Utah State Route 12 passes through or near 3 of Utah’s National Parks and Monuments, 3 of its State Parks, and has been designated a National Scenic Byway. The highway makes up about half of the drive linking all of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks and makes up the most scenic portion of the drive. (Check the bottom of page for a full map of the trip and many more pictures.)
The northern end is an unassuming junction in Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.
The completed highway is one of the newest in Utah; although parts of it have existed before it wasn’t fully paved until the 1985 when the dirt road from Boulder over the mountain to Grover was paved. From the Aquarius Plateau you can see out over the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park.
Due to the raw physical terrain building roads in the area was always a challenge. The town of Boulder relied on pack mule for mail service until the Hell’s Backbone road was a completed by the CCC in 1935. Electricity service was not brought to town until 1947.
Hell’s Backbone is an exciting road to drive with sharp drop-offs on either side of the highway as it drops down into Calf Creek Canyon. Calf Creek is a great camping site but quite popular and fills up during the busy season (I got a site at 4pm on a Thursday, it was full by 5:30pm).
There are 2 main falls in the canyon, Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls. Lower is much more popular, Upper is just as beautiful but the trails isn’t as well established and has a much more drastic elevation change from the top of the canyon to the bottom.
A short drive from Calf Creek is the Head of the Rocks overlook. This gives a great view of the Calf Creek area from the opposite end of Hell’s Backbone.
The establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has made the towns along Highway 12 the prime jumping off points to the northern half of the monument. There are multiple campsites and RV parks to utilize since GSENM doesn’t have many well developed campsites within yet.
Shortly before the town of Escalante is the Hole in the Rock road that leads into GSENM. The road is well maintained and well traveled so passenger cars can handle it unless it rains. When it rains it turns to mud that will swallow 4×4 vehicles as well. Avoid the road if wet, not only is there a chance of getting stuck but the muddy ruts damage the road when they dry. The BLM will actually close the road if it’s bad so be aware as it can affect your plans.
Halfway down the road is Devils Garden, a cluster of unique slickrock hoo-doos and some delicate arches. Climbing on slickrock is ok but is prohibited on the arches themselves. The general rule for National Parks and Monuments is: if it’s has a name, you can’t climb on it.
The road continues down into Henrieville and Cannonville, and a short detour south is another main road into GSENM that passes Kodachrome Basin State Park.
Kodachrome is more slickrock fins, towers, and arches. There are also a bunch of geologically unique limestone columns peaking through the sandstone. Many theories have been given as to their creation, one being that they are remnants of ancient thermal springs and geysers like in Yellowstone, but now the surrounding earth has eroded away leaving the hard-water deposits that were once underground.
Kodachrome sits below the Bryce Canyon mesa but the type of rock is different so it’s not an extension of the same formaiton.
The highway climbs from the bottom of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater. From the top of the mesa a short detour off Highway 12 heads into the heart of the park.
South past Bryce the highway goes through Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest before ending at the Highway-89 junction. Many people will continue north to Panguitch as the end point, or turn south at the junction towards Zion National Park (an hour away).
The full road map and all pictures taken on the trip (the good and bad).