Having gotten an early start from my camp on Cottonwood Canyon Road, I made it to the Cannoville BLM Visitor Center by mid-morning. At the front desk was a young man named Ian, and for the time being, the place was empty.
I began by stating that my goal was to get to Jackson, WY, completely avoiding Salt Lake City. Ian started to pull out his road atlas as I continued to describe my intentions for the trip. I told him that I didn’t have to be in Jackson for almost a week and that I wanted to see as much beautiful country on the way as I could. Dirt roads would be fine, and I wanted to camp out every night so national forests were a must along the way. He put his atlas away and wisely pulled out the official Utah map which showed much more detail. This map showed the smaller secondary roads, byways, and backways, as well as the national parks, monuments and forests. Ian had a big smile on his face; I knew I had asked the right person.
It turns out that Ian has traveled all over the state—ah, a gypsy soul! After he realized that I my primary goal was to see some beautiful country and that I didn’t need to drive in a straight line, he grinned and grabbed his highlighter pen. I took that map and eagerly looked forward to the new places I had just learned about. Ian was so helpful; I can never express how thankful I am for all of his help and suggestions. If you are looking for your own help in Canyon Country, I can highly recommend a stop at the Cannoville BLM Visitor Center. The woman there was also very friendly and helpful.
From there, I drove east on Hwy 12 towards the town of Escalante. This area has intrigued me ever since I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire back in the early 1980s. In the book, I learned of the young wanderer Everett Ruess who disappeared in this vast wilderness in the mid-1930s. I became even more fascinated with Ruess when I was given a wonderful book written by W.L. Russo called Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty while working at Cottonwood. Many books have since been written about Everett, mostly about what may have happened to him, but this book remains, in my opinion, the one that captures his writing and artistic side most beautifully.
Utah’s Hwy 12 is one of “America’s Scenic Byways”—and that is an understatement! The highway connects Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks and traverses some of the most colorful, scenic landscape in the country! And for those of you who like getting on dirt roads, it also is a great jumping off spot for some fabulous “backways” like Hell’s Backbone, Burr Trail, Hole-in-the-Rock, Notom Road, and more!
One hike I highly recommend for those coming through this area is Lower Calf Creek Falls. The hike is 5.5 miles round trip with little elevation change, but there are a few sections where it is a bit steep and/or sandy. It is not a difficult trail, but it can be hot during the summer months, so be prepared. A campground is located at the trailhead.
If you plan on taking the highway and don’t want to camp, I can HIGHLY recommend staying at the Boulder Mountain Lodge. We have stayed there several times and enjoyed it immensely! Located in Boulder, it is pure luxury surrounded by gorgeous white sandstone views and the darkest nights you have to see to believe.
The restaurant located on the premises, Hell’s Backbone Grill, has organic food that is locally grown (as much as possible) which gets consistently high reviews. They also have their own cookbook, With a Measure of Grace. A little tidbit about Boulder; it is said that it was the last town in the United States to have mule train mail delivery.
I was heading to Capitol Reef National Park via the highway and over Boulder Mountain, but there is another way that is adventurous and very scenic. It is called the Burr Trail, and I have done it numerous times. The Burr Trail is accessed from Hwy 12 at the sharp curve where the road turns from going east to north; go straight here. The road goes through 3 different national park areas: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area and Capitol Reef National Park. Glen Canyon NRA has a Mile by Mile Guide to the Burr Trail Guide which shows junctions, trail heads, side roads, and scenic views its entire length to Bullfrog on Lake Powell. One of my favorite sections is the “switchbacks” which is almost 1.5 miles long, and it one of the most twisted roads you will ever experience! The views are fabulous. I hope to write about this area in another post in the future.
Back to Hwy 12…I continued over Boulder Mountain heading over to Capitol Reef. After leaving the red and white sandstone of the high desert, I rapidly ascended into lush aspen, fir and pine forests among beautiful meadows. Views of the Waterpocket Fold would intermittently come into view, making for such a strange contrast with the lush, green landscape I was driving through. It is a land of such extremes—in color, elevations and scenery. After hitting the pass around 9,000 feet, the road drops quickly in elevation and winds its way down back to the high desert and red rocks.
Hwy 12 ends at Torrey, Utah. Next I’ll sidetrack east a few miles to Capitol Reef National Park—one of my favorite national parks!
- Official Scenic Byway 12 website
- Escalante and Boulder Chamber of Commerce
- Escalante Interagency Visitor Center
- Highway 12 Scenic Byway Brochure (PDF)