Hell's Backbone Scenic Road – Escalante, Utah - Atlas Obscura

Hell's Backbone Scenic Road

Escalante, Utah

Despite its name, this route in southern Utah offers a heavenly day trip. 


Some evocative names swirl around a scenic road in southern Utah. The men who built it called it The Poison Road; its craggy terrain is known as desert slickrock; it is surrounded by the Box-Death Hollow wilderness area; and it winds around a town called Salt Gulch. The road’s name is most evocative of all: Hell’s Backbone.

There are two roads between the towns of Boulder and Escalante, Utah. One, a lovely route over Scenic Byway 12, is paved. The other, Hell’s Backbone, is most certainly not. Both roads were built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC), the construction and public works arm of the Works Projects Administration (the WPA). Before 1933 there were no automobile routes to Boulder or between the two towns, there were only wagon routes and mule trails. When the CCC was formed under the WPA, the two towns asked for funding to bring them into the 20th century. They got it, starting with a gravel road along the ridge called Hells’ Backbone. Given the sheer drop along some stretches, it was the CCC crews who dubbed it the Poison Road – one false step, and down you go.

It only took the CCC a couple of years to complete Hell’s Backbone Road, which is still gravel today. It took a few more years to complete the paved road, which was finished by 1940. It is still the smooth, all-weather route between Boulder and Escalante. Both roads boast ridiculously beautiful western scenery, but only one has a bridge that can make an acrophobic’s heart skip a beat.

Know Before You Go

Hell's Backbone Road is about a 35 mile drive between Boulder and Escalante, Utah. It can be treacherous travel in the wrong weather or under the wrong road conditions, so check before making the trip and plan for about a 2-hour drive between the two towns. The road is closed in the winter, so if traveling between Boulder and Escalante in the snowy months, Scenic Byway Rt. 12 is the route. To get to the road from Boulder, Utah, follow Rt. 12 south for about 5 miles and Hell's Backbone Road (a/k/a FR-153) will be a right turn. And if heights aren't your thing, there's always the Hell's Backbone Grill in downtown Boulder.

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