It may be the 21st century, but you don't have to venture into Utah's backcountry to travel on an unpaved road. A surprisingly high number of unpaved Utah highways still lead to to rural communities in some of the more remote portions of the state.
Based on the most recent U.S. Census Department figures, some 7,000 Utahns representing 15 Utah communities have to drive on a dirt or gravel road to reach their permanent home. Most live in Box Elder, Tooele, Juab, Iron and San Juan counties.
While there are only 22 miles of gravel roads in the state highway system, adding the county and city roads in that total gives a different picture.
Only 53 percent of all the roads in Utah (or 20,688 miles worth) are actually paved, according to 2007 annual statistical summary by the Utah Department of Transportation.
Twenty-one percent, or 8,250 miles of the state's total roads, are gravel, while another 3 percent (1,338 miles) are graded and the remaining 23 percent (9,111 miles) are unimproved.
According to UDOT spokesman Nile Easton, insufficient funding is the main reason for some roads in Utah not being paved. He said the other factor is whether or not a road has enough traffic to warrant being paved. Once a road is paved, it usually requires more ongoing upkeep costs, too.
"Dirt roads require some upkeep, but it's not as intensive as paved ones," he said.
Easton said a third reason why some roads may not be paved is that the U.S. Forest Service controls them and makes such decisions.
UDOT had 124 miles of unpaved state roads back in 1986. It has been adding more asphalt, as the most recent figure of 22 miles would indicate.
A unique situation is the Moki Dugway in San Juan County. This is a 2.2-mile gravel road that rises about 1,100 feet on a 10 percent grade up Cedar Mesa sandstone. It is part of Utah Highway 261, paved in the 1970s except for this section.
The Moki Dugway was constructed in the early 1950s at a cost of $250,000 ($2 million in today's dollars) to aid uranium mining in the area. Some 80 tons of explosives were used to blast the road into the sandstone.
There are alternative paved roads to use from Mexican Hat, but if you've ever driven the Moki Dugway, you will remember it.
Max Bertola's southern Utah Web site accurately describes the section as "the roller coaster ride of southern Utah." He says "it is spectacular, dirt and a little bumpy."
In fact, Lynn Laws, road superintendent for San Juan County, said he's known people to turn around and use an alternate route when they see the cliff they have to drive up.
"In my opinion, it would be too dangerous to pave," he said "People would drive too fast."
He said most motorists travel through Moki Dugway at about 20 mph. Trucks travel 5 mph when going down. Paving the road might also require widening it and adding guard rails, adding a lot more cost.
Laws said of the 622 miles of county road in San Juan, 109 miles are paved, 165 miles are gravel and another 351 are dirt.
"Many (Navajo) reservation roads are unpaved," he said, noting that paving them requires dealing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that can be a complicated challenge. Lack of funding is another key issue. AA third problem is the lack of gravel on the reservation. It has to be hauled in from 60-70 miles away.
"We spend a lot of time working on the reservation," Laws said, noting his workers stretch each dollar as far as they can.
There are also a lot of clusters of Native American homes in San Juan County that rely on unimproved roads to reach up to a dozen residences in one area.
San Juan County paved the final 12-mile Utah portion of the road to the Navajo Mountain community a few years ago. Navajo Mountain area is not only famous for its namesake 10,388-foot mountain that rises sharply above the desert, but Rainbow Bridge is nearby.
So remote is this Navajo community of some 400 residents that you have to drive almost 100 miles, one-way, through Arizona to access it.
Like San Juan, Box Elder County has large stretches of unpaved roads.
For example, reaching the town of Grouse Creek and its 400-some residents requires an approximately 20-mile gravel drive off Utah Highway 30, between Park Valley and Wells, Nev.
Patti Kimber said she's lived in Grouse Creek for about 20 years.
"It doesn't bother me at all," she said of the unpaved drive south to reach a paved highway. She said her family is more tied to Idaho, and that's an even longer, 35-40 mile, stretch of unpaved travel to access the Burley area.
What if they paved these roads?
"I worry they might bring in more tourists," she said, which would be good for some residents and bad for others. Solitude is something some Grouse Creek residents relish, and paved thoroughfares would undoubtedly infringe on that.
Kimber admits to more wear and tear on the family vehicles. More dust and paint chips are also common factors, but the gravel roads are well maintained and even snow removal is consistent, when needed, she said.
The three or four miles through the center of Grouse Creek is a paved road.
Nearby and also accessed by dirt roads are the small communities of Lucin, Lynn, Etna, Standrod and Yost, which are home to another nearly 4,000 residents.
Yost is one of those Utah towns best reached through another state, this one via Idaho. Etna, more than 100 miles from Brigham City, requires about a 50-mile dirt-road drive.
Kelton and parts of Howell in Box Elder County are also home to another 500 residents who rely on unpaved access.
Going southwest, the Pony Express Trail areas of Tooele and Juab counties also contain a wealth of unpaved roads that lead to Callao, Fish Springs, Salt Creek, Trout Creek and Gold Hill where a combined population of about 2,000 people live.Western Iron County contains the communities of Hamlin Valley, Zane, Lund and Latimer, reached via dirt roads. Want to drive to Hamlin Valley, home to more than 700 residents? An approximate 18-mile unpaved drive is required.
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