Rock On With a Trip to Utah’s Red Rock Country
A Magical-Mystery Tour Through Southern Utah’s Red-Rock Country
It’s January and road-trippers everywhere are dreaming of an early spring. Jump the line and time travel to the Southwest where you’ll find blown-open views of endless horizons paired with long, warm days perfect for outdoor adventure.
The spectacular red rocks of Utah are unparalleled, and State Routes 12 and 24 cut right through some of the finest sites. Driving along Route 12—a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road—you’ll be craning your neck in every direction, eyes wide open, through this 122-mile stretch of awe-inspiring splendor. Break out your shorts, dust off your hiking boots, and get ready for some serious Southwest-style exploration.
Weaving a west-to-east route, the byway takes you to Bryce Canyon National Park, but first it passes through little-known Red Canyon. Viewing the amazing vermilion- colored rock formations and ponderosa pine is like a warm-up act to get your juices flowing. The deep-orange hue of its towering pinnacles is electrifying to see after passing mile after mile of high-desert farmland and woods to get there.
Spectacular red-rock hoodoos on either side of the road stand like sentries at the entrance to Red Canyon, and as you pass through this natural gate, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a mysterious wonderland from another planet.
Rows upon rows of red-rock personalities gaze down from perches high above as you enter, and an easy hike on Pink Ledges Trail will take you right into the heart of the wonder. Standing at their base, trace the rugged contours of the sandstone with your fingers. Outstanding hikes intertwine in Red Canyon; if you follow the Birds Eye Trail to soaring heights and the Photographer’s Trail to an overlook, you’ll find the rocky wash.
Hiking out of Red Canyon, you’ll pass under jaw-dropping views that go on forever. For a heart-pumping day of bicycling, follow the paved Red Canyon Bicycle Trail, which winds through stands of ponderosa pine, and then ride all the way to nearby Bryce Canyon National Park.
Two less-visited trails on the backside of Red Canyon are even wilder. Arches Trail climbs to a plateau where the trail runs along the rim with views to the distant horizon across grassy valleys. Several formations in the cliff walls have eroded to form gaps, arches, and windows.
Nearby Casto Canyon, which is like a mini Bryce Canyon, follows a wash and can be hiked, biked, or even ridden on an ATV less than fifty inches wide. Be sure to pause the action here for Instagram-worthy photo ops in two wonderful red-rock arches carved out of stone. Must-see Bryce Canyon National Park is only a few miles east of Red Canyon. Insider tip: Be sure to peek over the edge at Inspiration Point.
As you follow Scenic Byway 12, it morphs from merely gorgeous into truly jaw-dropping in just a few miles after leaving Bryce Canyon as you enter Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This road is steep and winding, climbing to immense heights above a sea of rolling whitewashed stone formations and then plunging down into a moonscape of vast rock valleys.
If you love a challenging hike, plan on the six-mile out-and-back trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls. This can be a very hot hike midday, so head out before sunrise. Even if you can’t make it onto the trail until dusk, the views are stunning even in the semi-dark.
Massive cliff walls covered with desert varnish look as though the gods had traipsed along the rim above and tagged the cliff walls with hundred-foot-long rust-colored paint drips, swirls, and psychedelic symbols.
At Lower Calf Creek Falls, a pencil-thin stream of water pours through a massive crevice in a cliff wall and straight down into a pool. The photo ops here are endless; snap a selfie with the waterfall in double as it reflects in the crystalline water.
Looking for adventures beyond the main highway? There are plenty of detours worthy of side trips here. The sixty-nine-mile-long Burr Trail is a fantastic excursion that begins in the hamlet of Boulder, Utah, a spot in a bend marked by a tiny store and a campground.
Only the first thirty miles of the Burr trail is paved and none of it is suitable for any RV larger than a van.
If you’ve got a 4WD or dually truck, meander along at a leisurely pace—early morning is best—to the bottom of the red-rock canyon.
At first, the canyon is wide, but before long you’ll watch as the walls narrow in and reach up to enormous heights on either side of you. Farther on, you’ll discover fun little slot box canyons just big enough for a few people to squeeze into—perfect for exploration.
Small-Town Fun & Hidden Treasures
When you get to the T-intersection at Highway 24, head west for a mile or two to the town of Torrey, where the temperature is easily ten degrees cooler than it is at the lower elevations along your route.
Highway 24 is the main drag through Torrey, and the road is lined with boutique shops and eateries where you can enjoy the familiar luxuries of civilization once again after several days of Spartan otherworldliness. After you’ve chilled in Torrey, the breathtaking panoramas east of town along Highway 24 beckon. The views as the highway winds through Capitol Reef National Park are so majestic it should be designated an All-American road as well.
Just try to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road as your senses try to absorb all the spectacular surroundings.
The historic village of Fruita, technically a ghost town, sits at the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. Settled in the late 1800s by farmers who found the area ideal for planting fruit trees (hence its name), the community was thriving and full of orchards by 1917.
To this day, cherries, apples, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, mulberries, and walnuts are grown here. A short hike in Capitol Gorge Wash leads to the Pioneer Register, a gigantic sheer cliff face where the Mormon settlers of the 1800s and 1900s carved their names upon arrival after their cross-country treks.
While you take in the rich shades of burnt orange on the distant mesas, imagine what it was like for those intrepid pioneer travelers to set eyes on this natural wonder. Did the practical dangers and challenges of their journeys dim this awesome land’s allure and make it more fearsome than awesome?
Who knows, but Ebenezer Bryce put it nicely when he so famously said of his now world-famous namesake canyon, “It’s a helluva a place to lose a cow!” Indeed.
Change of Scenery
On your way out of Fruita, you’ll begin another thrilling drive on a winding route between tall stone cliffs. The road carves a winding path through images that are out of this world. The miles roll up and, as you approach the town of Hanksville, the extraordinary rock formations begin to fade from red to gray to white.
This town of less than two hundred people has just one elementary school, and middle and high school kids are bussed more than fifty miles each way to attend classes! Settle down for a meal or two in
Hanksville at Duke’s Slickrock Grill. This delightful place serves up ribs and brisket, fresh rainbow trout, and homemade pies, and the portions are big. Before you head home, there are two more must-see spots north along Highway 24.
The first is Goblin Valley State Park. The name alone conjures up images of a magical land filled with red-rock formations that look like a community of people, animals, spaceships, and goblins. And that’s exactly what you’ll find. Spread across a wide valley, these amazing hoodoos stand just twenty- to forty-feet high and visitors are encouraged to climb on them. Listen to the happy voices ring out from atop and below the many crazy rock formations in this giant whimsical playground for kids of all ages.
Nearby, Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon makes for a fantastic day of hiking. Plan on getting wet as you trudge through a wash each way on the eight-mile hike. This is a terrific “first slot canyon” hike for anyone who has never experienced a slot canyon before. It’s so narrow at the bottom that, at times, you might have to put one foot in front of the other to get through. Wind and water have carved the slot over many millennia, often leaving small pockets in the cliff faces, and you’ll likely spot little pebbles and treasures that other hikers have hidden in these natural shelves, providing a bit of human interior decorating to the trail.
Utah’s Scenic Highways 12 and 24 are so full of delights that whether you are headed there for the first time or the tenth, you’re guaranteed an exceptional outdoor adventure!
How Do You Red Rock?
We asked some of RV Magazine’s staffers to share what they love most about southern Utah:
“For me, it’s all about the mountain biking, the trails are like riding on another planet, compared to the singletracks back home.” – Rick Damien, art director
“My husband, Ross, is a photographer and we go for the amazing scenery. There’s no other place in the Southwest with this many photo ops. There’s so much to see and do, we’re always coming back for more!” – Eileen Hubbard, editor-in-chief
“Make a date with your hiking shoes. The native landscape is breathtaking. For me, hiking is the best way to take it all in.” – Kath Cunningham, production manager
“One of my best memories is standing at Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon with my dad and sisters and being astounded by the natural beauty of the spiraling, colorful hoodoos.” – Donya Carlson, features editor
“My wife, Jennifer, is a florist, and our family enjoys exploring and searching for the many colorful wildflowers in the area, like blue flax, Western iris, and paintbrush.” – Kris Bunker, managing editor