about 3.5 miles from the start of the Eccles Canyon drive. Just past the campground the road begins to descend steeply for a couple of miles to the northern end of Electric Lake before making a short final ascent and descent in earnest—via the first of a few hairpin turns on this drive—at about 11 miles from the start of the Scofield drive.
The terrain up here has a real alpine look, or perhaps more like somewhere in Norway. In late July and early August, these meadows are alive with California corn lily, wild geranium, green gentian, scarlet gilia, purple lupine, wild delphinium, wild sweet pea, alpine sunflower, woodland star, forget-me-not, bluebell, charlock, hyssop, blue penstemon, and columbine. This is perhaps one of the area’s prettiest alpine drives.
At this point you descend into Eccles Canyon. At mile 13 you reach the first of several large coal mines in the Scofield region. Note on the left the interesting coal tramway along the hillside, stretching for 2 miles down the valley. Just at the lower terminus of this very impressive transport system is the Skyline Mine, which produces between 3.5 and 5 million tons of coal each year. On the right is the turnoff for the old mining town of Clear Creek, a nice diversion 3 miles up this branch canyon on good road.
About 3.5 miles beyond the Clear Creek turnoff is the hamlet of Scofield, nicely situated at the southern end of Scofield Reservoir. Utah’s officially designated Eccles Canyon Scenic Byway technically ends at the turnoff, but while not as picturesque as the high meadows and alpine terrain above, mining operations and mining towns can be visually interesting. This drive is definitely worthwhile all the way to Scofield.
While Clear Creek is in the sort of narrow valley we generally associate with mining towns, Scofield occupies a wider, more open setting. The pretty pasturelands at the town’s south end somewhat mask its mining-town look. The town is run-down in a picturesque way: old stone and brick buildings, characteristic miners’ cabins, and the usual trailer homes. The hodgepodge does include a gas station and grocery store.
Scofield is famous in mining history annals as the site of one of the worst mine disasters of all time. On May 1, 1900, an explosion at the Winter Quarters Mine ignited clouds of coal dust, sweeping flames through the shafts and setting off two dozen kegs of blasting powder. Nearly 200 bodies were recovered, some of them children as young as 13. One Scofield family lost six sons and three grandsons that day. The tragedy at Scofield was often cited as an example in efforts to enact and enforce child labor laws.
The Scofield Cemetery sits on a bench to the west of town. Note the number of gravestones bearing the date May 1, 1900. In all, nearly 150 victims of the great tragedy are buried here.
Below the town of Scofield, this drive declines in interest and beauty. Scofield Reservoir is pretty uninspiring—just a big hole full of water—although it is full of fish. Scofield State Park, with a full-service campground, is 5.5 miles farther along.
The rest of the way to US 6 is unspectacular. Once past the minor residential development at Scofield Reservoir, the road leaves the canyon and heads across sagebrush-covered ranchland. It is 10 miles to the highway, where a left turn takes you quickly to I-15. If you go this way, stop at the impressive new train-themed rest area a few miles west of Soldier Summit on US 6, which also serves as a regional information center. A right on US 6 will take you to Helper.
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.