Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cottonwood Canyon - The Heart of the Grand Staircase

Well before the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument was set aside in 1996, I'd made many trips on what I always thought of as an incredible back road that I considered a "shortcut" to Utah S.R. 12. Once the Monument was created, the road quickly became known as a relatively easy way into the interior of isolated, rugged, and beautiful country.

I'm referring to Cottonwood Canyon Road (Monument Road 400), one of the few routes that penetrate the rugged landscape in GSENM. Beginning 27 miles west of Page, Arizona on U.S. Highway 89, this 47 mile unimproved dirt road follows a geological fault for much of the southern leg, which provides a natural corridor through the jumbled and difficult terrain of the region. The fault also serves as a channel for the Paria River for several miles, as well as the tributary Cottonwood Creek in the midsection.

The road was constructed in the 1960's as a service road for utility lines which carry power north from Glen Canyon Dam. For many years before the Monument designation ranchers, geologists, paleontologists, hikers, and locals looking to get to the "big" cities (Kanab and Page) used Cottonwood Canyon as a direct route into and through the difficult landscape. The enviroment is typical of a high desert ecosystem, with elevations ranging from 4600 feet on the southern end to over 5800 feet at SR 12. While summers are hot and generally dry, winter can be cold and snowy. As with much of the area, spring and fall generally offer the most favorable weather conditions for exploration.

Like it's eastern counterpart Smoky Mountain Road, the southern end begins in a formation comprised of bentonite clay and silt, the remains of an ancient seabed. This 600 foot thick deposit is from the formation known as the Tropic Shale. It contains a treasure trove of marine fossils and shells, and it is also the most treacherous and difficult substance to negotiate when wet.

As of this post I found the road rough but passable with a high clearance vehicle, but that is subject to change at any time. As always I strongly recommend checking with the BLM at one of the various offices located around the Monument before making the journey. Additionally this route should be avoided whenever thunderstorms or heavy rain are forecast for the surrounding area.

Once you enter the watershed of the Paria River, the road turns north and skirts the east bank, in some cases right at the river's edge. Most of the year the Paria is a muddy trickle in a wide sandy bottom, but there is ample evidence of much higher flows.

At around 12 miles in, the Paria River disappears to the northwest, and you get your first look at the formation known as the Cockscomb - named for the similarity of the exposed rocks to the feature found on the head of a rooster.
The road winds through or parallel to these upthrust serrations of sedimentary layers for the next 10 miles or so, with Cottonwood Creek to the west showcasing many of the namesake trees along a narrow ribbon of water. These relatively rare riparian ecosystems flourish only where water is found - whether the stream exists on the surface or just below ground.

For visitors who want to get out of the vehicle and do some exploring, this section has a couple of worthwhile hikes. First is Hackberry Canyon, which parallels Cottonwood Canyon for 19 miles to the west and emerges in Round Valley Draw to the northwest. The second is the short but beautiful Cottonwood Narrows, which consists of a mile long detour through the creekbed. Both are well signed and offer a chance to see more of this beautiful high desert environment.

As the route begins a gradual climb out of the canyon, the terrain becomes even more colorful. and erosion of the softer shales and clays provide a surreal visual treat.

Here white and red soils of varying hues shaped by water create a striking landscape of weird and unusual features. This is undoubtedly the most photographed portion of the road, and rightfully so. Despite being only a mile or so in length, this section invites visitors to get out and spend time exploring the various formations.

The road continues the gradual climb out of the valley and into the pinon, juniper, and sagebrush country so typical of the region. At the head of the canyon the trail enters the area known as Butler Valley. Here the country becomes more open with views to the north of the White Cliffs and Powell Point.

Another well known feature of Cottonwood Canyon road is just ahead - Grosvenor Arch. This rare and beautiful double arch is located one mile off the main road, and was named for a former president of the National Geographic Society.

The arch is carved out of an isolated ridge of Henrieville sandstone, which is whitish and yellow in color. The BLM has improved access to this striking natural feature, including a pit toilet and sidewalk extending to the arch for those visitors with disabilities.

After a detour to the arch, the road continues northwest as it negotiates around and over the surrounding terrain. Open vistas of the surrounding land frame the cliffs and mesas ahead.

From here until just south of Cannonville the road sails through a sea of ubiquitous sagebrush while gently undulating over the landscape. 7 miles south of Highway 12 the dirt road ends at the turnoff to Kodachrome Basin State Park which travelers can use as a base camp to explore the many unique natural features of the region.

Coming Up: Skutumpah/Johnson Canyon Road - another "shortcut" through the Grand Staircase


  1. Fabulous! Thanks for the writing and photos. I have married a lady whose family lives in Henrieville UT on Hwy 12 and am looking forward to taking my 1987 Land Cruiser out on some of these roads.

    Pleasant Grove, UT

  2. Very nice post and pictures! Been on that road last summer after dreaming of it for a long time, beautiful!

    Milan, Italy

  3. Outstanding article, Eric, on this under appreciated gem.

  4. Appreciate your work bringing the beauty of the whole area to the world. Drove this road in 2006 and have forgotten how great the scenery is. Heading back to the area in May 2015 and this 'road' is back on the itinerary!