One of America’s Most Scenic Backroads: Utah’s Highway 12

It is a lovely and terrible wilderness… harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed… and in its corners and pockets under its cliffs, the sudden poetry of springs. –Wallace Stegner 1960

I am continuing our Southwest series today. Peggy and I are now back at our basecamp in Virginia and will continue to be through August. There are chores to do: Unpacking, making doctor and dentist appointments, getting our Virginia driver’s licenses, etc. We are even having our hearing tested. There’s a lot of “What did you say, Peggy?” And vice-versa. It’s part of the joy of being in our 70s.

Assuming all goes well, we should be back on the road come September for another multi-month trip, this time traveling through the northern tier of states, and into the Canadian Rockies— assuming that the weather cooperates.

Views like this are what you can expect along Utah’s Highway 12. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy and I have spent a lot of time on America and Canada’s backroads, plus Mexico’s Baja Peninsula— some quarter of a million miles worth. So we know a bit about byways and we know a bit about scenic. Twelve years ago, when we first travelled over Utah’s Highway 12, our initial thought was Wow! It hasn’t changed. What else would one expect of a road anchored on one end by Capitol Reef National Park and on the other by Bryce Canyon? The short, 123 mile drive can be done in three hours. Or three days if you want to linger and explore the incredible scenery, state parks and historical areas along the way.

In 2010, we started at the small town of Torrey just outside of Capitol Reef, and worked our way south. The winding route took us up and over the 9,000 foot Boulder Mountain Pass where we were impressed with the aspen groves. They are always a treat, moving from the bright green quaking leaves of summer, to the gloriously yellow leaves in the fall, to the stark white trunks and limbs of winter. From the pass, our road dropped into the Escalante National Monument with its staircase look and then ended with the bright red, orange, and yellow rock formations of Bryce.

In May of 2010 when we made our first journey over Highway 12, the aspens at 9,000 feet were still dressed for winter.

This time we travelled in the opposite direction, beginning at Bryce and working our way northeast along Highway 12, stopping at the small town of Boulder some 90 miles into the journey. We wanted to explore the Burr Trail that begins there. The road is something of a scenic wonder itself and will get its own post.

Our recent journey along Highway 12 started with the red, orange, and yellow rocks of the Bryce Canyon area.
Ranch in Tropic, Utah along scenic Highway 12. Photo by Curt Mekemson.
We camped on Highway 12 in the town of Tropic, so named by an early land developer who wanted to encourage growth. This and the next three photos were taken from our campground.
Photo by Curt Mekemson.
Tropic, Utah photo along Highway 12 by Curt Mekemson.
Across the road from our campsite in Tropic.

Our journey to Boulder can easily be divided into two parts: the section between Tropic and Escalante where we were mainly looking up, and the section between Escalante and Boulder, where we were mainly looking down. I’ve combined our morning and afternoon photos for each section, which is why you will see the varying light. We will start by looking up. 🙂

Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Part of the Grand Staircase. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I liked the contrast here.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
I caught this on our way out…
And Peggy caught it on the way back.
A quick look at the photo by Peggy here shows another example of erosion, possibly a future arch. But if you look more closely, you will see more: an ancient Puebloan granary. There are two structures here. People lived in this area for thousands of years before Europeans first made their way to North America.
Dark skies with sun breaking through always make for dramatic photos. I’m not sure which was more impressive: The orange butte in the foreground, or the white one looming in the background.
Peggy stopped to pet a large lizard in front of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in the town of Escalante. A few miles later we were looking down into a vast canyon.
An overlook provided our first view down into the Canyon. A huge truck was making its way out of the canyon on the curvy road that was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 30s. Both Peggy’s dad and mine had worked for the CCC. How do you think the truck made it around the hairpin curve? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Carefully. The highway patrol had required folks coming down into the canyon (us, for example) to park off the road until the truck was past. Coming up, you waited behind the truck. No one passed that puppy!
The vast canyon we were facing was carved by the Escalante River that flows into Glen Canyon and the Colorado River. One of the two things that caught our attention about the canyon was the unique geology. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
It is a lovely and terrible wilderness… harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed. Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
And the fact that the Escalante River was still working away, continuing to carve its canyon. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo by Curt Mekemson.
Where there is water, there is life… the sudden poetry of springs.

I hope we have persuaded you to explore Highway 12 if you are in the area. Our next post will take you along the Burr Trail with its long, colorful canyon— including a slot canyon.

24 thoughts on “One of America’s Most Scenic Backroads: Utah’s Highway 12

      • Curt as you can imagine it depends on elevation. Ski hills open here in early November and even as early as the end of October. A beautiful time to be here is mid to late September during larch season. The hiking can be stunning with the splashes of colour at high elevation. Down in the valley floors we typically wouldn’t see the snow staying before mid to late October. That isn’t to say we don’t get snow but usually here in Calgary it melts.
        Pack layers of clothes as we still can get some glorious warm days in the fall. Then over the mountain comes a dump of snow all in the same day. 🙂

      • Thanks, Sue. It’s going to be close. We could shoot across the country and make it but our sense of humor about long days of driving over freeways has never been high and has gone nowhere but down. 🙂 Maybe next spring after our trip down the Nile we could work our way west again to California and then migrate north as the weather improves. I’d love to do the Alaska Highway again as well. But all of that is further ahead than we can plan, now. –Curt

      • Not scared, Sue. I’ve certainly done my share of driving in the snow given that I’ve lived in both Alaska and on the crest of the Sierra during the winter. Just cautious with pulling a trailer behind me. 🙂 Thanks. And I will keep you posted. Our road trips then to involve seat of the pants planning. 🙂 –Curt

  1. Highway 12 looks remarkable, Curt. I know I’ve said it before, but I do so envy your travels!! BUT, I don’t envy all those chores you have to do now!!

  2. Wow Curt! You and Peggy blow me away. So impressive and such lovely pictures that beacon a visit but I wouldn’t have the stamina at the moment so I’ll vicariously live through both of you!
    laughing at this and hearing/not hearing you.
    “There’s a lot of “What did you say, Peggy?” And vice-versa. It’s part of the joy of being in our 70s.” 😂 I have a surgery planned in October for a inner ear disease I have. The only risk is going completely deaf. lordy.
    Keep having fun!

    • Oh, good luck with that surgery, Cindy. That would be scary.
      I’ve been wowed by all you are trying to accomplish at once. It exhausts me just reading about it. The job will get done, eventually, however. And the wedding will take place. 🙂 –Curt

  3. I laughed at the town named ‘Tropic.’ I suppose promoters of towns like Paradise, Texas, were engaged in the same sort of helpful promotion. I really enjoyed the last photo. It reminds me of the autumn view from various promontories in southwestern Kansas, in the Cimarron Grasslands. The Cimarron river often disappears underground in that area, but you can trace its path by the cottonwood trees growing along its banks.

  4. That’s one of those areas where I swore I’d come back and revisit, but have yet to do so. It’s been 45 years; it’s a fair bet I don’t have 45 more to procrastinate.

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