Saturday, July 23, 2011

Roadtripping Utah's Highway 12 from Torrey to Bryce Canyon's Ruby's Inn

In the picture you are looking at a section of the Hog's Back on Utah's Scenic Highway 12. I drove this highway back in the mid 1990s. On Easter weekend. Part of a Roadtrip that included a week in Moab.

I long ago wrote a very long and detailed description of this particular Roadtrip, webpaging the tale with the title "MOAB, Mountain Bikes...etc...Utah...Road Trip..."

Below is the slightly edited section of what I wrote well over a decade ago regarding the Roadtrip over Utah's Highway 12......

It was time to leave Bicknell to begin the drive toward Bryce Canyon NP on Highway 12, the number one thing I'd been looking forward to on this trip, the highway some consider the most scenic in America if not the world.

So it was back to Torrey to the Highway 12 junction, then south. The first part of the road is all about elevation gain. 7000 feet. 8000 feet. Then the summit at 9400 feet.

There was some snow surviving in places. At the summit the view extended over 200 miles to the LaSalles, to Navajo Mountain in Arizona, to Glen Canyon, to Lake Powell. It was an impressive view.

At the downside of the summit we came to the little town of Boulder, the last settlement in continental America to receive daily postal service. In Boulder is Anasazi Village State Park. It was a nice museum and archaeological dig. No Mesa Verde. But I bought a cool faux petroglyph.

The reason Boulder did not receive regular mail is because of the rather treacherous roads in and out of town. During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) built the new highway, the one we were driving, Highway 12. It was considered a monumental engineering feat in its day and was quite controversial  because of the cost and because locals did not think a road could be built where they proposed building it---over the infamous Hog's Back, along a narrow crest, with multi-thousand foot drop offs on either side.

As you drive along, the Hog's Back pops into view. The road is paved, obviously, but there are no guard rails. The road twists and turns and goes up and down, roller coaster-like for 3 miles. I liked it very much. After the most dramatic part of the roller coaster section you begin a descent along steep cliffs til you reach the bottom of Calf Creek Canyon, site of the number one thing I wanted to do that day on Highway 12, hike to Calf Creek Falls.

The trail head for the Calf Creek Fall hike is right off the highway, beginning in a rather nice campground which I was surprised to find full, as well as an almost full trailhead parking lot. The temperature in the canyon was in the 80's, at least. I was glad I was in shorts and sunscreen. It is a 3 mile plus hike to the falls on an easy sandy trail which meanders along Calf Creek. The canyon is very much like Zion Canyon. The creek was dammed by at least 15 large beaver dams. The water was the sort of clear I didn't know water could be, giving a very amazing view of all the trout avoiding being caught by the guys fishing.

Along the trail there are many points of interest, Anasazi ruins, a couple arches, odd vegetation, lizards, snakes.

About mile 2 the canyon narrows, you begin to hear the  sound of water rushing. I thought it was the falls, but it was a giant beaver dam making a spillway. The canyon continued to narrow, and grow steeper, blocking out the sun. We rounded a bend and the sound of a waterfall became unmistakable. 

And then we saw it.

Falling a couple hundred feet into an emerald pool, Calf Creek Falls was far more than I'd expected, creating a sort of tropical oasis in the Utah desert. A large sandy beach of redrock sand had multiple sun bathers and occasional quick dippers into the cold water. The swamp cooler effect of the falls dropped the temps to a very pleasant breezy warm. A local told me the falls run all summer long, draining a snow melt lake 7 miles further up the creek. In summer the beach and emerald pool become a very popular swimming area. The hike back to the van was much warmer, facing into the sun.

Continuing on, we entered the Escalante zone of Highway 12, following the Escalante river, crossing it a couple times, before the river finally left us and headed down to become Escalante Canyon, the coolest side canyon of Lake Powell. This was a narrow canyon, redrock zone, with a lot of slick rock.

We dropped down into a flat area in the center of which sat the little town of Escalante, a charming slightly Winthropized wild westy town with competing town stores on opposite sides of the street. I gave each store a little business. Ed bought his usual two-fisted ice cream bars and I got a bag of smart corn.

Out of town the road climbs again, entering a different geological zone, white slick rock and then we started seeing the pink hints of Bryce Canyon. At the summit an overlook viewed Powell Point, a white rock desolate escarpment named for Powell because it was the furthest north he got in his explorations and he wrote poetically about the desolate beauty of this monolith.

Now Highway 12 became a drop to a broad valley, the Tropic  Valley, so named because of its lower elevation actually allowing the cultivation of gardens. We drove into Kodachrome Basin State Park and did the scenic loop. A very nice campground, but it seemed like a Bryce wannabe, so I just wanted to get to the real thing, another 20 miles or so.

Continuing on we passed through the little town of Tropic, Bryce Canyon was clearly visible a short distance away, then we entered the Park and then there was Ruby's Inn where I'd called to make a reservation the night before.

Ruby's Inn is now a Best Western, but the Ruby family still owns it. Old man Ruby bought a ranch here in the early 1900's. A neighbor dropped by and took the Ruby family on a Sunday picnic to the edge of Bryce Canyon. Ruby saw the tourist possibilities, began running tours, opened an inn, gave up ranching. When the government decided to make it Bryce Canyon National Park, Ruby was given the park concession, hence the cozy relationship Ruby's Inn has with the park to this very day.

I want to return to Bryce Canyon National Park and stay a week at Ruby's Inn, with day after day of hiking.

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