I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that I love hiking. Without a doubt, the best way to experience southeast Utah is to get out of your car and into the canyons. But for those of you who prefer to experience nature from the safety of your vehicle, or for folks who are looking for the most scenic (or only) way to get from Point A to Point B, here are five scenic drives in Utah canyon country.
Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (SR-128)
If you’ve always taken I-70 west all the to the US 191 exit that leads south to Moab, well—you’ve been missing out. Locals in the Moab area refer to State Route 128 as “the river road,” because it runs along the scenic Colorado River for much of the way. Originally built to provide a travel corridor between Grand Junction, Colorado, and small towns in Utah like Moab and Monticello, the road now also provides visitors with a scenic introduction to the red rock canyons of southern Utah. From spring through fall, you can spot rafters, kayakers, and stand-up paddle boarders from your car as you drive through the narrow gorge. The BLM manages a collection of campgrounds along the route, many of which have sites right on the river. The monolithic rock formations of Fisher Towers are a worthwhile stop near mile marker 21.
Location: From Moab, turn right just before the bridge over the Colorado River. From I-70, the exits marked Danish Flats and Cisco will both get you to SR-128.
The Scenic Drive (Capitol Reef National Park)
Okay, so whoever named this road probably wasn’t known for using flowery words and phrases. But there’s something to be said for simplicity, and when you drive this road you’ll have no doubt that it’s deserving of its name. Starting at the visitor center in Capitol Reef National Park, the Scenic Drive runs about eight miles through spectacular Wingate Sandstone cliffs and the western escarpment of the Waterpocket Fold—the formation that resembles a reef and inspired pioneer settlers to call the area Capitol Reef. You’ll have access to two not-to-miss hiking routes from the road: Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge, which take you inside the canyons that have cut through the Waterpocket Fold. Note that the road crosses several washes, so it sometimes closes after heavy rains. There is a $10 entrance fee (per vehicle) to Capitol Reef National Park, which you must pay to take the Scenic Drive.
Location: Capitol Reef National Park
Utah Scenic Byway 12
Utah Scenic Byway 12 is a designated All-American Road and provides the main transportation route through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Considered by many to be among the most scenic routes in North America, the byway begins east of Bryce Canyon National Park and continues 124 miles over Boulder Mountain north to the town of Torrey. You’ll experience scenery ranging from high alpine forest to vast expanses of colorful slickrock. Perhaps the most famous stretch of the route is the “hogback”—a razor-thin stretch of road where the terrain drops steeply down from both sides, providing vistas of the redrock canyons below. The road also provides direct access to the trailheads for Lower Calf Creek Falls and the Escalante River Trail, two of my favorite hikes in all of canyon country.
Location: Runs 124 miles from east of Bryce Canyon National Park to the town of Torrey
Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (SR-211)
I’m always surprised at the number of people who visit Moab and Arches National Park who never make the trip down to see the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park. With its sandstone spires, shady alcoves, and ancient ruins and rock art, the Needles is definitely one of the must-see sites in Utah canyon country. Built in 1971, State Route 211 provides paved access to the Needles and to the Indian Creek Recreation Area, which is world-renowned among rock climbers. About 12 miles in on the 34-mile drive to the Needles is Newspaper Rock—one of the most impressive and easily accessed rock art displays in the southwest U.S. Between Newspaper Rock and the Needles, you’ll pass the Wingate Sandstone towers of North and South Six-Shooter Peaks. The turnoff to SR-211 is directly across from Church Rock, a distinct Navajo Sandstone formation on the east side of US 191.
Location: Off US 191, 40 miles south of Moab
The Bicentennial Highway (SR-95)
Utah State Route 95, also known as the Bicentennial Highway, is one of the most remote stretches of paved road in the United States. The route existed as early as the 1930s as a dirt road that connected the town of Blanding with Natural Bridges National Monument. In 1949, the state extended the road north to Hanksville, crossing the Colorado River on the way. The scenic Hite Crossing Bridge, completed in 1966, remains the only automobile crossing of the Colorado River between Moab (110 miles upstream) and the Glen Canyon Bridge (185 miles downstream). Today, one of the road’s primary functions is to provide tourists with access to Lake Powell. The most impressive panoramas are at the Hite Overlook, where you’ll get a distant view of the bridge and a spectacular panorama of Lake Powell and the abandoned Hite Marina in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Location: Stretches 121 miles from just south of the town of Blanding to the junction of SR-24 at the town of Hanksville