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Virgin River Gorge
Virgin River Gorge

The Virgin River Gorge: A beautiful, but dangerous drive

Before heading home from the annual Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, a couple of years ago, we decided to visit nearby Canyonlands National Park where we stopped to chat with a ranger.

“It’s the most spectacular place I’ve ever seen!” he said with genuine enthusiasm. My wife and I looked at one another with surprise. He was talking about — not Canyonlands — but the Virgin River Gorge.

Coming from a park ranger whose prior assignment had been Grand Canyon National Park and who was now stationed at Canyonlands, this was quite a statement. But, the ranger was right.  The Virgin River Gorge is not just spectacular, it’s amazing on multiple levels.

To those of us who live, work, and play in the desert southwest, it is known simply as “The Gorge.” It’s the portion of Interstate 15 which follows the Virgin River Canyon and cuts across the northwest corner of Arizona.  This section of the Interstate was officially opened in December of 1973 and was for many years said to be the most expensive section of Interstate ever constructed at $10 million per mile.  That’s nearly $42 million per mile in today’s dollars.

With a glance at the eye-popping engineering work on the cliff sides above, the riverbed below and the bridges along the way one can easily see why.  This piece of road is an engineering masterpiece.

The State of Arizona though has always had a bit of a problem with I-15 through the gorge.  For one thing, it does absolutely nothing for the state.  In other words, it doesn’t make them any money.  It doesn’t connect anything in Arizona with anything else in Arizona.  Everybody using this stretch of Interstate is on their way to somewhere else in another state. There’s not even a gas station in the gorge where a few state tax bucks might be snagged.

Back when this magnificent roadway was being built, Arizona balked at coming up with the needed funds, so Utah had to spring for more than its share.  “What’s in it for us?” Arizona wanted to know.  The answer was: nothing.  They wanted it located further north in Utah, and that would have been a shame.

So, a couple of years ago when the Interstate going through the gorge needed repaving, Arizona, even though they would be backed up with federal highway funds for the job, threatened to charge a toll for everybody driving through the gorge.  Charge toll on a federal highway?  I don’t think so.

The public and adjacent states went nuts on this one and of course the interstate trucking companies went off the rails.  Not that Arizona ever had a snowball’s chance in Phoenix of passing such a measure.  It was more bluff than anything else but kind of gives us a sense of how Arizona feels about this particular piece of roadway.

Being the inveterate traffic safety guy, I always think in terms of crash statistics, saving lives and other boring stuff like that.  When Arizona started talking about charging toll, I had a much better idea.  I contacted the their Department of Public Safety and proposed a plan that would not only pay for any roadwork that would ever need doing, but would soon have bundles of cash rolling into state coffers.  It’s such a simple solution I can’t imagine why they didn’t think of it long ago.

The posted speed limit in the Gorge from end to end is 55 miles per hour.  That’s a safe speed for the conditions there which are: Lots of traffic (23,000 vehicles per day); heavy truck traffic; dangerous (if you’re going too fast) mountain curves and grades; no places to turn around or detour so even a minor crash can cause traffic to back up for miles, which it often does. An accident can cause hours of delay and long emergency medical response times.

But none of the drivers seem to get this, and I mean nobody!  No kidding.  We drive the speed limit.  Other than the occasional semi struggling up a grade, we never pass another vehicle.  It’s a steady stream of speeders whizzing past like we’re standing still, including the truckers who drive through there like their tails are on fire!  It’s scary and the results can be gruesome.  We’ve seen some of the crashes close up.  And, by the way, that’s the only time we see a cop.

My solution is so simple it hurts!  Station a few officers at strategic locations in the gorge and have them ticket every driver who breaks the law — and that would be everybody.  Arizona, you’re missing out on a lot of bucks here and a chance to save some lives!  I have yet to hear back from anybody on this, probably never will.

We’ve had our share of adventures in the gorge.  Once we were northbound in our motorhome when the engine’s generator caught on fire.  Luck would have it that we were just approaching “Mile 14” at the time which is known as one of the few places in the Gorge where one can pull off safely.  It was 2 a.m. and there was no use hauling anybody out at that hour so we handled the immediate problem, turned in for a few hours sleep and called our emergency road service in the morning.

Another time we were southbound and had a blowout with the right outside rear tire. There’s no place to get off this time except on a curve where we would be in danger of being vaporized by a semi. We decided to nurse her along until we found a safe place to get out of the way.  We again called the emergency road service, a very good investment by the way because they’ve come through for us several times.

We’ve been through the gorge many times and each time it’s a new and different experience. Our first was at night. We had no idea what we were missing until the return trip which took place in daylight.  It really does rival Grand Canyon in its splendor.  Not as big, but every bit as beautiful.  In subsequent trips, many by motorhome, we have marveled at how the lights and shadows change the landscape depending upon the time of day.

Afternoon vistas are very different than those seen in the morning, and the scene changes literally moment to moment.  If you haven’t been scared off by my rant about the speedball drivers, we highly recommend a drive through the Virgin River Gorge.  It’s not a destination, but it’s a beautiful way to get to wherever you’re going.

About Robert Sears

Robert Sears is a professional driving instructor who once owned a company that trained more than 70,000 people to drive. Today he is an author working on several non-fiction books and writing traffic safety articles for consumer and special interest publications. He is a 30-year motorhome owner who has logged several hundred thousand miles of RV driving experience.

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