Scenic Byway Utah Route 12
Escalante to Boulder & The Hogback
Utah Route 12 is certainly one of the most scenic roads in America. The road passes through red-rock tunnels, around switchbacks, past sweeping overlooks, and tops out just a bit shy of 10,000 feet. Because I had arrived on the road via Cottonwood Canyon Road (a dirt road that cuts through the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument), I missed the southwestern end of the highway, which passes by Bryce Canyon National Park. For that part of the road, you'll need to check out my 2007 visit to the area.
It's about 100 miles from Cannonville to the end of U-12 at Torrey, and all along the way, it's hard to know when to stop and take a picture. It seems scenes like this one appear around almost every curve, or at the crest of every hill.
Just after passing a prominent hill (above), you roll through Henrieville, another tiny community that's the last sign of civilization for a while.
The road then climbs to a nice viewpoint to the west. Powell Point is nearby, but slightly out of frame.
The town of Escalante has a few businesses...
... and apparently, quite a few remnants...
... of better times gone by.
A few miles east of Escalante...
... the road hits the edge of a cliff, where it seems like you can see every feature of southern Utah. The mountains in the distance are Mount Ellen, Mount Pennell, Mount Hillers, and the "Little Rockies". The Waterpocket Fold is also out there.
You can also see the road as it makes a quick drop down to the Escalante River.
A few minutes further, and the Boynton Overlook provides another look at the road from above, just before the Escalante River. A roadside sign also attempts to explain why this part of the canyon was once called Phipps-Death Hollow, but vandals have scratched it severely.
Near this point, the Escalante and Calf Creek come together. And wouldn't you know it...
... Route 12 once again starts gaining elevation again, this time, cutting through red rock as it follows Calf Creek northward.
As the road climbs, watch for a turn to a popular hiking spot. About three miles from the trailhead, Calf Creek makes an impressive 126-foot tumble. If you arrive here early enough, Lower Calf Creek Falls would be well worth the hike (and is now on my "next time" list).
After the climb, the most thrilling few miles of Route 12 await. It is here that the road turns into a tight-wire act. Think of it as the highway equivalent of hiking out to the end of Angels Landing in Zion. The road rides along the narrow crest of a ridge, called The Hogback. At times, the ridge is no wider than the road itself.
The drama of it all is quite difficult to photograph -- and the challenge is made more difficult by the proliferation of "no parking" signs, posted at some of the most dramatic places. Of course, it makes sense that cars shouldn't be trying to park on the shoulder of a road that's perched on a hilltop that's no wider than the road itself.
In the picture above (the best that I took), you can see one of the narrowest sections of the highway, as it passes over The Hogback. A drop of hundreds of feet awaits on either side (Calf Creek, and the aforementioned Lower Calf Creek Falls, is about 500 vertical feet below, on the left-hand side of the road). There are plenty of warning signs, but no guard rails. After a dramatic mile or so, the plateau widens, and you're once again on solid and expansive ground.
This part of Route 12 was called the "Million Dollar Road To Boulder" by its builders in the Civilian Conservation Corp. The road opened June 21, 1940, providing the town with its first year-round mail service to be delivered by automobile. Prior, Boulder was the last community in the United States to receive its mail by mule train. Also, the section of Route 12 north of Boulder wasn't paved until 1985.
The next excuse to stop comes at the Boulder Overlook, which as the name suggests, provides the chance to look down at the valley which contains the tiny town of Boulder. A steep descent makes you wonder why it was necessary to make the climb uphill just a few miles ago. The road designers must have done it purely for the thrill.
A road as curvy and hilly as Route 12 can be quite tiring to drive, and by the time I had passed through Boulder, Utah, I was ready to get out from behind the wheel, and into a motel room. But 35 more miles -- and the highest section of Route 12 -- stood in my way.
North of Boulder, Route 12 enters the Dixie National Forest, and heads uphill, gaining several thousand feet of elevation, and eventually topping out at 9,600 feet. There are some great viewpoints along this part of the road, with panoramas so vast, you don't know which way to point the camera.
Once you travel above 8,000 feet, you may experience elevation sickness. I felt it during this visit, and during my 2004 drive over this road. The only way to cure your elevation-related symptoms is to get back to lower ground. Fortunately, Torrey is at 6,837 feet.
Here's another viewpoint, at a break in the birch trees near the road's high point.
The high-mountain, alpine-like scenery and sweeping vistas come to an end as you roll into Torrey, and the crazy jumble of mixed-up layers of rock, found in Capitol Reef National park, starts to dominate the scenery. Torrey itself offers motels and a few restaurants, but aside from its tourist services, there's very little small-town charm to appreciate. In other words, don't plan on taking a stroll down Main Street before you turn in for the night.
Be aware that some of the motels in Torrey are a mile or two from town. I stayed at the Best Western, one of several motels a mile east of the Route 12/24 junction, and far enough away to make you think you're driving away from all civilization. The Best Western is a decent motel, with a great view from the balcony:
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