Utah’s Highway 12, Revisited (1 of 3)


A Family Journey Through Utah’s Color Country

That Infernal BirdPart 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

“That bird just pooped in my ice cream!”

I lifted my gaze and half muttered, “Huh?” as a tiny shadow flitted up and out of sight.

My daughter’s face was a contortion of horror and extreme delight. Both arms in the air, she stared disbelieving into the small plastic cup nearly empty of its half-frozen contents. And then she laughed the kind of laugh that lives only in the souls of little girls. The kind that makes rainbows seem to crack open in mid-air as the sound bounces from sunbeam to sunbeam on winds of unfettered joy.

And we have arrived. Finally. Vacation.

A road by any other name…

There is almost nothing I love more than a good road trip. Half of the fun seems to be in the planning. And when you finally get to the execution, the fun multiplies into more good times than you know what to do with.

Utah’s Highway 12 (officially State Route 12 or Scenic Byway 12) is certainly a fun multiplier. Along this 122-mile stretch of blacktop, you’ll encounter no fewer than four state parks, two national parks, a national monument, a national forest, and enough scenery to make merely driving it a vacation-worthy outing. Towns ranging from tiny hamlets to bigger hamlets dot the route and offer no end of charming roadside dining, lodging, and people. This post is the first of a three-part series highlighting a few stops our family made on a recent visit to areas along Highway 12.

The emphasis of this series is fun. Virtually anyone will enjoy the suggestions offered here. An abundance of backcountry treasure abounds at each locale, but we’re saving those for another day. All of the activities and hikes are family friendly. Hiking mileages are one-way.

Part 1: A Capitol beginning to Highway 12

Grand Wash

Hiking into Grand Wash

Torrey (pop. 182) marks Highway 12’s northeast terminus. About 5 miles outside of town lies Capitol Reef National Park. By visitor count, Capitol Reef is one Utah’s least-visited national parks. The lack of crowds is noticeable and one reason this park has become our go-to. But never having to hunt for a parking spot isn’t the only reason to love Capitol Reef. Among other wonders, Waterpocket Fold is a 100-mile, warping landform and the primary geographical and geological marvel of the park. Natural forces and 65-million years have carved canyons, domes, and spires from the uplift. The result is a varied playground of easy-access exploration. Be sure to pick up a trail map from the visitor center (or download it here), and don’t miss these family favorites:

View at Hickman Arch

Hiking- The moderate climb to 133-foot Hickman Bridge (.9 mi) is the most popular hike in the park–with good reason. Easier strolls through Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge offer deep canyon environs. Grand Wash (2.2 mi) has winding narrows and a few shady side canyons. The trail through Capitol Gorge (1 mi) once functioned as a road, of sorts. Inside you’ll find historical inscriptions of the names of some who passed through. Please don’t add your own. The Chimney Rock Loop (3.6 mi RT) is my favorite short hike in the park, so far. Even my kids love it. They like a challenge with a good payoff, and this trail scores on both. A short, steep climb gets you atop high cliffs overlooking almost the entire park to the south. Views of the Waterpocket Fold and virtually all of the surrounding countryside are incredible, especially when weather is approaching.


Fruita- Near Capitol Reef’s visitor center sits an historic pioneer settlement with perfect picnic spots and actively producing orchards. During harvest season (June-Oct.), pick as many cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, and apples (25 varieties!) as you like. Eat your fill for free inside the park. Just pay for what you take home. Don’t miss the Gifford House (open March 14-Oct. 31), purveyor of homemade pie and ice cream. It’s also the site of the little drama that kicked off this article.

Freemont petroglyphs– Minutes from the visitor center, the petroglyphs site is one of my kids’ favorite Capitol Reef stops. The “hike” is merely a stroll on a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk in the breezy shade of cottonwood trees. Perhaps over 1,000 years old, the remarkably preserved drawings depict various aspects of the Fremont Culture and people. These are the most easily accessed petroglyphs I’ve come across in Utah. Do not miss this. Pro tip: Go early and you’ll have them all to yourself.


Doo, doo, doo, looking out my hotel room door.

Where to stay: The campground at Capitol Reef is beautiful, but it fills up fast. Luckily, Torrey’s bustling tourism industry has you covered. The independently-owned Capitol Reef Resort is closest to the park and has over 100 rooms.A traditional two-queen room is less than $90. The one we stayed in was clean and comfortable for our family of six. Even with the oldest kid sleeping on the floor, and the youngest in a playpen. We also enjoyed unobstructed views of the surrounding countryside right outside the door.

Where to eat: Torrey has more restaurants than you might imagine. Some are seasonal, and I’ll admit that I haven’t explored them as much as I should. That said, Capitol Reef Inn & Cafe has good food and great menu variety. Slacker’s is your standard roadside greasy spoon. Delicious burgers and awesome shakes. Try the blueberry-Oreo combo, it’s an official family tradition now.

Backcountry Burr Trail to Boulder (pop. 222)

After a visit to Capitol Reef, you could head south on Highway 12, but there is another way, if you’re up for it. Adventure awaits on the Nottom-Bullfrog Road just outside the eastern edge of the park boundary. This road takes you south along the middle portions of the Waterpocket Fold. At about 33 miles, you’ll arrive at the Burr Trail Junction, which heads west. You can take that turn right away, but don’t.

I recommend you head just a teeny bit (two miles) further south to explore Surprise Canyon (1 mi.) and/or Headquarters Canyon (1.1 mi), another half-mile down. Both of these short hikes follow trails across open desert to a couple of introductory, non-technical slot canyons. These may be a kid’s best introduction to canyoneering. Our girls hooted and squealed their way through, and our one-year-old boy even toddled his way through the narrows.


Burr Trail Switchbacks

Whenever you decided to turn onto the Burr Trail Junction, be ready to wonder if you’ve been led astray. A steep headwall looms ahead with diagonal lines cutting across in alternating directions. You’re looking at the Burr Trail switchbacks, which even your Prius can handle. In fact, unless you’re driving this car, you’ll be fine. Shortly after you reach the top, the road is paved all the way to Boulder (pop. 222).


Click here for “Utah’s Highway 12, Revisited” Part 2: Enchanting Escalante

Capitol Reef NP Image Gallery:


About Author

Aaron Lovell lives in Tooele, Utah, and studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma. He hates fishing, loves ballet, and spends his free time helping his wife coax their four children along on hikes they're not old enough for. Twitter: @aarontlovell