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The All American Road, Utah Scenic Byway 12 is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the whole country! To top it off, it connects two beautiful National Parks going from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon on a scenic drive taking 2.5 hours.
On our 2 week long road trip out west, we mostly relied on the GPS to get us from place to place. But there can be some better alternate routes instead of just taking the quickest highway route.
While we were staying in our Airbnb in Torrey, visiting Capitol Reef National Park, our host had some guidebooks laid out on the coffee table. Inside the one I picked up it mentioned Utah route 12, a scenic byway with gorgeous mountain vistas and landscapes; starting right here in Torrey!
I looked on the map and saw that it would take us all the way down to Bryce National Park, where we were headed. Perfect! It did have a longer driving time however, but a beautiful scenic route that I might not get a chance to go on again? We’re going!
Driving from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon National Park
Utah Route 12 starts(or ends if you’re traveling from the south) in Torrey. It’s a pretty little town that was founded by Mormon settlers in 1880’s.
Torrey is a great place as a base for exploring Capitol Reef. We stayed at an Airbnb, but there are also several motels & hotels along Main St. as well. If you like history you can even stay in an old renovated 1914 schoolhouse!
We ate dinner at Slacker’s Burger Joint while there, and Red Cliff’s right across the street we were told was really good too. All the food places and stores in town you’ll find along Main Street. It’s not long at all so easy to drive down and back to check out if you’re staying in town.
Also along part of Main St. you’ll see small stream of water running parallel to the road, shaded by big cottonwood trees; it’s actually the Torrey Canal which was finished being built in 1910. It provided more water to the town especially for ranch farmers.
Another little historic point to see on Main St. is the old wooden schoolhouse/church built in 1898, one of the town’s original buildings. It was used for multipurpose activities all the way until the 1970’s. Where it is now wasn’t its original location however. It used to be on the property of the church of Latter Day Saints(LDS), who offered it to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers organization if they could move it.
Through various donations over the years, by 1994 it was finally moved and restored with a solid foundation at its current location.
Utah Scenic Byway 12, southbound
Hopefully you’ve brought a good travel camera for your trip, because there’s plenty of beautiful scenery all along the drive from Capitol Reef to Bryce! You’ll see red or sandstone rocks jutting out of the landscape, combined with green or even yellows from the aspen trees depending on the time of year you travel.
We didn’t really know what to expect on this drive, there aren’t many towns or buildings along it, but one of the first that did pop up with a little Flute Shop.
If you like musical instruments I highly recommend stopping here, it’s filled with hand made flutes that the owner made. We got to talk to him and he explained his process and will even let you try to play one. I purchased one to take home as a souvenir, and to play during the rest of our roadtrip! Thankfully my husband’s ears were not harmed during my flute playing (he was doing the driving), luckily the wooden flutes are not that hard to play at all, and if you have any musical background you’ll figure it out in no time!
You can find the shop on the left hand side of the road about 5 mins after leaving Torrey, there’s also a motel there.
Dixie National Forest
After driving a bit more you’ll be coming up to some overlooks and entering Dixie National Forest. The forest is made up of almost 2 million acres, and broken up into 4 sections in southwestern Utah. It contains beautiful red rock desert canyons to 11,000 ft. mountains.
The National Forest gets the name “Dixie” from people who came and settled here from the southern US. They called the region “Utah’s Dixie” and the name stuck. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the forests as protected during his terms in office; mostly in order to preserve the water quality, as a source of timber, and to help against overgrazing by livestock.
Long before white settlers came however, there were ancient Indian cultures, including the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloans(or Anasazi) that left behind petroglyphs, artifacts, and even dwellings. Some of their dwellings in the cliff sides can still be seen today- so keep an eye out if you go hiking anywhere! I unfortunately didn’t see any.
The first small town you’ll drive into is Boulder. It’s really small here, but there’s one attraction to see if you’re interested:
Side Trip: Anasazi State Park Museum
If you want to learn about some of the Ancient Puebloan culture and see ancient pottery, artifacts, and even ruins of pit houses, this is a great place to stop. It’s located in the town of Boulder on route 12.
Also if you like to hike but don’t want to go out on your own, at certain times of the year the Utah Slickrock Guides in Boulder are open and available for guided day hikes.
As you drive on past Boulder, a good place to stop for coffee and a snack is the Kiva Coffee House. Make sure you check their hours and days open if you want to stop here though, when we were passing through it was closed.
The views are incredible in this location too, and if you don’t get into the coffee house, don’t worry, there’s another pull off with an incredible vista just around the bend!
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
As you continue you’ll be driving through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Part of the name of the monument comes from the fact that the land formation in this region looks like a large staircase of rock layers that stretch from Bryce Canyon National park(at the highest elevation) all the way down to the Grand Canyon.
The “Escalante” part comes from one of the first explorers, a Franciscan missionary priest named Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. He and others were tasked with finding a land route from Santa Fe, NM to Monterey, CA where there mission was located. They produced many maps and journals which aided other future travelers. This remote area was the last region to be mapped out and explored in the lower 48 states.
Grand Staircase was first designated as a national monument in 1996, and is actually managed by the Bureau of Land Management(BLM). It was recently downgraded in size from 1.8 million acres to around 1 million, and is composed of 3 sections: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits Plateau, and Canyons of the Escalante River.
Town of Escalante
If you’re wanting to spend some extra time in the area before moving on, Escalante is a good place as there’s several places to stay at in town along with small shops.
As you pass through town, there’s a visitor’s center which you can stop at for more information on hikes in the area, exhibits, or even just to rest and have a picnic lunch.
The Escalante Heritage Center is also open to the public, and features exhibits and the incredible story on the pioneers from 1879 who established a new transportation route to the San Juan River in southeast Utah, and created a “hole in the rock” to do so.
Side Trip: Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Just a 5 min drive from town, this park is worth a trip if you’d like to see both petrified wood and dinosaur bones! There are some small easy trails you can take to view them.
Another small town of only 2 square miles in total, but there are some nice places to stay here. Also if you’re visiting Bryce Canyon National Park it’s not far away, so it could be a cheaper alternative. There is a visitor’s center in the town too, and I highly recommend this side trip below if you’re staying a couple nights in addition to visiting Bryce:
Side Trip: Kodachrome Basin State Park
This state park is just a 15 min. drive from town to the southeast. It features large sandstone formations in various beautiful colors, plenty of hiking trails, and you can even take a guided horseback ride through the park!
Tropic is the last town just before entering Bryce. It’s the closest town you can stay at overnight outside of the park, being just 15mins to the visitor’s center! There’s a grocery store and a couple places to eat here as well.
Side Trip: Mossy Cave Trail
So this trail is actually in Bryce National Park, but it’s only 5mins from Tropic, and before you get to the turn to enter Bryce. It’s off route 12 to the left hand side as you’re leaving Tropic-so look out for it as it’s easy to miss. This is an easy hike that’s less than a mile round trip and takes you to a small waterfall.
Bryce National Park
The highlight spot of this whole trip is coming up next! If you don’t stop here you’re crazy! Amazing tall spires called hoodoos in brilliant oranges and red colors are what this park is known for.
You can read here about visiting Bryce Canyon National Park.
If you love the red rock formations and hoodoos at Bryce, Red Canyon is another cool place you can stop at and go on some hiking trails. It’s just outside of Bryce at the southwestern end of Byway 12. There’s a visitor’s center off the road which you can go and get more information.
Even if you don’t have time or want to get out of your car, there’s plenty to see while just driving along the road, such as these neat tunnels built through the sandstone rock!
So that’s the end of Utah Scenic Byway 12 from Capitol Reef to Bryce! But the scenery continues on the drive to Zion National Park!
Also if you’re looking for more scenic roadways nearby, you can drive the “Patchwork Parkway”, Route 143 from Panguitch (which is just north of the turn off onto route 89 where 12 ends) to Parowan. Passing through Dixie National Forest again and also Cedar Breaks National Monument.
There’s also Scenic Byway 14 off route 89 that leads to Cedar City. It goes over the Markagunt Plateau with incredible vistas into Zion! Cedar Breaks can also be accessed from this route, and if you’re wanting to visit the Kolob Canyon section of Zion this could be a good route for you to take.
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