Drive in Southern Utah
January 15, 2014 7:15 PM   Subscribe

We are planning a drive, mostly in southern Utah, in late February. What can you recommend or advise?

The itinerary is somewhat inchoate, but is shaping up like so:
Starting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, drive to Monument Valley, then to Page, AZ to see Antelope Canyon. (Yes, we know you must have a guide)
Then northwest to Bryce Canyon
Then we would like to head east on hwy 12 - hwy 24 - hwy 95 to National Bridges. I have not been on these roads before. Are these are paved roads? What can we expect as far as road conditions? We have an AWD Audi A6, which has good traction but no clearance.
Then 261 To Goosenecks, then to 191, then back to New Mexico, maybe stopping at Canyon de Chelly
posted by falsedmitri to Travel & Transportation around Utah (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't been there in February, but I've driven through Southern Utah in winter and late fall and I can tell you that you should be prepared for the possibility heavy snow and cold weather. Also, while I can't answer your specific question about whether those specific roads are paved, I'd like to validate it and encourage you to dig deep for an answer. I've been led down some ridiculous routes by Google maps, and this summer we decided against our preferred route from SLC to Tucson because a section of road along the route had washed out the previous winter (something none of the mapping tools we used adequately communicated).

Those cautions aside, I am jealous. It is a beautiful area.
posted by Good Brain at 7:26 PM on January 15, 2014

Hwy 89 in AZ is closed - it is totally washed out - so keep that in mind when routing to Page.

All those roads you specified are paved (I'm pretty sure 261 is, but I haven't been on that section to know for sure. Google maps looks like pavement though, if you zoom in all the way).

Road conditions are variable depending on weather - you should anticipate icy spots. You should be fine, but be prepared for snow and cold weather.

It sounds like fun trip. Make sure to pack lots of extra food, water and blankets - some of those areas are very remote and an accident or breakdown could mean a long wait.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:57 PM on January 15, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for that tip on 89. We could have very well changed our mind and gone through Flagstaff.
posted by falsedmitri at 8:07 PM on January 15, 2014

It's gonna be pretty cold; make sure you have cold-weather gear in case something happens to your rig. I've been to the area in mid March and there was snow in places. Bryce was a snowy mess below the rim (really tough hike due to slick trails). I've also been there in January and *that* was the coldest night I've ever spent outdoors.
One thing I noticed is that Goosenecks, at one end of your trip, is right next to Monument valley. I realize you're going in a loop, but it just seems a bit odd. 261 turns to gravel at the top of the Moqui Gap, and back to pavement at the bottom.
Utah 12 goes up over 9500' at the north end, so you're gonna have to watch the weather patterns.

Don't miss Capitol Reef, since you're going through it.
I might plan a day or two in Zion and cut Bryce short, especially if the weather sucks. I've had wonderful days in Zion in the dead of winter when a good part of the rest of the state was under snow storms.
posted by notsnot at 8:13 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If 261 is gravel for any length, then we will have to avoid it. So maybe we'll just continue on 95 east to 191.

Capitol Reef ... hadn't considered that, but will. Thanks.
posted by falsedmitri at 8:24 PM on January 15, 2014

It's gravel, but well-graded gravel. If you've still got the four inches that the car is spec'ed to have, you'll be fine. (and if you don't, why are you taking that car out to Utah?) I drove that road in a crx with broken springs, no problem.

You do know that Natural Bridges is a little...primitive, yes? Not like there's a hotel there. It's for good reason that it's considered the darkest skies in the Lower 48.
posted by notsnot at 8:50 PM on January 15, 2014

Response by poster: 4 inches sounds about right, but it has an oil pan seemingly made of eggshells. I've actually had the mechanic put a steel plate guard over the front half of it. But I'm still paranoid. One wrong bump or rut and ...
posted by falsedmitri at 8:57 PM on January 15, 2014

I've lived in Flagstaff, in SW Colorado and in Ogden, UT and I've driven those roads several times. My advice to you would be to find someplace else to go at that time of year and save the trip you're describing for June-August. I managed a motel one year in Northern Arizona and was amazed at the folks who thought they were coming to hot, dry Arizona and were absolutely paralyzed to find themselves in some of the worst cold weather imaginable. Flagstaff is at a high elevation and it's cold and gets lots of snow, but at least it has tow trucks and police and medical facilities and it's - populated - so there's someone to help you out if you need it. But that part of Utah - oh, my. We were stuck there for several hours one time because it was a Saturday afternoon and the little place we stopped at for gas was closed for the weekend. We should have had plenty of gas to make it to a more populated area, but the weather - in early February - was a driving, bitter cold blizzard and we had been driving head-on into it for hours, which took my gas tank down in a hurry. My car was nothing fancy, but it wasn't a wreck, either, and it was amazing how much snow managed to blow in around the windows and under the doors - just because the wind and snow were so severe. When we finally found that little store with two gas pumps I was so relieved I nearly cried - and it was closed. I finally just pulled up to the nearest building and started hammering on the door and honking the car. The man was angry as could be, but he did open up and pump some gas to get us on the way. And he was rude as all get out. (Bad memory).

There's so much open area where you're headed, very little traffic, no populated areas nearby (30 miles can take 4 hours easily under the right conditions, like February in Utah), and you're likely to be the only ones on the road for many miles, especially heading down toward Bryce. If you do go, please, please load up with blankets and ultra-warm clothes, water and snacks, charged cell phones or, better yet, an old-fashioned CB radio, with which you can contact truckers. And if you should get stuck somewhere on the side of the road - stay with your vehicle, no matter what.

Bryce Canyon is one the the most amazing places I've ever seen. The whole area is wild and beautiful and makes a wonderful trip, but not in February.
posted by aryma at 9:20 PM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hello. I am in this area around Bryce and Capitol Reef about once every three months, including dead of winter. I drive an AWD A4, but I have killer snow tires. Hwy 12, 24, and 95 are paved and in good condition. You are going through national parks so most of these roads are well serviced. In late February it typically is not going to be a problem.

That said, you are going to be traveling along some very high mountain passes and it will be very cold. If there is a major snowstorm that hits right during your trip, you are going to have a temporary but big problem. Clearance is not going to be as big an issue as very icy, steep roads and blinding, blowing snow. In my seven years or so of regular visits in the area, I've had a major problem on these roads two times in February, both on the high pass on Hwy 12 traveling east from Bryce to Capitol Reef, which caused me to go back to Bryce and wait it out. White-knuckled and sweaty upon arrival and very, very relieved to have made it.

Also, as others have noted, that area is remote. There are lovely little towns but big expanses of wilderness between them. And many of the wonderful little places of business in those towns are closed for the season at that time of the year.

If you are in Bryce and the weather is not good, I agree with some comments above that you'd want to rethink 12-24-95 and re-route through Zion National Park. As notsnot said, at that time of year Zion is usually absolutely fantastic, there are ample services all year, and the town of Springdale outside the park is one of the country's best little towns. You might want to rethink the whole drive -- make a stop at Zion first, head to Bryce maybe for a time if the weather is good, and then check the weather forecast again once in Bryce. If it looks dicey, head back down to Zion and swing back up to your destination using the major highways down there on the Utah-AZ border. The park service people in Zion would also be able to advise you very well as to what to do and not do re: those 12-24-95 highways once you're there.

posted by beanie at 9:42 PM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Perhaps I should also mention that I live in Salt Lake City/Park City, Utah and the reason I am down there so often is simply because it is so incredibly beautiful, rewarding, and amazing. I relish the beauty of Southern Utah throughout the year. I just did that general route you describe over New Year's and before that at Thanksgiving. It was fine. Very cold at night, but I went hiking without a jacket around Bryce and Capitol Reef in the afternoons. I'm headed there again in mid-February myself.

So, it's a calculated risk, but one I often take. That said, I know the area well and know what to expect in a bad spot of weather. That makes a big difference in terms of comfort zone and safety.
posted by beanie at 10:35 PM on January 15, 2014

IF you can do a fairly challenging 8mi hike, then you should hike Wall St, in Zion National Park. It is one of the greatest hikes in the world.
posted by Flood at 10:57 AM on January 16, 2014

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