If you want a great road trip, this is the highway! Highway 12 in Utah is one of the most scenic drives in the world. The drive itself is fantastic, and you’ll also have numerous world-famous, and off the beaten path, sights to see along the way. I started Highway 12 off of US Highway 89 near Bryce Canyon National Park. This starting point is north of Kanab, with easy access from the East Side of Zion National Park, or about 45 minutes from I-15. The highway ends near Capitol Reef National Park in Central Utah. If you are coming from the south or west (Zion, St. George, Las Vegas, California, Grand Canyon), it would be best to start with Bryce Canyon National Park, if you are coming from the east or north (Salt Lake City, Moab, Colorado), it would be best to start with Capital Reef National Park.
- Hoodoo – A column or pinnacle of weathered rock.
- Reef – A ridge of jagged rock.
- GSENM- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Petrified Forest – Wood that has been turned to stone.
The first stop on your scenic drive is the Red Canyon, you’ll be greeted onto the highway by sandstone tunnels/arches that you drive through on your way to Bryce Canyon National Park. Red Canyon has gorgeous scenery of red rock hoodoos and ponderosa pines. There is a paved biking trail that runs the length of the canyon, a campground with showers, a small visitor center, and a few short hikes that are definitely worth taking. From the visitor center, you can start multiple short hikes depending on length. Pick up a guide for the interpretive trail to learn more about the canyon while you take the short loop hike. You are now in Utah’s Fairy Land, the nickname given to the area because of the hoodoo covered landscape.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The next stop along the route is Bryce Canyon National Park. This is not really a canyon, but more of an amphitheater filled with some of the most delicate and unique rock formations on the planet. Ebenezer Bryce, the Mormon pioneer who the park is named after, described this landscape in very practical terms as “A hell of a place to lose a cow.” The park has a visitor center, lodge, and two really great campgrounds with showers. If you are looking for views, they will be easy to find. The main road follows the rim of the amphitheater formation and provides numerous turn-offs to look over the edge into the formation, no hiking required. If you want to hike, there are multiple routes to take offering different distances and elevation gains/losses. A walk along the rim will give you different perspectives looking over the edge at different vantage points. There are also hikes that will take you down into the formations. The quickest would be a hike down Wall Street, and continuing on the Navajo Loop. For more extensive exploration try the Fairy Land Loop or the Peekaboo Loop. If you are camping at the park, or want to time your arrival/departure, try to be there for the sunrise and/or the sunset. After visiting, you’ll see why this was referred to as Utah’s Fairy Land. You’ll also understand the quote from Ebenezer Bryce.
Further down the highway, but still part of Bryce Canyon National Park, is a quick hike to a waterfall and cave. The Mossy Cave hike/parking lot is between the turn off for Bryce and Tropic. This little hike will take you to a cave covered in moss from water seepage, and up a “river” to a waterfall. The water running down this canyon isn’t natural, but from an irrigation system put in place to bring water from the upper plateau to the valley by Tropic. The ditch was dug by pioneers in the late 1800’s, and still operates to bring water to crops.
Kodachrome State Park
After the visit to Bryce, continue to Kodachrome Basin State Park. You’ll pass the little towns of Tropic and Cannonville, if you need gas or supplies, they are available here along with various types of lodging. This Utah State Park is a few miles off of Highway 12, but worth the visit. Don’t ever skip a Utah State Park because it doesn’t have a national protected status, most Utah State Parks would be considered National Parks in other states, they just have a lot to compete with in Utah. Kodachrome has a great little campground and multiple hikes that allow you to explore the unique sedimentary pipe and sandstone formations.
Escalante-Staircase National Monument
The majority of the drive will now be in the Escalante-Staircase National Monument. This National Monument was created in 1996, and covers almost two million acres, which makes it the largest nationally protected piece of land outside of Alaska. Visitor centers for the monument are located in Cannonville and Escalante along Highway 12.
Petrified Forest State Park
Next stop is the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park near Escalante, Utah. The park is just before you arrive in the little town. Here you’ll find a campground, reservoir, and a hike through a petrified forest. Take the complete hike, even the last little loop at the end if you really want to see a lot of petrified wood. The campground is great if you want to stay, and it has showers. After hiking I took a swim in the reservoir, the water was perfect and crystal clear near the little dock. In Escalante, you’ll find motels, gas stations, and restaurants. The Escalante Mercantile is a fantastic little place to stock up on groceries. You’ll think you are in a small grocery store in San Francisco, but you are in the middle of nowhere Utah. The building is a remodeled original structure, and you’ll find numerous organic type snacks, groceries, and toiletries inside. Skip getting any coffee, or pastries, because your next stop just down the road will provide those essentials.
The Drive/Million Dollar Highway
Kiva Coffee House sits on a cliff overlooking the vast landscape of canyons and desert. This is a must stop on your journey, they serve a full assortment of coffee and espresso drinks, breakfast, lunch, and amazing pastries. I’d recommend a vanilla raspberry scone! Any one of their tables as a view, and you can also study the local maps that serve as table cloths while eating. Heading out from Kiva Coffee House you’ll be in the million dollar highway section of Highway 12. This is a very remote place, and one of the most gorgeous sections of highway in the world. You’ll pass through canyons, along ridges, and over creeks. At times, you’ll be driving on sections of highway that are on top of very narrow fin-like formations with desert canyons down either side of the road. No texting and driving here!
The first stop in this section of the highway will be the Escalante River. Here you can pick up a trail that goes up or down the river. If you follow the river down for 70 miles, you’d end up in Lake Powell.
Calf Creek, Calf Creek Falls
After the Escalante River comes Calf Creek. Here there is a great campground, and creek at the bottom of a narrow canyon. To hike to Calf Creek Falls, park/start here, and walk up the well-marked trail for three miles. The hike is easy along the river, not gaining much elevation. Stop and swim at numerous points along the creek, and at the end of the hike, you’ll find a gorgeous waterfall coming off sandstone cliffs. The pool at the bottom of the falls is filled with crystal clear water, and a sandy beach. After the three miles through the desert, the oasis around the waterfall is a very refreshing experience.
There is a great campground at the start of the trailhead. There are bathrooms, water, and most of the spots are along the creek.
Hell’s Backbone Grill isn’t what you’d expect to find in the middle of nowhere, but is a very welcome indulgence in the desert. Hell’s Backbone Grill has been in the tiny town of Boulder for almost 20 years, and is rated one of the best restaurants in Utah! I stopped by early to make a reservation and was greeted by the two owners, Jen and Blake, their dog biscuit, and cat Jezebel. Everything on the menu looked amazing, most of it grown, farmed, and finished locally. I opted for the item on the menu that has been there since they opened, in all 17 years of business the meatloaf has never been altered or left the menu. I started with she-deviled eggs, biscuits, and a Ghost Rider beer. The deviled eggs were made with the house specialty spicy sauce, and the biscuits are served with sage-infused butter. If you are wanting to just stop by for a signature cocktail, wine, or beer, they have the biscuits on the menu for only .50 cents. In Utah, you have to order food in order to be served a drink, so these biscuits are appropriately called “behave” biscuits. The meatloaf was delicious, I never thought meatloaf could be a delicacy, but this was amazing! It was served with lemon mashed potatoes, and I enjoyed it on the patio watching hummingbirds feed. Hell’s Backbone Grill is also open for breakfast and lunch. I wish I would have had more time to dine here for every meal of the day!
From Boulder, there are a few excursions you can take from Highway 12. One is a dirt road, but passable by a car, that is the old highway between Boulder and Escalante. This highway goes over Hell’s Backbone, and was the only way between the two towns until the Million Dollar Highway was built. The road from Boulder will climb elevation quickly and you’ll go from desert floor to pine forest it in a few miles. You could do this road as a loop or as an out and back.
In the opposite direction, you can follow the Burr Trail, which is paved. The pavement will end after about 30 miles, but there is plenty to see on the paved road. Follow the road through Deer Creek where you will find a hike and a campground, then through a long gulch, and at the end of the long gulch, you’ll have a fantastic viewpoint that can serve as a good turn around. If you follow the Burr Trail the pavement will end, and you can go north through Capital Reef, or south and end up at Bullfrog in Lake Powell.
Deer creek campground is located on the Burr Trail, and is a great place to camp.
Continuing from Boulder, Highway 12 goes through much different scenery as it passes through Boulder Mountain. The landscape changes from desert to forest, and the viewpoints offer endless horizons.
The end of Highway 12 is in Torrey, Utah, and Capitol Reef National Park. Torrey is very picturesque with one main tree lined road. Explore the Butch Cassidy Hideout Coffee Shop, and more fine dining options at Café Diablo. Café Diablo and the Hell’s Backbone Grill are two of the best restaurants in Utah, and both tucked away in tiny little towns.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is the hidden and often overlooked, gem of the five National Parks in Utah. It is usually less crowded than the other four parks, but just as stunning. The main geological feature is the massive Waterpocket Fold that runs the length of the park, and the Fremont River that runs through the park. Various hikes will take you to vistas and into the gorgeous scenery. For quick, but fantastic hikes, take the Hickman Natural Bridge trail, Panorama Point, or Gooseneck trails. For longer hikes, check out the Chimney Rock Loop, or the Navajo Nobs hike. You can drive through the park on Highway 24 for free, and can also take the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge if you pay the entrance fee. The center of the park has a visitor center, campground, and historic district that includes pioneer buildings, and a working orchard.
You can double your scenic route from Highway 12 onto Highway 24 and continue through Capitol Reef National Park and head towards Hanksville, UT. From Hanksville, continue north and take a quick diversion to Goblin Valley State Park. Here you will find a creepy landscape of smaller hoodoos dotting the landscape in a surreal valley. You’d then end your journey by joining I-70 near Green River, UT.
Exploring Highway 12 and all of its wonders is an experience you’ll never forget. It is rare that you find a place so beautiful, yet so unspoiled by crowds. You’ll feel like you have the entire highway and scenery to yourself, and along the route in the most least expected places, you’ll find little treats like Hell’s Backbone Grill.
Below are a few logistics and links for more information, let me know if you have any questions!
- Request a free Utah highway map from Utah Map and Guide
- Summers can be warm in the desert valleys, but still cool at the higher elevations on Boulder Mountain, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon. Bryce Canyon will be busy in the summer season, but crowds drop drastically as you explore the other sites along the route. Spring and Fall can be great if there isn’t a late or early snow. Roads can be difficult with winter storms, but if you can access Bryce Canyon after a snow storm, the snow covered red rock will offer an amazing contrast.
- Red Canyon to Bryce Canyon – 15 Miles
- Bryce Canyon to Kodachrome State Park – 24 Miles
- Kodachrome to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park – 44 Miles
- Petrified Forest to Calf Creek – 18 Miles
- Calf Creek to Boulder – 13 Miles
- Boulder to Capitol Reef National Park – 40 Miles
- Capitol Reef National Park to Goblin Valley – 60 Miles
- Red Canyon
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Kodachrome State Park
- Petrified Forest State Park
- Calf Creek – GSENM
- Deer Creek – GSENM
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Motel/hotels can be found in Panguitch, Bryce Canyon, Tropic, Escalante, Torrey, Hanksville, and Green River.
- Panguitch, Bryce Canyon, Tropic, Cannonville, Escalante, Boulder, Torrey, Hanksville, Green River.
- Hell’s Backbone Grill – Boulder, Utah
- Kiva Coffee House – Highway 12 just after Escalante
- Café Diablo – Torrey, Utah
- Butch Cassidy Hideout
- Burr Trail Grill – Boulder, Utah
- Escalante Mercantile – Escalante, Utah
- Groceries and other restaurants can be found in Panguitch, Bryce Canyon, Tropic, Escalante, Boulder, Torrey, and Green River
Park Information/Web Links For More Information
- If you plan to visit a few National Parks (4-5 visits a year), and a few Utah State Parks (7-10 visits a year) I’d recommend buying the year pass for the National Parks, and a year pass to Utah State Parks. The National Park Pass is $80 and will grant you access for a year to all National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and other Federal Recreation Sites in the United States. The Utah State Park pass is $70 and will allow you to enter any Utah State Park for a year.
- Red Canyon
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Utah State Parks
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Capitol Reef National Park
Looking for more adventures in Utah? Check out Moab, UT – Jeep Adventure and Water Canyon – Hildale, Utah