We started our exploration of Utah’s backcountry with low-hanging fruit—the Cottonwood Canyon Road. This unpaved road connects US 89 at the south end with Utah’s Scene Byway 12 on the north end. The road runs past Kodachrome State Park where we camped, which is why it made sense to start our adventure with Cottonwood Canyon Road.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a vast, mountainous area in Southern Utah with US 89 running along the border of the national monument and US 12 running along the northern border. If you need to get from Lake Powel to the Escalante area, for example, you have to take a giant 300-mile detour and drive around the entire Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Cottonwood Canyon Road is a 46-mile shortcut that runs through the mountains.
The road is in relatively good condition and I do not believe that a 4×4 car is absolutely necessary. In some areas, though, the road is pretty steep and rough. And, like with most dirt roads in Utah, it becomes impassable in rain.
It is a good practice to always stop by any Bureau of Land Management Office to find out if the road is open and inquire about its conditions. The office can provide vital information like if a flash flood caused a landslide in the area.
We drove Cottonwood Canyon Road twice—once from north to south and then from south to north. I did not see any advantage of driving one way over another.
Related: Gude to Bryce Canion National Park
The northern part of the road is more mountainous and scenic. When you approach the last leg of the drive when driving from south to north, there is a spot on top of the mountain crossing where you can stop and enjoy an unobstructed view of Bryce Canyon on the left side and the Kodachrome Basin on the right. It is simply breathtaking.
The southern part of the drive is flatter with almost no vegetation. All you see are badlands and desert. It is very different, but it is still spectacular in its own way.
Related: Valley of the Gods Dirt Road Drive
It was the second half of September, which is still a busy tourist season in Utah. But I was surprised by how few cars we encountered along our drive—five to six at most for both drives combined.
If you do not have time to explore different areas along Cottonwood Canyon Road, the only stop you must make is at the Grosvenor Arch. It is located only 1 km from the main road and is accessible by car.
The Grosvenor Arch is the most spectacular rock formation along the drive with two natural arches crowning the top of the tall ridge.
Cottonwood Wash Narrows
If you have a couple of hours to spare, take an easy three-mile hike along the bottom of the narrow canyon. Like I said, it is an easy, uncomplicated hike with its only challenge being the entrance at the south end. The entrance is covered in huge rocks from a landslide, but the climbing is easy.
All in all, Cottonwood Canyon Road is the easiest way to start exploring Utah’s backcountry. It is the perfect drive for sightseeing and photography, but it also serves as a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park and House Rock Road in Escalante.