Central Utah Backway: Beaver Canyon and the Sevier River Valley
Three-season trek through national forest. Tushar Mountains and scenic canyons
Location: Central Utah, in the western section of Fishlake National Forest.
Overview: A 17-mile mountain canyon drive between the town of Beaver and Eagle Point Ski Resort that continues, unpaved, over the Tushar Mountains and down into the attractive Sevier River Valley corridor.
Travel Season: Year-round as far as Eagle Point except for some vehicles in snowy conditions. Highway 153 beyond Eagle Point is closed in winter and impassable to most vehicles when wet. This is an especially fine autumn-colors drive.
Special Attractions: Historic Beaver, high mountain scenery, Fishlake National Forest, Puffer Lake, scenic/historic Sevier River Valley, hiking, fishing, camping.
GPS of Start: 38.276895, -112.641253 (Beaver)
GPS of End: 38.589500, -112.258201 (Sevier)
Drive Route Numbers & Names: Highway 153/Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway, Kimberly/ Big John Scenic Backway, U.S. 89.
Camping: Four national forest campgrounds, with unlimited opportunities for primitive, undeveloped camping.
Services: All services in Beaver; limited services in Junction and along the U.S. 89 corridor.
Nearby Attractions: Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway, Butch Cassidy’s boyhood home, Historic Marysvale, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Fremont Indian State Park.
– The Road Trip –
Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway (Highway 153) climbs from the town of Beaver into the Tushar Mountains and Fishlake National Forest. The scenic byway ends after about 17 miles of forest and mountain driving to a high point at Eagle Point Ski Area. This drive continues the route east across the spine of the Tushars (the state-designated Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway) descending to Junction in the Sevier River Valley. From Junction, the drive turns north on U.S. 89 along the scenic Sevier River to the junction with I-70.
This 62-mile drive provides a nice diversity of scenery and roadside attractions, from the beautiful and seldom-visited Tushar Mountains to the gentler landscapes and rustic communities of the Sevier River Valley.
The initial scenic byway section of this drive is paved and suitable for all vehicles. Traffic in the canyon is nearly always light, though the road is rather narrow near the mouth of Beaver Canyon. Because of heavy snow in the canyon, snow tires or chains are required from November 1 through March 31; the road may be inconvenient for larger vehicles during that period. Because Highway 153 east of Puffer Lake is unpaved (and technically closed during winter), it is a good idea to check in Beaver about the current status of this road. In dry conditions, travel east of Puffer Lake, across the ridge of the Tushars and down into the Sevier Valley, will be no problem for passenger cars and smaller campers. The first stretch of the unpaved road beyond Puffer Lake is briefly steep and narrow, which will make travel impractical for RVs and trailers, as will the switchbacks into the Sevier River Valley.
Unlike the Wasatch Plateau, to which the Tushar Range bears a resemblance, this isn’t a true plateau but the remains of a series of stratovolcanoes that were in a period of massive eruption about 24 million years ago. The region is rich in minerals and was the site of a small mining rush around the turn of the 20th century. These are some of the highest summits in Utah, with Mounts Baldy, Belknap, and Delano all higher than 12,000 feet. The entire range is seldom visited, making this a good place for high-level hiking, bicycling, and backpacking trips “far from the madding crowd.”
The drive begins in Beaver at the foot of the Tushars’ west slope. Beaver seems to be living in the past. It is full of inexpensive motels and attractive old buildings and boasts at least one of those small-town drugstores from the 1950s or 1960s — the sort of place that appears to have just a little bit of everything and about anything a person would need to get along . . . back in the 1950s or 1960s. Beaver was also the birthplace of Utah’s favorite outlaw, Butch Cassidy, and the boyhood home of Philo Farnsworth, credited as “the father of television.” If you’re a history buff, allow at least an hour to poke around this old town.
From downtown Beaver, 200 North (next to the old high school) becomes Highway 153, clearly marked for Elk Meadows and Puffer Lake. A large LDS church and the adjacent Beaver Canyon Campground/RV Park mark the eastern limit of town. Half a mile farther, note the famous old racetrack on the left. After another mile you’ve left all residential and commercial development behind and you are in a very pretty mountain canyon with Beaver Creek flowing alongside the road. A little under 5 miles from downtown Beaver you enter Fishlake National Forest. The road surface is fine, but the road is narrow, and down here in the forest the views are closed in.
The byway quickly twists and climbs 4,000 feet through groves of mountain mahogany and ponderosa pine, passing four hydroelectric plants on its way. Two miles from the entrance to the national forest is Little Cottonwood Campground; it’s 2.5 miles farther to Ponderosa picnic site. Just past Ponderosa is the turnoff on the right for FR 137. This good dirt road provides access to some attractive high mountain lakes and nice camping sites at Little Reservoir, Kents Lake, and Anderson Meadow Reservoir before connecting with the unpaved main backway farther east.
The byway climbs steeply from here, and about a mile past this turnoff (mile 11.4 from town) is Mahogany Cove Campground. Above here the views of steep, forested hillsides above and below really open up in spectacular fashion. Three miles beyond Mahogany Cove you will reach Merchant Valley Dam, which supplies water for the power plants below. Above the dam is a beautiful flat alpine meadowland crisscrossed with ATV trails.
Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway
The road levels off through the meadowland. About 2 miles above Merchant Valley Dam is a turnoff on the left, well marked for Big John Flat, a designated scenic backway. This 22-mile section of the Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway climbs over the Tushar Mountains and leads up to the old Kimberly mining district. Today all that remains are a handful of log ruins and the remains of the Annie Laurie mill.
The Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway ends at I-70 near Fremont Indian State Park, where you can see more than 500 examples of rock art, both incised petroglyphs and painted pictographs, messages in stone from the people who inhabited this canyon from the times of the earliest hunter-gatherers until recent pioneer days.
The unpaved Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway is generally suited for passenger cars (not for large RVs or trailers), though high-clearance vehicles are strongly recommended. The road is closed in winter.
About a mile farther along the Beaver Canyon drive is a turnoff on the right, signed for Beaver High Adventure Base (a Boy Scout camp). This road descends a little less than a mile to beautiful Three Creeks Reservoir in a splendid alpine setting. It’s a good fishing spot and a great place for a picnic.
Just past the turnoff for Three Creeks you will leave the national forest, and you begin to encounter private homes as you approach Eagle Point Ski Resort. After another mile you reach the very low-key development that’s grown around the base of the ski area. Just past the end of this development you reach Puffer Lake Resort cabins and the end of the paved road.
From the pavement’s end, Highway 153 is actually the southern and eastern section of the Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway. The well-maintained dirt road beyond Puffer Lake is fine (when dry) for conventional vehicles and truck-top campers. This road is technically closed in winter, which can last from November until mid-June. After the first couple of miles, this route descends, presenting no real obstacles for most vehicles. If you are still concerned about the suitability of your vehicle for the road ahead, check with the folks at the Forest Service office in Beaver. If for no other reason than the near total absence of people on the eastside descent (either as development or traffic), continuing on to Junction is highly recommended.
Climb steadily and steeply for just under 2 miles to a very beautiful highmeadow area where the views broaden out. You will see the trailhead here for Trail 129, one of several fine trails that depart the road from this high point. This meadowland is designated as a wildlife feeding area, so you will likely see deer and elk. Not surprisingly, you’ll meet many hunters in the fall. Exactly 3 miles from the end of the paved road you intersect a road on your left signed for the Skyline Recreation Trail. The Skyline trail is the showcase trail for this section of Fishlake National Forest. It runs approximately 8 miles north and west from Highway 153 to intersect the northern segment of the Big John Road. Along the way, it climbs high to skirt the highest peaks of the Tushar Range.
At this point Highway 153 is close to 10,000 feet. There are excellent primitive campsites up here.
Two miles farther and the road begins its serious descent. After about 2.5 miles of descent, you will reach a major dirt-road intersection with FR 137 on the right, signed for Kents Lake (12 miles to the lake or 25 miles back to Beaver via this route, which connects with Highway 153). Junction is 11 miles east of here on Highway 153. After a couple of miles of gradual descent on sometimes-washboarded road, you emerge from the forest and meadows to a spectacular overlook of the Sevier River Valley. Ahead is the long descent to Junction (which can be seen down in the valley).
The descent on this side of the Tushars is visually striking for the nearly complete absence of trees. It is 5 more miles of switchbacks and some exciting, steep dropoffs to the farming and ranching community of Junction, on U.S. 89. With the steepest part of the descent behind you, you pass a road doubling back on the left for City Creek Campground, with a handful of nice undeveloped sites tucked away in a shady grove.
Junction and nearby Circleville were settled in 1864. Livestock was important from the start and remains so today. The county seat of Piute County, Junction’s 1893 redbrick courthouse is one of the most attractive in the state.
Butch Cassidy Country
Now that you’ve made it this far, you might as well make the 6-mile side trip south to Circleville, where that outlaw Butch grew up.
An old settler’s cabin, 2.5 miles south of Circleville and clearly visible on the right from the highway, is Butch Cassidy’s boyhood home. Cassidy, born Robert Leroy Parker, lived here on his father’s ranch from age 13. It was here that the boy met Mike Cassidy, who had run with a group of horse thieves before taking a ranch-hand job with the Parkers. Cassidy taught the youngster all he needed to know about growing up tough and independent, and the boy must have idolized him, for he later took his old friend’s name as an alias.
Cassidy and his notorious band, “the Wild Bunch,” robbed banks and stagecoaches, held up mining payrolls, and rustled cattle throughout the region around the turn of the century. He was said to have been a likable fellow, a Robin Hood–like character who was known to have been helped out many times by ordinary citizens in his evasion of the law. There is even a story of the Piute County judge in nearby Junction buying Butch beers when he came to town.
Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, were allegedly killed in a shootout with a company of cavalry in Bolivia. Yet stories of his reappearance in the region, and subsequently in the Pacific Northwest, persisted for years. According to the research of at least one historian, he lived out a quiet life in Spokane before dying of pneumonia in the 1930s.
North of Junction, US 89 follows the Sevier River Valley. This is mostly BLM land on both sides of the road, scrub sagebrush desert used for grazing, so there is no development at all. Off to the left are the high peaks of the Tushar Range. On the right you occasionally catch a glimpse of the Sevier River and where it widens into Piute Reservoir a few miles north of Junction. At the northern end of the reservoir (5 miles north of Junction) is Piute State Park, with primitive camping and not much else.
From Marysvale to Rock Candy
It is 19 miles of wide-open ranch land to the pretty old town of Marysvale. A few substantial commercial buildings—mostly boarded shut and in varying states of decay — along with the names of several of the streets branching off from U.S. 89 are evidence that this was once a mining town of some importance. Marysvale’s selection of motels, RV parks, gas stations, and convenience stores all seem oriented around the current boom: off-road adventurers. Marysvale and other towns in the Sevier River Valley benefit from proximity to the Paiute ATV Trail, a system of more than 900 miles of offroad trails throughout central Utah.
Just north of Marysvale, U.S. 89 follows the Sevier River as it winds through a very picturesque sort of desert canyon called Clear Creek Canyon. Here you will start to notice some really fantastic coloration and eroded shapes in the hills. The colors are the result of hydrothermal activity (much like the soft, yellow rock at Yellowstone), evidence that the volcanic activity of the Tushars is quite recent.
At about mile 4.5 north of Marysvale, watch on your left just above the road for the yellow-brown formation locals named for the folk song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” made famous by the late Burl Ives. They also named nearby Lemonade Springs after the song, and the trickle that issues from this bizarre heap of soft yellow rock does look and even taste slightly lemony.
Just past the formation, a scenic pull-out gives the best view back toward the Big Rock Candy Mountain. From this vantage point, you may decide for yourself (and argue with your kids, no doubt) whether this does, in fact, look like a huge chunk of marbled candy.
Once north of the low-key development around Big Rock Candy Mountain, the valley increases in beauty. The Sevier River flows immediately to the right of the road. At just under mile 12 from Marysvale, you reach the I-70. To return to I-15, take I-70 west; to continue along U.S. 89, north to Richfield, get on I-70 east. Fortunately, since this is Utah, even the interstate drives are scenic, the only difference being the speed at which the scenery rolls by.
Richfield is a full-on mini city, with fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, discount stores, and all the other manifestations of civilization as we know it.
Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.