Panguitch to Torrey. 130 miles; infinite wonder.
If you've driven it, you know this road, and you're not likely to forget it.
You can be certain riders of "America's Toughest Stage Race," the Tour of Utah, will never forget this stage as the day brings some 10,000 feet of climbing between the starting gate and the finish line. From a traveler's perspective, the trip is an All-American "Journey Through Time" along Scenic Byway 12, nestled between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Park and considered by many visitors to be "The most beautiful place on earth."
Don't take our words for it; you'll just have to see it to believe it.
The day starts in Garfield County, home to big swaths of three national parks, two national forests, a national recreation area and a national monument — a haven for anyone looking for fresh air, endless trails and stunning landscapes
The trip begins in Panguitch. About 15 minutes east of I-15 and 45 minutes south of two incredible state parks: Piute and Otter Creek. "Panguitch" is a Paiute word meaning "big fish" and hints at some of the recreational activities common to the area.
After leaving the relative comfort of the valley, the riders begin the day's climbs. First up, Red Canyon. Home to myriad outdoor opportunities such as hiking, biking, horseback riding and miles of ATV trails, Red Canyon embodies the rugged beauty found throughout Southern Utah. For the TOU riders, Red Canyon contains a Category 4 King of the Mountain opportunity for an aggressive rider to score a point in the Utah Office of Tourism Ski Utah King of the Mountain competition.
Nearby Bryce Canyon City offers year-round access to Bryce Canyon National Park. In fact Utah's The Mighty 5® national parks showcase unexpected and surprising diversity of activities during the winter. If Ebenezer Bryce, who homesteaded the area in 1874, were around today, no doubt he would be impressed by the elite athleticism on display as the peloton whips through a corner of the park en route to Tropic. He might also grumble about the curious displays of spandex and marvel at the horseless carriages following along, but with frost-weathered hoodoos across vast amphitheaters and three endangered species, Bryce Canyon was never known for its lack of unique and marvelous sites.
The culmination of wind, sun and water erosion across epochs explains the "Journey Through Time" sensation of this route. While Tropic may disappoint Caribbean-minded visitors, the little town, along with nearby Cannonville and Henrieville, comprise the Sprint Line through scenic Bryce Valley. This stretch of Highway 12 is a gateway to Kodachrome Basin State Park.
First, a wiki history lesson: "Kodachrome is a brand name for a non-substantive, color reversal film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935." Since discontinued, Kodachrome has been relegated to emulsion enthusiasts in darkroom hipster enclaves longing for an authentic photo experience. For the rest of us, Kodachrome Basin's spectacularly-colored sandstone pipes and high-contrast landscapes will leave vivid memories beyond the capacity of any camera, digital or film.
About halfway through the stage, a Sprint Line through the town of Escalante highlights another point of access to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as 100 million-year-old dinosaur fossils, petrified forests, and a feat of pioneer ingenuity, the Hole in the Rock crevice route across Glen Canyon near an upper stretch of Lake Powell.
One especially notable stop along the route is Calf Creek Falls. The lower falls are accessible by a 90-minute hike (or three hours over 5.5 miles, round trip) that is relatively flat but crosses sandy and somewhat challenging terrain. The reward is a cool and breathtaking desert waterfall that plunges nearly 130 feet over slickrock sandstone into a crystal clear pool, perfect for a summer dip. Accessing the upper falls requires an additional mile-long scramble above the lower falls.
There are plenty of additional reasons to stop and explore, but riders have consecutive Kings of Mountains just ahead, beginning with the Hogsback, a mile-long stretch of the road to Boulder that dances along a narrow canyon spine. The Hogsback was a finalist in CNN's Best Places to Drive, hosts September's grueling Escalante Canyons Marathon and takes you to one of Zagat's "American's Top Restaurants," the farm-to-table Hell's Backbone Grill. You can further enhance your local flavor by camping at the Deer Creek campground or public lands a few miles down the adjacent Burr Trail Scenic Byway, a variously paved, incredible backcountry route that winds nearly 70 miles through Capitol Reef then south into the heart of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
For cyclists and tourists alike, there is something spectacular on the route ahead: Boulder Mountain, looming over the riders, offers spectacular vistas of national forest and park lands, an angler's paradise and the Tour of Utah's first Category 1 King of the Mountain. There's only one category more difficult than a Category 1 - we'll see two of those later in the race - but we still have ourselves a serious climb. After passing an ancestral Anasazi village into the Fishlake National Forest stretch of the Dixie National Forest, more casual travelers can appreciate the blend of red rock with pristine meadows, alpine forests, and lush green valleys.
With all we've seen, it's tempting to think the adventure must be over. But views of colorful ridges of an another national park are just ahead as riders pass through Teasdale, a few short miles from the end of the stage, and the home of the Dixie National Forest offices.
The area along the Fremont River is rich in pre-Columbian Fremont Culture artifacts, an indigenous people who must have known well what is now Utah's best-kept National Park secret: Capitol Reef. The park takes part of its name from Capitol Dome, a white sandstone formation that resembles the U.S. Capitol building. The enormous monoliths of Cathedral Valley, the 400-feet tall sandstone Chimney Rock, Fremont petroglyphs and the orchard of Fruita round out the trip to Capitol Reef. Most sites are accessible from excellent hikes and bike trails, from scenic road trips to a moderately technical double track into the contorted ridges and canyons of the Waterpocket Fold. Capitol Reef is as much a scenic Southern Utah mecca as it is cyclist's dreamscape.
The Disney film John Carter also filmed Mars sequences on Capitol Reef's "Planets to the Past" trail, which further illustrates the otherworldly uniqueness of this park. Visions of Martian landscapes are a nice visual on which to pause and look forward to the next stage.