Located between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Highway 12 is an often overlooked Utah Highway that is an absolute hidden gem. Although many visitors travel between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, few of them travel Highway 12.
The drive along Highway 12 is one of the most impressive in the state and has been named an “All-American Road” by the Federal Highway Association. It is also named one of Utah’s Scenic Byways.
So what does it take to visit Highway 12? Where are the best views? What are the best activities? And how do you get there? Keep reading to find out!
Connecting Utah’s National Parks
When visitors plan a road trip between Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks, they often type their destinations into Google Maps and take the “shortest” route, and that is a huge mistake. Google defaults to the shortest (time) route unless you change your preferences, and will nearly always route travelers through Koosharem, Utah to travel between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. Although I enjoy the drive through Koosharem as well, the drive along Highway 12 is much more impressive, with better views and activities along the way.
Driving between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Park on Highway 12 is a scenic and breathtaking experience. The drive covers a distance of about 124 miles, and without stops takes between 2.5-3 hours. I’ll tell you right now, I recommend you plan on taking a lot longer than 2.5 hours for this drive. The area is stunning and you don’t want to rush through. The highway winds through an incredibly diverse landscape including red rock canyons, lush forests, and open meadows.
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A wide variety of Utah’s geological formations such as towering sandstone cliffs, rolling slickrock hills, mountains, and canyons can all be seen in this 122-mile stretch between national parks.
The area encompassed by this drive is part of the Aquarius Plateau, which was formed approximately 60 million years ago during a period of mountain building throughout western North America called the Laramide Orogeny. During this time, tectonic forces were causing the earth’s crust to buckle and fold, resulting in the formation of the Rocky Mountains and other high mountain ranges in the Western US. Over time, erosion won the battle against the rock layers of the Aquarius Plateau, creating deep canyons and exposing the colorful sandstone formations that are characteristic of the area.
Today, Boulder Mountain is the most prominent remnant of this geologic period and has now become a mix of rugged cliffs, deep canyons, and lush meadows, with elevations of up to 11,000 feet.
In contrast to the mountain’s peaks, the Escalante Canyons are some of the most well-known features in the area, and for good reason. They are stunning and unique, and relatively accessible for visitors of all abilities in one way or another.
Driving Highway 12 in UTAH
Here are my top 14 stops to see the best that this drive has to offer.
*Note: I’m listing these in order from Southwest to Northeast, (beginning in Bryce Canyon and Ending in Capitol Reef) because it is the most scenic way to approach the drive, but traveling in either direction gives stunning views and access to the same stops. Begin near Bryce Canyon City where Highway 12 and Highway 63 intersect, and head East.
3.5 Miles east of the junction of Highway 12 and Highway 63 near Bryce Canyon City is Mossy Cave. This area is part of Bryce Canyon National Park but the trailhead is outside of the toll booths so it is frequently missed by visitors.
The trail is approximately 0.8 miles long and follows a gentle slope along a diversion of the East Fork Sevier River. There are two highlights of the trail. One is the Mossy Cave itself, a small alcove with a waterfall and natural spring that creates a lush mossy environment. The other is the Tropic Ditch Waterfall. In late spring and early summer, while snow is still melting in the highest elevations the waterfall here can be quite impressive! The trail is generally considered easy but has a gradual elevation gain and loose rocks that may make it inaccessible to some with mobility restrictions.
Willis Creek Slot Canyon
Willis Creek is located in Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, a sprawling section of land that has many slot canyons and backcountry hikes.
Willis Creek is one of the more family-friendly hikes in the monument.
It’s only a few miles to go through the canyon and back, and the hike is mostly flat. You will most likely get your feet wet in the stream, although sometimes you can jump the stream from side to side.
Also, note that it requires driving on a dirt road to get there. The road is in decent shape but can get very difficult if it is raining. Always be aware of the possibility of flash floods in slot canyons!
BE PREPARED whenever you go off the main roads in Utah, and whenever you go into slot canyons.
- Check out our recommended gear page for what we use when visiting the national parks.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
This stop is located just 7 miles off Highway 12 south of Cannonville, Utah. Kodachrome is off the beaten path and a local favorite. Its primary feature is over 60 monolithic spires they call sedimentary pipes. The park was recognized for its unique colors and beauty when a National Geographic Society Expedition named it after the 1948 color film, Kodachrome.
Popular Hikes in Kodachrome include
- Angel’s Palace Loop-1.4 mi round trip with 226 ft elevation gain
- As you hike, you come around a corner that suddenly exposes stunning mountain views that begin with the reddish-orange of the sandstone at the bottom and shift to a white peak. If you don’t take the time to do any other trails in this area, I recommend doing this one!
- The trail is quite exposed, so avoid hiking in the midday heat and pack plenty of water!
- Panorama Trail Loop-0.69 mi round trip with 262 ft elevation gain
- This trail leads to a stunning lookout and cave with remnants of indigenous life.
- Grosvenor Arch-0.2 miles out-and-back with 22 feet elevation gain
- This is a quick walk to towering off-white sandstone arches that rise over 150 ft into the air close to the paved trail. An impressive sight for such a short walk.
Continuing past Cannonville on Highway 12, the road travels through some unique hills as it climbs toward Boulder Mountain.
The Blues Wayside or Powell Point Vista
This stop is a roadside pull-out near mile marker 41 on Highway 12. It hosts several interpretive panels and a pit toilet. The viewpoint itself is on the West side of the road, but for eastbound visitors there is also parking on the east side of the road. Be careful crossing the highway as the road is steep and curved in both directions close to this area. The overlook highlights gray-green shales deposited more than 80 million years ago.
Upper Valley Granary Wayside
Between mile markers 51 and 52 is one of my favorite roadside stops along the drive. Tucked into a crack in the cliff face above this stop is a small stone and mud structure created by Ancient Puebloans. The structure is thought to be a storage place for corn, grain, and other foods grown and harvested nearby. Two viewing tubes are in place to direct visitors’ eyes to the granary that would otherwise be hard to see as it blends so well into the landscape. Blue signs alert drivers to the upcoming scenic pullout in both directions making it easy to find.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
This state park reminds me of a watering hole in the desert. With a small reservoir and plenty of natural beauty, it’s a great stop on a Highway 12 drive. Escalante Petrified Forest State Park was created to protect an unusually large collection of petrified wood in the area and guests can see the phenomenon themselves on several trails that wind through the park. I’ve camped here in July before and we were extra grateful to take a dip in the lake. There is a campground and picnic area for visitor use.
Eat in Escalante, Utah
Escalante, Utah is a very small town along Route 12. I would recommend eating here or in Boulder, Utah (below). Better yet, eat in both towns! They both have great restaurants.
Here are two great restaurants in Escalante:
Nemo’s Drive-In. My absolute favorite restaurant along Hwy 12 is Nemo’s Drive-In in Escalante. I’ve never tasted anything better than the Burger (jalapeno jack burger), fries, and ice cream I ate here after running the Escalante Marathon/5k. Maybe it had something to do with running miles through the canyons in the heat, but it also hasn’t let me down since.
They describe themselves as a “classic backroad diner” serving burgers, fries, and Farr’s ice cream. There is only outdoor seating, but plenty of shade to keep you cool while you eat.
Escalante Outfitters. While it doesn’t sound like an appealing name, Escalante Outfitters is known for serving the best pizza for hundreds of miles in any direction!
This delicious restaurant really caters to the many hikers who stay in Escalante and use it as a jumping-off point to see slot canyon country.
- Check out The best places to eat at Bryce Canyon.
Stay at Slot Canyons Inn Bed and Breakfast (Escalante, Utah)
Slot Canyons Inn Bed and Breakfast (book here) is a delightful spot with an even more delightful owner (Joelle Marie Rex) who will absolutely have you returning to Escalante soon!
Joelle, who has a love of the arts and Native American history, has owned the property since 1983. She and her husband decided to open a B&B, but shortly after they opened it he passed away.
Inspired by the vision of her husband, Joelle has pressed forward, pouring her love and care into the operation.
The Hopi-inspired design just happens to be complemented by petroglyphs on a rock wall on her property. Ask Joelle about the petroglyphs and she’ll explain the deep meaning she has found in them.
Do yourself a favor and stay at this wonderful spot – it will give you more time to explore the things along Route 12.
- Discover The best places to stay at Bryce Canyon.
Escalante Heritage Center/Hole in the Rock
As you head east from town, the Escalante Heritage Center provides detailed information about the ill-advised Hole in the Rock expedition that led pioneers through the area. It’s quite an interesting history lesson and absolutely worth a stop in town.
I could write an entire article on the Hole in the Rock Road itself (check back, by the time you’re reading this I probably will have completed one!) but I’ll briefly mention it here as well. The road follows the old pioneer trail straight to an unbelievably high cliff over Glen Canyon and what is now Lake Powell. There are tens if not hundreds of points of interest along the Hole in the Rock Road, including the popular Zebra, Peekaboo, and Spooky slot canyons.
If you want to explore the Hole in the Rock Road, I recommend staying in Escalante or nearby as the road is long and even the stops nearer to town are somewhat difficult to access due to their remote locations.
Head of the Rocks Overlook
We’ve made it to my favorite part of this drive. The next 15 miles of your drive are some of the most varied and beautiful scenery in Utah. An ABSOLUTE must-stop on your drive is the Head of the Rocks Overlook. This is another wayside stop, near milepost 69 on Highway 12. From here you can look north to Boulder Mountain, south to Navajo Mountain, and immediately below you is a maze of incredibly interesting sandstone hills and cliffs that you’ll drive through as soon as you leave the overlook. The viewpoint is on the east side of the road, and there is no parking on the west side, so be prepared and cautious as you enter the parking area.
The first time I drove Highway 12, I had no idea what waited between Escalante and Boulder and unfortunately had time constraints that kept me moving quickly, but I would have happily spent 30 minutes at this viewpoint trying to comprehend everything I was seeing below me.
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Escalante Natural Bridge
In direct competition with its better-known neighbor, Lower Calf Creek Falls, Escalante Natural Bridge is another hike right off Highway 12. It follows a water feature up a canyon to a beautiful natural feature. This one has an arch, Calf Creek has a waterfall. The hike to Escalante Natural Bridge is 5.5 miles round trip that begins at the Harris Wash trailhead off Highway 12 near milepost 74. After 2.5 miles you’ll reach Escalante Natural Bridge, which spans 130 feet and is over 100 feet from the canyon floor. The trail is moderately difficult due to several stream crossings, brief steep sections, and sandy conditions.
This area is known to be fairly buggy in late spring/early summer, so pack some bug spray if you visit in May or June. Also, a few times a year, the Escalante River flows high enough to make crossings difficult and flash floods are common in the area, so be prepared, check weather reports in the area, and call the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument Visitor Center to speak to a ranger about conditions. I’ve only completed the first half of this hike but enjoyed following the river up the canyon.
Lower Calf Creek Falls
Ahhh, my old frenemy. (Best Friend but also Enemy.) I adore Lower Calf Creek Falls. It’s literally a desert oasis. It feels impossible that the tranquility and cool water can exist in the dry desert you drive through to arrive. I loathe the actual hike to the falls.
The hike is 6 miles round trip beginning at the Calf Creek Campground (well marked on Highway 12) and following Calf Creek up the canyon to the falls. Make sure to pick up a guide at the trailhead when you sign the logbook. The guide highlights points of interest along the trail including granaries and petroglyphs from indigenous tribes that lived in the canyon. Although the hike is arguably an attainable distance for most people, I swear it feels like it is 12 miles long. Nearly the entire hike is in deep sand. The kind that makes you feel like you are only taking a half step forward at a time and you are constantly climbing up and down small inclines. So although the total elevation change is small, you’re basically walking uphill both ways.
All that being said, I have done the hike several times and will do it again many times in my life I’m sure because the view is worth the climb. The falls are 126 feet tall and fall into a beautiful clear pool. Mosses grow on the sandstone around the falls creating beautiful shades of green. Trees thrive in the protection of the cave walls. The first two times I visited the falls I chose to hike in the late afternoon so that the sun was behind the cliffs for most of the hike. Because most hikers try to beat the heat by hiking early in the day, I actually had a few moments completely alone at the falls each time and the peace in the canyon was spectacular, almost otherworldly.
- Visiting Bryce Canyon and need some ideas of what to do? Check out 45 great things to do at Bryce Canyon.
Four miles north of the Calf Creek Falls Trailhead is the area known as “The Hogback.” This 1.5-mile section of Highway 12 is well known for its winding narrow road that runs along a steep cliff face and across a ridge top with sheer drop-offs on both sides of the road.
The road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and has terrified drivers ever since. The narrow and windy nature of the road makes it challenging to drive, especially for oversized vehicles such as RVs and trailers. Be attentive and only pull off the road in marked areas. If you can conquer the fear, the views are epic on both sides of the road.
Anasazi State Park and Museum
Located in Boulder, this park and museum offer a glimpse into the lives of the indigenous peoples who lived in the area thousands of years ago. Just outside the museum is The Coombs Site, where visitors can see a replica of an ancient dwelling along with a portion of the original site.
The Coombs site is unique due to its location near the border of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures that occupied Utah at the same time. The result is a blending of traits and artifacts uncovered in this site as well as in the architecture. The park’s name is outdated and somewhat controversial as the word “Anasazi” means “enemy,” and it was not what the Ancient Puebloans in this area used to refer to themselves. We likely will never know what name they did recognize as their own.
Eat in Boulder, Utah
You would NEVER guess it, but this tiny town of about 100 residents is a serious FOODY TOWN.
There are a few incredible places to eat in Boulder, Utah:
Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm – Farm Fresh Dinner.
By far one of the most unique restaurants in Utah is located right on Hwy 12 in Boulder Utah. Hell’s Backbone was started by Blake Castle and Jen Spalding when they “had a wild idea: to open a deeply rooted, ethical, locally based destination restaurant in one of the most remote towns in America.” Even if you don’t stop for a meal, you should absolutely read their story on the website as it is a very individual and special dream they brought to the area. They serve organic, locally produced, regionally and seasonally appropriate cuisine, growing many of their ingredients in their own garden and farm and relying on local farmers for other ingredients like grass-fed beef.
This is no cheap eat, (entrees average between ~$25-45 per dish) so if you’re on a budget this trip you may want to find a more affordable option or simply sample a dessert from their take-out menu. Reservations are required for full-service dining and are highly coveted, so make sure to plan in advance for this delicious addition to your drive.
Burr Trail Grill
A little cheaper but still incredibly delicious, the Burr Trail Grill offers insanely good French Dip sandwiches, burgers, and vegetarian dishes.
Don’t forget to try the pie as well, with its crunchy exterior.
Burr Trail Grill gets overshadowed by Hell’s Backbone Grill, but it’s an absolute treat to eat here as well!
Larb Hollow Overlook
As you leave the town of Boulder, Highway 12 turns into a steep mountain road, quickly climbing up the side of Boulder Mountain, taking visitors out of the desert and into the forest. The mountain itself is a destination for hikers, campers, and anglers who fish in alpine lakes on the mountain.
A lesser-known spot than some on our list, but nonetheless stunning is the Larb Hollow Overlook on Boulder Mountain. This is a point where the trees open up a bit and you can get a clear view of Utah’s natural beauty across miles and miles. This is a high-elevation point on the drive, so it provides a vantage point from above looking out across Capitol Reef to far-off mountain peaks. Snap a picture or two, or just soak it in!
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Whatever your reason for driving between Southern and Central Utah, if you can spend some time taking the scenic route along Highway 12, you might spend more time on the road, but I promise the effort will be rewarded tenfold.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
Need help planning your trip to Capitol Reef or Bryce Canyon? Planning a vacation shouldn’t be stressful. We have detailed itineraries that give you a step-by-step game plan for these national parks so you can get to the best places at the right times.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO BRYCE CANYON & CAPITOL REEF
BRYCE CANYON & CAPITOL REEF TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Bryce Canyon National Park & Capitol Reef National Park, check out our Bryce Canyon Homepage & Capitol Reef Homepage
THINGS TO DO: There is so much to do in Bryce Canyon including, watching a sunrise, horseback riding, biking, and riding trails on ATVs. You can also watch a sunrise or sunset in Capitol Reef and check out some beautiful scenic drives
WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat in and around the area of Bryce Canyon
WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Bryce Canyon National Park & Capitol Reef National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Bryce Canyon YouTube Playlist & Capitol Reef YouTube Playlist