Travel

This Wild Southwestern Road Trip Is an Eye-Popping "Journey Through Time"

The Million Dollar Highway is selling itself short.

Lake Powell in Escalante
Lake Powell in Escalante | Jordan Siemens/Stone/Getty
Lake Powell in Escalante | Jordan Siemens/Stone/Getty

Southern Utah is among the most geologically significant landscapes on Earth. Within a day’s drive, you’ll come across slot canyons, hoodoos, natural bridges, arches, petrified forests, snow-capped mountains... much of it all within the same view, so long as you know where to look.

Though a geologist could spend a lifetime trying to unlock the region’s mysteries, you’d easily blast past it all if you never ventured off the freeway. Do not make that mistake. In fact, veer as far away from Interstates 70 and 15 as you possibly can. About halfway between them you’ll find State Route 12, AKA the “Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.”

In just under 123 miles you’ll pass two national parks, one national monument, a national forest, and a state park specifically named for its photogenic qualities. You’ll see sites that served as backdrops for famous westerns and otherworldly science-fiction flicks. But as cinematic as it feels, it’s all very real. And it's afforded only to the most adventurous of road warriors. When it was completed in 1940 by a New Deal-era public works project, it was nicknamed the Million Dollar Road. You’ll soon come to see that they were selling it way short.

MORE: Get a look at even more of the most beautiful places in Utah

Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park | Edmund Lowe Photography/Moment/Getty

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive 

At its northern terminus, SR-12 runs into UT-24 just outside the small town of Torrey. But before you make your way south, start with a detour down Scenic Drive. Located 11 miles to the east in Fruita, the 16-mile round trip winds through Capitol Reef National Park, revealing stunning panorama around each passing turn. Along multiple vistas you can spy a glimpse of the Golden Throne, a 7,041-foot dome of Navajo sandstone that towers above a 100-mile long monocline known as the Waterpocket Fold.
MORE:  Check the status of every national park here

Larb Hollow Overlook
Larb Hollow Overlook | M.Omair/Moment/Getty

Larb Hollow Overlook 

Fifteen miles down SR-12, pull over to the left for an unfettered view of Capitol Reef and its namesake geologic formation. Upthrust, rusty-red earth stands in stark contrast to the green meadows directly before you. Dominating the distant background are the snow-capped Henry Mountains, an offshoot of the Rockies soaring 11,500 feet towards the sky.

Anasazi State Park Museum
Ancient petroglyphs at Anasazi State Park Museum | Pgiam/E+/Getty

Anasazi State Park Museum

Bend along 30 minutes of canyon road before arriving in the town of Boulder, which resides under the shadows of its namesake 11,316-foot peak. Here you’ll find archeological remains from a native tribe of Puebloans (once mistakenly referred to as the Anasazi), who thrived throughout the region from approximately 1 AD until their mysterious disappearance some 1,300 years later. This particular site showcases the remains of this ancient village, including in-tact artifacts such as pottery and weapons. It’s open year-round, seven days a week, except on major holidays. 

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
A small gorge along the Burr Trail | Christian Handl/Getty

Burr Trail

Here’s where things start to get really interesting. About 3 miles south of the park, keep watch for Burr Trail Road on you left. This is easily one of the most magical off-road detours in the continental United States. If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, you’ll still be good to enjoy the first 18 miles of its sealed road. Admire the massive red cliffs of Long Canyon that tower overhead, on opposing sides of pavement. But when the gravel begins, the panorama kicks into overdrive. At the crest of the legendary Burr Trail Switchbacks you’ll marvel at unobstructed views of the Henrys out across open expanses of Capitol Reef. Then get ready to zig-zag your way down 800 feet of canyon wall before turning around and ascending the whole way back into Boulder. The round-trip adventure will take you a scant 2.5 hours total.

Hell’s Backbone
Hell’s Backbone | Georgia/Flickr

Hell’s Backbone 

If you possess not even the slightest respect for heights (and you’re traveling between late spring and early fall) you can make use of this 38-mile gravel bypass between the towns of Boulder and Escalante. Constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, the off-road alternative climbs above 9,000 feet in elevation, snaking through the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness along the way. The harrowing climax is its eponymous bridge: a 14-foot-wide vehicular tightrope with 1,500 feet of sheer vertical on either side. 
MORE: Utah is also great for stargazers

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Utah | Gary Koutsoubis/Moment/Getty

Lower Calf Creek Falls

Even if you don’t feel like tempting fate on a dirt-road of death, SR-12 has plenty of its own hair-raising shenanigans to share. Just outside of Boulder, the road traverses an area known as The Hogback. This is a narrow section of S-turns riding a spine with steep canyons on either side of the roadway... and there are no guardrails, so maybe keep it within the lines. Eleven miles south of town is a turnoff for Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead. The 130-foot-tall cascade at the end of this three-mile hike empties into an emerald-hued swimming hole, which provides welcome reprieve from southern Utah’s hot, dry summers. 

Zebra Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Zebra Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument | Suzanne Stroeer/Aurora Photos/Getty

Escalante 

After you’ve cooled down, rev yourself back up along SR-12 as it slaloms the serpentine crevasses of ever-narrowing canyons. Soon you’ll find yourself a mile-high in the town of Escalante. With a population of 808, this is the bustling metropolis of Grand Staircase: a geological formation exposing two dozen layers of sedimentary rock over an area of 1 million acres. Check out petrified forests and fossilized dinosaur bones in the town park (no big deal), then load up on local craft beer and overstuffed paninis at the 4th West Pub before a night of glamping at the Escalante Yurts.
MORE: Got a taste for glamping? Here are 12 more incredible sites.

Devils Garden, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Devils Garden, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument | Alan Majchrowicz/Stone/Getty

Hole In The Rock Road 

Load up on the snacks provided in your yurt, because you’ve got a full day of trekking ahead. Start by backtracking 4.5 miles east of town to find this easy-to-miss dirt road on the right. It affords access to some of the most exceptional -- and remote -- hiking the American Southwest has to offer. Hole in the Rock is a historic trail tracing the route that Mormon pioneers forged back in 1879, before crossing the Colorado River. 

Today you can drive it 62 miles from SR-12 to the western shore of Lake Powell, though you won’t need to waste nearly that much gas to trek to world-class slot canyons. Spooky Gulch, Peek-a-Boo Gulch, and Golden Cathedral are but a few of the photogenic marvels you’ll find here. But tracking them down requires an advanced degree of orienteering: trails are not consistently marked and no facilities or services are provided. As with any slot canyon, an extreme danger exists in the form of flash floods, so check the weather throughout the entire region before heading out. Novice adventurers can still enjoy the eerie sandstone formations of Devils Garden, just 12.2 miles south of highway 12 along Hole in the Rock.
MORE: Hole in the Rock is also the name of Utah’s best roadside attraction

Kodachrome Basin State Park
Kodachrome Basin State Park | Christian Heinrich/Getty

Kodachrome Basin State Park 

About an hour west of Escalante, in the tiny village of Cannonville, turn left on Main Street and follow signs to Kodachrome Basin. Named after the famous brand of color film (the original Instagram), this state park features a garden of some 67 sandstone spires. The red and orange rock towers are known as sedimentary pipes. They point towards the heavens -- some resembling oversized chimneys, others appearing more like giants' hands determined to declare that Utah is, in fact, number one. The area is a reliable destination for horseback riding, climbing, and even more slot-canyon hiking… all without all the foot traffic you’ll encounter in nearby Bryce Canyon and Zion. 
MORE: Kodachrome is just one of Utah’s stellar state parks

Bryce Canyon National Park, Scenic Highway U-12
Bryce Canyon National Park, Scenic Highway U-12 | Alan Copson/Alloy/Getty

Mossy Cave Trail 

Speaking of avoiding crowds: look for this trailhead about three miles north of Tropic and you can enjoy a taste of Bryce Canyon’s geologic grandeur without having to share it with throngs of tourists. An easy one-mile round-trip hike leads you past the same sorts of mesmerizing hoodoos that made the adjacent park an international attraction. The spindly, totem pole-like structures form when softer rock is capped by a layer of sturdier stone, causing uneven erosion from top to bottom as it weathers. You'll hike along their base on your way to a natural grotto that shelters icicles in the winter and lichen in the summer. 

Highway arch, Red Canyon, Utah
Highway arch in Red Canyon, Utah | © Rozanne Hakala/Moment Open/Getty

Red Canyon

Several miles up the road you’ll enter the town of Bryce -- gateway to its eponymous canyon and national park. Of course you’ll want to divert five miles south on UT-63 to reach world-famous Inspiration Point, but you hardly need an internet article to tell you that much. What’s far less publicized -- and doesn't come with a $35 entry fee -- is the incredible Arches Trail just 20 more minutes up Highway 12. 

After the Red Canyon Visitor Center, turn right on Casto Canyon Road and follow it two final miles to the Losee Canyon Trailhead. From here you’ll embark on a 1.5-mile trek that loops past no less than 15 rock arches along the way. When you’re back on the pavement, you’ll drive through two more of them before highway 12 ends at its junction with US-89. For all you’ve seen and done over the past two days, you journey is far from finished; Zion, Vermillion Cliffs, and the Grand Canyon are all within several scenic hours drive of here. Pick a direction and keep driving.

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He enjoys his whisky neat and his IPA hazy. Although currently under quarantine on the Big Island of Hawaii, he’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him @Journeys_with_Japhe.