Scenic Byway 12
There’s perhaps no more scenic road in America than Southern Utah’s All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12, a designated scenic byway, part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System and one of only 31 All-American Roads in the country. This 124-mile ride will bring you past brilliant red rock, towering forests, two national parks, one national monument, and seven charming small towns. The pros at Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah can complete it in just five hours, but taking your time and riding it as a multi-day tour allows you to take in the otherworldly landscapes and majestic scenery.
Here’s the best way to experience Highway 12 from the seat of a bike.
Day 1: Panguitch to Bryce Canyon, 16 miles
Named for the colorful hoodoos and spires that line the Byway, this first stretch of Highway 12 is the beginning of the Dixie National Forest and gateway to Bryce National Park. While the road here can be narrow at times, cyclists can stay safely off of it thanks to the Red Canyon five-mile paved path, which runs parallel to the road through pines, spruce, and red rock formations.
The ride starts at the beginning of Highway 12 in Panguitch and climbs pretty steadily to Bryce Canyon City, one of Utah’s newest towns. Along the ride take in the glorious views of Red Canyon and the Dixie National Forest — and much of the ride is on a protected bike lane, which makes the stretch of the U.S. Bicycle Route System ideal for families. Grab a snack or refill water at Bryce Canyon City before continuing the last three miles to the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Take in the majestic hoodoos of this national park from stunning viewpoints right off the road, or ride through the park on your bike to add on mileage. You can also park your bike and try out any of the 50 miles of hiking trails that will bring you up close to these impressive formations.
Where to Eat and Stay: Only 25 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, Panguitch is an ideal base camp for exploring the Byway’s wonders. Historic buildings and western shopping are fun tourist diversions, and cyclists can choose to stay at the KOA’s rustic cabin or campground sites and have free access to daily hot showers and a swimming pool.
Historic Ruby’s Inn, the closest lodging to Bryce National Park, is the place to stock up on any groceries or gear you may need thanks to their huge gift shop, rock shop, and general store. Stay in their comfortable hotel rooms, or ‘rough it’ in cabin, tent, or tipi lodging just next door. No electricity or beds are included in the tipis so you’ll need camping gear to enjoy this experience. Restrooms, showers, and pool use included. Experience old-fashioned cowboy cuisine, music, and entertainment at nearby Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill, which is open seasonally April-October.
Day 2: Bryce to Escalante, ~48 miles
From Bryce, you’ll ride downhill 10 miles, into Bryce Valley to the town of Tropic, so named because settlers claimed the climate was more temperate than nearby towns. Make a stop at the visitor center in the pioneer-founded town of Cannonville for maps or information. And if you have time, take a 7-mile paved road detour to visit colorful Kodachrome Basin State Park, home to 67 dazzling stone spires.
Back on the Byway, pedal on to the small town of Henrieville before climbing about 30 miles through the Dixie National Forest to reach the town of Escalante and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.
Where to Eat and Stay: Escalante Outfitters — just 50 miles east of Bryce Canyon National Park on Scenic Byway 12 — sits at the halfway point of you cycling adventure and is your one-stop shop for lodging, dining, and gear. Furnished cabins with common bathrooms and showers are available for as low as $50 a night. You’ll want to write home about their stellar breakfast menu and handcrafted, gourmet pizza.
Day 3: Escalante to Boulder, ~27 miles (4,000 feet of elevation gain)
Riding from Escalante to Boulder is a challenging, but beautiful ride. On your way out of Escalante, ride past unique geological formations and across the Escalante River, fueling up at Kiva Koffeehouse if needed. Continue riding through Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, past Calf Creek Falls (one of the area’s best hikes), and up the steep famed Hogsback.
This spine’s sheer drops and stunning vistas make it a highlight of the Byway, but you’ll need cardiovascular endurance to reach the summit. Once you do, scenic pull-offs let you take in the colorful cliff formations from this small ridge of paved slickrock.
Where to Eat and Stay: Farm-to-table organic eatery, Hell’s Backbone Grill, and hip, locally owned Burr Trail Grill — both in Boulder — are the region’s best-known eateries and specialize in modern American cuisine. They source ingredients locally whenever possible and both are located right along Scenic Byway 12.
Treat yourself by staying at the gorgeous, luxurious Boulder Mountain Lodge, home of Hell’s Backbone Grill. The Lodge overlooks an 11-acre bird sanctuary with lake views. Fully relax in the hot tub or warming up around the fire pit.
Day 4: Boulder to Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park, ~36 miles
Once rejuvenated from your stay at Boulder Mountain Lodge, get back on the S.R. 12 and cycle toward Capitol Reef National Park. As you pass Anasazi State Park Museum, stop and explore an Ancestral Puebloan village and its artifacts. Then it’s back to climbing Boulder Mountain.
You’ll climb through the Dixie National Forest past massive aspen stands, vibrant spruces and pines, and small mountain lakes before reaching the Homestead Overlook at 9,400 feet. See views of Capitol Reef’s famous Waterpocket Fold and the Henry Mountain’s five peaks before descending to the town of Torrey, a gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.
Park your bikes in town and fuel up on coffee and cuisine, or ride a slightly uphill road 9 miles east into the park. If your legs can take it, this stunning stretch of highway showcases Capitol Reef’s varicolored sandstone cliffs, massive red rock outcroppings, and historic fruit orchards, and shouldn’t be missed.
Where to Eat and Stay: Awe-inspiring patio views of Capitol Reef National Park and fine or casual dining options, as well as lodging, makes Rim Rock Inn and Restaurant your all-in-one option in Torrey. The pizza and local beer selections are on point, and there’s even a disc golf course out back. Take advantage of their free WiFi here as cell service is spotty at best in this national park.
Campers should arrive early enough to secure a site in the park’s only developed campground, Fruita, a lush oasis in the desert filled with mature fruit trees. While in Capitol Reef, pick and eat peaches, apricots, pears, and apples from these orchards for free — paying only if you take fruit outside the park.
Riding the length of Scenic Byway 12 is 124 miles with elevation ranging from 5,223 feet to 9,636 feet above sea level, and there are enough ups and downs to challenge any cyclist. When riding in summer, expect hot temperatures while pedaling through Utah’s deserts, although cycling in Bryce Canyon National Park can be cool as the elevation is much higher there — about 9,000 feet. Please take note, the rapidly changing elevation can be challenging for those coming from sea level, so take time to let your body adjust, drink plenty of water, eat healthy and take breaks to prevent altitude sickness.