Hidden Gems Along Scenic Byway 12
Scenic Byway 12 lets visitors look back in time at the ancient creatures who once lived here and the native people who more recently called the region home.
When exploring Southern Utah, just about every road is a stunner, featuring views of the red-rock landscape that’s unlike anything else in the country. So when you find a route specifically designated as a scenic byway, you know you’re in for a treat.
State Highway 12, which winds from its intersection of US Highway 89 near Panguitch on its westernmost point to SR 24 near Torrey at its eastern terminus, is known as the “The All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12.” It was the first All-American Road in Utah, and it remains a must-drive experience for visitors to this part of the state.
Along the 123-mile route, you’ll enjoy incredible views of the Dixie National Forest, the Henry Mountains and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While it’s possible to complete the relatively short drive in under three hours, most people take their time and make stops along the way. You’ll find three state parks (Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Petrified Forest and Anasazi State Park Museum) and two national parks (Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef) just off the route. In addition to the scenic views, you’ll find endless opportunities for outdoor adventure such as hiking, camping, fishing, mountain biking and off-roading.
While the national parks get the most attention — and traffic — you can find many other adventures along the route. Here are some hidden gems along the scenic byway to explore.
Located about seven miles from the western start of the scenic byway, Panguitch is a small town with a name that means “big fish,” and it doesn’t take long to figure out why. Within a half-hour of town, you’ll find four blue-ribbon fisheries — Panguitch Lake, Paragonah Reservoir, Panguitch Creek and Asay Creek. Much of the town’s main street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and you’ll find lots of shopping and dining options that mirror the western theme of the town.
As you enter the scenic byway heading east from Panguitch, it won’t take long before you drive through the two arches in Red Canyon. This area is filled with rust-colored hoodoos, giving you taste of what’s to be found in Bryce Canyon National Park. You can see this scenic area more up-close-and-personal by horseback on a trip with Red Canyon Trail Rides.
The guide service based in Bryce, Utah, offers ride options ranging from a half-hour to a full day. You’ll learn about the history of this area and probably hear some stories about the outlaw Butch Cassidy, who once sought refuge in these canyons. If you’re not up for horseback riding, stop by the Red Canyon Visitors Center to get a better look at the incredible spires and other rock formations in the region.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
To call this beautiful state park a hidden gem might be a stretch, but when compared to the traffic found in the national parks, you can usually find a lot more room to roam here. Kodachrome Basin State Park features 67 monolithic stone spires that have built up over 180 million years, the largest of which is 170 feet tall. You can go hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking in the park, and you’re only 10 miles from Grosvenor Arch, a unique sandstone double arch that towers 150 feet above the ground.
Powell Point Vista
You’ll find many points along Route 12 to stop and take in the views, and Powell Point Vista is one of the best. Located between the towns of Henrieville and Escalante, Powell Point Vista on the Table Cliff Plateau allows you to see some of the area’s unique Wasatch Limestone formations. You can also see ancient bristlecone pines that have existed here for millennia.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Spend a little bit of time on the water at the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, which sits on the shores of the Wide Hollow Reservoir. You can rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard to help cool off in the summer heat. In the cooler part of the day, hike along the park’s nature trails to see the signature petrified forest. This park is also known for its mountain biking, with winding singletrack trails that climb to extraordinary views of the reservoir and surrounding mountains.
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch Slot Canyons
Utah is known for its slot canyons, and two of the best are Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch. Located in the Dry Fork area of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you can explore these two canyons individually or make a loop to see both. Unlike many canyons in the region, you’ll need no technical gear here. The three-mile route is accessible to most people, although it does require some navigation and rock-scrambling skill. The incredible blue, red and purple rock formations are well worth the effort.
Calf Creek Falls
Located between Escalante and Boulder, the Calf Creek trail features two waterfalls to explore, the upper and lower. The lower falls is a more popular stop, as it’s a bigger cascade (126 feet high) and an easier, more accessible hike. The clear stream descends into a pool where you can take a swim. The 6-mile, out-and-back route is flat, and the trailhead is just off Route 12. Other points of interest along the trail include two granaries, beaver dams, and a pictograph on the wall opposite the canyon.
Anasazi State Park and Museum
Learn more about the original inhabitants of this region at the Anasazi State Park and Museum, near the town of Boulder. The museum features an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) village from about 1050 to 1200 A.D. when it was one of the largest communities of its kind west of the Colorado River. You can also tour a life-sized, six-room replica of one of the ancient dwellings.
At the eastern end of the scenic byway sits the town of Torrey, which is just eight miles from the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park. The tree-lined village is surrounded by red cliffs and lush meadows. It sits at an elevation of 6,830 feet, which means you often get a reprieve from the hot summer temperatures. In addition to providing access to the national park, Torrey is surrounded by trout-filled alpine lakes and is a popular basecamp to take advantage of the area’s climbing, canyoneering and ATV trails.