Utah's Scenic Backways
There’s a faster way. There’s even a smoother road. In some cases, the pavement simply ends, becoming anything from packed gravel to deep ruts. For some, it’s the end of the road. For others, it’s just beginning. Utah’s scenic backways combine paved, winding explorations into narrow canyons or remote landscapes with more adventurous turns down paths known for rough surfaces and extreme grades, all in the pursuit of hidden beauty. On some drives you’ll join fellow travelers who’ve left the main highway behind for more relaxed auto touring, on others you’ll find yourself in solitude on a wild and rugged backcountry, where high-clearance, four-wheel-drive and self-sufficiency are your only guests.
Backways North to South
Utah has 58 designated Scenic Backways crisscrossing all corners of the state, which means there is no single, unifying description of the experience ahead.
In the west and north of Utah, some backways rise and fall with the isolated mountains of the Basin and Range in Utah’s west desert (Silver Island Mountain Loop, Notch Creek) while others climb high into seemingly remote pockets of the mountains of the Wasatch Front, yet offer occasional glimpses back into the populous valley below (Bountiful/Farmington Loop, Willard Peak, Alpine Loop). Other backways push further away from civilization, uncovering hidden oases (Cascade Springs), allowing close glimpses of wildlife (Hardware Ranch, Red Cloud/Dry Fork, and Sheep Creek) or tracking historical routes through valleys and mountain passes (Central Pacific Railroad Trail, Pioneer Memorial, and Pony Express Trail).
In the central part of the state, drivers of four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles can take on rugged dirt roads traversing ridges and plateaus (White River/Strawberry Road, Skyline Drive) while more casual tourers can explore landscapes of ancient culture and astonishing geology (Nine Mile Canyon, Wedge Overlook/Buckhorn Draw, and Temple Mountain/Goblin Valley Road).
While many visitors know Southern Utah for The Mighty 5® national parks, as accessed from the stunning scenic byways, well-prepared travelers can seek out more remote areas of the region, uncovering solitude within some of Utah’s most popular destinations. Some backways carve paths within or near the national parks themselves (Cathedral Valley Road and Notom Road/Burr Trail, Needles/Anticline Overlook, and Kolob Reservoir). Other backways access unexpected beauty in unique ecosystems or monumental landscapes (Mojave Desert/Joshua Tree Road, Elk Ridge Road) while others still are the best and only ways to see deeply hidden pockets of wild and rugged red rock beauty (Hole in the Rock, Cottonwood Canyon and Johnson Canyon), some of which can only be attempted in specially equipped 4WD vehicles (Lockhart Basin Road).
Planning and Preparedness
Utah’s scenic backways vary widely in their degrees of difficulty. Backway travel is an adventure to be taken seriously. Visitors will encounter narrow backways, roads in isolated, unpredictable terrain, even roads suitable for any vehicle in good weather but completely impassable in wet or winter conditions. Some are downright dangerous for the unprepared traveler. Plan to be self-sufficient, with water (in summer, a gallon per person per day), food, a spare tire, protection from weather and camping supplies. Since many scenic backways travel through remote areas, travelers cannot count on having cell phone service. Where possible, plan ahead to stop at local visitor centers to ask about current road and weather conditions. All travelers, regardless of where they are going, should have a good road map, including detailed topographical maps. At the very least, all travelers should have a Utah Department of Transportation official highway map. Learn more about road conditions
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