Rebuild planned for Utah’s historic — and hellish — Hole-in-the-Rock road

Heavily traveled stretch linking town of Escalante, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon is a maintenance nightmare for Garfield County.

(Photo courtesy of National Park Service) Steve Henry, a National Park Service backcountry ranger, visits Hole-in-the-Rock, the famous trail cut by Mormon pioneer expedition to reach San Juan County in 1880, along with anthropologist Katie Brown, and Erik Stanfield, a cultural resource specialist for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The rugged 57-mile road to reach this spot from Escalante is very difficult to maintain, but now Garfield County is seeking approval from the Bureau of Land Management to rebuild parts of the road used by visitors to Grand Staircase-Esclante National Monument.

Utah’s Hole in the Rock road is sometimes referred to as “57 miles of hell” — good for trashing vehicles, less useful for accessing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s slot canyons and historic sites along the route named for the 1879-80 pioneer expedition.

Yet it is the monument’s most traveled road and the busiest non-state highway in Garfield County, seeing up to 200 vehicles a day, according to county engineer Brian Bremner. And many visitors aren’t pleased with the famous road’s sorry, channel-like condition that turns the drive from Escalante to Glen Canyon into a three-hour ordeal, on a good day.

Now, the county has the money to rebuild Garfield’s 16-mile stretch of the road and is seeking the Bureau of Land Management’s permission to proceed. County officials say they plan to repair past flood damage, narrow the roadway, shore up culverts and make it easier to maintain and drive on. Maintaining the road is currently a never-ending task, they say — where grading crews continually work the road bed, yet mud bogs still form, ensuring the road continues to widen as drivers go to the sides to avoid pools.

Bremner figures his crews regrade the entire road up to 20 times each tourist season, from April to October, plus an additional six times a year for the Garfield County end.

“We finish grading on a Thursday evening and by Monday it’s ready for us to go back to,” Bremner said Tuesday. “It keeps getting lower and lower. We need to build it back up so we can maintain it.”

Garfield maintains Kane County’s 40-mile share of the road, but the proposed project covers just the 16 miles closest to Escalante.

“Inadequate drainage has led to an increasingly deeper and wider travel surface resulting in repetitive road blading events that further entrench and widen the road, further complicating maintenance and the stability of the road,” the Bureau of Land Management reported in a notice announcing an environmental assessment of the $1.7 million project. The federal agency will join Garfield officials at public meetings this week in Escalante and Boulder.

Utah and federal officials have been exploring developing a state park at the southeastern end of the road, where Mormon pioneers built a wagon road through a cleft in the rocks above Glen Canyon. Because of the historic spot’s remoteness, however, state parks officials are doubtful such a park could financially support itself, although repairing the road could make a park idea more viable.

“We need to sit down with county leaders and agency partners that manage the land, and talk about what can we do. That hasn’t happened yet,” said Jeff Rasmussen, deputy director of the Utah Division of State Parks. ”If the county improves the road, that would improve access and enable more people to get to Hole-in-the-Rock.“

Jerry Roundy, founder of Escalante Heritage Center, which has pushed the park idea, would like to see the road surface hardened eventually. The center is interested in facilitating tours of Hole-in-the-Rock to help connect young Utahns with a heroic achievement of Western settlement, but the time and effort it takes to drive there is getting in the way.

“One of the reasons is the distance from town,” Roundy said. “A park would be more of possibility if the road were improved.”

The national monument’s management plan bars pavement or significant upgrades to the road, but the fix Garfield has in mind squares with the BLM’s obligation to maintain the road’s historic character and protect monument resources, according to associate monument manager Matt Betenson. The project would rebuild the bed into a “crown-and-ditch” structure, with preliminary design envisioning 26 feet traveling lanes and shoulders, with 10-foot slopes on either side.

“It’s a better design so water sheds off the road and doesn’t create mud pools,” Betenson said. “It gets wide in places, then wags back down at the culverts. We would like a consistent width, bring the shoulders in, so it’s two lanes and not the four lanes it feels like.”

The BLM is accepting public comments, to be used to guide the environmental review, through Nov. 9. Comments can be sent to Betenson at 669 South Highway 89A, Kanab, UT84726 or by email at blm_ut_gs_comments@blm.gov. Scoping meetings are to be held Wednesday at the Escalante Community Center (85 N. 100 West) and Thursday at the Boulder Community Center (351 N. 100 East).