Utah Stories and Tips

One of the World's Most Scenic Roads

Pioneer Orchard along the Freemont River Photo, Utah, United States

WARNING: Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the important sights along Rt 12. Access to the Lower Falls will closed for July, 2010 while construction work goes on in the campground at the start of the trail to the falls. The campground is closed too. Access to Upper Calf Creek Falls will remain open. How to find the Upper Falls: Take the trace dirt road between mileposts 81 and 82 on UT Rt 12 to the end of the road, or be smart and park just off Rt 12 and walk a few hundred feet to the trail head sign in box. From there, it’s 30-40 minutes to the falls. There is a not obvious fork in the trail With one branch leading to the top of the falls, the other to the bottom of the falls, bu as Yogi Berra says, when you come to the fork in the road, take it. The trail is variously described as moderately easy to strenuous. I don’t know why.

Note: reconstruction is being done in July because that is a fairly slow time of the year for visitors due to the hot desert summer.

Utah's Route 12 is one of the most scenic roads anywhere. The landscape is so rugged that the paved road was not completed until 1985. Route 12 is 197 km from start to finish. Allow at least three days for a minimal visit. The highlights are Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks and Rt 12 itself, especially the crossing of the 8,000 sq km Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Once when driving along UT Rt 12, we encountered a bus of Frenchmen at the Escalante River Overlook. Their guide was frantically trying to get them back on the bus, but without success. He said, "Of course they don’t want to leave, but I have to get them Sunset Point (Bryce Canyon, National Park) while it’s still light." This is one of the wonders of Rt 12: every time you think you have reached the pinnacle of scenery, the next stop tops it. It also illustrates the advantages of driving yourself over taking a bus tour that has to keep on schedule. By the way, the tour guide was right. The visitors didn't know it yet but the view from Sunset Point at Bryce at sunset defies description.

Rt 12 crosses a landscape so rugged that it was the last place in the USA where mail was delivered by mule– too steep and too dangerous for horses. Most of Rt 12 lies within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Congress has to pass a law making a place an National Park. Utah's politicians prevented Congress from declaring the Grand Staircase-Escalante region a National Park. The President of the USA can declare a place a National Monument, which President Clinton did in 1994. Subsequently, Utah's politicians have wasted millions of tax dollars trying and repeatedly failing to get the Supreme Court to undo the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Ironically, the elected officials of Kanab, a town that only exists because people come from all over the world to look at this remarkable landscape, is the leader in trying to destroy the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (see the review Odd Utah for more examples of odd Utah). I try to avoid staying or eating of buying anything in Kanab when visiting this area.

Although legally not a National Park, the scenery in the National Monument is every bit as impressive as any National Park.

Escalante- Grand Staircase National Monument gets its name from the Spanish Priest, fr. Escalante, who led the first European explorers into this region and from the Grand Staircase, a vast geological formation starting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (elevation 100 m) and ending at Boulder Mtn./Aquarius Plateau (2,700m) in series of vast ever higher plateaus and cliffs-- including the Vermilion, White, Grey, Pink cliffs, the Kaibab Plateau-- and Boulder Mtn. It looks like gigantic stairs from the air or on a topographical map. It is a land of desolation, little vegetation, even less rainfall, and oddly shaped multi-colored rocks.

We have driven Rt 12 several times, traveling both directions. A first trip is best from west to east, unless you have previously been to Bryce Canyon National Park. Heading west across the Panguitch Valley from the start of Rt 12 at its junction with US 89, seven miles south of Panguitch, the first stop is Red Canyon (small visitor center, rest rooms) whose strangely eroded blood red rocks merit a visit. The first time we saw Red Canyon, we were overwhelmed by the scenery, only to discover jus down the road that Red Canyon is merely the warm up for Rt. 12. Next stop, Bryce Canyon National Park, a few miles south of Rt 12. After Bryce, return to Rt 12 heading east. Rt 12 descends the Pink Cliffs, home of Bryce Canyon, cutting through the corner of the National Park, to Tropic, one of the hottest places on the Colorado Plateau. Nearby Kodachrome Basin (fee) is worth the short side trip.

To the left as you descend to Tropic, the Aquarius Plateau rises to 3,000m above sea level, almost 1,500m higher than Tropic. Picture the Aquarius Plateau as roughly square. For the next 130 km, Rt 12 travels along two sides of that square. The Plateau is so big that it was discovered twice by the pioneer explorers, and so acquired two names, the Aquarius Plateau on the south and Bolder Mtn. on the north.

A few miles further, the road enters the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (free). The Spanish Priest, fr. Escalante, led the first recorded exploration of the area. Here Rt 12 begins a roller coaster trip of ups and downs, sharp curves, and dangerous cliffs. The Monument’s Visitor Center comes up soon on the right, and is an essential stop for rest rooms, maps, and water. There is also a visitor's center for the Monument at Torrey and information is also available at the Capitol Reef visitor's center

There are several pullovers between Escalante town (which is a speed trap) and Torrey. Don’t miss any of them. Only two of the pullovers are large enough for a tour buss to park, so again, it is best to drive yourself. A paved side trip of 40km, one way, from Boulder down Long Canyon (the Burr Trail) is worth the time if your itinerary does not include Rt 95 (the Burr Trail then becomes an unpaved road and continues for 65 km to Lake Powell National Recreation Area). The harshness of this barren land is illustrated by Death Hollow Wilderness Area, just a few kilometers from Rt 12-- enter at your own risk.

Petrified Forest State Park (fee) and Anasazi State Park Museum (ancient Indian artifacts) (fee) are just off the highway. Calf Creek Falls (fee) is another pleasant stop along Rt 12. The falls drops about 40m in a grand setting at the end of the trail. Allow 3-4 hours, round trip, and be prepared to get your shoes wet. There is a rest room at the trial head, at Calf Creek Campground.

The road climbs to 2,900m crossing the slopes of Boulder Mtn., whose pullovers offer views of Capitol Reef and then drops 1,000m to end at UT Rt 24, 20 km east of Capitol Reef National Park. Where Rt 12 runs across the top of Hogback Ridge for 5km, there is one meter of gravel on each side of the road. Then, a 300m drop straight down on the east side of the road, 259m on the west. A highway patrolman on Rt 12 came across a Porsche from New York State pulled over to the side of the road. The driver was sitting behind the wheel, starting straight ahead, not moving. The cop stopped and asked him if he was OK. The answer, "I’m from New York. I’ve never seen a road like this".

If you are driving a loop route, it is not unreasonable to return to Las Vegas from Arches/Canyonlands by way of UT Rt 12 and UT Rt 9, even if you traveled to Arches/Canyonlands by that route. The scenery on both roads is so different when going the reverse direction that it will not seem to be a repeated trip.

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