Friday, July 17, 2009


Skutumpah. An odd sounding name for a beautiful drive through the rugged high desert of southern Utah. Derived from the Paiute language, Skutumpah (or sometimes Skumpah) is roughly translated as something like "water where rabbitbrush grows" or "the place where rabbitbrush grows and squirrels are found". Either description is somewhat accurate, but fails to account for the peaceful solitude and sweeping vistas found here.

Skutumpah (scoot-um-paw) is the last of three "main" roads that explore the the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. In previous entries I've covered Smoky Mountain Road (the longest and roughest), and Cottonwood Canyon Road (the best known and most widely used). Skutumpah is different from these other roads in that instead of traveling through the interior of the Monument, this road contours around the northwestern boundary, skirting the base of the Pink Cliffs to the north, and cutting through the White Cliffs to the south.

Like all Monument roads, conditions can vary greatly. This 33 mile long dirt road requires a high clearance vehicle and can be impassable with heavy rain or snow. As with other roads in GSENM, at this time there is no regular road maintenance being performed to repair storm damage, so always check with a regional Visitor Center before setting out. Additionally be sure to let someone know where you will be. Cell phone service is practically non-existent in the backcountry. Carry extra food, water, emergency gear, and make certain that your vehicle is in good working order.

Access to Skutumpah is from one of three points. At the north end the turnoff is on Cottonwood Canyon Road, 4 miles south of Cannonville on Utah S.R. 12. From the south, take paved Johnson Canyon road north from U.S. 89, located 9 miles east of Kanab. 16 miles north of the highway the pavement ends at a three way intersection. Turn right here (east) for the beginning of the trail. For a different experience, backroad enthusiasts can also start or end the trip at the Glendale Bench Road on U.S. 89, 25 miles north of Kanab. This adds an additional 17 miles of scenic dirt road to the journey.

For this post we begin on the north end near Cannonville. Immediately after leaving the pavement the road crosses the first of many washes and begins climbing steeply up to the bench to the west.

At the top are excellent views of Powell Point to the northeast, the Pink Cliffs to the north, and the pinyon-juniper covered benches of the White Cliffs and Skutumpah Terrace that stretch to the south. Here the elevation is around 6400 feet, and the road climbs gradually higher to around 6700 feet above sea level at the midpoint before a gradual drop to 5700 feet at the Johnson Canyon/Glendale Bench junction.

For the first 10 miles or so the road winds into and out of many small canyons. Sheep Creek, Bull Valley Gorge, and Willis Creek are tributaries of the Paria River, although only Sheep and Willis Creeks have year-round water. This section has a couple of very worthwhile narrows hikes at Willis Creek and Bull Valley Gorge. Anyone wanting to explore these scenic slot canyons must have accurate, up to date weather information as flash flooding is a deadly threat. The second picture below shows that high water in Bull Valley Gorge is 40 feet or more above the creek bottom, and there are no escape routes for unwary hikers trapped in the path of a raging torrent.

The terrain begins to level off as the road proceeds westward. Looking north reveals more of the uppermost step in the Grand Staircase, the Pink Cliffs. Home to Bryce Canyon, which is really not a canyon at all but rather the weirdly eroded spires and hoodoos of the Claron Formation at the edge of the Aquarius Plateau. Although it is not possible to see the more famous and widely photographed areas of the Park from this vantage point, the unique colors and formations leave no doubt as to where Bryce Canyon is located.

Another interesting side hike can be found at Lick Wash. This long and generally open watercourse offers a nice narrows section, with easy hiking throughout. The turnoff to the trailhead is located nearly halfway through the drive, and can sometimes be challenging to spot. This drainage which begins on the Aquarius Plateau is a tributary to the better known Buckskin Gulch across the border in northern Arizona.

By now the ever present sagebrush dominates the broad valleys, and the road meanders over the rolling terrain. Much of the land in this area is privately owned, including the sprawling Deer Springs Ranch. Remember to respect the rights of property owners, and don't trespass off the main road into areas where your presence is probably unwelcome.

Because there are a good number of ranches out this way, the road tends to see more maintenance, and the surface is in reasonably good shape except for some heavily washboarded sections. Like much of Utah, this country is "open range", meaning there are no fences between you and the cattle that are grazed here. Keep a sharp eye out for wandering herds, and always slow down when you encounter animals on the road.

The remainder of the trail is open and scenic, offering great views to the south of No Man's Mesa, Deer Springs Mesa, and Skutumpah Terrace, as well as continuing panoramas of the Pink Cliffs. When you reach the junction of Glendale Bench Road and Johnson Canyon Road, you've got a choice to make.

Next post: My choice

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written and formatted. Helpful information.