Is it possible to please everyone on a road trip? No. The second your co-pilot innocently opens a bag of beef jerky in the car, it’s all over. There is murmuring and dry heaving from the back seat. The windows come down, the meat bees come in and suddenly the whole car is careening off a cliff. But not on Highway 12. It’s so beautiful, your fellow road-trippers won’t notice the beef jerky funk. They’ll be too busy watching the landscape change from alpine meadows to desert canyons in the space of an hour.
Highway 12, aka Scenic Byway 12, traverses mountains, deserts, plateaus, and three different biomes. The ponderosa forest of the Paunsaugunt can get 200 inches of snow while Escalante will barely see a skiff. In the summer, Boulder Mountain is coated with green grass while Kodachrome Basin is parched. It’s crazy like that. This trip is diverse, just like people’s opinion of beef jerky. There is truly something for everyone.
Our road trip starts in Panguitch, settled in 1864 by Latter-day Saint pioneers. The first winter here nearly killed ‘em but today this cowboy town is alive and well. Go east on Highway 89 and then on the 12 through Dixie National Forest to Red Canyon. Get your hoodoo pregame on at this mini Bryce Canyon. Trails wind through red rock formations and ponderosa pines, just like Bryce. The visitors center has all the dirt on mountain biking trails like the single-track Thunder Mountain. Rumor has it that the campground is the most beautiful place to sleep in America.
Next up is Bryce Wildlife Adventure, a privately owned taxidermy mecca. No matter how you feel about the art of stuffing dead animals, this museum might be your only chance to get a selfie with a beaver. We suggest you take it.
Bryce Canyon is unique for many reasons, but you’ll have to get out of the car to see why otherwise you just paid for an expensive view of ponderosa pines. The high elevation causes a freeze and thaw cycle that created those pink hoodoos. Snowshoeing through the maze of canyons is a one-of-a-kind desert experience. Sunrise Point to Sunset Point is an easy walk with incredible views that won’t actually take all day. With clear skies at Yovimpa Point, you can get a grip on all this geologic nonsense.
From Bryce, descend about 3,200 feet in elevation and turn off on Cottonwood Canyon Road to Kodachrome Basin State Park. You’ll notice the temperature change to hot and dry like you’re in an oven. You might also notice that the striations in the sandstone look a lot like lasagna — red, yellow, white, meat layer. Mysterious “sandpipes” are actually giant breadsticks. Hike Panorama Trail for a little taste of everything.
While you’re in the area, check out the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. One hundred fifty million years ago, some conifer trees were laid to rest here by a river. Minerals started to replace wood and now agate timber is strewn over the hillside. You’ll be tempted to take a chunk home with you, but beware, those who do are cursed for life. All the proof you need is in letters from guilty thieves displayed at the visitors center. Let it lie unless you want to blame everything that goes wrong in your life on a piece of old wood. Sounds nice, actually!
There are a lot of things around here named Escalante, including the town. The name comes from two Franciscan priests from Santa Fe, Atanasio Domínguez, and Silvestre Velez Escalante. They set out in 1776, with help from guides of the Timpanogos Tribe, looking for a way to get to California. Amazingly they were not killed by Comanche, disease, or dehydration as they traversed Northern Utah, but they never actually set foot in the monument or the town. When the John Wesley Powell Expedition came through a century later, they named the river after Escalante, which was very sweet.
Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument is a huge 1.8 million acres, just know that going in. 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. For a slot canyon adventure that is not technical, try the Peekaboo and Spooky trails. Devils Garden is a good opportunity for the kids to jump around on slickrock. 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.
A short PSA: Please tread lightly. The desert has a tough exterior but a tender heart. Endangered plants and animals in the area need to catch a break. Stay on trails or walk on slickrock when possible. Touching water in potholes is tempting but oils and bacteria from your body can destroy their ancient ecosystems in one fell swoop.
Stock up on fancy snacks at Escalante Mercantile, an upscale market with great coffee. Visit Escalante Interagency Visitors Center before embarking on any backcountry excursions.
You won't believe this, but the scenery only gets prettier from here. Not long after Highway 12 crosses the Escalante River is Calf Creek Recreation Area. This is your chance to see a waterfall pour off a 130-foot sandstone cliff. The 5.5-mile hike is very popular, so enjoy the natural air conditioning with your fellow hot hikers.
The only road to Boulder is via the Hogback, a butt-clenching ridge that drops off on both sides. Pull over (please) to take a peek down into Calf Creek Canyon. This is gnarly country. No wonder Boulder was the last town in America to get their mail by mule train.
Who says we all can’t get along? Boulder was once the home of a rag-tag group of Native Americans from different tribes who lived together as one. Fremont people from the north and the Ancestral Puebloan from everywhere else teamed up to build a hoppin’ little town. Archaeologists estimate that 200 people lived here together around A.D. 1200. Anasazi State Park Museum lets you walk among their ruins and get inside a reconstruction of ancient apartments.
Boulder might have more Zagat ratings per capita than any other place in America. Hell’s Backbone Grill has slowly built a reputation of a fresh, seasonal, and locally inspired menu. Important food people agree that it is very good. But there’s another place in town that rivals it. Sweetwater Kitchen at Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch is fresh, homemade and delicious. The lodge is in a pastoral valley at the base of Boulder Mountain. They have welcomed the return of the beaver, who is busy building dams and restoring the Sweetwater creek habitat.
After you’ve stuffed your face with Hopi Style Lamb Stuffed Pepper, head back up Highway 12.
Is a forest a forest if there is only one tree? Ask yourself this as you drive through this mountain-sized aspen grove. Aspens don’t bother with the birds and the bees, they clone. All the trees you see are genetically identical. Stop at Larb Hollow Overlook for views of the 11,000-foot Henry Mountains, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the Waterpocket Fold of Capitol Reef — your next stop.
This area is free-range, so watch for black cows on the road, especially perilous at night. You don’t want to miss this next part.
Torrey is the gateway town to our last stop, Capitol Reef National Park. Torrey is famously picturesque. Elderly cottonwood trees and a canal line the main drag. Fights often break out between Plein air landscape painters jockeying for the best spot to set up their easels. Pallet knife stabbings are not uncommon. It can get western out here, but you can find solace at the Red Sands Hotel and Spa. Updated in 2018, the rooms are modern and the amenities are on-point. A masseuse can work on those knots in your neck brought on by sightseeing. Or put your pup in daycare while you roam the no-dogs-allowed national park. Even the indoor pool has a beautiful view.
Bid farewell to the 12 and hop on Highway 24 to Capitol Reef National Park. The earth crumpled here along the Waterpocket Fold and created a red sandstone reef. Water from the Fremont River made this place hospitable. Early settlers planted orchards that still bear apples and peaches.
It’s geological insanity out there, and we highly recommend getting brochures and road-condition updates from the visitors center. If you want to stay in the car, take Scenic Drive Road for a good overview of the park’s offerings. Buy a homemade fruit pie at the historic Gifford house on your way. If you make it to the end of Scenic Drive, Capitol Gorge Trail is a nice way to end your trip. Petroglyphs and pioneer inscriptions chipped into the walls sum it up nicely: “I love beef jerky!” and “If you eat beef jerky in this wagon I will barf,” they say. Some things never change.