A WEEK IN RED ROCK COUNTRY #5 – Scenic Byway 12
A WEEK IN RED ROCK COUNTRY #5 – Scenic Byway 12
On the supplied map, the blue line represents the length of the Scenic Byway 12. This is UT route 12 which starts at the intersection of UT89 near the town of Panguitch at the west end and from there it heads east through Red Canyon that we talked about in the 4th episode of this travel log. It then climbs onto a higher plateau, goes past the spur road which leads you to Bryce Canyon and descends into the valley below Bryce. It continues through the northern section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and eventually ends up at the town of Torrey, 124 miles from where it started. This highway winds its way across several plateau levels, through valley’s, up and down mountains, and through some of the most spectacular scenery that the SW has to offer over such a large expanse of territory. Not shown on my map are several other Scenic Byway’s and Scenic Backway’s that spur off of this main route. The “backways” are dirt roads, the “byways” for paved.
On our trip we did not do the entire length. You can see on the map where we stopped to take photographs (the red or yellow rectangles).
Prior to the highway, traveling in this wild and rugged area was very slow and hazardous. It would take days to go only a short distance. However in 1935 things started to change. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) started building Lower Boulder Rd between the towns of Boulder and Escalante. Much of that original road has now become incorporated into RT-12. This section was completed in 1940 and was nicknamed “The Million Dollar Highway” which sounds cheap now but back then it was a lot of money. Remember this was a period before the heavy machinery we have today so most of the work was done by blasting through the slick rock terrain and then grading the debris with horse drawn scrapers or by hand with pick and shovel and manually tossing it onto horse drawn wagons with hand shovels to be taken away.
Up until the road opened in 1940 the town of Boulder was the last town in the United States to receive its mail by mule train. The opening of the highway allowed for year-round mail to come by automobile and ended the era of animal powered mail delivery. This section of road came into Boulder from the South. To the north of Boulder was Boulder Mountain which formed major obstacle to road construction. The portion of the road across Boulder Mountain wasn't completed until 1985 – Yep, 1985 not that long ago.
So, let’s start our journey at the west end of this Scenic Byway.
Red Canyon and Bryce Canyon
Starting at RT-89 near Panguitch the Byway goes through Red Canyon, then up onto a plateau where Bryce Canyon National park is and then descends into Tropic Valley (aka Bryce Valley). We already talked about Red Canyon in edition #4 and will culminate this series with Bryce Canyon itself in the next installment.
In the pioneer days, Tropic valley had a quite distinct problem with a lack of water. This is very arid land and with no year round river and no real lakes to tap, things were a bit dicey for the few crazy farmers who tried to eke out a living with dry farming in Tropic Valley. To remedy this, the early pioneers spent two years digging what’s now called the East Fork Canal or Thompson Ditch using nothing but hand tools. This ditch diverted water from the East Fork of the Sevier River. The river they tapped is 10 miles away over on the other side of what is now Bryce Canyon National Park. It was completed in 1890, and is still used in the summer months to this day.
Old wagon bridge over Thompson Ditch
Tropic (Bryce) Valley
Tropic Valley is below and to the east of Bryce Canyon National Park and is a mix of open land and farming with a few dying towns scattered around like Tropic, Canyonville, and Henrieville. There are a few sights to see in these towns like the Ebenezer Bryce cabin near Tropic and the old schoolhouse in Henrieville but other than that nothing nearly as spectacular as Red Canyon or Bryce NP. However, there are some very nice vistas where you look across farming land to butte’s that rise straight up a thousand feet or more out of the valley floor – many with pink hoodoos..
Farm and Hoodoos across Tropic Valley (West of Henrieville)
Scenic Byway 12, North of Henrieville
Some Hoodoo’s near the Scenic Byway 12, North of Henrieville
One of many plateau’s along the Scenic Byway 12, North of Henrieville
Dirt track leading into the back country Scenic Byway 12, North of Henrieville
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Preserve
As you enter Tropic Valley from Bryce Canyon on RT12, you are in a finger of non public land which is surrounded on all sides by the GSE (Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Preserve). When the preserve was established in 1996 by Bill Clinton, this section of the RT12 corridor was already populated with small towns and farms so was not included in the GSE itself. However, once you pass the town of Henrieville you are in the GSE preserve itself and civilization is only a temporary vision in your rear view mirror.
The GSE, at 1.9 million acres, is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and was set aside to preserve the wide open spaces and intact full ecosystems. It is made up of 3 distinct regions, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits Plateau and Canyons of the Escalante.
Stretching across the SW corner of the GSE, the Grand Staircase is a series of massive geological steps that descend down toward the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It consists of 5 different cliff formations – Pink, Gray, White, Vermillion, and Chocolate –each being a different chapter of geologic history going all the way back to the age of the Dinosaurs. The central section of the GSE is the Kaiparowits Plateau. This is a massive, isolated region of mesas and canyons stretching as far as the eye can see. The last section is the Canyons of the Escalante which are a series of labyrinthine canyons through sandstone that feed the Escalante River as it flows on to the Colorado.
As we tooled along RT-12 and climbed up out of the Tropic Valley we went through a few canyons and up onto the next higher plateau where we were presented with what would normally be considered majestic scenery, but after seeing the things we’d seen on this trip so far, these canyons were ho-hum.
Bryce like Hoodoo formation from higher plateau North of Henrieville
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Just before we arrived at the town of Escalante we came to the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. This park is 1000 acres, and is on the shore of a reservoir which was quite frozen on our visit. There are hiking trails as well as, you guessed it, a petrified forest. There was a fair amount of snow on the trails so we didn’t hike around much or visit the area where the petrified wood is located, but we explored the frozen lake shore looking for photo ops.
Frozen Reservoir at Petrified Forest State Park
Bleached Tree stump at Petrified Forest State Park
Twigs in Frozen lake at Petrified Forest State Park
The skies over the American Southwest
We’ve been traveling to the American Southwest (among other places) for over 40 years. And, as a kid growing up in LA, our family took many camping vacations to many of these same areas in the 1950’s. As you can imagine many things have changed since then. Some for the good like many more areas being protected, better traveler services and better roads - making it faster to get from one area to another. However, some things have gone the other way such as the numbers of people going to these places, giant RV’s, more disregard for nature by the public, higher prices, etc. I guess progress has its price. But, one thing that struck me looking back over the years is the sky.
I’m not talking about air pollution wafting in from cities and power plants but rather airplanes. In the 1960’s you could look up from the rim of Bryce Canyon and see nothing but deep blue sky. Even in the mid 1970’s it was just the odd contrail from time to time with plenty of unmarred sky a few minutes later. Now it’s like a super highway in the sky with planes going every which way with each leaving a white vapor trail in its wake. This continues all day as well as all through the night and is very sad for those looking to see pristine nature as it’s hard to see nature without seeing the sky as well. I guess I’m hypocritical as I do like being able to drive through our parks on paved roads, and I like to have restaurants to eat in and a motel room at night all of which is also detracting from pristine nature. I understand the need for air transport and many times I’m in one of those planes marring the view for the folks below but it sure would be nice if they could design air corridors that went around our major national parks rather than over them.
Air Traffic overhead – Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Continuing on we stopped at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center. After a quick look through the small museum we asked for a lunch recommendation (our cell phone wasn’t coming up with anything) and the manager suggested a hamburger place as the best place to eat in town. He quickly added that it was actually the only place in town where we could get lunch this time of year. Now, wait a minute. Escalante is a semi-decent size town – with a population of nearly 800, and being “the heart of Scenic Byway 12” as they say, and with the rising popularity of this area for tourists, surly there is more than one place in town to eat lunch on a beautiful winters day.
So off we went in search of an eatery. We first made our way to Nemo’s (the recommended hamburger stand) but it looked more like a summer soft ice cream place than a restaurant so we went on. Well, after driving the length of the town twice it turns out the guy at the visitor center was right and other than a Subway sandwich shop inside a gas station, this was the only place that was open. Junk food places like this isn’t where we usually have meals. This one doesn’t even have any indoor seating but as it was a lovely day and being that it was the only show in town, we tried it out. Turns out that it was one of the best burgers we’ve had in many years. So, just goes to show you that you can’t always tell what you’re going to get by what the place looks like on the outside. I don’t have my own photo of Nemo’s (the hamburger stand) so I grabbed one from Google.
Nemo’s in Escalante, Utah (photo from http://www.escalanteut.com/services/dining/)
Getting back to the town of Escalante, it was settled 1876 by Mormon pioneers who were advised by the second Powell Expedition (you know, the guys that discovered the Grand Canyon by floating down the Colorado river in wooden boats) to name the town after the river running through the valley. The river itself was named after Silvestre Veldez de Escalante who was a Spanish priest and explorer who traveled through the area looking for a route between Santa Fe and California. I guess he too wanted to avoid Las Vegas.
Head of the Rocks Overlook
From Escalante the road gently climbs through scrub desert and 10 miles outside of Escalante you round a corner and before you is one of the most spectacular panorama’s the west has to offer. The land drops away in front of you down to the Escalante River giving a view as far as the eye can see beyond. Being a narrow road I was desperately looking for a place to pull off the highway for some photos and as luck (or forethought) would have it around the next corner was a lovely scenic overlook with a parking lot. I guess I’m not the first to think this was a great place for a photo or 100. This is the Head of the Rocks Overlook and it provides expansive views out across the Escalante Canyons where colorful slick rock stretches forever and in our case with sections dappled with snow. These striated cream-and-red sandstone formations were sand dunes that formed 168 million years ago. In the distance one can see the southeastern edge of the Aquarius Plateau (i.e. Boulder Mountain) the Henry Mountains and the eastern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Head of the Rocks Overlook - Panorama
Head of the Rocks Overlook with RT-12
Head of the Rocks Overlook
Head of the Rocks Overlook
From the Head of the Rocks overlook, the road descends into the Escalante valley (bad lands more like it). Shortly before plunging all the way down to the river there is another overlook called “Boynton Overlook”. This one is not nearly as impressive as the last but if you just dropped in here out of the blue you’d think it was mighty grand. From here you can peer over the wall into the river canyon below. In the summer it gives a good idea of the native vegetation and critters in the area – including river otters which were reintroduced here in 2005. From a photographers point of view there were some pesky high voltage power lines going right across the view, but Photoshop made short work of those.
RT-12 as it gets ready to cross the Escalante River
Escalante Canyons from Boynton overlook
Escalante Canyons from Boynton overlook
The town of Boulder was first settled in 1894 and was named for the volcanic boulders scattered across the slopes of nearby Boulder Mountain. It was long known as the “last frontier in Utah,” as it was almost completely isolated (road wise) until 1935. Mail was delivered by mule train or horseback. Fresh milk was first delivered to the (not so) nearby town of Escalante by wagon from farms further south and then made its way to Boulder by mule train. Due to the rough ride on the mules, the milk often turned into butter before its arrival in Boulder. This made it very difficult to make milk shakes at the drive-in in Boulder – wait, there were no roads so no drive-in’s either -- oops. So the folks were quite pleased when in 1935 they had road access to and from their little town.
While in Boulder we stopped in at the Anasazi State Park Museum. Anasazi is what the later Navajo called the remnants of the people who lived here before they arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries – and is now considered a slightly derogatory term roughly translating to “Enemies of the Navajo”. There is some movement to start calling these people the Ancestral Pueblo Indians but as the term Anasazi has been in use for so long it’s unclear if the name change will take root or not. The Ancestral Pueblo natives were active in the area from around 1AD to around 1300 AD, The museum has a small collection of artifact dating from this period before the arrival of the Navajo. And outback is what remains of an Anasazi village that has been excavated. In one section you can see the stone foundations of their lodging, storage and communal rooms. But in another section they have recreated a section of buildings on top of the ancient foundations to show what it was actually like when this village was occupied. The excavations has uncovered 97 rooms, 10 pit structures and hundreds of thousands of artifacts but has so far only gotten to about half of the site.
From here we drove on up to the crest of Boulder Mountain but could not find a good spot for photos, so, as it was getting to be late afternoon, we turned around and headed back toward Bryce.
Although we traversed this section of road, called the “Hogsback”, earlier in the day going north it was more interesting driving it going south with the later afternoon light. This is apparently an internationally known stretch of road. What makes it special and spectacular is the road sits on the crest of a razor thin ridge of slick rock with the terrain descending steeply down on both sides into deep valley’s and canyons below where cottonwoods provide ribbons of green, gold or gray (depending on season). From this ridge line you can see an endless panorama of cream, red, and orange rock in all directions and in our case, it was all dappled with brilliant white patches of snow.
Along the Hogsback the road is quite narrow. The driving lanes are a bit narrower than normal, and there is no shoulder, paved or otherwise, on which to pull off. You are either in your lane or you are plummeting down a steep mountainside. It’s a great ride and view for the passengers but the driver must watch the road and not pay too much attention to the scenic world all around. For a photographer, there is a strong desire to make some images but, alas, there is no place to pull over and stop and it’s way too dangerous to park further on and hike back as you’d be walking in the middle of the road with no place to step aside when a big RV comes rushing by. So, a great memory but no photos. However here are a couple of images I borrowed from the Internet
Great Arial shot of the Hogsback Road can be found here:
Ground level shot of the Hogsback road.
Our last stop on our tour along the Scenic Byway 12 was a view out over the Calf Creek Recreation area. There is an official Calf Creek viewpoint that we just drove on by but as the scenery got better and better I decided that a photograph was in order and found a dirt shoulder above Calf Creek which turned out to be about 2 miles south of The Hogsback. This is not an “official” viewpoint but rather just a bit of dirt shoulder by the edge a canyon. The Calf Creek Recreation area contains a small campground, and a 3 mile, moderate to strenuous trail to a stunning 126 foot high waterfall. We did not take this 6 mile round trip hike. However, we did take some photos from the side of RT-12
Calf Creek Recreation Area
Calf Creek Recreation Area
Calf Creek Recreation Area
We only spent 1 day driving this section of the Scenic Byway 12 east of Bryce, and did not take any of the side roads like the Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Byway, Kodachrome Basin, Posey lake/Pine Creek Scenic Backway, Hells Backbone Scenic Backway, or Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Backway. And were pressed for time in just the parts we did drive. This is a fantastical area of country that is somewhat off the beaten track of most tourists but if you’re ever in the Bryce or Capitol Reef area I’d strongly suggest you take a day or two to explore this area, or at least drive this road. It’s well worth it.
I hope you are enjoying reading the Red Rock Country travel log. The next installment will be Bryce Canyon National Park.
- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.
This blog is posted at: http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2016/10/a-week-in-red-rock-country-5
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogredrock, escalante national monument, grand staircase / escalante national monument, grand staircase national monument, hoodoo, red canyon, red canyon utah, red rock country, route 12 scenic byway, utah
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