Kodachrome Basin State Park

Drive Highway 12 To Red Rock Splendor

April 16, 2010, 12:23 pm

If you want to experience the grandeur of Utah's red rock country – the amazing overlooks, deep canyons and inspiring waterfalls – we invite you to drive Scenic Byway 12 through south-central Utah. And do it now, during the spring, when wildflower blossoms are profuse, trees are shimmering with new green and sunshine feels pleasant on your check.

Utah has eight National Scenic Byways (of 150 nationwide), so designated because they have exceptional cultural, historic, recreational and scenic qualities. Highway 12 is a Scenic Byway, and has also been designated an All-American Road. To qualify for the later honor, the road must offer features that do not exist elsewhere in the United States and must be scenic enough to be a tourist destination in its own right.

Utah is known for its incredibly diverse scenery and Hwy 12, more than any other road, exposes travelers to that diversity. One traveler sent this unsolicited comment about the highway:

"This was our first trip to the USA, we live in Scotland, UK. We did a circular route starting from Las Vegas driving south, through Grand Canyon, Page, Mounument Valley, Arches NP, and through Capitol Reef NP, and we thought this Scenic Byway 12 totally awesome. It just took our breath away. I always thought nothing could beat driving through Glencoe in Scotland, but this byway took our breath away totally and I got so emotional driving it!!!!! Can't wait to see other byways when we visit your BEAUTIFUL country in the near future."

Below we list some of the scenic areas you encounter along the 124 mile route. Our list runs north to south, but of course you can drive the highway in either direction.

Capitol Reef National Park
We begin in the town of Torrey, which is the western gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. From Torrey it is a short drive east on Hwy 24 to the visitor center and the most popular attractions in the park.

Hwy 12 drops south from Torrey, following contours on Boulder Mountain. Along the way it passes many turnouts where you can enjoy panoramic views of Capitol Reef and the Waterpocket Fold, which is the national park's signature feature. The views are spectacular.

Boulder Mountain
Boulder Mountain is beautiful in its own right. The road climbs to an elevation of about 9,000 feet above sea level, through a lush forest watered by cascading streams and small lakes. Several campgrounds and picnic areas invite travelers to linger here. If you explore this region you will find dozens of lakes teaming with feisty trout. Wildlife abounds here – travelers often see mule deer, elk and other animals.

Anasazi State Park Museum
Ancient Pueblo people lived in this area. Also known as the Anasazi, these ancient Native Americans developed a complex society that endured for several hundred years. They built cliff dwellings and other rock structures, made beautiful clay pots and left intriguing rock art. Anasazi State Park Museum shelters and displays relics from that fascinating civilization.

Burr Trail Scenic Backway
The Burr Trail is a back road that runs east from Hwy 12, beginning at the town of Boulder. It cuts through wonderfully scenic areas in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park. Much of the trail is paved but the section in Capitol Reef is dirt and sand. It can normally be driven in a family car but can be treacherous in stormy weather.

Hells Backbone Scenic Backway
Hells Backbone is a very scenic back road. It leaves Hwy 12 just west of the town of Boulder. It arches over the south end of Boulder Mountain, providing views down into Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, and then drops back to rejoin Hwy 12 at the town of Escalante. The old Hells Backbone bridge has become an icon of sorts. Several popular fishing lakes and campgrounds are found in this area.

The Hogsback
Dropping south from Boulder, Hwy 12 climbs to the top of a wooded ridge. The road is paved, one lane in each direction, with narrow shoulders. As it continues south the ridge narrows until it is barely wider than the road itself. Soil gives way to barren rock, with few trees. Deep canyons fall away on either side. This is the Hogsback – a narrow ridge of solid sandstone, with a ribbon of highway down its center. On one side you look down into Calf Creek, on the other side is Boulder Creek. RVs can travel the highway with little problem, but the road makes some drivers nervous. Just take it slow and stay in your lane -- you'll be fine.

Calf Creek Falls
Two waterfalls make Calf Creek famous. Both are graceful and photogenic, tumbling down sheer cliffs into cold plunge pools.

The lower waterfall has a drop of about 126 feet, the upper about 88 feet. A small but nice campground is available along Calf Creek near where it crosses Hwy 12. An easy 6 mile (round trip) day hike leads from the campground to the lower waterfall. The trail is well maintained and easy to fallow. There is a fee to camp, picnic or use the trail. The upper waterfall can be reached via a steep, strenuous 2-mile (round trip) hike from an unmarked trailhead along The Hogsback. (Inquire at the campground for specific directions.)

After crossing Calf Creek, Hwy 12 swings left, climbs sandstone ridges and then drops down to the town of Escalante. A visitor center here offers maps and detailed information about area attractions, including information about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Many of the national monument's famous features can be seen by making day trips from this town. Just east of town, Hole in the Rock Road drops south along the edge of the Escalante Canyons region, providing access to many popular trailheads. From the east side of town, the Smoky Mountain Road drops south into the heart of the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Huge petrified logs can be seen on a ridge just west of Escalante, in an area protected as Escalante Petrified Forest Utah State Park. A moderately strenuous trail winds up the ridge and past many of the logs. The state park includes a very nice, fully-developed campground. Wide Hollow Reservoir is also included in the park. It is a beautiful, small reservoir popular for fishing and water sports.

Kodachrome Basin State Park
Unique rock formations called chimneys or pipes can be seen in and around Kodachrome Basin State Park. They are tall pinnacles of sandstone, surrounded by a juniper/pine forest and sandstone ridges. The state park offers a very nice developed campground. Many hiking trails are found in this area. This is also a great spot for horseback riding, and concessionaires offer rides on nearby trails. The state park is located along the Cottonwood Canyon Road, just south of the town of Cannonville.

Grosvenor Arch
From Hwy 12, the Cottonwood Canyon Road passes Kodachrome Basin State Park and then continues south through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. One of the Monument's famous features in this area is called Grosvenor Arch. It is a unique double arch that formed in multi-colored sandstone. The access road is maintained and can be driven in a family car.

Bryce Canyon National Park
Continuing west, Hwy 12 cuts through the northern part of Bryce Canyon National Park. Many hoodoos and other formations can be seen from the highway, and a short hike up a beautiful canyon leads to other scenic features. A little farther west, Hwy 63 drops south from Hwy 12, providing access to the main visitor area at Bryce Canyon.

Red Canyon
Continuing west, Hwy 12 cuts through Red Canyon before reaching its terminus at Hwy 89. In Red Canyon, hoodoos and other Bryce-like formations can be seen from the roadway. In the canyon you will find a visitor center, nice developed campground, paved bike trail and other attractions. Dirt roads here are popular routes for mountain bikers and ATV riders. This is also a very popular area for horseback riding.

Highway 12 is an unforgettable experience. It is a great route for a day trip. It's also great for multi-day trips offering adventure in the heart of Utah's red rock country.