Utah Road Trip: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef

I love road trips, and thankfully there’s no shortage of scenic drives in the Southwest United States. On my most recent Utah road trip, I drove from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. These two Utah National Parks are connected by Utah Scenic Byway 12. Funny enough, I’ve been carrying around a magazine clipping about this scenic route for many, many years hoping to drive it one day. Pretty impressive when you consider how often I move! I was pretty excited to finally see this famous All-American Road. We actually started our trip in Cedar City Utah, which is a fun little college town to check out.

This post contains affiliate links. Buying through these links will not cost you extra, but I will earn a small commission.

Utah Day Trips by Theme Guidebook by Leigh Wilson

Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef

Whether you drive from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef or from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon, you absolutely must take Highway 12. Google Maps will try to save you 20 minutes along another route but don’t listen. Taking Utah’s Highway 12 will add hours to the route, but only because there are so many cool things to see along the way!

Utah's Scenic Highway 12 winds through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Utah Highway 12 winding through Grand Staircase Escalante

Bryce Canyon National Park

I’ve been to nearly 40 National Parks and I can confidently say that Bryce Canyon is one of the most visually stunning parks I’ve ever seen. The landscape is so bizarrely unique; it’s hard to even comprehend how it happened. For many years, I dreamed of seeing it in the winter, and I finally got my chance in 2018 after spending a few days in St. George Utah.

See Utah and Arizona on this Southwest road trip itinerary!

Bryce Canyon National Park covered in snow

While I normally advocate for as much time as possible in a National Park, visiting Bryce Canyon doesn’t take a ton of time. I usually stop over on my way somewhere else and rarely spend the night at the canyon. I think you can easily see most of the park in a two-day overnight visit. I highly recommend dipping below the rim on one of the hiking trails, even if it’s just a short hike. The Navajo Loop Trail to Queen’s Garden is a great hike that’s only 3 miles long and takes you through some cool arches and rock formations. A park shuttle makes point-to-point hikes easy. Bryce Canyon sits at 8,000 feet above sea level, so read my high-altitude tips before you come!

3 ladies Hiking at Bryce Canyon National Park

If you don’t stay at the Bryce Canyon Lodge in the National Park, then the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn is the next closest option. This National Historic Site has been hosting travelers for over 100 years, longer than Bryce Canyon has been part of the National Park System. It just occurred to me that I’ve never stopped at the Visitor Center at this park, so that’s one more reason to plan another Bryce Canyon visit!

This Utah Parks road trip includes Zion National Park and Arches National Park!

Mossy Cave Trail

Just after you leave the main area of Bryce Canyon and head east on Highway 12, you’ll see a small parking lot on the right for Mossy Cave. If there are spaces available and you have 30 minutes to spare, check it out! The whole hike is a one-mile round-trip and visits a mossy cave, as well as a beautiful waterfall. It’s an easy flat hike following a river with just a bit of an uphill to get to the cave.

waterfall at Bryce Canyon National park

Kodachrome Basin State Park

Just 30 minutes from Bryce Canyon National Park, Kodachrome Basin is our next stop. Kodachrome Basin is like a smaller, less crowded Bryce Canyon. The Angel’s Palace trail is a short (1.4-mile) loop hike that offers great views of the area as you walk amongst the sandstone spires and hoodoos.

Angel's Palace hike at Kodachrome Basin State Park.
Hiking at Kodachrome Basin State Park

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Continuing along Highway 12, the next stop on our Utah road trip is Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. This is a short pit stop along the route from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. There’s a one-mile loop trail to the petrified forest and a large petrified log on display near the parking lot.

Crystals forming in petrified wood at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Crystals forming in petrified wood

Circle D Eatery in the town of Escalante makes a great lunch stop before you continue your scenic drive.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Of all the places along the route between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon, this is one I will definitely be back to. The entire drive from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef weaves in and out of the boundaries of Grand Staircase Escalante. For starters, it’s not really “a place.” GSE covers a huge area; until 2017, it covered nearly two million acres, making it the largest National Monument managed by the BLM. In all that acreage, there are a ton of things to do. We’d only planned to drive through en route to Capitol Reef, which is why I need to come back to explore more.

Long Canyon in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Some of the best things to see and do in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument:

  • Hike to Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls
  • Check out some slot canyons:
    • Long Canyon
    • Spooky
    • Peekaboo
  • Drive along Hell’s Backbone which is a crazy mountain road between Escalante and Boulder. I drove part of it and got to see the Hell’s Backbone bridge, but didn’t have time for the whole thing as it takes about two hours.
    • The alternative is Highway 12, which is called “the Hogback” in this section
narrow bridge crossing Hell's backbone in Utah
Hell’s Backbone Bridge

Anasazi State Park Museum

Another quick roadside stop is the Anasazi State Park Museum in Boulder. Take a few minutes to learn about the Native people who once lived in this region, and see a few pit houses that have been excavated outdoors. This is one of many places where you can see Indian ruins in Utah.

Pit houses excavated at Anasazi State Park Museum

Between the Utah towns of Boulder and Torrey, you’ll drive through part of the Dixie National Forest. This was the largest aspen stand I’ve ever seen, and it took us quite a long time to drive through it. It’s not the largest in the world (that’s Pando, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest) but it’s still super impressive. This would be a great place to see fall colors in Utah…if you can time it right!

Aspen grove in Dixie National Forest Utah

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah’s least-visited National Park is blissfully free of the crowds you’ll find at other Utah National Parks. It’s also a huge park that’s best explored on back roads; if you have a 4×4, you’ll love going off the grid in this National Park.

Hickman Bridge hike at Capitol Reef National Park

To really see some of the Capitol Reef backcountry without getting in over our heads, we signed up for a 1/2-day Cathedral Valley Jeep tour. We got a full six-hour tour of Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley. The geology here is all over the place, so we were never bored with the scenery. There’s even a backcountry campground along this loop; I can’t even imagine what the night skies would be like way out here!

Hiking trails at Capitol Reef National Park

Browse hotels near Capitol Reef National Park

Besides exploring the backcountry, there are some other cool things to do in Capitol Reef National Park.

  • Join a two-hour horseback ride in Capitol Reef
  • Drive the park roads and stop at ALL the scenic viewpoints; the diversity of landscape here is impressive!
  • Walk the Petroglyph boardwalk trail along the main park road to see several rock art panels
  • Hike two miles to Hickman Bridge, a natural bridge hidden from the park road
  • Visit the orchards at the Gifford Homestead. Pick your own fruit, or purchase a fresh-baked mini pie at the Gifford House gift shop.

Read my full guide to Capitol Reef National Park

We stayed at the Rim Rock Inn for a couple of nights; it’s a clean, basic hotel for a good price. Don’t bother with a rollaway bed, though. It was the worst rollaway I’ve ever slept on. You can’t beat the views from the porch, though! I have also rented a tiny cabin at Sand Creek RV Park in Torrey.

Rushing creek in a canyon at Capitol Reef National park

There are some fantastic Utah glamping resorts near Capitol Reef, Escalante, and Bryce Canyon!

Goblin Valley State Park

Although this state park is not along the route from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon, it’s close enough to Capitol Reef that you should make the extra trip. (It’s halfway from Capitol Reef to Moab, so it’s easy to add on to a Moab vacation as well!) There’s a cool campground at Goblin Valley, as well as some super cool yurts you can rent out.

Hiking through Goblin Valley State Park

From Goblin Valley State Park, it’s less than four hours back to Salt Lake City. If you’re anything like me, as soon as you get home, you’ll be planning your next trip back to this beautiful region of Utah! Check out these other National Monuments in Utah!

About leigh@campfiresandconcierges.com

2 Comments

  1. I love road trips as well and Southern Utah is the BEST place to do it! Capitol Reef is also my favorite of the Mighty 5 – it is so beautiful if you get off the main road and visit some of the backcountry spots!

  2. Aparna Sisodia

    Road trips are an amazing part of any trip. Loved the Capitol reef road trips. The blog is helpful for first-time travelers who want to go on solo road trips and trekking in the Capitol reef.# Wanderlust

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.