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COTTONWOOD CANYON ROAD

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The phrase "adventure travel" conjures up images of backpacking in Tibet or fly fishing near the Arctic Circle.

But adventure doesn't have to mean exotic. Nor does it require a passport.In fact, there's a whole lot of adventure travel smack dab in the Wasatch Front's proverbial backyard. And despite conventional wisdom, you don't need a $25,000 four-wheel drive to enjoy it.

Like Cottonwood Canyon in deep southern Utah. It's steeped in pioneer history, laced with stunning desert arches and cliffs and packed with hiking trails begging to be explored.

And it's all accessible in the family sedan.

"It's probably one of the most scenic areas anywhere in Utah, and most people don't know anything about it," said Mike Noel, area manager for the Kanab Resource Area of the Bureau of Land Management.

The 46-mile Cottonwood Canyon Road is one of 58 dirt and gravel roads throughout scenic areas of Utah now designated as official backways - "unconventional routes venturing off the beaten path."

Most of the backways, like Cottonwood, can be traveled in a passenger car. But as the official backways guide notes, "It must be understood that to drive any of the backways is an adventure to be taken seriously. Some routes cross isolated, unpredictable terrain, and visitors to these backways should be prepared to be self-sufficient."

Like taking plenty of extra food and water, a spare tire, warm clothing and a good map.

That's a particularly good idea on the Cottonwood Canyon Road. While passable on all but a few days every summer and fall, a single rain storm can turn the normally graded dirt road into a chewy mess of wet clay passable by only the most tank-like four-wheel drive.

"I was out there recently and there was this guy on his hands and knees covered in mud trying to dig out the axle of his Toyota Celica with his hands," Noel said.

But mostly it's dry - so dry that washboard roads are often more threat to your adventuresome spirit than mud.

Adventure is what "backway" travel is all about, and Noel points out that those willing to take the path less trodden through Cottonwood Canyon will be treated to an unforgettable scenic experience.

Among the highlights of the trip:

- The route begins at Cannonville, located on U-12 just east of Bryce Canyon National Park. The first 12 miles or so are under construction (expect minor delays) as crews improve the route as far as Kodachrome Basin State Park, one of the state's most colorful red-rock parks.

Kodachrome Basin, nestled in a small valley, is home to geological features found nowhere else in the world. It also has camp sites, showers and picnic areas all in a stunning setting.

- Ten miles south of Kodachrome is Grosvenor Arch (actually three arches). Like Kodachrome, the turnoff is well marked and easily accessible.

Grosvenor Arch, named after the president of the National Geographic Society, is nothing short of monumental as it towers more than 100 feet above anything and everything around it.

The real adventurous can hike to the top of the yellow arch.

- Another mile further down Cottonwood Canyon Road is an unmarked dirt road to the east leading to an alabaster quarry. Adjacent to the quarry is what many have dubbed "Utah's Stonehenge," a wheel-shaped configuration of alabaster monoliths that are in alignment with the summer solstice.

Constructed by the alabaster quarryman, "It's supposed to relate to the Second Coming of Christ and has symbolic relationships to Solomon's Temple and things like that," Noel said. "It certainly is interesting, to say the least."

- Leaving this area, the Cottonwood Canyon Road begins a descent through scenic sandstone country punctuated by thick patches of cottonwood trees. It is but a short hike to the west into neighboring study areas like Hackberry Canyon and Lower Death Valley.

There are myriads of narrow canyons where the adventurous can touch both canyon walls at the same time. But hikers should keep a wary eye out for rain clouds as flash flooding is common in the slot canyons.

"There are no marked trails," Noel said.

- Eventually, the road parallels the Cockscomb - a famous series of perpendicular sandstone slabs thrust skyward like giant teeth. While seemingly impenetrable, the Cockscomb is a cornucopia of geologic splendor.

A few miles further to the south is U.S. 89.

- The Cockscomb blocks access to one of the state's most fascinating historical sites: the Old Paria townsite. But the townsite can be accessed via another nearby dirt road.

As the Cottonwood Canyon Road meets U.S. 89, turn west toward Kanab. About 10 miles later, another dirt road cuts toward the north. The Old Paria townsite is about five miles from the highway.

"The original pioneer settlement is still there, the remnants of old dikes and some old structures we have stabilized," Noel said. Also nearby is an old movie set with a campground.

"Also, some people tried to mine gold in '20s or '30s and they built structures out of ripple rock. And there's an old sluice still there," he said. "You can hike around a lot of old ruins around there."

If you're up for the adventure.

Plan on at least two hours of "drive time," in addition to whatever time is spent hiking or exploring. Primitive camping is available at many spots along the route, while improved camping facilities are available at Kodachrome.

Once the road exits onto U.S. 89, motels are a short distance away in either Page to the east or Kanab to the west.

Detailed maps of the area are highly recommended and are available from the Cedar City District Office of the Bureau of Land Management, 586-2401, and the Dixie National Forest, 865-3700.

For more information on Utah's designated backways, contact the Utah Travel Council at 538-1030.