Boondocking on Forest Road 031 Dixie National Forest
Do you remember when we boondocked in Dixie National Forest a couple of years ago? Yeah, I was silly enough to think that that would be a sufficiently singular experience that boondocking in DIxie Forrest could be summed up in one writeup. It’s not. Because we just did it again, and the experience is completely different. Dixie Forest is a huge and diverse landscape covering 2 million acres of southern Utah. Elevation varies from 2,800 feet near St. George, Utah, to 11,322 feet on Boulder Mountain. Unlike the relatively flat terrain outside of Bryce Canyon National Park, the Dixie National Forest we traverse today is rife with sheer cliffs, rock walls, and tight, dirt switchbacks. Forest Road 031 is a nailbiter of a trail with limited passing options and equally sparse camping sites, but a few miles deep into the forest, we find some real gems.
Silver Reef is the last town we drive through to access Dixie National Forest and Forest Road 031. This historic mining town 15 miles northeast of St. George preserves many old tools and structures from its boom days. It was established after a Nevada prospector, John Kemple, uncovered a silver vein in 1866. The discovery was a surprise, as silver isn’t usually found in sandstone. Yet, by 1879, Silver Reed was a bustling hub with 2,000 residents, a mile-long main street, and a Wells Fargo office. Veins play out, however, and by 1884 most of the mines had closed.
That’s not to say the town completely shuttered before the turn of the century. The area enjoyed a short revival in 1916 when the remaining mines were organized under the Silver Reef Consolidated Mining Company. Silver Reef even enjoyed a third life in 1948 when uranium was discovered in the area. But today, despite a few operating businesses and homes, Silver Reef is considered a ghost town. Visitors can swing by the old Wells Fargo building for guided historic tours, artifacts, and maps for a self-guided tour around the old town. It makes for a fun afternoon of learning and outdoor exploration.
Forest Road 032
Yes, I’m writing about Forest Road 031. But we start by exploring Forest Road 032. You see, I did my research when picking a place to boondocks outside of Red Cliff State Park in Utah. Everything I read features glowing reports of Forest Road 032. The road is a red dirt trail that can comfortably fit one vehicle. But this shelf trail has very little extra space between the rock wall on one side and the cliff on the other. Pullouts are not as common as one might hope. And one particularly wide blind turn had me getting out and walking ahead to check for any oncoming vehicles.
Despite the enthusiastic reviews on other websites, campsites are few and far between along Forest Road 032. Signage from the Forest Service is pretty clear that vehicles must only camp in established sites. And while the road does eventually dip into a more level section, this heavily forested region only has a few small pullouts for boondockers. We drive the length of Forest Road 032 and find all the viable campsites taken by early afternoon.
A likely reason why there seems to be so much documentation on Forest Road 032 is that this is a relatively accessible road. It is narrow, steep, and dirt. But the turns are wide enough that we see a few midsized rigs in campsites. Where we are headed next will not be so accessible.
We reach the end of the road and loop around to backtrack to a fork in the road where Forest Road 031 continues.
Forest Road 031
Unlike Forest Road 032, Forest Road 031 (FR 031) is long and winding. Like FR 032, campsites are few, and many are claimed. We wind up driving 5 miles down the red, muddy roads of Dixie National Forest, 3.5 miles of which are along FR 031, before finding an open camping site. But the little loop site we discover on the short offshoot of Forest Road 4059 (FR 4059) is sublime.
Forest Road 4059
While labeled a “forest road”, FR 4059 is little more than a large group campsite. The 350-foot trail from its start at FR 031 to its cliffside conclusion has spread out into a series of campsites. The road ends in a loop overlooking a deep gorge. Trees at the bottom conceal the river rushing below but we can hear the powerful water reverberating up the rock walls. It is phenomenal.
As to be expected with a group campsite setup, we are joined by a couple of truck campers. The addition isn’t desired, but our new neighbors are discrete and set up camp at the far side of the camp area and keep the noise down—the best kind of camping neighbors.
So far as we can tell, this section marks the beginning of a denser collection of campsites off FR 031. So, I guess we have some new insight: it takes 5 miles of driving to reach a good selection of campsites on FR 031.
We tackle Forest Road 031 after some rain the day before. The compact streetcar in front of us quickly turns around rather than risk being caught in the mud. And while we do see a bus and a few trailers along Forest Road 032, we quickly wind along switch backs, inclines, and past cramped passing areas inappropriate for such oversized vehicles. Though we never need to shift into 4-wheel drive, we are grateful for the option. Overall, this road is not meant for big rigs. After the first couple miles, we only encounter trucks, jeeps, and SUVs. And there is a reason.
This is the downer. We do encounter cell service along campsites on FR 032. But FR 031 quickly wraps around to the other side of a mountain range, blocking most signals. Though not all. Chris’s Verizon phone might as well have been a glorified camera while we are boondocking, but I can occasionally find a sliver of AT&T cell service to look up tomorrow’s weather and plan our route.
Forest Road 031 is a surprise. I expected to tuck away just outside of Silver Reef for a quick launch the next morning. Instead, the day turns into an afternoon adventure as we keep driving with fingers crossed, hoping to be lucky enough to nab a campsite. In the end, we enjoy more than just a place to spend the night. It’s a fantastic vista. We spend the afternoon exploring the forest. But as soon as it starts to get dark, we bundle into our warm camper. It’s a beautiful area, but I’d like to visit again, later in the spring.