Leaving via the Scenic Backway at Capitol Reef, Utah

(Last Updated On: April 13, 2021)

I thought we were going to be treated to a fabulous sunrise outside our window this morning. It woke us up about six with lovely pinkish clouds, but now the sun is rising directly behind a rainstorm. Everything off to either side is clear though, so pink light shows through around the rising sun. Cool.

We enter Capitol Reef under flat gray skies.Yesterday we stopped in at the Visitors’ Center to ask about potential travel options. Rather than taking the Highway 12 Scenic Byway, we are contemplating taking a scenic “backway” called the Notom-Bullfrog Road. Utah has both scenic byways and backways. A scenic byway here is like any other state’s scenic byway – a nice paved road through a scenic area. The backways are an interesting, perhaps uniquely Utahan concept: A road that would be scenic byway if it were paved. Some are accessible by two-wheel drive passenger vehicles in dry weather and some really are only suitable for use even by high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles when the weather is dry. Yes, flash floods and clay soils mean many backways are often impassible even by four-wheel drive vehicles.

I’ve read that the Notom-Bullfrog Road is even more interesting and scenic than Highway 12 and the park guide describes the are as having some of the “most geologically diverse and colorful scenery in the Southwest.” However it also explains that “Roads are open year-round, but accessibility is determined by weather. Precipitation can leave roads slick, muddy, and impassable and heavy rains can cause dangerous flash flooding that may wash out entire sections. Check at the visitor center before starting your trip.”

So yesterday we asked a.) Is this route is even worth the extra effort and b.) Is it is passable in a Ford Taurus? The ranger (a former Minnesotan) was excited by our interest in the backway, explaining: “Most of Highway 12 runs through a forest. You’re from Minnesota, so you’ve seen plenty of trees. The pine trees here are different than the ones you have, but they are still pine trees. You know what that looks like. Take the other route, which will take you right along the Waterpocket Fold. After all, the rock is what you’ve come to Capitol Reef to see.” However, she suggests we stop in the next day for up-to-date information on road conditions. (Later the proprietor of the bed and breakfast told us we were “crazy” to take “that awful road” when we could take beautiful, scenic Highway 12 instead.)

So now, under heavy gray skies, we again stop at the visitor center to confirm that the Notom-Bullfrog Road is passable. Given the dark skies and early morning rain, we suspect we might be advised to take Highway 12.

The ranger we speak with today doesn’t seem to think it really matters one way or the other. Sure, if you want to take that route, it should be fine. It was passable on August 1st, so it’s probably still passable.

But what about the rain we saw this morning?

“What rain?”

The land around the Visitor’s center is dry. Maybe we were mistaken and the rain we saw fell somewhere away from the park, but what about the gray sky overhead?

“Just watch to the west. If it gets really dark and there is lots of thunder and lightening, turn around and head back out. If it really starts to rain hard, get to a high spot in the road and wait it out – things dry really fast out here. If you get to the washes and there is any water at all in them, turn around and come back.”

So we decide to check out the rest of the park and hope the skies clear while we are doing so.

This area, east of the Fruita school, is actually the most stunning part of the park, with the white mass of Capitol Dome towering above the highway and lots of red and other colors all around. Despite its beauty, this area was a harsh place for early settlers. The Behunin cabin is a reminder of this, the tiny mud brick cabin was “home” to a family with thirteen children (most of whom actually slept in nearby caves or in the hay wagon) until a violent storm washed away the family’s crops and orchard forced them to move elsewhere. This is not a gentle land. I can see why the Mormons are so proud of their pioneer past – they endured a lot to settle this land.

The rock formations tower above us, some bathed in sun, while others reach toward a glowering gray sky. The roadway is wet and lined with puddles – clearly remnants of this morning’s rain. The scenery is gorgeous, but the light isn’t very good for photography. The Notom-Bullfrog road isn’t looking like a great bet either.

The first portion of the Notom-Bullfrog Road is paved, so we start down it. After all, there isn’t any thunder or lightning and the rain is just sort of spitting at us. We can always turn around.

From the high bench where we start down the road, we have a clear view of the fanciful rock formations of Capitol Reef (the Waterfold Pocket) running along the horizon to our west. To the east, the Henry Mountains lie almost obscured by the low-lying clouds. Ahead the road stretches out toward a flat, dry plain. Far, far ahead that plain lies under clear blue sky.

The road quickly leaves the park and passes through ranch land that backs up to the colorful rock formations. The scene is “western” in a way I can’t explain. It just looks right.

We reach the end of the paved road. I am a little surprised that Lane keeps going, but the road is firm and well-graveled – rain really shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, most of the rain is still to the northwest of us. If we keep moving, we should be able to stay ahead of it.

The road starts along the top of the Waterford Pocket, and then drops down into the valley between the bulging rock formations. In addition to the changing vantage point, the road surface changes as we drive – from gravel to firm red dirt to powdery dry clay at the far end.

At about the midpoint in the route, heavy rain is falling not far behind us and ominous gray clouds are clearly visible behind and to either side, but the sky directly above is getting lighter. The sky ahead is bright and clear.

It is beautiful and, after the rush to stay ahead of the weather, I finally feel relaxed enough to ask Lane to stop for a few pictures.

And then to stop for a few more. . .

As we drop into the valley, we start to meet an occasional vehicle (mostly cars, surprisingly, rather than trucks), coming from the other direction. The sun is becoming high and hot above us, but there is still very, very heavy rain clearly visible not far behind us. (We caught just the edge of it as we headed south.) I am glad I’m still heading south and not driving into it. Those guys are going to get really wet.

From the valley we have a close-up view of the rocky edges of the Waterfold Pocket to the west and the more distant mountains and cliffs rising to the east. On all sides, the scenery is astounding.

It is hot and sunny when we reach the dreaded washes at the connection to the Bullfrog Road and Burr Trail. The road is paved and the washes form almost unnoticeable dips. It is bone dry.

Summer itinerary for Utah and the Four Corners

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