I absolutely love road trips. A great road trip is a chance to unwind, clear your mind, and see something amazing along the way.
Highway 12 across Utah is just such a road. If you're making your way to The Salt Lake State and you've got time and a rental car, I'd suggest making your way to the southern side of the state for this epic ride. You'll see an amazing variety of landscapes along the way. In fact, you'll feel like you left the planet Earth at times.
But don't just limit yourself to the legendary Highway 12. Follow me on this journey as I take two additional highways that make this cruise across the state even better!
Starting Point East of Zion National Park
I actually did this entire drive in one day. It can be done. But I'd suggest a couple days at the very least. I started out from just East of Zion National Park where I stayed at the Historic Smith Hotel and Bed & Breakfast in Glendale. I was having such an enjoyable breakfast there, that I ended up not getting on the road until almost 9 AM, much later than I had planned. But I'm a sucker for a good story.
The scenery on the way up US 89 is beautiful, especially in the Fall when I traveled through. It's about 45 minutes from Glendale to the Utah Highway 12 turn-off. Then, once you get close to Bryce National Park, the landscape takes it's first major turn, with orange hoodoos (the fun little name for the spires that stick up out of the orange rocks) on your left as you enter the park.
Bryce Canyon National Park: Sunset Point
The only part of Bryce Canyon National Park that I got to explore was Sunset Point. Get here early, the lots do close when they fill up. It was open when I arrived, but full when I left at 11:30 AM.
Just FYI, there is also a shuttle bus that can pick you up near the entrance.
165 S Main St Just past the Sinclair Fuel Station, Bryce, UT (Google Map)
This view just blew me away. It doesn't feel real when you first see it. Bryce Canyon was definitely the biggest surprise of my journey across the Southwest. It was mid-October, so there was a little snow inside the canyon.
As I talked to a French couple about the area, I mentioned I had no intention of walking down to that lower area you can almost see in the picture. I heard people's voices echoing and my first thought was, that was going to be a long hike. However, it really wasn't. It did take a bit of dropping and climbing, but there were plenty of people on the path lending encouragement to each other. Walking down to the Rim Trail, if you go to the left you can make a big circle down into the canyon, although it does have a trail that shoots off of it also and the Rim Trail continues in both directions across the park.
Down in the canyon, there is a nice level area from which to prepare yourself for the climb back up.
Then, make your way between the rocks for a fun photo op. This is where you start your climb back to the top, if you took the left fork in the trail. I asked when I got to the bottom which way was more strenuous for going up. They are similar, but I think this way up might be a touch more dramatic, in terms of quick elevation changes.
There is so much more of Bryce Canyon National Park to see. I might suggest that you spend part of your day here, then get lodgings up near Capitol Reef National Park, so you can maybe see part of that park too, if you have time, or save it for the next morning.
Bryce Canyon Coffee Co.
Location: 21 N Main St, Tropic, UT 84776
I mention this spot, because there isn't a lot of food along Highway 12. It was a nice spot to grab a fresh baked muffin and a coffee before continuing my drive. There were also a couple of sit down places just outside of the park and a Subway restaurant, but time was of the essence and I wasn't in a Subway mood. One thing I might suggest is buying some trial mix or snacks to carry in the car. You never know when there will be long stretches without food. And always start these kinds of road trips with a full tank of gasoline.
As you pass Cannonville, you'll see signs for Kodachrome Basin State Park. With time on my hands, I would have easily stopped off. The photos I've seen of it are wonderful. But this is why Highway 12 can become a 2, 3, or 4 day adventure. This particular park costs $8 per vehicle, or if you're planning to see a lot of Utah parks, you could look into the Utah Park Pass, but unlike the America The Beautiful Pass (National Parks) which can pay for itself with 3 parks, the Utah pass might be overkill for out-of-state visitors.
Escalante, Utah on Highway 12
This part of the drive makes you feel like you could see an old fashioned cattle drive at any moment. I love red roofs and this peaceful little ranch and pond drew me in to take a photo.
Head of the Rocks Overlook
After another hour of ever changing terrain, you arrive at an overlook called Head of the Rocks. Below, you'll think you're looking at a couple roads rolling off in the distance. But no, that is just one stretch of road and you'll be on it shortly. But first, you'll pass by my favorite view on the entire drive...
When you leave Hole In The Rock Overlook, you'll immediately drive between rocky slopes, round a bend, and then this delightful view smacks you in the face. It was all that more brilliant due to the Aspen trees making their way to that beautiful yellow. The coffee shop has a porch from which to sip a hot beverage, have some lunch and just soak this scene in.
One thing to be aware of while driving is that this is free range cattle area. Cresting a hill, the last thing you want to do is see one of these babies in the middle of the road. It would bring a quick end to a fun afternoon. Not to mention the poor cow.
Larb Hollow Overlook
The drive between Kiva Koffeehouse and Larb Hollow Overlook is about 35 miles, but will take you about an hour. At one point, you'll feel like you're driving to the top of the world, with wavy light gray mountains all around. But the payoff is here at Larb Hollow, where off in the distance you can see the majestic snow capped peaks of Mt. Pennell and Mt. Ellen across a wide valley.
The entire drive of Highway 12 is about 2 1/2 hours with no stops or about 120 miles total driving. But I dare you not to stop for photos.
At this point, you'll arrive near the town of Torrey. If you need sustenance, then take a left on Highway 24 to get some food at the Diablo Cafe. But to continue this amazing drive, head East on Highway 24.
Capitol Reef National Park
Due to my late start, Capitol Reef National Park became a casualty of my tight scheduled planning. Chimney Rock Trail, Hickman Natural Bridge, Sunset Point, and Panorama Point were all on my agenda. Instead, I got some beautiful views of the park as I drove by. I missed enough that I know I'll be taking this drive again someday.
Just east of Capitol Reef National Park is Caineville which houses one of my favorite land formations along the route, the Abzweig Factory Butte. Yeah, what a bizarre name. Apparently early settlers thought it looked like a wool factory they knew in Provo. The sandstone mountains in this area are stunning.
Coming to the end of Highway 24, a decision has to be made. If you turn left, like most people do, you'll have about an hour drive to Green River, Utah, lodging, food and I-70. I suspect that is the way most people go. Not me! I had reservations in Blanding, Utah, heading towards Monument Valley. And I wanted to see the town of Hite, which was used in the Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner film Maverick.
But I had a problem. I had just turned left on Highway 95 and there was a sign that said a bridge was out some distance down the road. It was getting late and I didn't want to get caught having to circle back around an extra 100+ miles. I asked at this convenience store built into the side of the rock. I got a bit of a cynical answer from the clerk about "why would they close the only road through." Apparently, the bridge was out on a road that came off of this highway. So I was good to go.
Table Mountain, Utah
To me, people who cut north to go back to Green River miss a fantastic drive. First, you scoot by Table Mountain. Then as you continue down you start to head into a series of beautiful canyons that all lead to the Colorado River in Hite. This is where Lake Powell gets its start.
But Hite, Utah was my favorite part of the entire drive. Don't miss the Hite Overlook. This panorama only serves to give you a taste. There is nothing like being here. I arrive with only an hour of sunlight left and the drive south was incredible. No many mocha colored mountain ranges and the drive into Hite was spectacular, as you rounded a corner between rocks and catch a glimpse of the beautiful little settlement running along the Colorado River.
The only thing that I would suggest was bad on this whole trip was that I tried to do it in a day. By sundown, I was on a major hunt for deer on the side of the road. Twilight is the worst time to be driving because you flip your headlights on and it draws the deer like flies. I drove about 45 mph for the remainder of the drive to Blanding and I was worn out when I got there.
Where to Go Next
You might ask, where should you go after this? You've just crossed the state of Utah, and most likely you'll need to get back to the place you started in. If you started in Las Vegas and made your way to Zion National Park, I would highly suggest heading down to Monument Valley, but do it by way of the cut-off road Utah 261 down to US 163. I guarantee you won't be disappointed. At first it will be all flat and free range cattle, but soon you'll reach Moki Dugway, which has an incredible overlook of Mexican Hat Rock and the entire Monument Valley area. Just make sure you obey the 15 mph speed limit when you first see the signs, or you might take flight off the cliff!
Once in Monument Valley, you'll cross into Arizona. You can then either head down from Tuba City to the Grand Canyon, or go north to Page, AZ to see Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. On the way back you'll pass Lake Powell and Kanab's beautiful red rocks on the way back to Zion or Las Vegas.
Enjoy your time and let me know how it goes for you. Highway 12 is incredible on it's own, but adding Highway 24 and 95 can make it an unbelievable journey of beautiful and diverse landscapes.