#1039. On the Burr Trail

By Nancee Rostad | Travel Photography

Sep 20

The Grand Escalante National Monument, a little known and under-visited natural area in southern Utah, is my favorite place to photograph red rock formations. At an impressive 2,938 square miles, the monument has room to roam, as well as to truly experience the natural wonders of the area, without the crowds.


Grand Escalante was named for the succession of cliffs that drop down to Lake Powell and the Colorado River to the south. In 1996 it was designated as a national monument by President Bill Clinton to protect its array of scientific and historic resources. An interesting note is that this area was the last to be mapped in the entire United States! The area contains a rich source of fossils including the best records of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life in the world. There is archeological evidence of use within the monument by the Anasazi and Fremont cultures, including rock art panels, occupation sites, and granaries. Remoteness and limited travel corridors have helped to protect this treasure which spans five life zones from low-lying desert to coniferous forests with scarce water sources. This is just one of the pristine natural wonders which was nearly decimated due to thoughtlessly reckless executive orders signed by Trump which allowed mining. Thankfully those orders have been largely overturned.


Although there are several entrances to the Grand Escalante NM, my favorite is from the tiny village of Boulder, Utah on Highway 12. My hotel of choice (and perhaps the only place one would want to stay in the entire village) is the Boulder Mountain Lodge which provides very nice rooms in several buildings. This is also the home of the famous Hell’s Backbone Grill, a farm-to-table restaurant serving delicious meals. Right next to the hotel is the entrance to the aptly named Burr Trail, a forty-mile-long paved road which winds through the Navajo Sandstone dune formations to finally arrive at my favorite destination: the tall and majestic Circle Cliffs. These beautiful cliff faces line both sides of the road for seven miles – that’s seven miles of stunningly beautiful photographic possibilities. All the images included in this post were taken at the Circle Cliffs from the driver’s seat of my car! During my recent visit I only encountered three cars over the course of two hours. Try to beat that anywhere in Arches or Canyonlands NP near Moab, UT. The stillness and serenity, with only the birds and a whispering wind to keep me company are all I needed to enter into a meditative state which helped me to capture the view. For those who enjoy more of a grand landscape type of photography, there’s plenty of possibilities to be had.

The Circle Cliffs were formed at the same time as the Rocky Mountains, as they were pushed up by pressure from the subduction of the Farallon Plate along the western edge of the continent. Between 6 and 5 million years ago rivers started cutting the canyon that exposes the layers of rock that we see today. Freeze and thaw conditions have created most of the cracks, textures and forms that make this such a photogenic place. You’ll notice many large rocks balanced along the tops of the cliffs, as well as piles of rock which have fallen over time. Just a gentle reminder that the cliffs are still actively changing. It’s possible to camp in designated areas in the monument, as well as at Capitol Reef.

You’ll hear that the Burr Trail is an alternate route to Capitol Reef National Park and the Waterpocket Fold – don’t believe it! Yes, the Burr Trail road is nicely maintained for nearly forty miles, but when you drop down the steep gravel switchbacks and onto Notom – Bullfrog Road, the red clay surface can quickly become a nearly impassable quagmire. I found this out a couple of years ago when I decided to drive from Capitol Reef to Boulder. The first part of the road is paved, but the last twenty miles or so were a nightmare filled with many areas of super slippery mud, steep mud-lined slopes heading into drainage areas, and with no place to turn around anywhere. My worse moment (of many very bad moments!) was coming around a corner and driving into a “lake” of axle deep mud and water. There was another SUV which had become stuck, but with persistence, some skill (and quite a bit of panic) I was able to maneuver my Highlander through the 50 foot long horror and make it out alive. It took an hour and half of hosing to get the thick coat of sticky mud off of my vehicle – about a ton of mud!

So, take Highway 12 between Capitol Reef NP (which you will want to check out) and Boulder, Utah. If you keep traveling southwest on Highway 12, you will come to Bryce Canyon NP and then can access Zion NP as well.

The best time, in my humble opinion, to visit this beautiful area is in mid to late October when the air is cooler and you have some fall color to work with. These images were taken in mid August during monsoon season, which worked out fine. However, during the monsoon there is the possibility of flash floods and road washouts, neither of which occurred while we were there. Even though I’ve visited the area three times, I’ll most likely go back for another look….it’s that kind of a place.


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  • Robert Sessions says:

    Lovely post Nancee! I’ve loved Escalante on a couple of visits but I’ve never driven the Burr Trail. Thanks for the beautiful introduction. And thank goodness we were able to rescue the Escalante from the ravages of “development.”

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks, Robert! You must go again and travel the Burr Trail – it’s a photographer’s dream.

  • Frank Field says:

    Nancee — Wonderful images that do full justice to this magnificent area. Thank you. We last visited about five years ago and fully support your recommendation for the Boulder Mountain Lodge. It had been dry for a while when we were there & I was able to drive my Prius (!!!) down through the switch-backs into Capitol Reef (and drive back out!). I do agree, however, that it’s far better to enter Capitol Reef through Torrey. The new Secretary of the Interior has recommended that President Biden restore much of Grand Staircase Escalante to its original boundaries, but I can find no evidence of a proclamation from the President. Keeping fingers crossed and hopes up — this area is too precious to lose to coal and oil extraction. Frank

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you, Frank! You were very lucky on the Notom-Bullfrog Road! The mere sight of a muddy road gives me PTSD now, and I’m a very adventurous driver. I had heard that the mining leases would be revoked, but I guess it’s not official yet. I too will keep my fingers crossed.

  • Michael says:

    My highest compliment is that this is simply beautiful. The photographs portray the artists mood and viewing perfectly.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Michael. It’s always good to hear that one’s photographic efforts are understood and pleasing to others, as well.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Hi Nancee – sooner you than me! I gave all that up half a life time ago, and to be honest, none of it was EVER that bad!
    Having spent much of my life on the edge of our mining industry, I am curious – is that “red” in the stone some kind of iron ore? My geologist friend has died, unfortunately, so I have to ask you instead.
    Tales of the fossils and ancient civilisations tug at my heart strings too. They’ve found a ceremonial burial site here, dating – I think – from 72,000 years ago.
    Thankfully I don’t need to borrow a yellow submarine to get to see it all – I can enjoy your photos instead!

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Well Pete, I’m no spring chicken either, as the saying goes, but I still love to get out there in my car and explore……even though I occasionally scare myself!
      Yes, the red in the sandstone is caused by iron-oxide, basically rust. The other colors are minerals, such as manganese, which produces the purple. Nature is fantastic at creating beauty, isn’t it.
      Australia is on my travel list mainly because of that fascinating long history. If we’re allowed to travel internationally again, I’ll be making my way there.
      Thanks for your kind words!

  • Pascal O. says:

    Dear Nancee,
    Stunning photography as always! Thank you!
    And especially grateful for all the pain you went through to produce this post!
    I remember vividly going to Bryce and Zion NPs, but had never heard of the Grand Escalante.
    One says properly vaccined non aliens will be allowed back in to the USA as of November 1st. I shall have this park on my to visit list.
    The tips and tricks are all duly noted.
    Thank you so much again.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your lovely comments, Pascal! I hope that you’re able to see the Grand Escalante sometime soon, and I hope that you’ll post the results on DearSusan.

  • Paul Perton says:

    Hi N. This puts me in mind of our first meet with that ghastly ‘tog leading the workshop. These images are so evocative and “you”. Great work.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks, Paul! On our recent road trip, Rich and I stopped in Page, AZ for lunch, and I was flooded with memories of that workshop. You, Al, and I had so much fun despite the head jerk!

  • Philberphoto says:

    Nancee, your art shines as bright as ever! Fantabulous images! This coming from a guy who thought Escalante was a Cadillac SUV… 🙁 Kudos and congrats!

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Philippe! I wonder why they’d name a car after a staircase…..just another thing that makes you go “hmmmm?”

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Nancee, These are wonderful images of a magical place. I wish we were traveling these days, but this is just my kind of destination for when we do. Of course the images are the product of your great photographic eye, and just beautiful, well worth meditating upon. Thank you for sharing these on Dear Susan, and I hope you will bring us more gifts in the future.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your lovely comments, Lad! I hope you get to visit the Grand Escalante soon, it works magic on flagging creativity, which I had been suffering from during the pandemic. It’s a place that calls you back, over and over.

  • Steve says:

    Nancee, this is the third time I’ve looked at this post and each time the images reveal more of their extraordinariness. I find them mesmerising and I’d love to see them printed BIG! Thanks for sharing.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Steve. It’s always gratifying to hear that a fellow photographer is enjoying my images. I agree with your idea to have them printed BIG!

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