Ancient Dwellings, Bridges & Buttes
This is what happens when a little bit of research leads to an extremely satisfying road trip. I didn’t know much about the Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway except I thought the name was vague and rather dull. It comes from when it was completed, 1976, the year of America’s 200th birthday. Perhaps patriotically rousing but not very illuminating about what the highway really showcases. In fact, the drive has much more to do with history that greatly predates the existence of the United States. Starting in Blanding, this byway runs 133 miles northwest to Hanksville, mostly on UT 95. The entire Four Corners area – southeastern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico – is rich in ancient human culture. Ancestral Puebloans lived in this area from about 500 BC until around AD 1270. They built cave dwellings, towers, granaries and other buildings. Not far off the byway, numerous ruins are easily accessible, if you know where to look. At mile marker 102, a short detour heads to Mule Canyon. Then, an easy half-hour hike up the canyon leads to the stunning House on Fire. Many ruins lie in Mule Canyon but this is the most remarkable. It’s named for the flame effect created by the overhanging rock. Back on UT 95, a short backtrack and hike leads to the Cave Tower Site, where several stone towers overlook a truly picturesque canyon. Another 11 miles northwest on UT 95 leads to the turnoff for Natural Bridges National Monument. It features three dramatic bridges cut from stone by running water, as well as cliff dwellings. Back on the Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway, the trip continues to Glen Canyon where it crosses the Colorado River. But that’s a story for another day as this Wide Open Ride continues...
Keep in Mind
This area is remote and sparsely populated, with limited resources and hours of operation, particularly in the winter so pay close attention to conditions.
Routes & Map
The Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway runs from Blanding to Hanksville. In this story, we stop at House on Fire, Cave Tower and Natural Bridges National Monument before continuing northwest on UT 95.
It’s about 150 miles from Blanding to Hanksville including stops at House on Fire, Cave Tower and Natural Bridges.
Honestly, if you want to do this right, you need a couple of days. It takes about a half day to drive and do the short hikes to House on Fire and the Cave Tower Site. And then you need at least a day if you want to experience the exhilarating hikes to see the three Natural Bridges. They can be viewed from the monument road but only really truly appreciated closeup. They are spectacular! And so are the trails to reach them.
Best Time to Visit
Southeastern Utah gets cold and icy in the winter and excruciatingly hot in the summer. That said, all of these spots are incredible any time of the year so plan accordingly.
There’s not much heading west, actually. Hanksville has gas and limited lodging and meals. Blanding and even Monticello are better bets with more options.