Scenic Roads Happenings October 2009
Highway 128 - The River Road
By Rob Cassingham
Mile 7.2 Sheer cliffs tower over the River Road.
Utah Highway 128, also known locally as the “River Road”, parallels the Colorado River as it winds its way between sheer towering cliffs 1,000’ tall, fantastic rock formations, and vast breathtakingly panoramic valleys. Originally created as a travel corridor linking Moab and several small (now vanished) communities with the railroad at Cisco (which is also disappearing), the River Road now is popular with campers, bicyclists, hikers, river rafters and those just out to enjoy a highly scenic drive. It is for the last group that this road log is intended to serve.
To begin your trip up the River Road, start at the intersection of Main and Center Streets in Moab, and proceed north on Main Street (US Highway 191) 2.4 miles to the intersection of US 191 and Utah Highway 128 (the River Road). Turn right, and reset your tripmeter. If you cross over the river, you just missed your turn!
Before you start upcanyon, a note of caution: Highway 128 is generally narrow with no shoulder to speak of, and bicyclists in your lane are a regular sight. Be respectful, and give bicyclists a wide berth. Also, please remain alert for the possibility of rocks in the road-the highway is often bounded on the right side by sheer cliffs, and rockfalls can occur at any time.
Mile 0.0 Across Highway 128 is Lion’s Park. As of the time of this writing, Lion’s Park was being used as a staging area for the construction of a new bridge across the Colorado River. Normally, Lion’s Park provides a shady retreat beneath the expansive branches of numerous Cottonwood trees. There any several informational kiosks here that discuss the history of Moab, the Colorado River, the Old Spanish Trail, and more.
As you proceed down the River Road, you will notice over the first several miles that the geologic layers fall and rise. This is due to the movement of deep subsurface salt deposits that have lifted the landscape (anticlines) and dropped it (synclines). This salt flowage is ultimately responsible for most of the dramatic topography of the Moab Area (excluding the La Sal Mountains).
Mile 1.0 Goose Island overlook. There are more informative kiosks here that discuss riverway rules and regulations, camping facilities, and wildlife such as endangered fishes in the Colorado River, bird species, river otters and more.
Mile 1.4 Goose Island campground. There are restrooms here, and at all campgrounds farther upriver.
As you continue your drive, you may notice piles of river gravel across the river upon the sandstone, 40 feet or more above the river. This gravel was deposited when the river was at that level.
Mile 3.0 Negro Bill canyon offers a cool and magnificent hike for the adventurous.
Mile 3.1 Negro Bill canyon is to the right. A maintained hiking trail will lead you on a two mile trek to Morning Glory Bridge, a natural sandstone formation that spans 243 feet. Poison Ivy is a common sight alongside the trail, so long pants are advised.
Mile 6.5 Drinks Canyon campground.
Mile 7.0 Hal Canyon campground. This is a nice campground in the heat of the summer, as the sun disappears behind the cliffs in the afternoon, providing welcome shade.
Mile 7.2 Oak Grove campground.
Mile 7.6 Big Bend Recreation Area/campground. There is a 911 telephone here to report emergencies.
Mile 7.9 Big Bend bouldering area. On the right side of the highway you may notice boulders with white patches of chalk on them. Bouldering (a close cousin of rock climbing) enthusiasts come from around the world to test their skill climbing upon these boulders. Watch your speed through here, as it may be congested, and there may even be pets running free in the area.
Brightly colored flotillas of rafts are a common sight during warm weather..
Mile 10.3 Take-Out Beach. This is the normal point that rafting trips exit the Colorado River. There is a wonderful beach here with a deep fine sand. Swimming in the river is not advised due to the presence of dangerous undertows. People can and have drowned due to these undertows.
Mile 12.3 Sandy Beach. Again, swimming is not advised due to deadly undertows.
Mile 14 Bridge over Castle Creek.
Mile 14.05 On the left is the former George White Ranch. Many classic Western movies were filmed at this ranch, including Rio Grande, Cheyenne Autumn and Warlock. For many years, a fort constructed by the studios as a movie set stood upon the property, and a wooden stockade (also a movie set) stood guard over the ranch entrance.
Mile 14.2 Red Cliffs Adventure Lodge. There is a winery that offers wine tasting near the lodge, and an interesting movie history museum located within the lodge focuses on the many films, television shows and TV commercials filmed in the Moab Area.
Over the next 8 miles, the River Road passes through the highly scenic Professor Valley.
Mile 15.5 Intersection-Continue straight. The road to the right crosses scenic Castle Valley and connects with the La Sal Loop Road, which was detailed in the August 2009 issue of the Moab Happenings. If you are interested in driving this road, please do it on your return trip back to Moab so your mileages for this road log are not affected.
There are no services in Castle Valley.
Mile 16.3 Scenic Pullout. This stop allows a good view of the rock formations to the south. From right to left, they are The Convent (a large butte), Sister Superior, Priest and Nuns, The Rectory, and Castleton Tower (The tall spire standing off by itself).
Mile 17.2 Sorrel River Ranch. The Sorrel River Ranch is a luxury vacation lodge.
Mile 20.2 The road through the narrows of Onion Creek departs to the right. This road will be detailed in next month’s Moab Happenings. It is recommended for high-clearance vehicles, although four wheel drive is not normally required for the first few miles.
Fishers Towers- Mile 21 The setting sun makes the Fisher Towers blaze with red light.
Mile 21 Fisher Towers access. The Fisher Towers are the tall formations to the south. Spectacular in all lighting conditions, they are especially dramatic at sunset, when the sun’s rays set them ablaze with red light. The road to Fisher Towers is two miles long. Although it is often riddled with a washboard surface, it is normally quite passable for passenger cars.
Mile 21.5 Locomotive Rock. Located on the right side of the highway, Locomotive Rock has been used in several western movies, including The Comancheros, Siege at Red River, and Smoke Signals.
Mile 23.3 Hittle Bottom. This is the normal starting point for rafters floating the ‘Daily’ section of the Colorado River, with the end point of the trip being Take-Out Beach. On the right side of the highway is the trailhead for the Amphitheater Loop hike, which is three miles in length.
Mile 24.7 The view from Postcard Point at sunset.
Mile 24.7 Postcard Point. Located on the left side of the highway is a scenic pullout that allows photographers a good vantage of Fisher Towers and the La Sal Mountains reflected in the Colorado River.
Mile 29.6 Dewey Bridge Recreation Area-End of road log. There are several informational signs and campsites on the left side of the road, and the sad remains of historic Dewey Bridge on the right side of the highway. Beginning in the 1880s, a gentleman named Samual King (the person originally responsible for the creation of the River Road) operated a ferry to transport people and freight across the river. In 1915, the State of Utah constructed Dewey Bridge. Over 500 feet in length and only 8 feet wide, Dewey Bridge was once one of the longest suspension bridges in the United States. The bridge served admirably until 1988, when the current bridge replaced it. Unfortunately, in April 2008 a child playing with matches in the campground started a fire, which sped through the brush and underneath the old wooden bridge, and it was fully engulfed before the first firefighters arrived. The steel towers and suspension cables are all that remain of this important piece of local history.
If you were to remain on the River Road, the cliff walls eventually disappear, and the road crosses open country before reaching Interstate 70 in another 15 miles.
The Moab Happenings thanks you for visiting the Moab area, and we encourage you to explore all that Moab has to offer. Look for the road log detailing the route up Onion Creek in the November issue of Moab Happenings.