Saturday, October 2, 2010


Odel on our beautiful trail We have traveled many, many of the most scenic roads in the US during our years of travel, and Highway 12, which travels south from Torrey, Utah, through Boulder and Escalante, on past Bryce Canyon to meet with Highway 89, certainly ranks up there with the best. 

We spent a LONG day on Friday exploring the section from Torrey to Boulder over Boulder Mountain;  the section between Boulder and Escalante over the Hog’s Back; and Hell’s Backbone, a long, winding, historic, graveled road looping through Dixie National Forest over Death Hollow.

Hell’s Backbone, Death Hollow, the Hog’s Back… do you see a pattern here?  Colorful – and appropriate - names to describe a section of country that was one of the last in the U.S. to be explored and mapped. 

The drive from Torrey south to Boulder, 37 miles, was a blaze of aspen, even more beautiful that what we had seen around Fish Lake – with the added attraction of panoramic views of the spectacular rock formations of Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the east.  The road climbs to a summit at 9,600 feet, with plenty of scenic viewpoints and casual pullouts for leaf-peeping and viewing the panorama below.

Traversing Boulder Mountain
View from the Homestead Vista Point
Clouds forming over Grand Staircase-Escalante N.M. A tapestry of aspen on Boulder Mountain

Winding down off the mountain through the tiny town of Boulder, we found the turnoff to Hell’s Backbone 3 miles outside of town.  The name alone was enough to entice me onto this loop, but I also was interested in the history – it was the first automobile road between Boulder and Escalante, built by the CCC in 1933 (they built the shorter, all-weather, stretch that is now part of highway 12 in 1940).   The 109 foot Hell’s Backbone Bridge traverses an 800 foot drop into Death Hollow, leading the CCC to give this section of the 42 mile roadway the nickname “The Poison Road”: one drop meant certain death.

We turned on to Hell's Backbone. And began to climb...
We turned on to Hell’s Backbone…

…and began to climb...

… eventually reaching Death Hollow and the chasm…

… where I dared to pose on the bridge.  :)

The Hell's Backbone Chasm LB on HB Bridge

The historic road was a feat of engineering, and perhaps a quarter of it quite scenic.  The remaining thirty-some miles of the loop were typical of a gravel road through national forest: plenty of bone-jarring washboard, plenty of dust, lots of climbs and descents, and very few views past the dusty pines lining the shoulder of the road.  We were happy to join Pine Creek Road, a dozen or so miles north of Escalante, definitely one of the most scenic sections of the long loop.

After a lunch break in Escalante, we headed back north on Highway 12, towards Boulder.  This 27 mile section was a total knockout!  The Escalante rock formations took center stage, as Highway 12 wound up, down, through, and over beautiful cream and red rocks, sometimes through formations looming on both sides of the road, later on top of the Hog’s Back, a ridge that dropped steeply to either side.

A big downhill curve. Near Calf Creek
Between Escalante and Boulder at a scenic turnout. On the Hog Back

By the time we passed through Boulder again, now heading north, we felt like we’d been in the car for a lifetime!  At a high point on Boulder Mountain, we spied a trailhead kiosk, pulled over, and extricated ourselves stiffly from the Jeep.  Heading up the mountainside, we found a trail amongst the aspen, alongside Pleasant Creek – ahhhhh, refreshing.

Aspen on our Pleasant Creek hike There is an ongoing conversation among RV’ers about whether or not highway 12 between Bryce Canyon and Torrey is suitable for big rigs.  Many have driven it, many others don’t recommend it. 

Our conclusion?  We COULD drive it in Scoopy, but would much rather drive it in our Jeep, as sightseers. Lots of climbs and descents – with some of the grades signed as 10%, others as 8%. Lots of tight, 25 or 30 mile per hour curves.  While the posted “scenic vistas” can accommodate big rigs, a big rig driver would miss most of the views, as this road requires plenty of attention. 

As for Hell’s Backbone – never again, in anything!


  1. Another beautiful and informative post from you two! Thanks for sharing!! Love the pictures of the quakies!

  2. When I started reading this I thought that you were in the motor home making this drive and just figured that you had found some special mushrooms on one of your hikes earlier this week.
    Fantastic scenery.

  3. Beautiful time of the year to be in that neck of the woods! :)

  4. You are so right, Laurie, Highway 12 is a knockout, of course, you still have the Burr Trail and the No Tom Road to do, so I am looking forward to your stories about THAT drive! RE: driving 12 in a motorhome: we left Torrey for points south via 12 in our 26 foot rig towing the tracker. I wondered about how it might be in a bigger rig, so thanks for your take on it.

  5. We did that section between Torrey and Bryce with the rig -- we saw 12 and 14% grades (I know because I got a picture for the blog). I'm tempted to say it's not suitable, though, just because there are too many people on the road with inadequate brakes. It's a beautiful drive, but I think I'd rather do it without a 20,000 lb. trailer pushing us down the hill! So glad you're enjoying one of our favorite parts of the world.

  6. Your photos just confirm why I think Utah is my favorite State:))

  7. Al, I'm beginning to feel the same way about Utah. Sue, we just got home from the Torrey-Boulder-Burr Trail-Notom road loop. WOW! Those switchbacks! Now to go through the 96 (is that all) photos I took...

  8. If you are ever back that way, Laurie, right at the top of the Burr switchbacks are the Muley Twist hikes. You and Odel would love them. Long slickrock gorgeous washes and slots. It's a shuttle kind of hike, so maybe if friends are around someday with another car.... :)

  9. Thanks for giving us insight as to what next fall holds for us...

  10. My 5-year-old daughter loved these pics. Her name is Aspen :)

  11. Oh what gorgeous sites! I would think a trip in a jeep would be more fun than white knuckling it in a motorhome!

    Karen and Steve
    (Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard