Monday, December 20, 2021

Natural Bridges and the Bicentennial Highway

A recent trip down to southeast Utah took me along the length of State Route 95. I was expecting a pretty drive, but I was blown away by how ridiculously scenic it was. I would say it's the second best road I've been on in the whole state, after only SR 12.

SR 95 was first defined by the state legislature in 1935. It was originally a much shorter route than it is today, as it only connected Natural Bridges National Monument to SR 47 at Blanding. The state legislature defined it as follows:

Route 95. From Blanding westerly to Natural Bridges National Monument.

Here is how the area looked on that year's UDOT map:

USRC/Gousha, 1935.

This looks like the modern route, and it performed a similar function ... but as it turns out, this is almost entirely a different alignment than the one SR 95 now follows. Let's look at both ends in some detail. Today, Natural Bridges vehicle access is all between White and Armstrong Canyons... but back in 1935, there were no roads north of Armstrong. SR 95 began just south of Owachomo Bridge and followed what's today a dirt road and part of 95 around the bottom of Armstrong.

US Census, 1940.

Upon leaving the immediate Natural Bridges vicinity, 95 ran north and east along today's San Juan CR 228 and CR 268. This route passed directly between the two Bears Ears and through the southern foothills of the Abajo Mountains before entering Blanding. In Blanding, it used some combination of streets (probably 400 West, 400 North, 300 West, and Center Street) to get to the center of town, where it ended at its junction with SR 47 at Main Street.

US Census, 1940.

In 1949, the state legislature extended the route significantly to the northwest from Natural Bridges. It's a little unclear what happened with the road directly into Natural Bridges, which became a ~1.5 mile spur off SR 95. Although it could have been maintained by the state as a spur of 95, it seems more likely that it was taken off the state system - probably given to the National Park Service to maintain.

At any rate, the new extension of 95 crossed the Colorado River at Hite and continued on to SR 24 at Hanksville, where the road configurations were slightly different than today. SR 95 came in from the southeast along what's now labeled BLM 0105 on many maps before entering town from the south along 100 East. Unlike the present day, at the time SR 24 jumped south from 100 North to Main Street between 100 West and 100 East. So the original west end of 95 was at the intersection of 100 East and Main Street:

USGS (Hanksville), 1965.

The overall 1949 extension of SR 95 first appeared on the state highway map in the 1951 edition. Here is what that looked like:

USRC/Rand McNally, 1951.

Couple things to note here. One is that it is clear the mapmakers wanted to give no illusions that this would be anything near highway grade. Not only is it marked as a gravel road almost the entire way with a small graded section in the Bears Ears area, but the whole thing is also labeled "TRAIL (CARRY WATER)" - can't imagine seeing that on a DOT map today! Another is that there was no bridge over the Colorado River at Hite... so the highway had to descend all the way to river level and then cross the river on a toll ferry. South of the river, the route reached river level by dropping down Farley Canyon and the lowest portion of White Canyon, which joins with the Colorado at Hite. On the other side, the route followed the north bank for a mile or two before turning up the canyon of North Wash.  

At any rate, this was the first continuous state highway between the Hanksville and Blanding areas. It should be noted, though, that just about the entire route was unpaved. A tremendous amount of realignments would follow over the next few decades, as the state worked to gradually improve and pave the road.

The first one covered most of the highway's portion in San Juan County, from Natural Bridges east to Blanding. While the old alignment had gone directly through the Bears Ears and ended in downtown Blanding, the new alignment passed south of the Bears Ears and ended at SR 47 about 4 miles south of Blanding. This first appeared on the 1954 state map, but bridge data suggests it was not complete until 1958 or 1959, by which point most of the road had been graded:

USRC/Rand McNally, 1954.

The next major realignment would come about due to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, creating Lake Powell extending back up the Colorado River well into Utah. This would result in the original alignment and crossing at Hite becoming unusable due to high water. As a result, in November 1962, the Utah State Road Commission approved the relocation of SR 95 onto a new routing to the east, involving two large arch bridges spanning the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers. The legislature approved this change in 1963, but the new routing would not open until 1965. The 1962 resolution map is shown below, with the old alignment in red and the new one in green:

USDH, 1963.

In December 1963, the state road commission approved a relocation of SR 24 near Hanksville, rerouting it entirely out of town and staying north of the Fremont River. SR 95 in turn would be extended west along 24's former alignment through Hanksville (along Main, Center, and 100 North) then northwest across a new Fremont River bridge to the new 24 alignment. That was shown on the following map:

USDH, 1963.

However, none of the new 24 alignment east of the 95 junction was ever built. The new road northwest out of Hanksville was built... but it became the route of SR 24 into Hanksville from the west instead. No changes was made at this time to SR 95, which still ended on 100 East at Main Street.  

A few years later, in 1966, the State Road Commission approved a whole new alignment for SR 95 between Cottonwood Wash and North Wash (essentially, between today's 95/276 junction and Hite). That is shown on the map below:

USDH, 1966.

That left the section between Hanksville and Trachyte Junction as more or less the only 95 segment not to have received a significant realignment since it was first created. Any guesses what happened in 1969? If you figured it got a realignment, you were right - a brand new roadway was built for pretty much this entire road segment. This stretch was so long it actually took the state department of highways two maps to fully illustrate the realignment. Those maps are shown below:

USDH, 1969.

As those maps show, the new roadway was for the most part east of the old one, except for in the immediate vicinities of Trachyte and Hanksville. This was also significant in that for the first time, the actual western terminus of the route in Hanksville was moved. Instead of ending at the center of town, the new alignment approached town from the southeast and ended at SR 24 several blocks east of the town center. UDOT also took this opportunity to move SR 24 to 100 North through central Hanksville, removing the jog it had taken down to Main Street.

A few years later, several minor realignments were made in the vicinity of Natural Bridges National Monument. They are shown on this planning map:

USDH, 1970.

That also illustrates that by 1970, a new road had been built to serve the northern side of Natural Bridges, effectively replacing the old road in from the south (though that is still visible on the map). Presumably, the portion within monument boundaries was always maintained by the Park Service, while the portion outside them was probably a San Juan County road at first. But in 1975, the legislature added the road northwest from SR 95 to the National Monument boundary to the state system as SR 275. That route still exists today and has not changed since.

But before that could happen, part of SR 95 would undergo yet another major realignment. This time, the affected portion of 95 was between Natural Bridges and a point several miles west of Blanding. (Yes, this was major realignment #2 for that section.) Once again, this was so lengthy that the highway department needed two maps to fully illustrate it. On these maps, new alignments are shown in green, old alignments transferred to local jurisdiction are in orange, and old alignments to be abandoned are red

USDH, 1972.

That was approved by the State Road Commission in 1972, but based on bridge data the new alignment did not open for at least another year (if not a bit longer). When it did, it marked the completion of a fully paved SR 95 at long last. The new road was dedicated in 1976, the year of the U.S. Bicentennial - hence the Bicentennial Highway nickname for 95.

No changes have been made to either 95 or 276 since - although starting in 2015, all of 95 now also carries part of the US Bike Route 70 designation.

Route Photos

SR 95

SR 95 westbound begins at US 191 just south of Blanding with a reassurance shield... but for USBR 70, with which it is entirely concurrent. Fry Canyon and Hanksville lie ahead.

Don't be fooled by Fry Canyon's presence on that sign, though... you won't get any services until the end of the route in Hanksville. That largely includes cell service too.

SR 95 is known as the Bicentennial Highway, as it was fully paved and dedicated in 1976 - the US Bicentennial year.

SR 95 is a remarkably scenic highway, with numerous recreation opportunities along the way

Turn right for South Cottonwood National Forest access.

A 95 reassurance shield finally appears as we work up into the mountains, along with a State Scenic Byway sign. Technically this is also part of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, but that is more just an umbrella designation for a bunch of state highways in southeastern Utah rather than a defined corridor.

We'll go through this cool rock cut

The highway winds through panoramic views of the Cedar Mesa area.

Another reassurance shield as we continue to climb west

The highway maxes out at 7160 feet above sea level. From here it's downhill to the Colorado River. As I recall, the last cell service you'll get before Hanksville is around here.

We'll junction SR 261 ahead

Stay straight on 95 for Lake Powell, Natural Bridges, and Fry Canyon. Turn left on 261 for Mexican Hat.

SR 261 begins to the left. Several miles that way is the famous Moki Dugway road. 

SR 95 reassurance after the 261 junction, this time with a Trail of the Ancients NSB marker 

Natural Bridges, Lake Powell, Fry Canyon, and Hanksville lie ahead.

A reminder that this is truly desolate country.

Not far ahead is a junction with SR 275, which is also one of the many Trail of the Ancients NSB roads and is the gateway to Natural Bridges National Monument.

If you're not going to Natural Bridges, stay straight for Lake Powell.

Another 95 reassurance after the 275 junction, along with what I think is a new shield for Utah state scenic byways. 

Another similar reassurance marker not far down the road, but different SR shield design because it's Utah and nothing is consistent here.

Coming up is a fairly major junction - stay straight for Hite, turn left for Halls Crossing.

The road to Halls Crossing is SR 276

Fry Canyon is ahead on 95. Both 95 and 276 will ultimately get you to Hanksville, though 95 has a bridge and 276 has a ferry over Lake Powell. The ferry is currently not operational due to a prolonged multi-year drought and resulting low levels of Lake Powell, so the only way across the lake now is the 95 bridge.

Even if it's not continuous, SR 276 still services many recreational opportunities in the Halls Crossing area.

95 reassurance after that junction, this time with the older state scenic byway shield

Fry Canyon is just 12 miles ahead. Hanksville is a bit farther.

But don't be fooled, Fry Canyon won't have any services for you.

Behold, the shining city of Fry Canyon... or not. This was originally a uranium mining town back in the 1950s, but the Fry Canyon Lodge, featuring a motel and gas station, outlived the mining days by many years. It closed in 2007 but Fry Canyon remains on mileage signs today.

Another reassurance after Fry Canyon, with the new style SR 95 shield but also an older style state scenic byway shield. I do not understand this state sometimes.

We'll enter the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area boundary here. Some state highways are discontinuous through national park units (like SR 276 nearby) but 95 is not one of them.

Turn left for access to White Canyon and the Hite boat launch on Lake Powell.

Another ridiculously scenic view from the highway

Turn left for Hite, which isn't much of anything other than a boat launch point when Lake Powell is higher 

SR 95 crosses the Colorado River on a very cool arch bridge hundreds of feet above the water.

This bridge represents one of only three fixed Colorado River crossings in the state of Utah, and the only one between US 191 at Moab and US 89 at Page, AZ.

At normal, non-drought lake levels, this is an arm of Lake Powell, but now it's just the Colorado River as it was before the Glen Canyon Dam was built.

Not long after, we'll cross the Dirty Devil river on a similar but slightly less impressive bridge

That bridge looks more impressive when you can see the arch structures underneath.

View area ahead... you can bet your butt I stopped at this.

Another view area not much farther ahead.

Another reassurance shield with a different combination of highway and byway shield designs. 

A rest area appears as we begin climbing away from Lake Powell

When the ferry is open, 276 essentially functions as a long loop off 95 with a different Lake Powell crossing.

Stay straight for 95 to Hanksville, turn left for 276 to Ticaboo. All motorist services are available at either site.

276 also goes to the Bullfrog access point on Lake Powell.

Turn left for 276, veer right for 95.

Reassurance after that junction.

Hanksville is 26 miles ahead and is pretty much the next thing of note. Capitol Reef National Park is another 40ish miles west of there on SR 24.

Turn left for a Scenic Backway.

Reassurance after that junction

One last 95 reassurance shield as we begin descending towards Hanksville, located at the confluence of the Fremont River and Muddy Creek.

Welcome to Hanksville! Due to its extreme isolation, the town has a bit more than you'd expect from looking at its population alone.

Use SR 24 to Richfield or Green River. Sort of surprising to see Richfield here, but I guess none of the Wayne County cities are that big.

SR 24 is naturally also a state scenic byway. Turns out despite its isolation, this part of Utah is extremely scenic.

SR 95 ends.

SR 275

SR 275 begins at SR 95 and promptly crosses a cattle guard.

Around the bend, we'll get a reassurance shield. This is also one of the many components of the Trail of the Ancients NSB.

The sole purpose of this highway is to connect SR 95 to Natural Bridges.

Well, pretty much the sole purpose... there are some other campgrounds and recreation opportunities out here too

15 miles that way is Deer Flat. I wouldn't recommend that unless you have 4WD.

SR 275 ends without signage at the national monument boundary.