How to Drive Highway 12 Scenic Byway in Southern Utah

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It’s no secret here at My Itchy Travel Feet that Alan loves road trips. When we decided to drive Highway 12 Scenic Byway on a late spring road trip through southern Utah, he walked around the house for days with a big grin on his face.

But this last-minute trip, while beautiful, proved to be challenging. Choosing Memorial Day weekend was not exactly a good move. But it wasn’t all our fault. A lodging cancellation caused us to change our plans.

Where is Highway 12 Scenic Byway located?

Utah’s Scenic Byway 12—A Journey Through Time—travels through southern Utah on a geological road trip across ancient seabed remains to an alpine forest that tops out at 9,000 ft—one of the highest in the world. And it’s packed with outdoor recreational opportunities.

The state of Utah boasts 13 Utah national parks, (counting national monuments, historic parks and national recreation areas) filled with scenic hiking trails and off-road adventure. On Highway 12, you’ll find two national parks (Bryce and Capitol Reef), Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and four state parks, plus more boomer adventure than you’ll ever have time to do.

No wonder this 124-mile stretch of pavement has been named an All-American Road by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Starting out in Torrey on Highway 12 Utah

Two-lane highway traveling through rugged country with rocky bluffs
There’s rugged beauty at every turn when you drive Highway 12 Scenic Byway in Utah.

Our itinerary started at Torrey, Utah, at the eastern end of Highway 12 Utah, where we had allotted several days to explore Capitol Reef National Park. Things began to unravel when the bed and breakfast owner notified us less than a week before the trip that she was closing for the foreseeable future due to a bad case of shingles.

Offering her sympathy and understanding, Alan and I quickly began working on alternate arrangements. Only this was the week of Memorial Day weekend—one of the busier tourism seasons for driving Highway 12 Scenic Byway.

It had been hard enough finding accommodations during the planning stages of this last-minute trip, now it was almost impossible to locate decent lodging in a remote area with limited accommodation choices.

Alan and I changed dates and itinerary, then settled on a place in Escalante that I won’t be writing about.

If you’re looking to escape summer’s heat, plan your Utah Highway 12 Scenic Byway drive for April-May or September-October. Book lodging ahead as these are popular months for tourism.

Next time:

We’ll plan the trip far enough in advance to book a room at the all-inclusive Cougar Ridge Lodge in Torrey. In Capitol Reef National Park, hiking to Hickman Natural Bridge and exploring a portion of the Cathedral Valley Scenic Byway are on the to-do list.

Boomer Travel Tip

We bring a Utah Road & Recreation Atlas on all of our Utah adventures.

Moving up to Boulder

The Burr Trail Scenic Byway is a beautiful addition to any Highway 12 road trip itinerary.

Keeping the original driving itinerary, minus the visit to Capitol Reef, our Highway 12 road trip begins in Torrey. Quickly the pavement climbs in elevation along the eastern slopes of Boulder Mountain to over 9,000 ft on the Aquarius Plateau.

The lush, forested landscape surprises us. I make a mental note to return in the fall to see golden-colored aspen leaves accented against the evergreens. Or maybe we’ll bring the ATV next time to explore any number of jeep trails or backcountry roads in the Dixie National Forest.

During our stay in Escalante, we dedicate a morning for driving the Burr Trail near Boulder. Finding a small slot canyon to explore is a special treat.

The rocks are pink and beige along the Burr Trail Scenic Byway.

Next time:

We’ll build in a couple of days at either Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch or Boulder Mountain Lodge. That way, there will be time to visit Anasazi State Park Museum to explore the six-room replica of an ancient dwelling plus a portion of the partially excavated Ancestral Puebloan village dating between 1050 and 1200.

Of course Alan will want to drive Hell’s Backbone Scenic Byway. The gravel and dirt road that travels between Escalante and Boulder does look fun!

Boomer Travel Tip

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Two-lane highway winds between yellow and beige colored rocks
And the scenery changes yet again between Boulder and Escalante.

Finding adventure in Escalante on Utah route 12

As we drive Highway 12 Scenic Byway from Boulder to Escalante, the colorful rocky scenery changes from pink to beige to yellow depending on which geological time period we’re traveling through. At the Hogback portion of the road, I hold my breath as the pavement travels across a thin, slick rock ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides.

Waterfall splashes over colorful slickrock and into an emerald green pool of water.
Lower Calf Creek Falls is the reward at the end of a desert trail.

Escalante makes a good adventure base. During our stay, we return to the Calf Creek Recreation Area between Escalante and Boulder to hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Hoodoos stand tall in a desert landscape on a cloudy day
The drive to Devils Garden is on a rough washboard dirt road. But it’s fun to explore the sandstone formations.

On another day, we drive a portion of Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Byway to explore Devils Garden.

Next time:

We’ll stay south of town at the Slot Canyons Inn Bed & Breakfast. Alan already has plans to drive the Posey Lake/Pine Creek Scenic Byway, which goes from slick rock to forests on the slopes of Escalante Mountain in Dixie National Forest.

And then there’s hiking at Kodachrome Basin State Park or exploring Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. And if we’re really feeling brave—and the weather is dry—the 46-mile adventurous dirt journey on Cottonwood Canyon Road Scenic Backway will make Alan a happy man.

A wrought iron patio table with two chairs sits in an outdoor space overlooking the buttes and dry riverbed at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Kiva Koffeehouse is a fun place to stop for lunch and coffee.

Arriving at the western end of Highway 12 Scenic Byway

As Alan and I drive the last few miles of Utah route 12, we regret not including time in the itinerary to visit Bryce Canyon National Park. But driving through Red Canyon is a good reminder of the pink rock beauty of the Bryce Area. We’re definitely coming back again for more boomer travel adventure.

Next time:

We’ll stay in Tropic at Stone Canyon Inn. First up on the agenda will be hiking and exploring Bryce Canyon. But Alan has his eye out on Skutumpah Road.

Boomer Travel Tip

Check out our Utah Travel Resources page when planning your trip to Utah.

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