Smokey Mountain Road – The Beginning!

Southern Utah’s Smokey Mountain Road traverses the largest expanse of true wilderness left in the lower 48 states.

Because of its great difficulty, about the only folks that go there are dinosaur hunters, naturalists seeking new species of insects and flowers, extreme hikers… and daft wilderness photographers.

You need to be a well-prepared, venturesome soul willing to risk the occasionally scary rigors of uncertain high-clearance 4-wheel driving to find out what is up there.

Since most folks don’t really wanna do that I thought I’d take you on a sorta virtual tour of Smokey Mountain Road by letting you ride along with me while I drive it.

Before we get started we need to know exactly what we are up against…

The Lay Of The Land

Smokey Mountain Road

As rough, risky and rocky dirt roads go Smokey Mountain Road is rougher than most but probably not the toughest there is.

It is not a loop road; its one way. You can drive it from the town of Big Water to Escalante or from the town of Escalante to Big Water.

You probably wouldn’t drive it both ways.

Even though it is about 3 times further to go back via hwy 89, its a lot faster and far less perilous.

For this trip we’ll go from Big Water to Escalante… one way! 🙂

Though you could probably drive it without a GPS or a map you’d be… welll… stupid to do so.

And don’t think one of those mamby-pamby car GPS’s you use to find Starbucks will get  the job done… it won’t! I got a good GPS with Utah topo maps loaded and a set of waypoints uploaded so we are good to go.

The topo maps will tell us exactly how many feet down we’ll tumble should we fall off the Kaiparowits. Its roughly about 2,500 feet down but its always best to know the exact distance while being tossed about like a rag doll rolling downward out of control at breakneck speeds. 🙂

There are some delightfully named side-roads off Smokey Mountain Road… like Death Ridge Road, Head of the Creeks Road and Croton Road. Don’t use them unless you want a much longer trip. We won’t take any of them this time.

Once a family without maps or a GPS was lost up there wandering about for 3 days before they were finally spotted by helicopter and rescued.

Whatever you do NEVER EVER take the very tempting looking short cut escape route off the Kaiparowits Plateau down Left Hand Collet Road… you’ll regret it for the rest of your  short, miserable and probably very painful life!

We start our pleasant little drive in Big Water, Utah…

Big Water – The Start of the Start!

Big Water is smack dab in the middle of some of the most famous landscapes in the world.

Within earshot are “The Wave“, Antelope Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, The Wahweap Hoodoos, Horseshoe Bend and The Toadstools… to name but a few.

Some of you readers have never heard of any of those places before, but it is very likely you’ve seen ALL of them at one time or another in a magazine or hanging on a wall somewhere.

Less known Pinnacle Rock (my name for it)

The very famous Antelope slot canyon

There are two important things we should know about Big Water before traipsing off on Smokey Mountain Road…

The Escalante Corner Mart

First and foremost is about the justly famous Escalante Corner Mart, not to be confused with the mini-mart with the same name 85 miles up hwy 89 in Kanab.

Escalante Corner Mart in Big Water, Utah

It doesn’t look like much outside and looks even less glamorous inside, but it is the hot spot in town.

Among scientists, canyoneers, hikers and anyone else who happens by from miles around, it is THE place to stop for ice cream!

We stop in for a cone while getting ready to leave.

We take a gander at Merle Graffam’s rustic fossil exhibit while licking our rapidly melting ice cream.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor’s Center

The other important thing to know about Big Water is to stop at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument(GSENM) Visitor’s Center across the road and down the highway a piece from the mart.

And there are two reasons to stop there.

Reason 1:
Possibly meet the man himself – Merle Graffam – and see some really, really cool dinosaur fossils.

Merle Graffam’s Therazinosarus Discovery – now in Flagstaff, AZ

Sooo… we stop in and are lucky enough to meet Merle. He is a GSENM ranger there and self proclaimed “accidental paleontologist”.

Merle gives us a very informative tour of the dinosaur exhibits and then generously gives me an autographed copy of a publication about his famous dinosaur find.  It is titled, “Therizinosaur: Mystery of the Sickle-Claw Dinosaur“.

Reason 2:
More importantly… we stop in to inquire about road conditions, pick up maps of Smokey Mountain Road, get a weather forecast and pick up some sage advice from the BLM folks there before attempting the drive.

Failure to do that could, at the very least, be expensive and at most be life threatening.

Merle warns us that Smokey Mountain Road becomes impassable and dangerous during inclement weather.

He and I chuckle while sharing an inside joke that when all the roads are closed due to flash flooding or snow that Left Hand Collet Road is always listed as open.

Graffam tells us that an innocent cloud in the distance can suddenly turn into a rip-snorting, gully-washing, wind-whipping, lightning-filled 35,000 ft tall thunderhead looming right on top of your head in a matter of minutes.

Merle explains that when that happens we could be stranded for days, not hours, and that if our SUV has to be towed and/or pulled out of Wahweap Creek that it’ll cost at least $1,000.

Fortunately for us, the weather forecast is good and Wahweap Creek is low.


The first article in this multi-part series about Smokey Mountain Road is here:
The Ways of the Wilderness Photographer
-Azleader, Living Among Landscapes, 10/30/2011

In this 2nd article in our virtual trip over Smokey Mountain Road we decided on a starting point, got a cone at the famous Escalante Corner Mart, met Merle Graffam and got the strait scoop on driving Smokey Mountain Road.

Now we are ready to hit the road.

In the next article we’ll finally start the actual journey.

Gadzooks, Batmam… but that means we’ll have to go all the way to “The Moon!”

Its true! We will. Intrigued??

Then hang on to your seat belts and stay tuned for the next exciting episode of “What the heck am I doing here?”

Same bat blog; same bat channel!

About azleader

Learning to see life more clearly... one image at a time!
This entry was posted in Desert, Geology, Hoodoo, Landscape, Photography, Utah. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Smokey Mountain Road – The Beginning!

  1. Pingback: Moon Rovering Photographer! | Living Among Landscapes!

  2. Giles_uk says:

    being a 4×4 truck driver myself and a geek id have like to have seen teh suv you were using for the perils you talk of and high spotting etc. 😦

  3. Jeff says:

    Too much drama in your writing.

    • azleader says:

      Agreed. This is over the top, but true.

      I find that, way to often, photographers only explain the technical aspects of their images, or nothing at all. They just show the picture as if that is all there is.

      Each image has a unique story, and the story behind the image is part of the image itself. That is what I’m trying to convey in these writings… the stories behind my pictures.

  4. I am in fact glad to read this website posts which carries tons of valuable data, thanks for providing such data.

  5. azleader says:

    I have zillions more things I should can and should write about landscape photography. I need to get back at it!

  6. Alan Haungs says:

    I am from the Buffalo, New York area. We just got back this week, and we drove last week on this Smokey Mountain “road” and had a blast. We went with a group of local friends in their Jeeps. I recommend go with others who have done this many times before. Many of the locals routinely go off-roading. We enjoyed the landscape and the abundance of sun and blue skies.

    • azleader says:

      It truly is the loneliest road in the continental United States.

      I drove it alone in my CRV a couple times. I’ve camped out there overnight before, too.

      You may recall a particularly rough section where the road makes a big dip into a dry creek bed. When I was going down into that creek bed I could see how steep it was going up the other side.

      It occurred to me that I might not be able to make it up the other side and be stuck where I was. Of course, there is no cell service there. The thought of walking 20-30 miles to get out was not appealing.

      Fortunately, I gunned the engine down and across the creek bed and had just enough juice to make it up the far side. I was greatly relieved!

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