The Million Dollar Road: Utah’s Scenic Highway

Lake Powell in Escalante

Lake Powell in Escalante
Photo by Albert Wirtz/Flickr

Southern Utah is a nature lover’s paradise. A drive down State Route 12—otherwise known as the Million Dollar Road, thanks to the stunning views that motorists see along the way—offers glimpses of red rocks and towering rock formations that have been immortalized by beloved Hollywood Westerns. Some portions of Southern Utah look more like Mars than planet Earth. Unlike Mars. Southern Utah is home to countless waterfalls, ancient Native American rock paintings, and winding roads that teeter above jagged red cliffs. State Route 12 ranks among California’s breathtaking Highway 101 when it comes to America’s most stunning scenic routes.


Grand Staircase Escalante

Utah‘s 5 national parks rightfully get a great deal of attention, but one of the most magnificent sights in the West is undeniably the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The area around the Grand Staircase has proven to be a treasure chest for scientists hunting for dinosaur bones. In 2002, a volunteer stumbled upon a 75-million-year-old specimen which was named_ Gryposarus momumentensis _(which means “hooked-beak lizard from the monument” in English.) The Grand Staircase features slot canyons with naturally-formed grooves that look like they were sculpted by a master artist, a winding creek, and ample opportunities for hiking, camping, and gazing at the impressive Kaiparowits Plateau. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is just as stunning as any stretch of Bryce, Arches, or Zion National Park.


Calf Creek Falls is part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Reaching Calf Creek Falls does require a fairly challenging 3-plus mile hike (6 miles both ways), but the cascading waterfall at the end of the hike is certainly worth the effort. Calf Creek Falls features crystal clear water cascading down a rock that has turned a matte shade of gold due to mineral deposits. There are few things more exhilarating than cold water splashing on your face after a hike in the hot desert sun.


The Gifford Homestead

The Gifford Homestead
Photo by Eric Gail/Flickr

Located just off State Route 12, Torrey is a small Western town that offers a scenic view of Southern Utah’s magnificent desert landscape. Torrey is a popular hang out for Salt Lake City residents who want to escape to Southern Utah for the weekend. A log schoolhouse with an intact bell tower recalls the Mormon pioneers who made the rugged desert their home in the 1880s. Torrey features an assortment of burger joints, delis, and coffee shops for travelers who want to enjoy a bite to eat with the otherworldly rock formations of Capitol Reef National Park in the distance.


Capitol Reef National Park

Once known as “Wayne’s Wonderland” due to its proximity to Wayne County, Capitol Reef National Park features round, white rock formations that look as though they are atop a stone Capitol Building populated by dwarves who live in the heart of the mountain. Capitol Reef was once home to a thriving population of Fremont and Paiute Native Americans who created petroglyphs which are still visible on the rocks of Capitol Gorge. The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive offers a staggering view of the park’s vibrant red rock formations. If you’re a night owl, Capitol Reef was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2015. There are few places in the United States that offer a better view of the Milky Way. A midnight hike in Capitol Reef during the annual Perseids meteor shower is a transcendent experience on par with seeing the northern lights.


Dixie National Forest

Red Canyon
Dixie National Forest, Utah
Photo by Michael G/Flickr

Who says that deserts have to be covered in cactus and rolling sage brush? Dixie National Forest proves that deserts can have trees, too. Dixie National Forest features hearty juniper, pine, and even some aspen groves at the higher elevations that turn gold in the fall. The smell of pine combined with the earthy smell of the desert offers a unique sensory experience. If you want to see a resilient desert ecosystem in action, spend a few hours hiking in red dirt surrounded by knotted pine trees which have thrived for hundreds of years. After experiencing a forest in such an arid climate, you will have a whole new respect for trees.


Hell's Backbone

If you’re deathly afraid of heights, maybe skip Hell’s Backbone, or make sure that somebody else is driving when you cross the infamous bridge. Hell’s Backbone offers a panoramic view of Southern Utah’s plunging canyons that is both beautiful and utterly terrifying, Originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s, the wooden beams which once supported the narrow, winding Hell’s Backbone bridge are still visible. The area near Hell’s Backbone offers a sweeping view of the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness area. Box-Death Hollow Wilderness features a series of Navajo Sandstone rock formations that abruptly end in steep drop-offs. Countless cattle have wandered too close to the edge and fallen to their deaths. The ground below Box-Death Hollow Wilderness area is littered with the bones of clumsy livestock. Box-Death Wilderness Area is a cautionary tale for drivers who are prone to drifting out of their lane who are foolish enough to attempt to brave the narrow Hell’s Backbone bridge.


Red Canyon

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No tour of State Route 12 is complete without passing by Red Canyon. Red Canyon is located near Bryce Canyon National Park, and features some of the same iconic rock formations without the dense crowds. Onlookers are greeted by bright red rocks that have eroded to look like the spires of a many-tiered rocky cathedral. Red Canyon features a series of impressive hiking trails, including Birdseye Trail, which offers a breathtaking view of red rock canyons topped with sturdy fur trees. Red Canyon is part of Dixieland National Forest. Many hikers are surprised by the sheer number and variety of trees that they encounter in the midst of such a stark desert landscape. Red Canyon is an excellent spot to view some of Southern Utah’s finest hoodoos. Hoodoos are columns of weathered rock that look as though they were crafted by some sort of magic, hence the fantastical name. Red Canyon’s surreal hoodoos will leave you questioning reality.

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