Utah's Burr Trail: The Ram Power Wagon Took Us to Hell and Back
Tracing The Path of Cattle Ranching Pioneer John Burr
John Atlantic Burr was born aboard a sailing ship in 1848, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, all of which explains how he got his name. Growing up on a ranch in southeast Utah, each fall John Burr would herd his cows from summer pasture high on the side of Boulder Mountain into the depths of Utah's canyon lands. There, they would winter in the desert and wait for spring, when they would make the return trip up the trail to again feed on the lush mountain grasses. Like the swallows that fly to Argentina in October and return each March to Mission San Juan Capistrano, for John Burr this was the cycle of life.
With this slice of history in mind, it's not surprising that in the late 1950s, while the Glen Canyon Dam was being built on the Colorado River -- a dam that would create the 190-mile-long body of water called Lake Powell -- when the dam builders needed a primitive road between Boulder, Utah, and Bull Frog on Lake Powell, dozers and graders followed the route John Burr used to trail his cows back and forth nearly 100 years before. It's only appropriate this graded road would be given his name, the Burr Trail. Today, this 100-mile stretch of primitive road cuts through country as untouched as it was back in the day, and for those who have a pickup truck or SUV, the opportunities to explore these landscapes are endless. These are places John Wesley Powell explored in 1869, during his seven-month river float trip down the Colorado River, when his own corps of discovery put in at Green River, Wyoming, floated down to the confluence of the Colorado River, through Cataract Canyon, and eventually on through the Grand Canyon. In 1869, this was a huge chunk of America not yet charted, and even today there are canyons few people see.
Driving the Burr Trail is one of those adventures that should be on everyone's bucket list, and it's especially doable for those who enjoy the comfort, functionality, and utility of a pickup or SUV. That's exactly why we jumped at the chance to tag along with a group of pilots from Alaska Airlines who had taken some time off to explore this massive, empty, and unbelievably beautiful world that's often referred to as God's Country. Packing all the gear, food, ice, water, and beverages in the back of a Ram Power Wagon, enough to support several days of roughing it in grand fashion, our own modern-day Corps of Discovery headed off into the back country of southeast Utah. Any good high-clearance 4WD vehicle (well maintained, good tires including a good spare, a full tank of fuel, and plenty of water, food, and supplies) should get you through. The Ram Power Wagon we drove could have taken us to the edge of hell and back, and having that kind of prowess just felt good.
The 2500 Crew Cab Power Wagon is not a vehicle that tries to get by with a lot of show and gimmicks. No, the ground clearance is higher, the tires are beefier, and it comes equipped with skidplates to protect the fuel tank and transfer case, front disconnecting stabilizer bars, Tru-Loc front and rear axles, and a Warn Winch. It can tow more than 10,000 pounds and has a payload capacity of just under 2000 pounds. The engine is a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that develops 383 hp and is married to a six-speed automatic transmission. Overall fuel economy (over the 1500 miles logged) came in at 14.5 mpg, which is respectable for a big truck like this. The ride was a good compromise between comfort on the open road and all business when navigating the corridors of Utah's canyon lands.
Poking around in a vehicle that has the capability of a Power Wagon, the adventure begins whenever you want it to. After a brief drive into Bryce Canyon because one of the pilots had never seen it, it was back onto Utah's Scenic Byway 12, through the town of Tropic, past the turnoff to Kodachrome Basin, and on to Escalante. Entering Escalante, we took a side trip up and over Hell's Backbone, an out-of-the-way route over Boulder Mountain to the town of Boulder, which is where the Burr Trail begins. That's the beauty of being prepared: Because we had several days to spend and were in the Power Wagon, we had the luxury of being able to take this unexpected opportunity.
A dirt byway that climbs high up and runs along the south face of Boulder Mountain, Hell's Backbone was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to connect the isolated Utah towns of Escalante and Boulder. Until then, pack animals and wagons with teams were used to supply and deliver the mail between these remote Utah ranching communities. We turned north off Highway 12 on the east side of Escalante onto a street called South 300 East, which becomes Posey Lake Road after a couple of blocks. From there, we headed north past irrigated meadows of green alfalfa, and then the plant life transitions to the junipers (some call them red cedar) that dot the red iron oxide earth. A gain in elevation quickly got us into the evergreens and pockets of alpine meadows bisected by streams that cascade to the canyon lands below and ultimately drain into the Colorado River itself 100 miles away. Located alongside these mountain streams are pristine, primitive campsites, where the sound of water roiling over boulder-lined streambeds will soothe even the most stressed-out soul. After we set up the tents, chopped the wood, and started the campfire, we turned the tailgate of the Power Wagon into the galley for the elaborate chow that followed.
The road over Hell's Backbone ends back at Highway 12, just south of Boulder. If you want to look around before going off-road, a quick stop by the Anasazi State Park will show you how folks lived here 1000 years ago. As you'd guess, it's not quite the same as today. In town, before you get on the Burr Trail, be sure and fill up with fuel, replenish the ice, and check your list of last-minute items. There's nothing -- absolutely no service of any kind, no water, no fuel, nothing -- until you reach Bull Frog on the shores of Lake Powell. In Boulder, a country store called Hills Hollows is the place to get fuel, ice, and your last double-cupped freshly brewed cup of gourmet Joe.
The first leg down the Burr Trail took us through Long Canyon, where nature has been at work for millions of years creating a masterpiece: red rock background, green of cottonwood trees, and a pastel blue sky, with puffy white cotton ball clouds above. The beauty is astounding.
Exiting Long Canyon (it's about nine miles long), we catapulted out onto a landscape where we were greeted by the massive Henry Mountains to the north. This is the last mountain range to be given a name. John Wesley Powell named it after the Secretary of the Interior who sponsored his 1869 expedition. Campfires aren't permitted in Capital Reef Monument, about 20 miles farther down the trail, so our bivouac was on a 4WD trail (name unknown) out among the cedars. Here at night, there is no residual glow from urban centers, only the ebony black sky dotted with billions of brilliant diamonds and laced with meteors.
Entering the southern end of Capital Reef Monument, the topography begins to morph into awesome vistas. Inside the Monument is a trail called Upper Muley Twist, where 4WD and a high clearance vehicle are mandatory, which made this side trip a perfect fit for the Ram Power Wagon. A mile and a half in, you begin to follow a dry riverbed lined on both sides by canyon walls that stretch higher and get narrower the farther in you go. Here, the vertical red and white rock walls and green junipers are interrupted by natural arches that defy description. If there's any chance it might rain, even behind you to the west, remember this riverbed and beds like it are the drainage paths for millions of acres of runoff. From out of nowhere, walls of water can instantly consume anything in their path. Long story short, don't take the chance. However, when nature is behaving, the payoff is superb. After parking your truck and a taking a half-mile hike up and across a red rock incline, you are at a point that yields one of the most awesome views you will ever see, to the north and the south. It's called the Water Pocket Fold (also named by John Wesley Powell in 1869).
There are some switchbacks along the Burr Trail where John Burr drove his cows a couple thousand feet down to the floor below in what today is Capital Reef Monument. From above, the trail looks like a string of attached paper clips that disappear down into the vast landscape. At the bottom, a well-marked junction points the way to Lake Powell, where there are slot canyons along the way in the face of the Water Pocket Fold, which make for great day hikes. One such is Surprise Canyon, about six miles round trip. You'll need water, snacks, sun protection, a hat, protective clothing, and good footwear. Again, keep in mind these slot canyons are the drainage paths for rain that falls to the west. Coyotes, deer, flora (beautiful desert flowers), lynx, and rattlesnakes can surprise and delight, so have your camera ready.
At the end of the Burr Trail, Lake Powell sits waiting, where during the summer months a dip in the cold water washes off the trail dust and brings your core body temperature back down to its normal range. This is the perfect way to bring your adventure to a conclusion.