Where to Eat, Stay and Play along Utah’s Scenic Byway 12

While Utah has no shortage of scenic drives, only Highway 12 has the distinction of being both a Scenic Byway—for, as you can guess, its incredible scenery—and, the distinction of being “a destination unto itself,” an All-American Road. And while you can certainly travel this gorgeous and personality-rich 122 miles of pavement in an afternoon, we advise you to take your time. Homey restaurants, bike paths, hiking trails and unique shops are just a few of the must-stop destinations you’ll encounter—many of which are reopening now for the spring, summer and fall travel seasons. Here is a three-day, four-night itinerary to help you soak up the best of Scenic Byway 12.

The Night Before—Arrive in Torrey

Just over three hours from Salt Lake City, in Torrey, marks the northern terminus of Scenic Byway 12. A Cottonwood tree-lined Main Street and stunning red rock scenery are two of this appealing town’s more obvious assets. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover creative eateries, well-curated art galleries and shops, several local food purveyors, Wayne County’s only bar and unsullied night skies.

Highway 12
The front patio at Hunter Gather restaurant in Torrey. Photo by Melissa Fields.

Check into the sleek and newly built Skyview Hotel (876 West S.R. 24, skyviewtorrey.com), offering 14 hotel rooms and six glamping domes with unusual-for-the-area amenities like private hot tubs, local art and a sweeping rooftop deck—ideal for taking in the Milky Way after the sun goes down.

Capitol Burger’s nationally recognized cheeseburger. Photo by Melissa Fields.

Chase off your road weariness with a visit to Etta Place Cidery & Taproom (700 W. Utah Highway 24, ettaplacecider.com). Sample the half-dozen hard cider varieties made on the premises or have a glass of wine, beer or cocktail. For dinner, wander to the nearby Hunt & Gather (599 W. Main St., huntandgatherrestaurant.com) for white tablecloth dining on the casually charming patio. Or sidle up to the Capitol Burger food truck (parked at the Chuck Wagon Store & Deli, 12 W. Main St., facebook.com/capitolburger) for their popular—and nationally recognized—cheeseburger, mushroom bleu burger or mac-n-cheese burger. 

Day 1—Torrey to Boulder (51 miles)

Begin your day with a Haum Meditation yoga session (RSVP required, haumeditation.com) in Red Sands Hotel’s airy, top-floor studio. Afterward, grab a breakfast burrito made with local eggs at Wild Rabbit Café (135 E. Main St., thewildrabbitcafe.com, closed Mon-Wed). When you’re ready to hit the road, grab a sando at the Chuckwagon Deli (12 W. Main St., chuckwagonlodge.com)—we recommend the chicken salad sandwich or BLT. 

Four miles along Scenic Byway 12 from Torrey, you’ll come to The Flute Shop Trading Post & Motel (1705 S. Scenic Byway 12, fluteshopmotel.com). Browse Native American jewelry and rugs, rocks, cowboy hats and, of course, flutes, handmade onsite by three generations of the Morrill family—Vance, Phyl and Ethan—all of whom lead tours of the shop, on request.  

From The Flute Shop, Scenic Byway 12 meanders through Grover’s bucolic pastures before climbing aspen and pine forests onto Boulder Mountain. Worthy stops (and bathroom breaks) en route to the road’s 9,500 feet-above-sea-level highpoint include the Larb Hollow Overlook (vault toilets), Wildcat Information Station (flush toilets, hiking and forest info, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day) and the Homestead Overlook (vault toilets). The latter destination is a must-stop for its million-dollar views of Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Henry Mountains and Lake Powell’s Navajo Mountain.

Continue down the mountain to Boulder, a little hamlet perched at the base of the Aquarius Plateau, the highest timbered plateau in North America, where traditional ruralism and liberal back-to-the-land ideals coexist. Pay a visit to Anasazi State Park Museum (460 N. Scenic Byway 12, Boulder, open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), dedicated to the area’s mysterious first inhabitants. A complete redo of the museum’s interiors is slated for completion in April 2024. In the meantime, the building’s outdoor ancient dwelling reproduction remains open for visitors to enjoy free of charge.

Time permitting, take an out-and-back side trip on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway, a spectacular route running from Boulder to Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina. The first 18 miles of the Burr Trail are paved and run through towering red Wingate sandstone cliffs in Long Canyon. Keep an eye on your odometer for a stop-off at Singing Canyon, a gorgeous slot canyon (with killer acoustics) that’s just a 15-minute hike off the road, accessed on the north side of the Burr Trail, 11.5 miles from its intersection with Scenic Byway 12. Return to Boulder and take a load off in one of Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch’s (20 Scenic Byway 12, Boulder, bouldermountainguestranch.com) cozy and colorful rooms or yurts.

Must Stop: Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm 

Make sure you’ve booked a dinner reservation at Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm (20 N. Scenic Byway 12, hellsbackbonegrill.com) well before embarking on your tour. This restaurant is world-renowned (no joke) for its “fanciful Four Corners cuisine” that highlights produce grown on the restaurant’s farm. We recommend at least one of your group try the Dinner Jenchilada, a truly fantastic entrée that adeptly reflects the town’s natural beauty and inimitable vibe on a plate. End your day by stargazing from picnic benches on the sweeping lawn next to the grill.

Day 2—Boulder to Escalante (27.5 miles)

Rise and shine with a waffle sandwich and a masala chai at Wild Indigo Café, a food trailer that opened in 2023 at Hills & Hollows Market (840 W. Highway 12, hillsandhollowsmarket.com). Return to the road and head south and, just 10 minutes on, you’ll come to Scenic Byway 12’s most awe-inspiring feature: the Hogback. Along this jaw-dropping section of the highway the pavement snakes along a narrow fin with 400-foot drops on each side, offering stellar views of the deep canyon cut over millennia by Calf Creek.

Speaking of Calf Creek, this part of the drive offers two ways to explore this waterway: Lower or Upper Calf Creek Falls.

The trailhead for the lower falls is located south of the Hogback and is well-marked with ample paved parking and restrooms. This six-mile, relatively flat, out-and-back hike’s main attraction is a spectacular 126-foot-tall waterfall cascading into a cerulean-blue pool. As such, the Lower Calf Creek Falls hike is popular, but with a payoff that’s well worth its lack of solitude.

Upper Calf Creek Falls’ trailhead, located just north of or before you encounter the Hogback, is much less developed and the route shorter—only two miles roundtrip—but includes scaling a steep slickrock incline ending in pools ideal for cooling off in on a hot day. The unmarked spur road to the parking area for the Upper Falls trail is six miles from Boulder, located on the west side of the road between mile markers 81 and 82.

Regardless of which Calf Creek hike you choose, keep an eye on the time so you can make it to the nearby Kiva Koffeehouse (7144 Scenic Byway 12, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, kivakoffeehouse.com), five miles south of Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead, before it closes for the day at 3 p.m. This low-profile, circular building, supported on its sage brush-covered perch by 13 enormous Douglas fir logs collected from across the West, was designed and built by Bradshaw Bowman. His family now runs the guest house and café there, serving house-made pastries, soups, sandwiches, salads, tamales and coffee. 

Back on the road, en route to Escalante, consider stopping just short of town at the Escalante Heritage Center (1285 E. Scenic Byway 12, escalanteheritagecenter.org), where exhibits recount the story of the Hole-in-the-Rock Trek and settlement of both Boulder and Escalante. Ofland Escalante (2020 W. Scenic Byway 12, ofland.com, formerly Yonder Escalante) is an excellent base from which to explore this area. There, you’ll find civilized bathrooms, tent camping sites and a pool. But the real draw of this spot is its clubhouse, drive-in movie theater and well-appointed tiny cabins. Last fall the site added larger cabins with en-suite bathrooms to save you the minor hassle of walking to a restroom at night. After taking a little time to chillax by the pool, head over to Escalante Outfitters (310 W. Main St., escalanteoutfitters.com) for a hand-tossed pizza and cold Utah microbrew. 

After dinner, wander back to your cabin or campsite at Ofland to take in a movie or simply relax in a lawn chair and look up. Light pollution in this part of Utah is lower than you’ll find just about anywhere, offering a virtually uninhibited view of the Milky Way.  

Day 3—Escalante to Bryce Canyon City

In the morning, walk over to Magnolia’s Kitchen (280 E. Main St., magnoliastreetfood.com/) for an apropos King of the Road breakfast sandwich (two fried eggs, bacon and cheese), latte and to peruse the local art on display there. Tip: Magnolia’s yummy Southern Belle Burrito (eggs, grilled sweet potato, sauteed greens, goat cheese) or any of the burritos on the menu travel well in a backpack, and are a much more satisfying trail snack than a bar.  

The landscape along the next stretch of Scenic Byway 12 alternates between creamy-white sedimentary rock topped occasionally by pink Claron Formation cliffs and bucolic pastureland. Along the way, you’ll also see several funky little rock shops and galleries interspersed between a trio of adorable small towns: Henriville, Cannonville and Tropic. Stretch your legs on one of several moderate hikes at Kodachrome Basin State Park, located just south of Henriville. For the 411 on more local hiking opportunities, and a dose of local pioneer history, stop into the Cannonville Visitor Center (10 Center St., Cannonville, blm.gov/visit/cannonville-visitor-center).

 From this point on the Byway, consider passing by Bryce Canyon National Park’s main entrance and continuing 13 miles to the Red Canyon Visitor Center. Explore the surrounding red rock and Ponderosa pine landscape from one of the many hiking trails originating at the Visitor Center. Or, if you have a bike, cross the street to pedal along the paved, 8-mile Red Canyon Bike Path. Mountain bikers can complete a 15-mile loop by connecting the paved path to the Thunder Mountain singletrack trail via the Coyote Hollow ATV trail. 

Finish up your Scenic Byway 12 sojourn in nearby Panguitch. There, check-in at the retro-modern Dragonfly Motor Lodge (730 N. Main St., dragonflylodging.com), tucked into Panguitch’s step-back-in-time Main Street. For dinner, stroll down to Cowboy’s Smokehouse (95 N. Main St., thecowboysmokehouse.com) for a burger, ribs, steak or green chili pork burrito. 

In the morning, you can certainly retrace your steps back along 12 to Torrey, and from there go north to the Wasatch Front. An alternative to the freeway is Utah Highway 89, which travels through another of Utah’s lesser-known and scenic locales, the Sanpete Valley. Highway 89 continues north to Nephi, just 45 minutes from the metro Wasatch Front along Interstate 15.  

Must Stop: Mossy Caves trail

Make your way along Scenic Byway 12 through Tropic to Mossy Cave, located just inside the eastern boundary of Bryce Canyon National Park, which offers access to Bryce Canyon’s hoodoo spires without the crowds you’d encounter at the main park entrance farther down the road. Pull off at the marked trailhead between mile markers 17 and 18. Take the .8-mile, mostly flat walk to a dripping grotto lined with greenery from the constantly seeping water. Be sure to check out the waterfall, located on a short spur off the main Mossy Cave trail, before heading back to the trailhead. 

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Melissa Fields
Melissa Fieldshttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Melissa (O' Brien) Fields is a contributing editor to Utah Bride & Groom magazine and a contributing writer for Salt Lake magazine. She is an accomplished freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience.

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