Exploring the Scenic Byway 12 in Utah: A Road Trip to Remember
As I set out on my hike at Capitol Reef National Park, I couldn’t help but feel excited about the adventure that lay ahead. However, my excitement was short-lived as I realized that I had made a grave mistake. The temperature was unseasonably warm, and I had just finished my only bottle of water. The sweat on my skin was freezing cold, trickling down my spine like melting ice cubes. I knew that the early stages of heat stroke were setting in. Instead of hiking to the natural arch of Hickman Bridge, I took shelter in the shadow of a boulder, reassuring passing hikers that I was not about to keel over.
After the symptoms subsided, I made my way back to the car and guzzled a liter of water like my life depended on it, which, in fairness, it did. The lesson was learned, and for the rest of the week, I carried more water than a camel. I was in Utah to drive Scenic Byway 12, a 198km route that meanders through some of the best scenery in the US. The country’s Scenic Byways are easy on the eye, but this one is also a designated All-American Road, which means it offers unique features you won’t see anywhere else.
You can drive the whole route in about three hours, but where’s the fun in that? This is a road trip you want to draw out for as long as possible, stopping to explore every scenic viewpoint or hiking trail along the way. I kicked things off in Salt Lake City, about a three-hour drive from Capitol Reef, where the route officially begins and the scenery starts to get interesting. This is the heart of Red Rock Country – squint up at the bulbous, pumpkin-colored peaks, and you could almost believe you had landed on Mars. There’s a bit of a Wild West vibe, too. There’s elk on the menu in restaurants, wagon wheels at the roadside, and every so often, an honest-to-goodness tumbleweed rolls by.
At the Broken Spur Inn, I slept in an authentic Conestoga wagon and drifted off pretending I’m a cowboy, the sound of the wind whipping the side of the canvas. The next day, the highway reaches Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the colors intensify. The sky is a deeper blue, and the sandstone cliffs look like someone spilled a glass of red wine over them. The monument is vast – nearly two million acres in size. It’s full of little nooks, crannies, and canyons, some with slots so narrow you can barely squeeze through.
But that’s exactly what I did next. Rick Green is the owner of Excursions of Escalante and has, in his words, “been pushing butts through canyons for 23 years”. I went canyoneering with him in a secret region he knows like the back of his hand. As far as I could tell, canyoneering is a way of getting from A to B in the most complicated way possible, squeezing yourself through spaces a bobcat would struggle to navigate. We were strapped up with harnesses, taught how to use carabiners, and kitted out with helmets as we trickled out into the canyons.
At first glance, they looked impenetrable, these slabs of stone interloping and merging, the gaps impossibly tiny. With my foot on another person’s knee and only a vague idea of how to claw my way up the rock, Rick shoved me through the narrow slots as I tried to convince myself I wasn’t claustrophobic. At the other end, we abseiled down the blind gaps, encouraging one another to lean backward into the abyss and trust that the ropes were doing their jobs. When I emerged unscathed, I had that feeling of euphoria that only comes when you’ve cheated death – or overcome a phobia.
My elation was only heightened when I arrived at Yonder Escalante. This deconstructed hotel is the epitome of Americana – accommodation is in converted silver Airstreams and glass-fronted cabins, there are fire pits for s’mores, and even a drive-in movie theater, with vintage American cars lined up in front of an outdoor screen. As I sat in the back seat of a mint green Rambler Classic to watch The Land Before Time, every childhood fantasy I had about America was brought to life.
Scenic Byway 12 doesn’t technically pass through Bryce Canyon National Park, but the detour is a mere blip, less than a 10-minute drive off course. Bryce Canyon is the kind of place that really does blow your mind. This natural amphitheater is home to the largest number of hoodoos on earth. And they are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The canyon is best experienced at sunrise when the hoodoos emerge from the early morning mist, and the sun peeks over the horizon, turning the murky blues of the valley into a deep shade of orange.
The long streams of sunlight reach the top of the hoodoos first, illuminating the tips like candles, before the rest of the basin is bathed in a warm glow. Soon the hoodoos are all gleaming in the light, with thousands of orange columns reaching towards the sky. And it’s not just the hoodoos – there are giant slabs of shale that are a sight to behold.
In conclusion, driving the Scenic Byway 12 in Utah will give you a chance to explore the natural beauty of the US. It is a road trip that you want to draw out for as long as possible, stopping to explore every scenic viewpoint or hiking trail along the way. The route will take you through Red Rock Country, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Bryce Canyon National Park, where you will witness some of the most breathtaking views on earth. So, pack your bags, fill up your water bottles, and hit the road for an adventure of a lifetime.