Utah History Encyclopedia


By Joseph M. Bauman, Jr.
The Burr Trail, a sixty-six-mile route that connects Boulder, Garfield County, with Utah Highway 276 near Bullfrog Resort, Kane County, is one of the most controversial and scenic roads in America. As it cuts through Capitol Reef National Park and into deep sandstone canyon gorges on public land outside the park, its beauty belies the fierce emotions that envelop it.

It started out as a livestock trail. Josephine Catherine Chatterly Wood, an area pioneer who traveled it a century ago, jotted in her journal, 30 October 1882, "It is the most God-forsaken and wild looking country that was ever traveled. . . . It is mostly uphill and sandy knee and then sheets of solid rock for the poor animals to pull over and slide down. I never saw the poor horses pull and paw as they done today."

The Burr Trail didn't change much for the next seventy-five years, becoming somewhat enlarged and more easily traversed but still remaining rough and rugged, especially for the few vehicles that used it.

In 1967, the Atomic Energy Commission widened the trail in order that uranium ore could be hauled along it more easily. After Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established in the 1970s, Garfield County officials believed the depressed local economy would be helped if the road were paved - for this would draw tourists to Bullfrog Resort on Lake Powell. It also would improve transportation between parts of the county.

At that time, the trail across the desert sometimes washed out in summer floods; also, deep mud could mire vehicles, fords became impassible, the sheer grades down the switchbacks of the park's Waterpocket Fold could be terrifying with chunks of the road collapsing and boulders raining out of higher sections.

Conservationists argued that wilderness study areas adjacent to the trail were certain to be damaged by increased off-road vehicle (ORV) abuse; they claimed that more ORV drivers would be drawn there when the trail was improved. They also claimed that paving or resurfacing would change the road's low-speed, scenic character.

Beginning in 1983, Senator Jake Garn attempted repeatedly to win federal funding for a project to improve the route, but his efforts were thwarted by environmentalists who had the attention of other powerful congressmen. In May 1984 directors of the Southern Utah Wilderness Association - which opposed paving - were hanged in effigy in Escalante. The next year, William Penn Mott, Jr., then director of the National Park Service, toured the trail, eventually recommending that it become an all-weather, low-speed national scenic route. The plan failed to find wide support, and expired.

The Utah Legislature appropriated $1.7 million to start the paving project in February 1986. The following year the state's Community Impact Board released its first $2 million for the project. The county advertised for bids to upgrade part of the route outside Capitol Reef.

In February 1987, four conservation groups filed suit in U.S. District Court challenging the county's right-of-way on federal land, and asking whether a full-blown federal environmental impact statement should be required. Late that year, after deliberating several months, U.S. District Judge Aldon J. Anderson ruled that Garfield County had a valid right-of-way and work could begin. Environmentalists announced they would appeal.

In December 1987 four bulldozers the county used in the project were sabotaged at the bottom of the switchbacks. An environmental activist who lived near the trail was charged, but eventually the sabotage counts were dropped for lack of evidence. Late in 1990 he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was fined $300.

By January 1991 road work was progressing swiftly. County officials had spent $3.8 million of Community Impact Board grants, which by then totaled $7 million. They were laying down a gravel base with an enzyme overlay and a chip seal, but not a hard asphalt surface. Though it appears that commercial interests have won the day, passions about the Burr Trail still run high and people from both opposing camps look to the future to see what impact the paving will have on the area.