Driving Utah's Scenic Byway 12: See spectacular Bryce Canyon and much more

If the American states had all been in the same year at school, Utah would have been the pretty one. Wedged between Nevada and Colorado, it seems unfairly blessed with scenic splendour.

Packed into its southern third are five of the US' most ridiculously photogenic national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef), which are often ticked off – one per day – on a memory card-sapping, five-day drive from Vegas to Denver.

If you have more time, there's an alternative. Rather than taking the GPS-recommended state routes between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, opt for the slower but infinitely more rewarding Scenic Byway 12.

Squirming its way between Panguitch and Torrey, the 198-kilometre drive skirts two national parks, three state parks, a national recreation area, a national forest and a national monument. En route it offers an astonishingly diverse range of landscapes, from crimson limestone gullies and petrified sand dunes to high-alpine fir forests and sagebrush scrub.

Starting from the western end near Panguitch, the first blast of neck-straining wonderment comes after just four kilometres. Red Canyon is a beguiling maze of rust-coloured turrets, hoodoos and spires that stretches for six kilometres along the top of a limestone plateau.

While undoubtedly impressive, it's just a warm-up for what's surely a contender for the US' most spectacular national park. Bryce Canyon is an intricate labyrinth of pink limestone pinnacles, buttresses and columns so gorgeous it's hard to believe it's not all CGI. Make sure you spend at least a day here.

Stay at the cowboy-themed Ruby's Inn, gorge on one of Ethel's secret-recipe homemade pies at Bryce Canyon Pines and set the alarm to ensure you're at Bryce Point for sunrise (trust me, it's worth it).

From Bryce, the Byway wriggles into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSNM), a remote, 4000-square-kilometre wilderness that was the last place to be mapped in mainland America. Much of it can only be explored by high-clearance 4WD but there are car-friendly excursions, too.

On the advice of staff at the visitor centre, we turn off Byway 12 and take a deserted backroad to Kodachrome Basin State Park. A hiking trail leads up to an elevated plateau, from where we can admire the park's defining feature: dozens of sand pipes, ranging from two to 52 metres high, that are thought to be the only examples on the planet. In stark contrast to Bryce, there's not another soul here.


It's a phenomenon we experience repeatedly. At the Head of the Rocks Overlook, we share a horizon-straining vista of red-and-cream sandstone canyons with just two other couples. While driving along The Hogsback, a nerve-testing ribbon of tarmac with vertiginous drops on both sides, I count the number of cars on one hand.

While at times the landscape feels desolate and foreboding, the Byway is dotted with several small towns so you're never too far from civilisation.

In Escalante (population 802), we stop for lunch at Escalante Outfitters and over an unexpectedly good spinach, mushroom and bocconcini pizza meet the restaurant's aptly-named owner, Nathan Waggoner. He tells us that GSNM still has cowboys that camp out with the cattle and that archaeological digs in the area have revealed more than 20 new species of dinosaurs. "The monument is wild and beautiful," he says. "And there aren't many places like that left in the world."


Rob McFarland was a guest of Utah Office of Tourism and Brand USA.






Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines fly to Las Vegas, Denver and Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City it's a 3½-hour drive to Panguitch or Torrey. See virginaustralia.com


Ruby's Inn has family suites and all stays include full buffet breakfast. Rooms from $150. See rubysinn.com