Utah’s Scenic Byway, Highway 12, is located in south-central Utah. It features some of the most incredible scenery that you will find on any drive in America. The landscape offers magnificent red rock formations along this drive that runs through Bryce Canyon National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. With national parks, historic towns, state parks, and a national monument along this route, there’s a new experience around every bend in the road.
Here is a list of my favorite things to do along this scenic drive. I hope you will plan a visit and enjoy the views as much as I did. Spring and fall are fantastic times of year to make this drive. It’s not too hot, and the flowers, as well as the trees, burst with seasonal colors. You can easily spend three full days exploring along this route or do it all in one day. It depends on how many things you want to see and do along the scenic drive.
The rich, red rocks in the Red Canyon make this a colorful part of the drive, and tunnels add to the experience. The ponderosa pines set this canyon apart from other canyons in the country. Whether you are a novice or experienced hiker, you will find a hiking trail that meets your needs. If you choose to hike, take plenty of water with you, as the sun can be scorching in the summer. The winter season brings opportunities for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Enjoy sunrise in Bryce Canyon National Park. Choose one of the two first parking areas to view the overlook of the canyon. We arrived 30 minutes before sunrise, and it turned out to be a perfect time. The skies had started to lighten up, and the colors immediately began to turn throughout the canyon. The hoodoos, cliffs, canyon, and the sky place you in what seems to be an otherworldly place. Have your camera ready for some magnificent photo opportunities. Your epic sunrise experience at Bryce Canyon is sure to be something that you talk about for months on end.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
Kodachrome Basin State Park is home to towering monolithic spires and chimneys. This beautiful park was named after the popular 1948 film Kodachrome by a National Geographic Expedition. Hiking, mountain biking, camping, and horseback riding are all popular things to do in this state park. This park has an elevation of 5,800 feet. As with all state parks in Utah, annual or day-use state park passes are required to visit. You can easily spend two hours or a few days in this park, depending on your travel schedule.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
It was not until 1996 that President Bill Clinton set Grand Staircase-Escalante as a National Monument. As you drive Highway 12, you will notice the colorful cliffs that surround you. These vertical drops are known as the Pink Cliffs, Grey Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermillion Cliffs, and Chocolate Cliffs. Hiking, fishing, ATV trail riding, and camping are among the most popular things to do in this area. Several parking areas sit along the highway and offer stunning views. Trails often begin in these parking areas, which often lead to a beautiful experience along a sandy, rocky path. Dress in layers and take water with you. When you step off the beaten path, you’re guaranteed to see something that many others have never seen.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park offers camping, hiking, fishing, and stunning views. The visitor center is home to displays of plant and marine fossils, along with petrified wood. Fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old are also on display. Camping with hookups is available for RV units up to 40 feet. Daily use passes or annual park passes are required.
As you hike, keep in mind that you need to pack out what you pack in. The Petrified Forest Nature Trail is an easy loop trail that is a little under two miles. With a panoramic lake view, this trail is short and offers impressive views. You will also find petrified wood all along the trail. Please do not pick up the wood, as you will want to leave nature as you found it. Inquire at the visitor center about any closed trails due to any weather issues to make sure you have a safe hike. You can spend an hour here or spend several days enjoying the quiet sounds of this state park.
Calf Creek Falls
Calf Creek Falls is one of the most well known and unique features in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail follows Calf Creek to the falls. This 6.7-mile round-trip hike has a minimal elevation gain of 521 feet. Sand on the trail adds to the hike’s difficulty, so plan accordingly. If the temperatures are on the extreme side, it can be a difficult hike. Pictographs that represent life in a much different period of time are visible on this hike. Pay attention to the rocks that are near the trail, and you will find these drawings. The stunning waterfalls at the end of your hike make every step worth it.
Dogs are allowed on this trail but must be leashed at all times. The parking area fills quickly, and the best tip that I can give you is to begin your hike early in the day, as at 6:30 a.m. Plan to spend a minimum of four hours hiking this trail. Spring and fall are ideal times to make the trek to Calf Creek Falls, as the temperatures are milder.
Near the town of Boulder, there is a stretch of highway referred to as Hogback. This is a unique road as there are steep drop-offs on both sides. The hairpin curves and winding road will keep you alert on your drive. This part of this scenic drive caught me off guard, and once I realized that we had steep drop-offs beside us, I realized how beautiful this stretch of road was.
Do not try to take any pictures while driving this route (or any route). Let your passengers take Instagram photos for you. The pull-outs that are nearby are there for a reason. When you come upon one, use it and take in all the beauty nature has tossed your way.
Boulder Mountain takes you to the top of Bluebell Knoll, which has an elevation of 11,313 feet. While driving this mountain, be sure to use the slow vehicle pull-outs when necessary to keep traffic flowing while climbing the incline. The mountain has several pine trees and is located in the Dixie National Forest.
If you decide to drive on one of the spurs that take off from Highway 12 in this area, make sure you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance. These side roads are bumpy but do offer exceptional views that very few people experience. With 90 lakes and several streams, trout fishing is prevalent on Boulder Mountain. It’s important to note that these fishing areas are closed from November to mid-April.
Capitol Reef National Park
While traveling Highway 12, you will come upon Capitol Reef National Park. This national park offers a little bit of everything, including stunning red canyons, hiking, history, and petroglyphs. Hop on the Grand Wash Hiking Trail, which is an easy hike that offers incredible views. A highlight of this hike is the Grand Wash Narrows. This is a one-half mile section that reminds hikers of the famous narrows of Zion National Park.
Picnic areas are available and offer fantastic green spaces with towering red rocks that spiral toward the sky as the backdrop. Several hiking trails are located near the drive in the national park, and all offer unforgettable experiences. You can spend two hours in this park or spend a full day here on an epic adventure.
Once you begin your 120-mile drive across south-central Utah, you will find yourself succumbing to beauty that you will not find anywhere else. Nature experiences await you around every curve in the road as you trek across Highway 12. The valleys that surround this scenic drive seem to go on for miles. The rich, red rocks rise above the trees in several areas of the scenic route. Begin your road trip with a full tank of gas, pack plenty of water, snacks, and layers of clothing.