Sometimes you find yourself on a road that you can sense is something truly special.
It is not just the landscapes, though you can't take your eyes off them.
It is something about the byway itself, though it's not just the quality of its surface. It seems to have a history. There's something in the engineering. The thoughtful lay of the road. The way it connects with the land, feels somehow a part of the landscape, embedded in the slick rock, even though it was once an intrusion into the space, like the way a lightening strike can ignite a fire in a forest and sweep out gnarly, dense undergrowth competing for sunlight. There is a period of adaptation and recovery.
It becomes part of the ecosystem.
Utah's All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12, is such a road. My first trip on Scenic Byway 12 introduced me to its grand designations by way of road signage and celebrations of its status in the little towns and communities along the way.
I did not seek out the road, but the road certainly found me.
Sure, I had a destination in mind, but it quickly took a backseat to the journey as we climbed the scenic byway into the Dixie National Forest from Torrey. Atmosphere envelopes distant lands, the Henry Mountains, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Capitol Reef National Park, and the immediate surroundings at over 9,000 feet are decorated with contrasting stands of subalpine fir and aspen. At the summit overlook, I am in the company of likeminded travelers, warriors of the road of all backgrounds: RV, motorcycle, convertible, classic roadster. Auto and motorcycle tourism at its best, where everyone coexists in harmony, out of respect for the byway.
Dixie National Forest covers nearly 2 million acres of Southern Utah across 170 miles. It populates vast tracts of the divide between the Great Basin and the transition zone into the Colorado Plateau, a place where the earth's geologic timeline is visible on the surface of the earth.
The stretch of the byway between the high plateau town of Boulder and Henrieville encompasses both the delicate dance of the Hogsback, which traverses a spine of otherworldly rock formations, and peaceful paths that carve a straighter line with panoramas of the vermilion Escalante Mountains where large dabs of green juniper have been dropped in for dramatic effect. Make sure to hit Calf Creek Recreation Area and stop for refreshments at Kiva Koffeehouse.
The step into Bryce Canyon is next, and the whole thing wraps up with another look at the Dixie National Forest through the incredible Red Canyon, whose terracotta, rust and brilliant orange hoodoos tower over the forest and give a tiny taste of Bryce Canyon's geology.
It is difficult to contain descriptions of this drive in short, simple sentences; the memories are too vivid, even years removed, and they meander through the mind like long, uncoiled strips of 70 mm film. Somehow these memories are letterboxed, like the AMC film classics from growing up, and of course, shot in vivid Technicolor. But then in addition to big stretches of the Dixie National Forest, two national parks (Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon), a national recreation area (Glen Canyon), a national monument (Grand Staircase-Escalante) and three state parks (Anasazi Museum, Escalante Petrified Forest and Kodachrome Basin) fill in the windows along the route, so it's easy to see why this road is considered a journey.
Memories associated with the open road are abundantly made in Utah. Scenic Byway 12 may be a marquee road in Utah, but just as some of Utah's state parks would be national parks in other states, many of Utah's scenic byways are simply in a class of their own.
When you travel one of Utah's 19 state byways or eight national byways, make sure to stop here and there at an overlook or at one or two of the little towns along the way, and talk with the locals who live and breathe the scenery, and you'll find people who never grow tired of waking up to such natural splendor. On 12, have lunch or a coffee in Torrey, a local pastry in Boulder, maybe stop for a longer rest in Escalante, and grab a Utah craft beer on tap at Esca-Latte inside Escalante Outfitters.
The road may a way to or through, but out here, the road is part of a place that transcends the normal experience of driving. The road is the place.