Cottonwood Canyon Road

Exploring Utah's Backcountry

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.

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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.

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The most scenic part of the drive

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.

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You can see the Bryce Canyon in the Background
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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.  

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Utah Backcountry - Cottonwood Canyon Road 6
In some places the Cottonwood Canyon Road can be rough

Grosvenor Arch

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.

Related: Exploring Monument Valley Scenic Drive

The Grosvenor Arch is the most spectacular rock formation along the drive with two natural arches crowning the top of the tall ridge.

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Grosvenor Arch
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Grosvenor Arch

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.

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Hiking the Cottonwood Wash Narrows

Final Words

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.

2019 Update – Misadventure on Cottonwood Road

In August 2019, we went on another driving trip to Utah. We spent two weeks driving a Jeep Wrangler along Utah’s backcountry roads to reach the most remote and secluded areas of the southwest. 

Exploring Cottonwood Canyon Road was not in our plans, but we used it often as a shortcut to get from the Vermilion Cliffs and Lake Powell to the Escalante area. 

One day, after spending three days driving the ultimate off-road destination to the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, we were finally on our way to Kodachrome. At the end of the 500km drive, we were eager to get to the campground before nightfall, so we took the Cottonwood Canyon road shortcut. 

August in Utah is monsoon season. You get sudden, short, and severe rainfall almost every day. Just before completing the Cottonwood dirt road section of the drive, we ran into rain. The clay road immediately became impassible and we almost crashed the Jeep as we drove down the steep hill. 

Related: Organizing New Zealand South Island Photo Trip

I completely lost control of the SUV and expected an unavoidable crash. But at the last moment, the Jeep straightened itself. I assume the traction control kicked in since we slid slowly to the bottom of the hill. 

Here is how the Jeep looked. A layer of wet clay covered all the tires, which left the tires with zero traction. I understood firsthand why clay roads in Utah become impassable when wet. It does not matter what vehicle you drive or if you have chains or spikes. 

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We clay at the Cottonwood Canyon Road

We could not drive at all. The only option we had was to set up camp on the side of the road and wait until the road dried up. 

Luckily, we had all our camping gear, food, and water with us. 

The following morning, the road was still wet and sticky. Driving was not an option, so we spent the entire day hiking and completed the Cottonwood Wash Narrows hike again. It wasn’t until the early evening when the day’s heat dried up the clay that we could complete the last 10km of dirt road. 

Now I know that clay and water do not go well together when it comes to driving. 

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

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