Reader Ride–Utah Highway 12: It's the Journey and the Destination

Text: Tim Kessel • Photography: Tim Kessel

In my impetuous youth, I felt the kickstand was my sworn enemy. I was one of those guys who wore continuous hours of saddle time as a badge of honor and total miles for the day like the crown jewel on my riding tiara.

In my more mature years, I am a different rider. Places like southern Utah have changed me. And like any good father, I want to help my son avoid my mistakes. Thus begins a late spring father-and-son ride on Utah State Route 12 and the amazing bookends of that awe-inspiring ribbon of asphalt.

Bryce Canyon

The western starting point of Utah State Route 12 is an intersection with Highway 89 in southern Utah. We make the turn, my son on his Kawasaki ZZR1200 fitted with soft luggage and me on my BMW R 1200 GS. The muted brown hues of this high desert intersection give little indication of the chromatic vibrancy that is to come. However, within a mile on the 12, the horizon holds a wisp of crimson foreshadowing.

After a handful of miles, we are fully engulfed in red rock spires, monoliths, and man-made tunnels. Red Canyon is visual sensory overload. The vermillion rocks contrasted with the intense blue sky is almost unnaturally vivid. Just miles later, Bryce Canyon sits as a grand celebration of the power of erosion. The stratified sedimentary rock formations are stunning and expansive. The stone “hoodoos” are the central characters of this remarkable national park.

That “young me” would have enjoyed glimpses of this majestic region from a rolling perspective. However, Bryce Canyon National Park is a place that begs for exploration in Timberland hiking boots not Sidi riding boots. My son and I spend hours hiking, gawking, and taking in this rosé wonderland. Lesson number one on embracing the kickstand completed.

Back on the Bikes

After several hours at Bryce Canyon, we pull on our motorcycle boots and again settle onto the saddles. The road that links Bryce Canyon with the next national park is truly one of the most memorable stretches of tarmac in my four decades of riding.

Utah Route 12 lays claim to some of the most varied terrains and riding conditions to be found. One moment we are carving through canyon cathedrals only to emerge a few miles later onto a ride that follows the ridge of a mountain. The views vary from the intensely immediate to the expansively panoramic. We are inspired to stop repeatedly to photograph, discuss, and just imbibe the scenery. This must be lesson number two in the big slow down.

There are magnetic attractions dotting the full length of the 12. After Bryce there is the aptly named Kodachrome Basin State Park. Apparently, the photo-centric name was given to the park by the National Geographic Society after a 1948 expedition. One has to hum the Simon and Garfunkel tune of the same name when riding in this area.

There are several famous overlooks on Route 12. The first one we approach is The Blues, which gives a great look at the 10,188-foot Powell Point. The next, and our favorite, is Head of the Rocks. As motorcyclists, it is a particular thrill to see the upcoming course carved into the undulating pink rocks below. The last is Homestead, which offers a 9,400-foot perspective of the Waterpocket Fold (more about that in a minute) and its surroundings. Every overlook on this scenic byway is worthy of a stop.

The ultimate highlight is the internationally-known Hogsback. The road traces, or more descriptively, clings to, a thin ridge of mountaintop. The terrain flows downward on both sides of the asphalt affording panoramic, pastel-hued views in all directions. The mix of the winding path, staggering vistas, and often precipitous drop-offs make this a place to slow down and enjoy. Lesson number three completed.

Capitol Reef

Like all good things, Highway 12 ends. After 120 glorious miles, the road terminates when it intersects with Utah State Route 24. However, there is a silver lining. A stone’s throw from the end of 12 is another of Utah’s great national parks. Capitol Reef encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, which we viewed from the Homestead Overlook earlier. It is an impressive and extremely long geological warp in the earth’s crust.

For my son and me, it is another reason to shed the motorcycle boots for more appropriate hiking footwear. Capitol Reef is uniquely different that the national park we experienced 100 miles prior. Whereas Bryce Canyon is intense and relatively compact, Capitol Reef is more arid and covers a much larger area. In fact, it is over six times the size of Bryce. The great thing about the Utah national parks is that they can be appreciated both inside and outside of their designated boundaries. The beauty begins well outside of the park confines.

Setting the Pace

Utah State Route 12 is a place to ride and explore at a slow pace. The road boasts almost 5,000 feet of elevation change in its serpentine 120-mile span. With some planning it can become a part of an extended tour that includes Utah’s other national and state parks. It can also be part of several fantastic loops. There are lodging options on both ends of State Route 12, and there is great camping throughout the route.

Full disclosure is in order. The lessons in exercising the kickstand were superfluous for my son. It turns out that “mileage slavery” was my personal affliction, not a genetic or even an age-related trait. My son, an artist, is more than willing to stop, absorb, and enjoy. There is no better place on the planet to do just that than southern Utah.