Monday, July 20, 2009

Johnson Canyon - Easy Does It

If you've followed along over the last few posts, you see that I'm (somewhat) methodically covering all the "major" roads of the Grand Staircase region. There aren't many of them, and those that do exist are unimproved dirt roads that vary in difficulty and condition. The exceptions are the Burr Trail, which is paved from Highway 12 to the boundary of Capitol Reef National Park, and Johnson Canyon which is one of three access roads to Skutumpah Road, covered in the previous entry.

Johnson Canyon road is short - only 16 miles long, but it offers a great opportunity for folks without high clearance vehicles to experience a taste of the backcountry. The starting point for this scenic and easy road is located 9 miles east of Kanab on U.S. Highway 89. This route slices northward through the Vermilion and White Cliffs, the second and middle steps in the so-called Grand Staircase. Near the end of the road at the Skutumpah/Glendale Bench road junction, you'll see the last two tiers to the north: the Grey Cliffs and the uppermost layer, the Pink Cliffs.

Over the years, a fair number of people have purchased land and built homes at the south end of the road. It's obvious why as the scenery is outstanding, and the town of Kanab is a short commute away. Fortunately the development does not detract in any way from the views ahead.

Along the road on the east side is an interesting piece of Hollywood history - the Johnson Canyon movie set.Built in the 1960's, this western period setting was home to a number of episodes of the long running TV series Gunsmoke. It was also used for scenes from "How The West Was Won" as well as a number of other productions. The property is privately owned and trespassing is forbidden, however visitors can still get a pretty good look at existing structures from the road. My research on the site indicates that the current owners at one time planned a restoration of the buildings in hope of attracting tourists and new film crews, but there is no apparent activity to be seen at this time.

Soon the private property disappears, and the base of the White Cliffs loom large ahead. This Navajo sandstone formation is heavily cross-bedded with striking patterns of warped and sinuous lines in the rock. Cross bedding is a depositional formation that is a result of how the layers were laid down (dunes and ripples), as opposed to deformation afterwards like faulting or fracturing. This region of southern Utah has many of these beautiful sandstone formations, and there are excellent examples here in Johnson Canyon.

At the upper end of the road the canyon walls close in. The pinyon-juniper woodland offers a nice contrast to the soaring white cliffs. Summer temperatures here can be warm indeed, and in winter snow is common. As beautiful as the area is, it really is only hospitable to the human visitor in spring and fall.

Overall the trip is short but very scenic. The pavement ends at mile 16 where the intersection of Skutumpah and Glendale Bench come together. If weather conditions are favorable, visitors with high clearance vehicles can continue northwest towards the town of Glendale, 17 miles away. Alternatively, anyone looking for solitude and a more rugged experience can head east on Skutumpah Road. Just be aware that that the upper end of Skutumpah is subject to washouts and the road is quite a bit rougher.
Even if you are unable to travel further into the high desert because of road conditions or lack of a high clearance vehicle, you can have a great experience cruising through beautiful Johnson Canyon. At the upper end you get panoramic views of the Pink Cliffs to the north, similar to what you would see if you made the entire trip along the Skutumpah road. And if you're heading to Bryce Canyon at some point during the rest of your visit, be sure to look south and you'll see even more of the area from the lofty Aquarius Plateau. Any way you "look" at it, you'll still come out ahead.

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