Enjoy Utah's scenic heights from your car

Published: Thursday, March 22 2007 12:09 a.m. MDT

A sport utility vehicle drives the road near Bald Mountain Pass on Mirror Lake Highway. Bald Mountain is seen in the background.

Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News

Hiking to the top of Utah's roof requires endurance and stamina, in vast amounts that not everyone can muster. A good alternative is driving this summer or early fall on a paved road to the lofty heights of the Beehive State.

But what are Utah's highest mountain passes, accessible by a hard-surface road?

The Utah Department of Transportation doesn't keep an official list of the highest roads. It knows what the top two are and that's it.

The Mirror Lake Highway — state Route 150 — is the Beehive State's highest paved road. Topping out at 10,715 feet above seal level at Bald Mountain Pass, this scenic byway is well worth the drive and is Utah's premier high-altitude wilderness drive .

Located about 50 miles east of Salt Lake City, this road begins east of Kamas and usually opens only from Memorial Day weekend until October.

Although Mirror Lake is the namesake of this drive, there are many other beautiful places to explore along the drive.

By the 1920s a rough had penetrated the High Uintas, ending at Mirror Lake, and the unpaved route was a fair test for automobiles of the day. The modern highway opened in 1960, easing passage between Kamas and Evanston.

Not surprisingly, the weeks of July 4th and July 24th holidays are the busiest times along the highway. For those in search of more serenity and less human competition, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are likely the best days to enjoy the Mirror Lake drive and/or find an open campground.

Sunny September days may be the best time to drive the Mirror Lake Highway, because there is less traffic and the fall colors are beginning to show. The crowds in the Uintas are gone by September, creating a quieter experience.

UDOT agrees that state Route 143, the segment by Cedar Breaks National Monument, is the state's second-highest paved road. It reaches 10.626 feet above sea level. This road begins in Parowan and connects with state Route 14 — the state's third highest hard-surface road. This No. 3 highest road goes from Cedar City to Long Valley Junction and tops out at 9,764 feet above sea level. Unlike the No. 1 and No. 2 highest roads — S.R. 14 is not seasonal and remains open year-round, weather permitting. (However, a slide in the spring of 2005 did close the road, and the area had more precipitation than ever before this water season.)

It's worth noting that if you want the nation's highest paved roads — we're talking up to 14,130 feet above sea level — you need only go to the neighboring state of Colorado for 14 paved roads that are all higher than Utah's Mirror Lake Highway. And some of these roads are open year-round.

• Regarding Utah's highest unpaved roads, this presents a definition challenge. Do you consider a Jeep trail an unpaved road, or is a wider stretch of open path required?

For the open dirt road definition, the Tushar Mountains and the unpaved extension of state Route153, between Beaver and Marysvale, may be the state's highest at 11,500 feet above sea level.

Winford "Dub" Bludworth, who has hiked the highest points in Utah's 29 counties, plus 49 of the 50 states' highest peaks, has also driven many backcountry Utah roads.

He said there are four other dirt road contenders that are all above 11,000 feet:

—A rough road in Wayne County that breaks off state Route 24, climbs to the top of the Aquarius Plateau and leads to Bluebell Knoll (11,328-foot elevation).

—A gravel road that leads to Brian Head Park (11,307-feet).

—A rough road that goes to Thousand Lake Mountain, Wayne County, and approximately 11,200 feet above sea level.

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