Thursday, July 16, 2020

Southeast Utah's US Highways

In a nutshell, the story of the US highways in southeastern Utah is one of gradually increasing mileage, attempted extensions, and a lot of renumberings. This post will cover the US Highway corridors of Grand and San Juan Counties.

The first state highways in this area date back to the earliest days of the Utah state highway system, in 1910. That year, a north-south road running from Bluff to Thompson through Blanding, Monticello, and Valley City was added to the state system. Interestingly, it appears this was completely isolated from the rest of the state highway system; at the time, there was no east-west state highway paralleling the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. So in essence, this highway functioned as a spur from the D&RGW station at Thompson south to Bluff.

Over the next several years, more roads in the area were added to the state system. In 1912, a road from Valley City to Green River was added, connecting the Bluff-Thompson highway to the rest of the state system. The next year, the road from Monticello east to the Colorado line became a state highway. In 1915, another connection to Colorado was added from Thompson east through Cisco towards Grand Junction. The Bluff highway was extended southwest to Mexican Hat in 1916, and a new road from Moab east to Castleton was added. And in 1917 and 1918, a series of federal-aid projects improved the Thompson-Bluff highway.

In 1919, the state legislature trimmed down the highway system to around 20 designated corridors, plus any federal-aid projects. The east-west highway from Green River to Colorado was included in section N of the 1919 state highway code, but it went through Valley City, Moab, and Cisco. This formed part of the Midland Trail.

Except for the part between Moab and Valley City, the Thompson-Bluff highway was not part of any designated corridor. But because it had been improved with federal aid, it remained a state highway. All other roads in the area, including the Mexican Hat extension and the Monticello-Colorado road, were removed from the state system in 1919.

Gradually, some of the roads that had been removed in 1919 began to be put back on the state system. The Thompson-Cisco connection had been added back by 1920. Then, a handful of additional changes occurred in 1923. The road from Monticello east to Colorado was once again added to the state system, and the Moab-Cisco road was removed in favor of the shorter route via Thompson (though it would later be added back, and is now SR 128).

Around this time, the Utah State Road Commission began assigning numbers to some of the more important state highways. The Midland Trail through Valley City, Thompson, and Cisco became part of SR 8, while the road south from Valley City south to Monticello and east to Colorado became SR 9. In 1926, when the US Highway system was approved, SR 8 was also designated as US 50, and SR 9 was part of US 450. However, both state routes were retained as unsigned legislative designations.

Those highways appeared on the 1926 Rand McNally map of Utah:

Rand McNally (Utah), 1926.

Valley City wasn't explicitly labeled on that map, but it was the original north end of US 450. Notice the small road from Floy to Thompson via Crescent. In 1927, SR 8 was moved to that, but US 50 remained on the original route through Valley City. The roads from Valley City to both Floy and Thompson became branches of SR 9.

1927 was also when the legislature assigned numbers to the rest of the state highways. The state road from Monticello to Bluff was extended back to Mexican Hat, and numbered SR 47. 47 would be extended again in 1931, all the way to the Arizona line.

In 1930, the states of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona were proposing an extension of US 60 from its then-endpoint in Springfield, MO. It was described in a correspondence in advance of the May 1930 AASHTO meeting as follows:
...proposal to extend U.S.No.60 from its present western terminus at Springfield, Missouri, so that it will run across Kansas and Colorado and enter Utah east of Monticello in San Juan County, thence to Monticello, thence southwesterly to Blanding and Bluff, thence southwesterly to the Arizona state line and in to Kayenta and Tuba City, Arizona, thence northerly to the Utah-Arizona State line, thence by way of Kanab to Mt.Carmel Junction, thence by way of the Zion-Mt.Carmel Highway to Zion National Park, thence by way of Toquerville to Andersons Ranch, there to intersect with U.S.No.91 which runs southwesterly from Andersons Ranch to California.
Presumably this would have followed US 160 from Springfield to Cortez, Colorado. But west of there, this would have designated a single US number over what is now the US 491-US 191-US 163-US 160-US 89-SR 9-SR 17 corridor. Much of this mileage either didn't even exist or was in very poor condition (which explains some of the odd routing decisions when comparing to a modern map - i.e. why go down to Tuba City when you could just use Arizona SR 98? because it didn't exist back then). In fact, it was recognized that US 60 would probably have to end at Monticello due to the poor condition of the roads to the southwest. US 450 would remain as a connector from US 50 at Valley City/Crescent Junction to US 60 at Monticello. However, it was also recognized that constructing this new road was not necessarily a very high priority, especially in light of the existing gap in US 50 between Spanish Fork and Ely, Nevada - and it was generally agreed that that should be filled before effort could be expended on the new US 160.

Later that month, US 60 was indeed extended west...but to Amarillo, Texas. Most of the proposed northern alignment via Kansas and Colorado becoming US 160 instead. The original US 160 had a west end at Trinidad, Colorado with US 450 remaining intact from Utah all the way to US 85 at Walsenburg. However, a few years later, 160 was extended to Walsenburg over a concurrency with 85, then west over US 450 through the rest of Colorado.

But even though the original proposed number had been taken, it seems Utah was still planning on a southwestward extension of US 160...because they took no action to renumber the part of US 450 in their state. So US 450 and 160 ended at each other at the state line:

Gousha/Standard Oil (Western United States), 1935.

But Utah would eventually give up on that idea, and the remainder of US 450 was renumbered to 160 in 1939.

By 1934, a new road had been built directly from Valley City to Crescent Junction. US 450 and hidden SR 9 were moved to this new road, while US 50 was moved to the SR 8 alignment directly through Crescent:

Rand McNally/Texaco (Idaho-Montana-Wyoming), 1937.

The roads from Valley City to Floy and to Thompson were removed from the state highway system at that time, but they are still easily identifiable from aerial imagery and probably can even be driven in a 4WD car.

The original alignment of US 160 (and US 450 before it) in Moab entered from the south on Mill Creek Drive. It followed 400 East and Center Street before turning north on Main Street and exiting the city as US 191 does today. Although US 160 was moved to the modern Moab alignment before this map was made - sometime between 1956 and 1959 - the old alignment can easily be identified:

USGS (Moab), 1959.

But further southeast, that may not have been the original alignment of US 450 - it seems quite possible to me that original SR 9/US 450 went southeast through Spanish Valley not along the modern alignment, but on Spanish Valley Drive. Where today's road turns southeast and becomes the La Sal Mountain Loop, US 450 would have turned south towards the modern 191 alignment. I don't have any map evidence to support this, but a road scar is visible on satellite where this connection would have been, and there are two bridges/culverts (visible on Google aerial imagery here and here) along it. If that was indeed the US Highway route through Spanish Valley, it had already been bypassed by 1940, so it likely was never part of US 160.

Another possible early realignment involved US 450 east of Lockerby, Utah (close to the Colorado line). Early maps like the 1926 one above show that a lot of the modern route through Colorado north of Cortez didn't exist early on, and the US highway in the area did a lot of stair-stepping along the section line roads in that area. The earliest alignment may have used San Juan CR 336 (which is labeled Old Highway on many maps), crossing into Colorado about 1.8 miles north of the modern 491 crossing. However, according to a map visible over on, the modern alignment in Utah was in existence by 1934. A few other minor realignments would be made along the routes of US 160 and SR 47, but we won't discuss them here.

Apparently sometime around 1960, the Colorado highway department proposed to renumber US 160 from Cortez to Crescent Junction as an extension of US 666, but this was met with significant backlash from the residents of southeastern Utah. This was proposed again in 1965 and was again received poorly in southeast Utah, as residents of Moab and Monticello feared it would cause traffic counts to drop. Colorado responded that if Utah wouldn't go along with their proposal, they would truncate the east end of 160 to Cortez and request a new number for what is now 160 from Walsenburg southwest to Tuba City, Arizona - which probably would have been even worse for Utah.

None of those proposals came to pass, but in 1970, there was a major reorganization of the US highways around the Four Corners area - or as I like to call it, the Great Four Corners Reshuffle. The main purpose of the Reshuffle was to add the highway from Monticello to Kayenta, AZ - SR 47 and neighboring Arizona SR 464 - to the US Highway system.

In 1969, when the Four Corners states first presented their realignment plan to AASHO (the nationwide body that organizes US Highway numbering), the Kayenta-Crescent Junction highway was proposed as US 164. That technically would not have been a valid number, either, but it would have made quite a bit more sense. Although US 64 ended in Santa Fe at the time, US 164 was the existing designation for the highway from Flagstaff, AZ to Cortez, CO (now US 89 and 160), and before US 164 was created, that highway had been SR 64. In addition, the road from Kayenta to the Utah line (slated to become part of the new US highway) was SR 464.

AASHO rejected that plan at their October 1969 meeting, and deferred any action "pending approval of states concerned". The numbering proposed by AASHO instead? SR 47/464 would remain a state highway, US 160 would be renumbered US 163, and US 164 would be replaced by an extension of US 666. This was a terrible plan for a number of reasons. For one, there was absolutely no basis for US 163 as a route number - as that would imply a branch route of US 63...which runs from Wisconsin to Louisiana. And secondly, the plan would have taken US 666 severely out of direction. At the time, US 666 was a north-south route connecting Douglas, Gallup, Farmington, and Cortez. It would have made no sense to hook that back southwest at Cortez and run it all the way to US 89 near Tuba City.

The good news is that it sounds like Utah at least had no intention of proceeding with this AASHO-suggested renumbering. At the very next AASHO meeting in June 1970, the states submitted what was almost the exact same plan, but with only one difference: the proposal for US 164 was changed to US 163 - probably as a way of throwing a bone to AASHO, since they had just suggested that number (although for a completely different corridor). That plan was approved.

In 1977, the hidden legislative designations for US highways were finally abandoned, eliminating SR 9 and SR 47. No signage changed as a result of this action.

US 163 was realigned through Bluff around 1981. Originally, it passed through town on 4th East Street, Black Locust Ave, 7th East Street, and Navajo Twins Drive. That alignment can be seen here:

USGS (Bluff), 1962.

Today, the highway through Bluff simply follows Main Street along the southern and southeast edges of town.

Right around that time, another major US route change happened: US 191 was extended south from West Yellowstone, Montana through much of western Wyoming and eastern Utah and Arizona. In southeast Utah, US 191 was routed on 163 from Crescent Junction to just south of Bluff, where it turned south into the Navajo Reservation, passing through Tselakai Dezza and then entering Arizona towards Mexican Water. Interestingly, before this extension of 191, none of the Bluff-Mexican Water road was state-maintained in either Utah or Arizona - it was maintained by the Navajo Nation. In fact, ADOT still does not maintain the Arizona portion of 191 north of US 160, and it is signed as "Navajo Route 12 TO US 191".

At any rate, that made most of US 163 redundant. Signage was apparently removed north of Monticello in 1983, and then north of Bluff in 1985. Here's how it looked on a map in 1989.

Rand McNally (Utah), 1989.

That map shows the US routes as they're signed today, except for the well-known renumbering of US 666 to US 491 in 2003. This renumbering effort was primarily driven by New Mexico, and it was done not because the highway departments were superstitious, but because sign theft was such a problem that it was becoming next to impossible to keep US 666 signs on the road, and travelers were getting lost. (This, of course, was back when people actually used signs to navigate instead of their phones.)

It's interesting to note that when New Mexico initially proposed renumbering this highway, they suggested US 393. How did they come up with this? According to discussion over on the AARoads forum, it sounds like NMDOT wanted to number it as a branch of US 91 (through its connection to US 191 at Monticello). US 291 would have been the next choice, but there was already a NM 291, so their initial suggestion was 391. Colorado already had a SH 391...but instead of simply moving to the next x91, they bumped it up to the next odd number - 393 - apparently because it was thought north-south 3-digit routes needed to be odd. Somewhere along the line, somebody realized that was dumb and proposed US 491, which was not an existing state route number in any of the three states. That went into effect as the new route number on May 31, 2003, but several "OLD 666/NEW 491" assemblies were posted at various points along the route to help people using old maps. All but one of those are gone now; the last one left is in Gallup, NM - here's a Google Street View of it.

As for US 163, you might think that after it had become redundant with US 191 north of Bluff, UDOT would have formally asked AASHTO to decommission that section. But for some reason, that was never done. For a time, there was some signage around the Bluff area suggesting US 163 actually continued through Bluff to the junction with what is now SR 162, but was then SR 163 - probably numbered because UDOT wanted to extend the US route (more on that here).

But in 2004, UDOT had obviously given up on that plan. Internal UDOT discussions stated that the yellow road on the map below would remain SR 262, while the blue road would receive a new number (162). But the more interesting part was not explicitly mentioned, and that is the highlights on US 191 and US 163:

UDOT, 2004.

So apparently, while in the process of renumbering SR 163, UDOT realized they had never officially asked AASHTO to truncate US 163 north of Bluff. But instead of submitting a truncation proposal to AASHTO, they added a 163/191 concurrency to their official state highway map along the road from Bluff to Crescent Junction. As far as I know, no signage on the ground was changed.

In 2008, UDOT did officially get AASHTO approval to truncate US 163, and the new concurrency (which had never been signed in the first place) was removed from maps. But a closer look at UDOT's internal documentation suggests that they may still consider US 163 to end at Crescent Junction. The legislative description reads as follows:
From the Utah-Arizona state line southwest of Mexican Hat northeasterly to Route 191 near Bluff.
On the surface, that matches the AASHTO definition...but concurrencies are not included in Utah's legislative descriptions. If you look at the official reference PDF for US 163 (updated December 2016), you'll find this:

Likewise, US 163 is included in UDOT's concurrent routes list. So where does US 163 end now? AASHTO says Bluff, UDOT says Crescent Junction. I tend to consider the AASHTO list authoritative.

In recent years, the Utah State Legislature has established some honorary designations in this area. In 2016, the US 163 bridge over the San Juan at Mexican Hat became the Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Jason R. Workman Memorial Bridge. And in 2019, US 163, SR 162, and the segment of US 191 connecting them were officially designated as the Navajo Code Talker Highway.

Route Photos

No comprehensive photos from this area, but I do have a handful of scattered photos from a trip through the area in 2017.

US 163

No photos yet... :(

US 191

We'll start in Monticello heading south:

In Monticello, we reach the northern terminus of US 491. Stay straight for 191 south to Blanding, turn left for 491 south to Cortez.  

Signage on the mast arm itself, which says exactly the same thing as the signs we just saw. 

Now, we'll shift to the Moab area, heading northbound:

This street sign at 200 South in Moab includes the street name and a US 191 shield.
Just north of Moab, the highway junctions SR 128. Turn right for 128 to Castle Valley, or stay straight on 191 for I-70 and Green River.

A little bit farther along is the main entrance to Arches National Park. Here are some photos from around there:

Northbound mileage sign after Arches National Park. Salt Lake City is not on US 191 but is a significant destination for many travelers on this road.

Arches now has its own dedicated traffic signal from US 191. It's a seagull intersection, set up so that southbound US 191 traffic is free flowing.

Traffic leaving the park is directed to turn left for Moab or right to I-70. I like the 70 shield.  

US 491

Northbound reassurance shield entering Utah from Colorado. Note the US Bike Route signage.

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