Bill is a cinematographer/videographer/photographer extraordinaire, and a lot of fun to travel with. When I called to see if he wanted to join me on my adventure, outdoor junkie that he is, he took about five seconds to think it over.
Our destination, Highway 12, is a National Scenic Byway and has been designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration. All-American roads have one-of-a-kind features so unique that they qualify as a destination unto themselves.
On all counts, Highway 12 qualifies. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It travels through Utah’s Garfield and Wayne counties and is home to three national parks, three state parks, a national recreation area and a national monument. It has two entry points. The southwestern gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of the city of Panguitch. The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park.
I was coming from Salt Lake City and had to pick up Bill in Ephraim, not far from the northeastern gateway of Torrey. I headed south on Interstate 15 and after I had safely navigated Utah County’s nonstop road construction, I was able to relax a bit. When I turned off the Interstate onto Highway 89 north of Fairview, I felt the tension dissipate. Everything, including the speed limit, slowed down. I was able to enjoy the mountains surrounding me in their verdant green attire. I allowed my mind to wander, and my emotions to come out. I never cease to be emotionally affected by our mountains. They give me a sense of calm. Before I knew it, I arrived in Ephraim, and after Bill loaded his impressive array of photographic gear, we were on our way. Next stop: Torrey, gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.
Along the way, Bill and I began our three-day retrospect of the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We’re both old Rock n’ Rollers. Bill was trained as a tenor in school and, like me, sang and played guitar in garage bands. Egged on by the nonstop music of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, the Stones, et al., we never lacked for a story to share.
Meanwhile Utah’s landscape turned from pastoral to panoramic as we approached Capitol Reef. Cue the red rock cliffs. We arrived in Torrey by 2 p.m. and after grabbing a bite at the Sunglow Diner in nearby Bicknell, we headed for Capitol Reef so I could pedal a few miles on my bicycle while Bill documented the moment with his lenses. Riding through Mother Nature’s best work is intimidating and inspiring. This is no urban bike path. The terrain is hilly, rugged and unforgiving. I felt insignificant and privileged at the same time. It didn’t take long for my legs to feel heavy, so we headed back to Torrey where we were spending the night.
After dinner, we planted ourselves on a butte as the stars began their nightly extravaganza. Late summer and fall evenings in Utah’s red rock country feature a nightly explosion of stars. I’ve never seen the Big Dipper so clearly. Bill and I proceeded to explore the meaning of the universe until sleep finally demanded its due.
The next day would turn out to be one of the most unforgettable drives of my life. Highway 12, from Torrey through Capitol Reef over Boulder Mountain and on through Bryce and Zion, is simply mind-boggling. Boulder Mountain itself is one of southern Utah’s most unexpected and spectacular drives. From Capitol Reef, it climbs to 11,000 feet through ponderosa pine forests, aspen hillsides and spruce fir forests, up 500-foot basalt cliffs onto the subalpine meadows and forests of Boulder Top.
The landscape soothes you and takes your breath away all at once. One particularly memorable section occurs at the top of Boulder Mountain along a ridge known as The Hogsback. This is a stretch of road no wider than two lanes. On either side is a vertical drop of at least 500 feet. After making your way (carefully) across this dramatic ridge, you quickly descend down the other side, where you encounter Boulder Mountain Lodge.
I recommend stopping at this charming lodge and treating yourself to a fine meal at the critically acclaimed Hells Backbone Grill. The service and food are excellent. If you’re piloting your RV, there’s no shortage of RV parks with scenic backdrops all along the way. Every town we passed through had at least one, if not more.
We continued on toward the town of Escalante, which borders the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. One mile west of town of is Petrified Forest State Park, which features colorful deposits of mineralized wood and dinosaur bones and a reservoir for water recreation and fishing. From here, the road winds through the Escalante canyons with panoramic views over miles of colorful slickrock.
Along the way we encountered a collection of silver BMW motorcycles driven by a group of men who were using a black Cadillac Escalade as a support vehicle. They were parked at the top of the Highway 12 overlook near the town of Tropic enjoying coffee and pastries on the tailgate of the Escalade while snapping photos of each other. Now that’s rugged adventure.
After leaving Tropic, we climbed up the Paunsaugunt Plateau to the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park. Once again, the unique contrasts of driving through Utah became evident. In just a few miles, we had emerged from deep red rock canyons to the ponderosa- and pinion-covered plateau surrounding Bryce. We had lunch at historic Ruby’s Inn before stopping for a few photos of the flaming pink sandstone spires of Bryce.
After an hour of gazing and gawking, we resumed our trip. We left Highway 12, turning south down Highway 89, which took us through the southeast entrance to Zion National Park on the way to our final destination of St. George. Let’s see, that was how many national parks in one trip? Three…and that’s without any side trips!
We arrived in St. George just as darkness descended, our eyes and our minds overloaded with sensory splendor. The next morning, after coffee and philosophizing while we enjoyed a view of the 10,000-foot Pine Valley Mountains, we decided to make a short visit to nearby Snow Canyon. I wanted to pedal up and down the canyon a bit before heading north to Salt Lake. I discovered that there’s also a three-mile paved bike path that parallels the road. Next time, I’ll give it a whirl.
As we drove home on Interstate 15, I felt renewed and inspired to press on in the face of life’s most challenging moments. It’s just one of the positive side effects of a trip through Utah’s red rock country. We all have a connection with Mother Nature. To survive we need to nurture that connection. After our brief but rewarding tour of Highway 12, I felt nurtured and connected beyond words.
(To plan a Highway 12 adventure, visit utah.travel or utah.com.)
Bob Wassom is a Utah based freelance writer with a passion for outdoor recreation, travel and tourism.
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