In preparation for our trip from Moab to Kanab I had consulted several travel guides and all of them, without exception, had extolled the beauty of Highway 12. The only mention of Highway 24 I’d found, however, was as the road you take to reach Highway 12, so I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that Highway 24 is one of the most startlingly beautiful drives I have ever taken. The route is a hundred and sixty mile road that starts near Green River on I-70 and loops south along the eastern side of San Rafael Reef, passing by Goblin Valley State Park, Capitol Reef State Park and Dixie National Forest before turning north and joining up with I-70 again near Salina.
From Green River, we were travelling 90 miles along Highway 24 before turning off onto Highway 12 and had no idea what to expect. I was acting as navigator with my nose buried deep in the trusty AAA Trip Tik we had printed out before leaving Seattle, when I heard Jill gasp. I looked up and gasped too at the strange beauty that surrounded us. Out the right window sprang unearthly-looking rocky outcrops in black and yellow. Out of the left window I saw red rock formations as grand as any at Arches, but these were just hanging out on the side of the highway with as much nonchalance as the diners and 7-Elevens that line highways elsewhere in the US. And up ahead, looming ever larger, were the most spellbinding powder blue mountains veiled in mist.
We couldn’t take our eyes off those mountains and we didn’t have to, because although the highway wove this way and that, it always came back to those mountains as if drawn by some strange magnetic force. The closer we drove towards the mountains, the more intensely blue they grew. A lone truck passed us going the opposite direction but apart from that we had the road to ourselves.
Then the little town of Hanksville sprang up from out of nowhere. Town seems a rather grandiose title for Hanksville; it boasts a population of 355 which is smaller than an average theatre audience or the guest list for most celebrity and royal weddings/funerals/birthday parties. If the inhabitants of Hanksville fancied a pint, every last one of them could fit into the Slug and Lettuce in London without the bartender breaking a sweat. Yet, despite its diminutive size, Hanksville has its own airport, and that airport has more than one runway. I don’t know what they have done to deserve an airport, but I don’t begrudge them it one little bit, because Hanksville has serious street cred. The famous outlaw Butch Cassidy and his Wild Boys used to mosey into Hanksville to stock up on supplies and then gallop off along the Dirty Devil River to their hideout at Robber’s Roost, just southeast of town. If you’re looking for the Wild West, it lives here in southern Utah; for Hanksville is the very heart of the Old West complete with gun-slinging and shoot-ups. It is the stuff of legend.
We pulled in at the old Hanksville Shell station to fill up the tank and buy some water, but the real reason we stopped was because there was a seriously cool car parked outside. I wandered around it taking photos and a venerable old gent with wild eyes and a beard you could lose medium-sized woodland creatures in limped past me, doffing his well-worn cowboy hat and saying “Well, hello there, little lady.” I beamed back at him. “Little lady” is just about the sweetest way anyone could address me. I cannot stand the American predilection for addressing women as “Ma’am” the minute they leave their teens – it makes me feel like a bun-wearing matron with starched clothing and horn-rimmed spectacles.
I finished taking photos of the car and wandered inside the Shell station where Jill and I got chatting to the venerable gent and the chap behind the counter. They were obviously good friends and knew how to entertain the ladies with a good story. And oh, what stories they told. They shared a wealth of information about the geology and history of the area and spoke of archaeological digs, local wildlife and ecosystems. From them we learned of the Mars Desert Research Station which is located a few miles out of town on the evocatively named Cow Dung Road. I have never met more eloquent conversationalists; able to discuss at length just about any topic we threw their way. We spent easily thirty minutes chatting with them and could have spent much, much longer, but we still had a long way to travel so we got ready to leave. Just before we said goodbye, Jill remembered the strangely compelling blue mountains we kept seeing along the highway and asked if they knew anything about them. I’m so glad she asked, because they proceeded to reveal to us the secrets of the Henry Mountains.
The Henry Mountains carry the unique distinction of being the last mountain range named and added to maps of the lower 48 United States. Until the year 1871 they had no name at all, and even today the Navajo name for this range translates as ‘mountain whose name is missing’. That all changed in 1869 when John Wesley Powell set off on his Powell Geographic Expedition to explore the Green and Colorado rivers and their canyons. Along the way, he spotted these mountains, which he noted in his records as the Unknown Mountains. When he returned home in 1871 he decided to name them after a close friend, Joseph Henry, who was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.
These mountains are just about as remote and inhospitable as it gets in the US, but it didn’t stop hungry prospectors looking for gold. Rumours abound of an early Spanish gold strike in the days of the Old West; they were believed to have hit a very rich vein which they only partially mined, then abandoned when attacked by a local tribe. Rumours aside, there actually was gold discovered in 1890 near the summit of Mount Ellen, the highest peak in the range. The lucky chap who discovered it, Jack Sumner, had been one of the members of Powell’s Geographic Expedition party. There has also been substantial mining of uranium and vanadium in these mountains and some uranium mining still takes place today. Now, while there are no official reports of gold being mined up there these days, gold mining is allegedly still open to the public in some areas of the Henry Mountains, and according to our two friends, there is gold a-plenty up there, and not only that, but diamonds too, which are being mined right now by a South African company. My eyebrows raised questioningly at that last little nugget of information. The venerable gent with the cowboy hat looked me square in the face, squinted his twinkling eyes and said “Mark my words, little lady, there’s diamonds up in them there hills.” And I believed him.
Back in the truck we repeated the mantra “We are never going to get out of Utah” and giggled as we hit the road again. The Henry Mountains disappeared from sight and colourful new bursts of red and yellow mountains lined the road. We watched, mesmerized, as with each new turn of the highway a brand new landscape rolled into view.
And then came the black. It was unlike anything either of us had ever seen before. First we saw smoky cliffs up ahead, then dark swathes and gloomy mountains cropped up on either side of us and soon we were surrounded by the most alien looking landscape I have ever seen. It looked distinctly extra-terrestrial.
It was somewhere around this point that we decided to stop to get a better view of this brave new land. Jill pulled off into what looked like a lay-by and we both immediately got a sinking feeling. The truck was literally sinking into the ground. Jill hit the accelerator but the pickup just fishtailed. I hopped out to see if there was anything I could do, and the minute my feet hit the ground the mud started sucking my shoes under, so I made a dive for the tarmac surface of the highway. Relieved to have made it to safety, I stood for a moment trying to figure out our best strategy, but then I looked down and realised my feet were sinking through the tarmac. Watching your shoes disappear through a roadway is not a good feeling, trust me on this one. Jill stuck her head out the window and yelled “The truck’s sinking” and I yelled back “So am I.” “But you’re on the highway.” “No, I’m IN the highway; I’m PART OF the highway.” I had to keep moving to stop my shoes disappearing completely, so paced up and down and suggested that Jill just gun it back onto the road, but she was afraid that the truck would fishtail further into the mud. The thing that was most worrying to both of us, apart from the fact that we were being sucked under by the scenery, was that we hadn’t seen another car for hours, and had no desire to be stranded in the middle of this strange dark land that seemed intent on swallowing us alive.
Thankfully luck was on our side. Off in the distance I spotted headlights; a car was coming our way, and that news alone was enough to encourage Jill to try gunning it. At least if our truck fishtailed, I could flag down the oncoming car and ask for help. As the car drew closer, Jill slammed on the accelerator and the truck popped easily out of the mud and shot onto the highway at such speed that the driver of the oncoming vehicle may have earned a change of underwear. Jill slammed the truck into reverse and backed up to where I stood almost ankle-deep in the freeway. She opened the passenger door. “Let’s get out of here.” I hopped into the passenger seat, taking big clumps of the road with me and we spun our wheels out of there as fast as we could.
We drove on for many miles through this foreboding landscape; Jill kept exclaiming ‘It’s mud, it’s all mud’ in utter disbelief. I was still picking tarmac off my feet and flinging it out the window to be reabsorbed by the malevolent road beneath us. It took us a while to shake that little adventure off, but soon Utah pulled off another wardrobe change and we were gazing up in wonder at the splendour of Capitol Reef National Park, all rosy cliffs, pockmarked sandstone and rivers flowing red.
Shortly after Capitol Reef we turned left onto Highway 12. When I told Jill we were turning onto Highway 12 she looked confused. “You mean we’re only now getting on the scenic byway you were talking about? What have we just driven?” I showed her the map. “That was Highway 24. Rubbish, wasn’t it?” We burst into laughter, because neither of us could quite believe the extraordinary journey we’d just been on, and couldn’t imagine Highway 12 exceeding what we had just seen.
Utah didn’t waste any time throwing us another curve ball, because Highway 12 travels south into the Dixie National Forest so soon we were plunged headlong into the most magical of forests full of gleaming white quaking aspen trees and lazy herds of cows wandering along the roadside and sometimes blocking the road altogether.
It was like we had entered some charmed realm driving through those aspens, and as if to belabour the point, a rainbow appeared and a deer hopped into the forest ahead of us. “Of course there’s a deer, now it’s complete” Jill said. The rainbow kept taunting us with sneaky glimpses as we drove along; I had my head stuck out the window and every time I saw it I’d shout “Rainbow, over there, over there!” and Jill, in between bouts of laughing at my idiocy, was freaking out in her own way about the aspen trees. “This is insane!” Jill screamed. “I can’t feel my face” I shouted back, my head still stuck out the window searching for the rainbow.
Near Boulder Mountain we pulled off to watch the rainbow as the sun started to drop low in the sky. There was no way we were going to reach Kanab tonight, so we settled on making it as far as Escalante and looking for a motel.
We got back on the road about the time the sun set and soon there was just a glimmer of light left. Jill pulled off to the side of the road and got out. I did too, not sure what we were doing and we wandered over to the edge of the lay-by and looked down. A long way down. “Yeah, that’s what I thought” said Jill. “We’re driving a road with canyons on either side, there are no crash barriers and it’s dark.” With the absolute worst timing in the world, we had managed to reach the treacherous Hogsback, a tricky stretch of road with no lights and 2,000 foot drop offs on both sides, just as night fell. I had a flashback to Bear Tooth Pass. Driving scary roads in the dead of night was becoming a leitmotif for my road trips. Thankfully Hogsback isn’t as long as Bear Tooth Pass, but it was hair-raising nonetheless, especially when someone in a Jeep overtook us on a bend doing 60.
It was with great relief that we pulled into Escalante and found a motel. There was nowhere open to grab a bite to eat, so I set the camp stove up in the back of the truck and rustled up tortellini for dinner. Halfway through cooking dinner, Jill realised she’d locked the keys in the cab, so we had to call the AAA guy to come out and jimmy the lock. He arrived close to midnight and didn’t seem at all distressed to have been called out so late; in fact, he’d brought his wife along with him, so we chatted with her as he worked on the lock. “Some folks find the scenery around here sort of overwhelming” she told us. Jill and I looked at each other. Overwhelming. Yes, that about described the day we’d just had.
Here’s some footage of today’s trip.