Utah State Routes 12 and 24 are about as good as it gets with vibrant colors and stunning geological formations.
What: Utah SR 12 and SR 24 through Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park. The area offers a magnificent display of pastel hues, dramatic rock formations and scenic vistas, all punctuated by a most enjoyable set of twisties.
How to Get There: From the north, grab SR 24 south from I-70. From the south, pick up SR 143 from I-15 to Panguitch.
Best Kept Secret: The Cowboy’s Smokehouse Café in Panguitch. Everything is good, so bring an appetite!
Avoid: Not making this ride. These are roads you need to experience.
More Info: National Park Service – Bryce Canyon, National Park Service – Capitol Reef, 5000 Miles At 8000 RPM, Utah Office of Tourism
There are places in Utah with scenery and riding that are as close as you can get to heaven without a one-way ticket. State Routes 12 and 24, which run through Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park, take you through just such places. It’s a full-day ride (and perhaps longer if you want to stop and see the sights), but folks, this is as good as it gets. You can spend a day or a week in Bryce, Grand-Staircase Escalante or Capitol Reef, but you can also take in all three in a single day. When we did the ride, we spent the night before in Panguitch, Utah, and the following night in Hanksville, Utah.
This is the most beautiful stretch of the planet I’ve ever ridden. The colors and the riding are stunning. Think bright blue skies, vibrant and verdant pine trees, and multi-colored pastel rock formations. The formations include stunning pinnacles called hoodoos, plus arches, large rounded rock mounds, exposed vermillion cliffs and monstrously large rock domes and folds in the Earth’s surface. Although the region was once alive with dinosaurs, you most likely won’t see fossils. But you will see an artist’s palette of pleasing pastels: reds, pinks and browns due to iron in the sandstone, yellows and creams created by limonite, and purples presented by pyrolusite. Whatever the chemistry, the display through this stretch is dazzling.
You can ride US 89 from Panguitch to pick up SR 12 at its western end. Head east and in just a few miles you’ll be at Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce is one of America’s jewels, with hoodoos arranged in several natural amphitheaters. An early morning start will help capture dramatic photos; the sun will be low in the eastern sky and the resultant lighting makes the colors pop. Native American Paiutes thought these hoodoos were ancestors turned to stone. Take a long look at some of these formations and you’ll see why.
Stay on SR 12 after Bryce and you’ll skirt Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on tantalizing twisties. All of SR 12 is breathtaking; the stretch known as the Hogsback portion is something right out of a dream. It winds along a ridge with sheer drops on either side. Forget about guard rails and shoulders; you’ll feel as if you are riding on a spaghetti strand in the sky. Cook a corner too fast on this stretch and you’ll wish you were wearing a parachute. This area, more than any other I have ever ridden, is a near-religious experience.
State Route 12 tees into SR 24, but you’ll be able to see Capitol Reef National Park long before you get to SR 24. Head east on SR 24 toward Hanksville and you’ll ride through much of the accessible portion of Capitol Reef. It’s perhaps the least known of Utah’s national parks, but its scenery is as stunning as any of the other parks. Only a portion of Capitol Reef is visible from SR 24, but it is outstanding. Hundreds of miles of unpaved roads into Capitol Reef offer similar scenic views. The park’s unique white sandstone domes (similar to the U.S. Capitol building) were formed by a warp in the Earth’s crust 65 million years ago. “Reef” refers to any barrier to travel, and when you see these formations, you’ll certainly understand the name.
State Route 24 follows the Fremont River through Capitol Reef, and as it twists and turns on its way to Hanksville, you’ll be thanking me for turning you on to these very special roads. — Joe Berk