Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway To Zion
Touring the National Scenic Back Country Byways of the west is the means for experiencing far more than what an average tourist driving a passenger car will see. The long dirt road byways wind their way through vast wilderness areas instead of going around them, so the views of the landscape are up close and personal. Since features like rock climbing areas, hiking trails and campsites are rarely pictured on maps of the dirt roads in BLM and National Forest managed areas, there are plenty of pleasant surprises awaiting to be discovered along the way.
The only limiting factor for driving the Back Country Byways is whether your vehicle is capable of doing an off-highway trip. Some of the dirt roads are maintained and smooth, while others are more like a Jeep obstacle course. In order to avoid biting off more than you can chew, it is best to do some research before taking on a dirt road trip. For some of the lesser known dirt roads, very little information road conditions will exist, while updated information is easy to find for the more popular scenic byways. Satellite imagery and recent Jeep Club photo journal images posted on the internet can be of help when deciding whether a particular dirt road will be too rough for a light duty vehicle.
The nine mile long Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway is a popular side trip venture for visitors of Zion National Park. In fact, this long dirt road is kind of a scenic shortcut, because this travel route completely bypasses the city of Hurricane. For those who want to see more of the majestic Zion landscape instead of traveling through the city, touring this scenic byway is the way to go!
The two access points for the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway are easy to find. One access point can be found at the Virgin River Bridge in Rockville just south of the Zion National Park entrance. The other access point is 14 miles east of Hurricane on Utah State Road 59 in the town of Apple Valley. The Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway signage is easy to spot on SR 59 and on a map the name of this long straight dirt section at the starting point is called Main Street.
Anybody that has ever driven the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway will agree that the best starting point is the Apple Valley option, because the majestic views of Zion will not be in the rear view mirror. The other reason is because there is a very steep slope approaching the Virgin River basin that is much easier to traverse when going downhill, so the Apple Valley access point is the best choice for the start of this venture.
When starting in Apple Valley, the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway road condition will be deceptive, because the Main Street section is a very smooth farm road for a couple of miles. When the dirt road enters BLM territory it becomes too rough for an average two wheel drive passenger car. A high ground clearance two wheel drive vehicle or a 4×4 will make the trip much easier from this point on. If the weather is wet, then the only choice will be a 4×4, because the red clay dirt road can easily turn into deep mud.
As can be seen in the photo slideshow, I chose the Apple Valley starting point on the day that I toured the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway. The majestic views of the tall mesa bluffs and mountains of Zion country are plentiful along this long dirt road, so plan on spending some extra time to take it all in! There are three BLM camping and day use areas along this dirt road that are easy to find, so doing a picnic or an overnighter is an option. There are several roadside hiking trailheads that lead to remote campsites and even more scenic overlooks on the high ground.
As the road enters the juniper and pine forests, the views of Smithsonian Butte and some of the main features of Zion come into view. There are several good scenic overlooks on the high mesa and each offers a unique view. After reaching the crest of the high ground, the Zion wash and Virgin River basin come into view. The views of this rugged high desert wilderness landscape extend to the horizon and there is no better place to see the mountainous wall of of towering multi color sandstone formations that guard the entrance to Zion!
From the high ground overlooks, the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway starts going downhill over a very steep grade. If the condition of the tires or brakes on the vehicle are questionable, it is best to just turn back, because the downhill run can be dangerous. The road through this section is carved out of the mountainside, so it is like driving on polished cobblestones that are very slick. Plugging along at a slow pace is the only way to go, when driving the steep downhill slope, because it is very easy to get out of control.
After doing the white knuckle downhill run, navigating the dirt road in the dry wash basin is easy to do. It is remarkable to see how much the landscape changes from the lush green high elevation down to the floor of the bone dry desert dry wash basin. The experience can be compared to being in two completely different worlds within 15 minutes time, so expect to experience some sensory overload!
The exit point at the Virgin River Bridge in Rockville was the only cause for a pause during the scenic byway trip. A construction project is currently going on at the bridge, so expect some long delays when crossing. After reaching the intersection of Utah State Road 9 in Rockville, it is only a few miles to Zion National Park or Hurricane in either direction, so the touring adventure can continue on from there.
The Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway certainly is a great pathway to adventure in Zion Country! Those who explore this road less traveled will find many more camping options than the majority of Zion tourists will ever know about. If finding more elbow room in the majestic Zion country wilderness sounds like a dream come true, then the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway is the perfect scenic dirt road travel route for you!