Utah’s Highway 12 is one of the most defining all-American roads in the country, taking visitors on a roller coaster ride of canyons, gorges, towering hoodoos and deep-cut prairie valleys, all shrouded by the looming shadow of grand, snow-tipped Boulder Mountain in the north. Following the route south out of the Capitol Reef National Park, drivers experience some of the most dramatic scenery in the state, from the fossilized geysers of the old Kodachrome Basin to the meandering Hogback stretch of sheer valleys and high-altitude snow fields. The route concludes in the alien landscape of Bryce Canyon, where jagged monoliths of orange rock have carved out the shape of natural amphitheaters into the Utah hills, offering visitors the perfect geological climax to a truly breath-taking trail.
Arches, hoodoos and wild mountain prairies abound at the Capitol Reef National Park; the perfect starting point for any road trip down this dramatic high desert stretch. Through the Park’s center, the magnificent scar of the Waterpocket Fold cuts through the dry canyons and waterless gorges, marking out the backbone of this rugged enclave of raw nature. Visitors should not miss the magnificent Golden Throne mount, where deposits of creamy sandstone have stained the summit a glistening gold, or the ancient petroglyphs of Capitol Gorge, a lingering testimony to the long human history of Utah as a whole.
Set high in the rocky canyons just off Scenic Highway 12, the Boulder Mountain Lodge offers a number of truly luxurious accommodations complete with open decks and 360-degree panoramas of Utah boulder country. Guests enjoy an isolated setting with all the luxurious additions of a modern hotel – from TV and satellite facilities to award-winning in-house dining. For traveling hikers and nature enthusiasts, the lodge is also the perfect jump off point for exploring the nearby Dixie National Forest and famous Burr Trail.
Earthy and rustic Utah flavors abound at Hell’s Backbone Grill, one of the only eateries on offer on the remote winding route of Scenic Highway 12. Situated just on the turnoff to the section of dramatic road that is its namesake, the restaurant serves up hearty and healthy dishes that are farm-to-fork in the extreme. Indeed, many of the ingredients used here are reared and grown in the grill’s own backyard, while all of the in-house beers are driven in straight from micro-breweries across Utah and Salt Lake City.
Located midway between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon and a little south off the scenic trail, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of the state’s newest natural attractions. The Staircase itself is an array of dramatic tiered cliff sections and waterfalls that span millions of acres across the Utah backcountry. Drivers are invited to park up and wander into the wilds here, where they can discover a kaleidoscope of geological wonders, from the rainbow-colored rock faces of the Vermillion Cliffs to the million-year-old marine fossils now deposited high on this plateau.
It was the mind-boggling gradients of deep orange and light yellow hues that first gave this Basin Park its name, and visitors still flock here to wonder at the complex matrix of geological rock types, each with its own distinctive color and appearance. Other travelers on highway 12 plan a stop over here after dark, eager to experience the spot that’s touted as one of the best stargazing locations in all of North America. What’s more, amidst the towering hoodoos and canyons there’s a veritable array of hiking and biking trails, not to mention some of the country’s most breath-taking campgrounds.
Tier upon tier of carved Dakota Sandstone pierce and splinter their way into the blue Utah sky at Bryce Canyon, revealing more than 40 million years of earth’s geological history and a veritable wealth of natural wonders along the way. Visitors should not miss the gravity-defying Thor’s Hammer formation, a sheer cliff monolith of rugged orange rock that resembles the legendary Nordic weapon in its top-heavy appearance, or, indeed, the series of snow-covered stone arches, naturally formed from thousands of years of gradual ice attrition and erosion.