Designated an “All-American Road” and placed on the National Scenic Byway register by the Department of Transportation in 1973, Utah’s Route-12 is a drive that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Offering some of the most spectacular views in the entire West, the byway also serves as a gateway to several scenic backway drives, like the Burr Trail and the Cottonwood Canyon Road, and a number of renowned state and national parks and preserves including Bryce Canyon National Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Located in south-central Utah, getting to the scenic byway is not difficult. From Phoenix, AZ take the I-17 north to Flagstaff, AZ and from there get on the US-89 and continue north through Page, AZ then follow the highway west to the town of Kanab, UT. From Kanab, head north on the US-89 until you reach the junction of Route-12, which will be east. From Las Vegas, NV take the I-15 north to Cedar City, UT, then jump on Route-14 and travel east until you reach the US-89. Head north about 20 miles until to come to the Route-12 junction.
Approximately 124-miles long, Route-12 is entirely paved and generally flows northeast in a rough semi-circle. The elevation of the Route-12 varies between 5,223 and 9,636 feet, meaning you’ll enjoy relatively cool temperatures in summer, and chances for snowfall in the winter. It offers numerous wayside attractions both on and off the main route, as well as several back roads that offer spectacular views, dubbed Scenic Backways. While it’s possible to complete the main drive in about four hours, that’s really rushing things. It’s best to take a full day or two or even a full week to see everything along the main route and on the aforementioned backways. The average speed of the byway is about 40 miles per hour.
The diverse and amazing scenery found along Route-12 is befitting a road designated a National Scenic Byway. The route slices through deep, colorful canyons and two tunnels, rises over steep heavily forested mountains, and snakes along narrow, precipitous ridges. You’ll gaze upon a pallet of red, orange, gray, and tan-colored rock, sharply contrasted by blue-green vegetation and azure-blue skies. Eye popping landscapes and some lulls will ebb and flow before you, so if you’re a passenger make sure you stay alert or you’ll be sure to miss something. As is the case for any scenic excursion, don’t forget to bring a good pair of binoculars and a fully charged camera with the memory cleared as you’ll want to take lots of pictures.
There are some hazards associated with driving Utah Route-12 of which you’ll need to be aware. For those who are behind the wheel, keeping your eyes on the road and not on the scenery will be perhaps your most difficult task. Fortunately, numerous pull offs and overlooks are provided along the entire route where you can take in the natural wonders without being a hazard to yourself and others. Of these our favorites were the Head of the Rocks and the Boynton Overlooks, both which are located near of the town of Escalante. Each provides not only stunning and expansive views–almost as far as the eye can see–but also excellent vantage points of the highway snaking through the rugged and rolling landscape.
Aside from sightseeing and viewing archaeological remains, the outdoor activities available along Utah’s Route-12 are almost too numerous to list. A large number of world class trails can be found along the entire route which can accommodate everything from hiking (make sure you check out the Escalante River Trailhead), bicycling, horseback riding to all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiling, and cross country skiing. But that’s not all. Numerous lakes, rivers, and streams can also be found in the region where you can participate in boating, swimming, and fishing.
A few miles from the west entrance of the scenic byway, you’ll come across the stunning beauty of the aptly named Red Canyon. The scenery here is striking and is similar to what you’ll find at Bryce Canyon a short distance away. You’ll be amazed at the textures and shapes of the pink, orange, and red limestone Hoodoo formations, some of which resemble gun turrets, castles, pinnacles and even the Egyptian Sphinx (the bright colors in the rock actually come from oxidized iron–in other words, rust). While you’re driving through Red Canyon you’ll pass through two tunnels carved out of the brightly colored rock. Motorists are warned to resist the urge to stop inside one of the tunnels for a picture as traffic is usually far too busy. First rate trails for hiking, bicycling, and ATVs are also located throughout the canyon.
If you’ve never been to southern Utah, you’ll quickly discover that this area is a major tourist destination. When we were first there in 2008 we encountered throngs of tour buses filled with visitors from Asia and Europe. While they come to see the natural wonders of the American West, they’ll also jump at any chance to take a peak at the American lifestyle and culture, and that includes your classic ride or your RV. This is especially true of tourists from Asia. When we were parked at Red Canyon we had a bus load of Asians clamoring to take a quick look at our RV. Of course, we had to oblige.
Without a doubt the most thrilling–and hazardous–part of the drive is the internationally renowned area known as “the Hogback.” Here Route-12 climbs the side of a sandstone cliff before it plateaus atop a razor-sharp ridge of slick-rock with fatal drop offs on either side. Along this vertigo-induced stretch at 6,700 feet you’ll find no guardrails–but plenty of warning signs–for the highway that is at times no wider than the road itself. Fortunately, there is a pull off where you can view the twisting, narrow highway and the labyrinth of deep channels and rust-colored canyons without having to drive and keep your eyes on the road.
While natural wonders abound along this scenic byway, evidence exists that man lived in this region long before the highway was built. Twenty-two miles east of the town of Henrieville, you’ll come to what is called the Upper Valley Granaries, a small and difficult to see stone structure nestled in the side of a cliff. Built by ancient Puebloans, the structure is believed to be 1,000 years old and is thought be a storage place for grains and foods grown and harvested in the area. You’ll need a good set of binoculars to see the tiny structure, but if you don’t have a pair, a viewing glass is provided at the highway pullout that you can use.
Additional evidence of this advanced ancient culture can be found at the Anasazi State Park Museum an additional 35 miles east. If you enjoy looking at ancient ruins like we do, this museum is a real treat. Located on the site of an ancient Puebloan habitation believed to have been occupied around 1100 AD, the state park encompasses an impressive, partially excavated and reconstructed village consisting of nearly 100 rooms. This and other excavations throughout the Southwest provide stark evidence of just how advanced the culture of this people truly was.
In stark contrast with the west entrance of Utah Route-12, the final stretch of the byway climbs to an elevation of 9,600 feet over the heavily forested Boulder Mountain. As the byway twists and turns you’ll see thick strands of blue-green pines and ghostly white aspens as well as small herds of bull elk (when we were there we had to stop on the highway to let a herd pass). The views from the Larb Hollow Overlook looking east are particularly impressive with a panoramic view of pink and tan plateaus and cliffs with the snow capped Henry and Navajo Mountains in the background.
For those fortunate enough to travel the scenic byway by RV, there are plenty of RV parks, state and federal campgrounds, and boondocking opportunities from which to choose. While you can find beautiful state and federal campgrounds all along the scenic byway, they are generally more busy, more noisy, and more expensive than those that can be found on the scenic backways. Most of the scenic backways are located on BLM and NF federal land, and for those who like to boondock, that’s a very good thing. Outstanding boondocking locations can be located not only along the backways themselves, but also the roads and trails that branch off of them. Some of the most plentiful boondocking in the area can be found in Dixie National Forest, especially on Boulder Mountain, and in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Utah’s Route-12 is, without a doubt, a destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Whether you take a few hours or a full week, the highway will be sure to amaze you with its scenic, natural wonders. The toughest choice is trying to decide what to do with the time that you have when you drive it. If your time is limited–and it usually is for most of us–here are some of the best attractions and backways that the highway has to offer:
RECOMMENDED UTAH ROUTE-12 ATTRACTIONS AND BACKWAYS:
Bryce Canyon National Park:
The prime attraction on the scenic byway, Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon in the true sense of the word, but a series of other-worldly amphitheaters carved into the pink and orange colored limestone. The park features a 37-mile route with several observation points where you can gaze upon numberless hoodoos, columns, and pinnacles that some call the “forest of stone.” The park also offers more than 50 miles of hiking trails where you can get up close with the jaw-dropping, natural beauty. Utah Route-63, the turnoff to the park, is about 3 miles east of Red Canyon and is well marked. The entrance fee is $25 per car. The fees to stay at either of the two RV campgrounds is $15 per night.
Kodachrome Basin State Park:
Another prime attraction, Kodachrome Basin State Park will awe you with contorted landscapes that look like something you’d see in a children’s fairy tale or science fiction novel. The park received its name not from Paul Simon’s 1973 pop anthem, but from National Geographic photographers who first used the new and revolutionary color film at the location in the late 1940s. You’ll be especially amazed at the monolithic formations, called sand pipes, some which reach 170 feet up in the air. At Cannonville turn south on Cottonwood Canyon Rd and travel about seven miles until you reach the park entrance. The fee is $6 per car, while the RV campground fees range between $16 and 25 per night.
Calf Creek Recreation Area:
Nestled in Calf Creek Canyon, at an elevation of 5,346 feet, this gem includes wonderful views, a small 13 site campground, a picnic area, and a first-class trail head, dubbed the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. Passing in between mineral-streaked cliffs of sandstone, the 2.7-mile-long trail places you at the doorstep of a beautiful 126 feet high waterfall. While the trail is fairly level, most of it is sandy, and can be pretty strenuous, especially when its hot. Swimming in the creek is a popular summer activity. Camping fees are $5.00 per night on a first-come basis (get there early as these go fast). The turnoff for the recreation area is 15 miles east of Escalante and is well marked.
Burr Trail, Utah Scenic Backway:
Tailor-made for explorers and off-road enthusiasts, the 68-mile-long scenic trail links the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with the Capital Reef National Park, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Highlights include drives through Long Canyon, along the Waterpocket Fold monocline, and down the unpaved Waterpocket Fold switchback, a breathtaking and spectacular drop of 800 feet in a mile. Only 41 miles of the trail is paved though regular passenger cars can handle the dirt and gravel portions except during rainy weather. To reach the backway turn east off Route-12 at the Burr Trail Grill in Boulder.
Cottonwood Canyon Road, Utah Scenic Backway:
Another terrific route for explorers and back-road enthusiasts. This 46-mile-long-route takes you to Kodachome Basin State Park and through the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Key attractions include Grosvenor’s Arch, the Cottonwood Narrows, Hackberry Canyon, and the Cockscomb, a 35-mile-long monocline that runs parallel to the road. Most of the road is graded dirt and clay, so avoid this drive the day of and the day after a heavy rain. Check with the visitor center in Cannonville if in doubt. To reach the backway, turn south on Cottonwood Canyon Road in Cannonville.