The drive from Panguitch to Torrey is unforgettable. Yet, somehow, I’d forgotten how to find my way back.
Photos and Story By Chris Vanocur
Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 is staggeringly beautiful, one of the most stunning roads in the world. And, at least on one stretch, it can be terrifying to drive. And for me, it provided an unexpected answer to a longtime mystery.
Intrigued? Then, let’s go for a drive.
Scenic Byway 12 is 124 miles long, winding west to east, from Panguitch to Torrey. A sign not far from the west entrance informs travelers that they are on an “All-American Road.” This means the road is so lovely and unique it is a destination unto itself. Only a third of America’s scenic byways receive this distinction
You want proximity to national parks? Byway 12 is that roadway, paving the way to Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. State parks? Yup, accessing as it does Escalante Petrified Forest and Kodachrome Basin. You can even throw in a national monument: Grand Staircase-Escalante.
And along with all the big names are any number of off-the-beaten-path adventures.
But the road’s beauty can be fickle. Driving east as I did, motorists hit early stretches where the scenery is pleasing but not necessarily awe-inspiring. Just when you start thinking this byway is nothing special, however, you round a bend and are instantly filled with wonder. Not only will you see the sandstone “stairs” that make up the Grand Staircase just past Henrieville, but you’ll also find yourself driving through the two red arches in Red Canyon. Mountains, vistas and hoodoos are all part of the natural voodoo this byway does so well. There are stretches that literally offer scenic overlooks every quarter mile.
Be forewarned, though, peril is lurking.
Between Escalante and Boulder, a section of Byway 12 known as the Hogsback awaits. It’s only a short part of the byway, but extremely narrow. Drivers find themselves faced with sudden and dramatically steep dropoffs on both sides of the road. In fact, when I posted on Facebook that I was about to traverse this byway, one friend cautioned me about the Hogsback. He wrote, “Warning, Chris! The road from Escalante to Boulder goes along the top of a cliff with nothing on either side. Like driving down the deck of an aircraft carrier … but not that wide! Two tiny lanes. A steering-wheel gripper!”
Now, for drivers who might be afraid of heights (i.e., me!), here are a couple of pro safety tips. First, just keep your eyes on the road and quietly repeat to yourself, “Don’t look down. Don’t look down.”
Secondly, to steady your nerves before or after the Hogsback, make a pit-stop at the Kiva Koffeehouse (Highway 12, mile marker 73.86, Escalante, 435-826-4550, KivaKoffeehouse.com). Normally, I’m not a fan of commercial establishments in scenic areas. But I love this place. Open seasonally between April and October, this java joint may have the best view of any coffee shop in the country. Also, their baked goods are the bomb. An extremely tasty raspberry vanilla scone goes down easily when overlooking the awesomeness that is Byway 12.
Finally, as hinted at earlier, this scenic road also helped me resolve a decades-long mystery.
When I was a very young TV reporter, I hazily remember being on assignment in Southern Utah. My photographer was driving, and I was writing on deadline, so I didn’t pay attention to where we were. But occasionally, I would look up and be astonished at how lovely the road was. For years, this was a cherished memory. It was also a frustrating one, though, because I couldn’t remember exactly where I had been or how to get back.
Driving on Byway 12 in the late spring of 2019, I had an epiphany outside Escalante. Suddenly, it all came rushing back. The beauty, the winding roads, and the unparalleled splendor. This was the mythical road I traveled in my youth. Such an unexpected reunion filled me with both joy and an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
Traveling the byway a second time, I couldn’t help but compare this long and winding road to my own life’s journey. Moments of unsurpassed beauty and, yes, some white-knuckle terror. But there’s more to it than just that. Forty years ago, I fell in love with the West and decided to put down roots here. This uniquely Western and noble pathway somehow reassures me I made the right choice. Byway 12 reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Jack Kerouac’s epic, Beat Generation novel, On the Road. Kerouac wrote, “I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.” This passage seems to sum up the way my life has unfolded. It also speaks to the timeless appeal of Utah’s Scenic Byway 12, an all-American road.