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Highway 12 in Utah

Highway 12 in Utah – A Top US Scenic Drive

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I’ve done my fair share of road trips in the USA. And in my humble opinion the mind-blowing section of scenic Highway 12 in Utah between Panguitch and Torrey is one of the prettiest drives you’ll ever do. It was America’s first All-American road in 2002. What that means is the road has significant natural, historic, recreational, archaeological and cultural qualities.

Highway 12 in Utah, runs for 122 miles between the two towns, passing through some of America’s most colourful and gorgeous landscapes. It was built as a forest road in 1914 and it wasn’t until 1985 that it got an upgrade to paved road through Boulder Mountain.

The highway crosses part of Dixie National Forest and Bryce Canyon National Park as well as sections of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The section from Boulder to Torrey – on the outskirts of Capitol Reef National Park traverses glorious country with gorgeous, big views. This is one of the most famous drives in the US.

The landscape is highly variable over the 100 plus miles. You’ll see everything from ponderosa pine and aspen forests to slickrock canyons and mountain meadows.

Updated April 2021. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

Even the road sign is attention getting
Even the road sign is attention getting

Highway 12 in Utah – Visit Cedar Breaks National Monument

Though not technically part of Highway 12, it is worth starting the drive if at all possible in Cedar City (or Las Vegas if you’ve flown in). That way you can visit Cedar Breaks National Monument on route to Panguitch.

Drive to the rim of the amphitheater at an elevation over 10,000 feet. From there Cedar Breaks, a natural amphitheater, stretches across before you for three miles. It plunges down over 2,000 feet too so watch the drop-offs. There are hiking trails so you can more intimately explore the national monument.

It is open year round but it can and does snow here so it’s late fall or winter plan accordingly. You can camp at Point Supreme Campground but reserve ahead. 

Section of highway near Cedar Breaks National Monument
Section of highway near Cedar Breaks National Monument
The higher you go the more dramatic the scenery
The higher you go the more dramatic the scenery
The beauty of Cedar Breaks National Monument
The beauty of Cedar Breaks National Monument

Red Canyon on Highway 12 

Red Canyon is an especially scenic area on Highway 12. It starts just a few miles east of the junction with Highway 89. Admire vermilion-coloured rock formations and stately ponderosa pines. There is an information kiosk at the entrance to the Red Canyon. And the Visitor Centre is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. 

If you want to do more than drive the Red Canyon, stop at the Red Canyon Trailhead Kiosk, a short drive east of the visitor center. It provides access to five different trails with are open year round to hiking, biking and horses. When the snow arrives trade your bike and hiking shoes for snowshoes and cross-country skis.

The entrance to Red Canyon
The entrance to Red Canyon
Glorious Red Canyon country
Glorious Red Canyon country
Drive through this arch on Highway 12
Drive through this arch on Highway 12

Bryce Canyon National Park

The turnoff to Bryce Canyon National Park – Highway 65 – is approximately 11 miles past the entrance to Red Canyon. The park is definitely worth a minimum of 24 hours – more if you’re into hiking and photography.

Read: The Fairyland Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon

However, if you stay on Highway 12 you’ll reach the entrance to the Mossy Cave where you can do a short but gorgeous hike up to see the hoodoos.

The Mossy Cave area in Bryce Canyon National Park
The Mossy Cave area in Bryce Canyon National Park
Spectacular scenery in Bryce Canyon National Park
Spectacular scenery in Bryce Canyon National Park

Continuing east towards Tropic and Cannonville

It’s just 8.5 miles from the Mossy Cave Trailhead to Cannonville via the small town of Tropic. The driving on Highway 12 in Utah continues to delight.

You can leave your stomach behind on some of these roads
You can leave your stomach behind on some of these roads
Driving into Cannonville near Kodachrome Basin State Park
Driving into Cannonville heading WEST near Kodachrome Basin State Park 
Fall is a tremendous time to drive the highway
Fall is a tremendous time to drive Highway 12 in Utah because of the colours

Kodachrome Basin State Park

From Cannonville, it’s a 7 mile detour off the highway to visit Kodachrome Basin State Park. It’s especially worthwhile if you’re into hiking, photography or camping. In theory you could knock off all five hiking trails in a day as their combined total is just 12 miles. Enjoy great red rock country and cool looking rock formations.

Red rock scenery in every direction in Kodachrome Basin State Park
Red rock scenery in every direction in Kodachrome Basin State Park

West to Escalante and Boulder

The drive between Escalante and Boulder is the very best I think along Highway 12 – and that’s saying something. The photos below will give you an inkling of how marvelous it is.

This part of Utah shouldn’t be rushed as there really is so much to do. We spent three nights in Boulder and a couple in Bryce Canyon National Park. You could easily spend another week in the area.

Some of the not to be missed activities include an exceptionally scenic drive on the Burr Trail (a dirt road), canyoneering in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (one of the top experiences in my life!) and then of course hiking.

Some of the hikes I’d recommend – that are short and easy include Lower Calf Creek Falls, Upper Calf Creek Falls and the Deer Creek Trail in the Escalante Wilderness.

Gorgeous rugged scenery
Gorgeous rugged scenery along Highway 12 in Utah
View from one of the road pull-outs
View from one of the road pull-outs
Continuing north along Highway 12 towards Boulder
Continuing north along Highway 12 towards Boulder
Looking out from one of the pull-offs
Looking out from one of the pull-offs
Heading north on Highway 12 out of Escalante
Heading north out of Escalante
This is what a hogback looks like - the road drops off on either side of the highway
This is what a hogback looks like – the road drops off on either side of the highway
Heading south from Boulder
Heading south from Boulder
Grand vistas on the way south towards Escalante
Grand vistas on the way south towards Escalante
Part of Highway 12 in Utah goes through small ranch country
Part of the highway goes through small ranch country
Glorious red rock country
Glorious red rock country
Looking down into Calf Creek Canyon from a roadside pullover
Looking down into Calf Creek Canyon from a roadside pullover

Scenery between Boulder and Torrey

It’s just 36 miles between Boulder and Torrey but there’s a dramatic change in the landscape. Much of it is in ponderosa pine country with grand views off to the east.

Torrey is the western gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park. There’s plenty to keep you busy here – between camping and hiking. A couple of the must do hikes include the Capitol Gorge hike and the Chimney Rock Trail.

Ponderosa pine and even snow-capped mountain vistas
Ponderosa pine and even snow-capped mountain vistas on Highway 12 between Boulder and Torrey
The Capitol Gorge hike
The Capitol Gorge hike in Capitol Reef National Park

Where to stay along Highway 12 in Utah

There are lots of places to stay – and many that are worth several nights.

In Boulder check out Boulder Mountain Lodge or Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch.

In Escalante, Canyons Bed and Breakfast, the Cowboy Country Inn and Escalante Outfitters and Bunkhouse would all be solid choices.

The Bryce Canyon Area offers traditional style lodging in the Bryce Canyon Pines Motel and the Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel.

Beautiful Boulder Mountain Lodge and Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder
Beautiful Boulder Mountain Lodge and Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder

Where to eat

The one not to be missed restaurant is Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder. I’ve eaten here on many occasions and positively love their food – and the setting. In Hatch check out the Galaxy of Hatch Diner and Motel. In Tropic, beside Bryce Canyon, try the Stone Hearth Grill.

The interior of Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder
The interior of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder

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Scenic road trip - Highway 12 in Utah

 

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