From Bryce to Boulder, Highway 12 is a treasure trove of Utah’s hidden gems.
Some of Utah’s secret places are hiding in plain sight in southern Utah. Scenic Highway 12 is well-known for its wild country and stunning scenery, but these lesser-known stops along the way can’t be missed. There are fossils, quiet trails, museums and restaurants that you otherwise might pass by. Get off the beaten path on Utah’s Highway 12 and see for yourself!
While you are exploring, please tread lightly. The desert has a tough exterior but a tender heart. Endangered plants and animals of the area need to catch a break. Stay on trails or walk on slickrock when possible. Protect tiny creatures by not touching water in potholes. Thank you!
Swamp Canyon Trail lives in the limelight, probably because the name scares people away. Hike it and you’ll find an oasis where tiger salamanders and short-horned lizards make their home. (If you see any of these cuties, don't pick them up. They're endangered.)
Bring your bike! The Canyon 2 Canyon trail (aka Red Canyon Trail) is a 24-mile paved path from Bryce Canyon to Red Canyon, another hoodoo hangout just down the road. Put your e-bike on cruise control, bring the kids and ride as long as you want. Start at Ruby’s Inn or connect up with the Bryce Canyon Multi Use Path that winds through the park.
Winter in Bryce is quiet, peaceful and fresh. Downhill skiing in the park is a no-no, but cross-country skiing is a beloved pastime. Bryce Canyon City maintains 30 kilometers of groomed trails on the edge of the park. If skiing isn't your hot chocolate, try snowshoeing through the amphitheater during sunset. No need to bring your equipment — you can rent skis, boots, poles and snowshoes from Ruby’s Inn.
Set your eyes to night vision and your aperture to awe and look up. Bryce was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2019 but astronomers have been throwing star parties there for years. Stargazing with a ranger on a free constellation tour might be the zenith of your trip, eclipsing all else. Check out the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival in June.
Heading east from Bryce Canyon, you’ll come upon the little town of Cannonville. If you are driving a Honda Accord, skip this one. If you have a 4X4 SUV take a right on Main Street until you find Skutumpah Road. Continue 9 miles over dirt and sand to the trailhead of Willis Creek Slot Canyon. Some people make it, some people don’t. Walk up this undulating slot canyon a mile or two while jumping in and out of the silty creek.
Now for some totally exposed gems at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. One hundred fifty million years ago, a few conifer trees were laid to rest by a river. Minerals started to replace wood and now agate timber is strewn over the hillside. Hike the Trail of Sleeping Rainbows and see the petrified wood for yourself, or wash that Willis Creek silt off in Wide Hollow Reservoir.
Hole in the Rock Road is a great access point to family-friendly hikes, as long as you don't mind driving on a long, sandy washboard. Devils Garden is a good opportunity for the kids to jump around on slickrock. For a slot canyon adventure that is not technical, try the Peekaboo and Spooky trails.The end of the road is Hole in the Rock, a perilous wagon “shortcut” carved by Latter-day Saint pioneers on their way to Bluff.
Stay the night at Yonder Escalante, a hip RV resort with Airstreams, tiny cabins and modern style. Take an outdoor shower or watch a “drive in” movie from the seat of a vintage Rambler. Grab a bite to eat from Escalante Outfitters Cafe, or take it to-go to the Grand Staircase-Escalante backcountry.
Buckle up, buddy. The road to Boulder is via the Hogback, a butt-clenching ridge that drops off on both sides. Drive it during the day so you can look down into Calf Creek Canyon on one side and a steep cliff on the other. Use the designated scenic viewpoints as parking spots to keep it safe for all travelers.
Don’t miss the Anasazi State Park Museum. Boulder was once the home of a group of Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people who teamed up to build a village. Archaeologists estimate that 200 people lived here around A.D. 1200. The museum lets you walk among their dwellings and get inside a reconstruction of ancient apartments.
You’ve probably heard of the famous Hell’s Backbone Grill, but Boulder has no shortage of great places to eat. Magnolias Street Food offers kimchi breakfast tacos, refreshing hibiscus agua fresco and burritos to go. Ingredients are sourced from local farms and gardens when possible. Find them in the mint green bus in the parking lot of the Anasazi State Park Museum. You can’t miss it.
Make a quick stop at the Larb Hollow Overlook if you want to be amazed. Just 15 miles south of Torrey, the overlook faces east towards Capitol Reef National Park and the Henry Mountains. The Waterpocket Fold is that peach-colored ripple in the earth's crust. On a clear day you might be able to see the La Sal Mountain Range all the way over in Moab.
There is so much more to do on Highway 12 and in south-central Utah. Find your own Utah hidden gems in Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park.