Last month, we began our trip down Utah’s Heritage Highway 89 from its northern end near Spanish Fork, making our way through the area known as Little Denmark. This month we continue through the middle section of this 261-mile stretch of road, through the areas known as the Sevier Valley and into the Headwaters District and Boulder Loop.
Highway 89 is a gradual transition from Utah’s northern alpine mountains to the dramatic red rock canyon country of the south. Along the way you encounter a little bit of both, with a lot of pastoral farmland in between. The route meanders right down the midsection of Utah, making it easy to divert either east or west to take in attractions you’ll find on the way. The middle section of 89, through the Sevier Valley District, gives you the option to divert to State Highway 24 through the Boulder Loop District and then on to Scenic Byway Highway 12 through Bicknell, Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park.
This gem of a trip through central Utah is not to be missed…or rushed. There is much to see and do, whether you stay on Highway 89 through Richfield, Junction and Marysvale, or turn off at Sigurd to Highway 24. I’ve done both, and either route is laden with scenic delights and recreational opportunities.
In the Sevier Valley, the heritage is tied to the rich landscape where farmers and ranchers follow the ancient Native American tradition of living off the land. This wide-open valley is layered with verdant farms and ranches, rimmed with lofty mountains, and bordered by the million-plus-acre Fishlake National Forest. It’s the gateway to the Paiute ATV trail system, known to off-road enthusiasts across the U.S. as “ATV Heaven.” If you happen through the area in September, you can join 650 other riders in the annual ATV Jamboree, Sept. 14-18. The event provides the opportunity to take guided tours of this thousand-mile trail system. There’s always room for last-minute riders. For information, visit www.atvjam.com.
Fishlake National Forest is named after Fish Lake, one of Utah’s blue-ribbon fishing destinations. To get there, turn off at Sigurd, just north of Richfield, onto State Road 24, and head southeast, and then turn onto State Road 25. Fish Lake is a true high mountain lake, at an elevation of 8,800 feet. The scenic 2500-acre gem is surrounded by pines and aspens that blaze with color in the fall. Averaging 70 feet deep, its clear cold waters are famous for 20-, 30-, even 40-pound Mackinaw trout. I’ve been there many times, and I’m always inspired by its beauty. Bring a jacket because it’s cool even in the warmer months, particularly when the sun goes down. While you’re there, you’ll want to visit Fish Lake Lodge. The lodge was built in 1928-31 of huge spruce logs from nearby Pelican canyon and is one of America’s largest and most impressive log structures.
From Fish Lake, you can backtrack to Sigurd and continue down 89, or head south on State Road 24 to Bicknell and Torrey, gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. We used to take this route on our way to Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell because the family loved the scenic drive, even though it took a bit longer. Descending from Fishlake, you encounter the broad sage-covered Awapa Plateau, through the towns of Loa, Bicknell and Torrey. While these towns are some of the most isolated in the region, you’ll find a surprising number of artists, potters and woodworkers displaying their talents and their wares.
Torrey is home to several outstanding restaurants, including the Capitol Reef Inn and Café and Café Diablo.
Head east from Torrey along Highway 24, and the road begins to wind through the red rock cliffs and monuments of Capitol Reef National Park. Fortunately, there are scenic pullouts all along the way, so you can keep your eyes on the road while driving. You might want to park the RV and take the time for a guided horseback or four-wheel vehicle trip along cowboy trails. Also, don’t miss the chance to experience ancient Indian heritage at Anasazi State Park. If the northern end of 89 is a treasure of pioneer heritage, this region is steeped in ancient Native American culture. Another recommended experience is the pickle and pinto bean pies at the Sunglow Restaurant in Bicknell.
As you continue south from Torrey, you’ll encounter Scenic Byway 12, designated in 2002 as one of only 20 “All American Roads.” This stretch of road is breathtakingly beautiful, yet demands that you pay attention to the road as you navigate your way up, through, down and around red rock cliffs and overlooks. As you head up over Boulder Mountain, you’ll encounter the Boulder Mountain Lodge, a decidedly civilized stop in the wildest of places. Don’t miss the opportunity to dine at the critically acclaimed Hell’s Backbone Grill, named after one of the area’s most memorable geologic features. You’ll know why it’s so named as you pick your way along the lofty road with precipitous canyons on either side. I had the unforgettable experience of driving along Hell’s Backbone at midnight in the middle of a spectacular lightning storm. It was an indelible moment, full of adrenalin and awe.
Descending from Boulder Mountain, you’ll drive through Escalante, named in honor of the Friar Silvestre Valez de Escalante expedition of 1776, and past attractions such as Kodachrome Basin State Park before entering the town of Tropic on the border of Bryce Canyon National Park. The area is a wanderer’s paradise, from the pine and aspen covered trails of the plateau to the red dirt pathways that descend into the amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon.
Past Bryce Canyon, Highway 12 ends its loop at Highway 89, where you can turn south and continue on to Kanab, at the southern tip of the route. Next month, we’ll pick up at Sigurd, where we diverted to Highway 24, and explore the southern regions of 89, which include the Headwaters District and Under the Rim District. It’s a very different, yet equally rewarding trip down Utah’s historical Heritage Highway.
Bob Wassom is a Utah based freelance writer with a passion for outdoor recreation, travel and tourism.