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Southwest Trip: Day 5 – Utah’s Scenic Byway 12
After three days of day-long hikes, we chose to take it easy and dedicated the entire day to a driving trip.
For a long time, I wanted to drive Utah’s Scenic Byway 12, which is arguably one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Because it offers some unique and distinctive scenery that cannot be found anywhere else, it is designated an All-American Road.
I have driven along some stretches of the Scenic Byway 12 over the years, but I never had a chance to complete the entire drive.
The Scenic Byway 12 is located in Southern Utah and connects Bryce Canyon National Park on the west and Capitol Reef National Park on the northeast. The 200 km road runs through the Dixie National Forest, the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, the switchbacks of Hogback, and Boulder Mountain.
The elevation varies from 1,000 m to 3,000 m and, as a result, provides incredible variations of landscapes from the deserts of Capitol Reef and the alpine meadows of the Aquarius Plateau to the narrow canyons of Escalante and the mountainous forests.
We did not have any specific plans when we started the drive early in the morning. We just wanted to enjoy the experience of a day-long drive through the most rugged and remote areas of the southwest.
Driving through Escalante Canyons
The stretch of road from Escalante to Boulder was built during the Great Recession when the United States government intentionally created jobs for young men without families. The road was known as the Million Dollar Road because it took five years of manual labor without any machinery and using tons of dynamite to build the road through the solid rocks of Escalante.
The Head of the Rocks Overlook provides wide and unobstructed views of the entire area with the Aquarius Plateau in the distance. The view from the overlook is so unconventional that only the switchbacks of the byway remind us that it is a terrestrial landscape and not some alien planet.
The Boulder Mountain Crossing
The Boulder Mountain Crossing is the highest point of the entire drive. It resides at an altitude of 3,000 m. When we started the ascent in the town of Boulder, the temperature was around 22C and, when we reached the Hollow Overlook at the top of the crossing 30 km later, the temperature was close to freezing.
Related: Camping in Valley of the Gods
The view from the Hollow Overlook is overwhelming, but it is not easy to photograph. The main attractions (Henry Mountains, Grand Staircase—Escalante, and Capitol Reef) are spread too far apart at such a great distance that even panoramas do not fully convey the beauty and scale of the scene.
Capitol Reef National Park
We did not have much time to spend in Capitol Reef National Park, so we only drove the 15 km Scenic Drive that takes you deep inside Capitol Gorge. We loved the Capitol Reef experience so much that, four months later, we dedicated three days to drive the dirt roads of Capitol Reef National Park including the Cathedral Valley Drive.
Snowstorm in May
We had a little scare on the way back. We got ourselves into a heavy snowstorm while driving up Boulder Mountain. I am used to driving in snowy conditions during winters in Eastern Canada, but since we rented the car in Phoenix, it only had a set of summer tires that offered absolutely no traction in the snow. I knew about an alternative road that bypasses the Boulder Mountain crossing, but the Burr Trail dirt road was impassable after weeks of rain.
We were lucky because the snow was only falling on the northern side of the mountain. When we started to descend, the snowfall changed to rain and we safely completed our drive.
In total, we drove close to 500 km and returned to our campsite just before sunset. I had just enough time to take some interesting shots in Kodachrome.