Plan the road trip of a lifetime with these spectacular journeys that highlight all the beauty America has to offer
Ready to hit the road? Whether you have a few days or more than a week, these unforgettable road trip routes are the ultimate way to satisfy a year of pent-up wanderlust (no passport required).
What’s a person to do after months of staying at home with only the option to fantasize about traveling and exploring new places? Easy question: Take an epic road trip.
This may well be the summer of the road trip as vaccines roll out and Americans begin planning vacations again. With that in mind, I dipped into my travel logs to come up with 15 of the most beautiful drives in the U.S. from Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 to Virginia’s Skyline Drive and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway.
This 130 mile scenic byway connects the people and places in coastal Mobile and Baldwin counties and showcases the rich culture and flavor of Alabama’s Gulf Coast region. You’ll discover beautiful beaches, authentic downtowns, wildlife preserves, historic sites, and the freshest seafood in the state.
A National Scenic Byway, the 44-mile paved and gravel Apache Trail crosses the rugged northern part of the Superstition Mountains northeast of Phoenix offering access to three reservoirs and gorgeous desert scenery.
Throughout its length, the Gold Rush Trail winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush as it twists and climbs past panoramic vistas. Rocky meadows, oaks, and white pines accent the hills while tall firs, ponderosa pine, and redwoods stud higher slopes. Dozens of lakes, rivers, and streams complement the stunning background of rolling hills.
The 41-mile loop of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is the only route in the state that’s also designated a National Scenic Byway. Coursing through the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the route traverses several state highways including GA-17/75, GA-180, and GA-348. Panoramic views are plentiful, none more spectacular than the one from Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point at 4,784 feet.
For a road trip that boasts both scenery and history, this is the perfect route. From its southernmost point in Morgan City to its northern end in Arnaudville, the byway crosses beautiful marshes and fields of sugar cane connecting small towns with well-preserved historic districts. Cafés and dance halls serve up Cajun and zydeco music along with boiled crawfish and étouffée.
Mississippi: Gulf Coast Scenic Byway
The Gulf Coast Scenic Byway is the 36 mile stretch of roadway that runs through the cities of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach Gulfport, Biloxi, and Ocean Springs. Long Beach, Pass Christian, and Gulfport are all home to historic downtown districts through which the byway either runs or borders to the south.
This scenic 232-mile drive winds along the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy some of the best mountain views in the world. There’s so much to admire en route; as the Parkway approaches Asheville, it offers breathtaking views of some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River and access to the area’s best hiking trails.
Ohio: Covered Bridge Scenic Byway
Covered bridges…Ohio once had more than any other state: over 2000 of them! You’ll come across four covered bridges on this route. This scenic byway travels across some of Ohio’s most beautiful countryside and many visitors choose to stop along its route to camp and savor the natural beauty of this area—and I suggest you do too!
Rhode Island: The Newport Loop (Ocean Drive)
This famous drive loops around Newport’s rugged Atlantic Ocean coast passing by historic mansions built from 1865-1914. A highlight stopping point is Brenton Point State Park. Located at the south end of the island, Brenton Point faces out to Rhode Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
South Carolina: Ashley River Road
Part of Ashley River Historic District, this charming road is thought to be the oldest road in South Carolina still in use today. A moss-draped live oak tree canopy draped over the 11.5-mile stretch of the Ashley River Road preserves its historic character.
It only takes about one hour to drive the loop of South Dakota Highway 240 between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall without stopping but almost no one does that. This loop passes through the most amazing buttes, cliffs, and multi-colored spires of Badlands National Park. Stop at any (or all!) of the 16 designated scenic overlooks for amazing photo opportunities.
Tennessee: Newfound Gap
At an elevation of 5,046 feet, the Newfound Gap is known as the lowest pass through the Great Smoky Mountains. The road passes through a variety of forest ecosystems ranging from cove hardwood, pine-oak, northern hardwood, and spruce-fir, similar to forests in New England and eastern Canada.
An All-American Road, Highway 12 is one of the most scenic highways in America. It winds through canyons, red rock cliffs, pine and aspen forests, alpine mountains, national parks, state parks, a national monument, and quaint rural towns. On your 119 mile drive, you’ll discover the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and the beauty of Boulder Mountain.
Vermont: Edson Hill and West Hill Loop
This scenic 10.5-mile drive loops around the Stowe’s village before traveling up Mountain Road—where you’ll have plenty of chances to stop, shop, or grab a snack on the way to Edson Hill. This drive will take you through farmland in the northwest corner of Stowe. Maple trees lining the road as you start up Edson hill and down West Hill are at their most beautiful in fall.
This scenic 105 mile byway travels through Shenandoah National Park, a beautiful, historic national treasure. It encompasses vibrant small cities, rural hamlets, mountains, rivers, national forests, and state parks as well as the national park.
Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend
Every state thinks it’s fun. Every state claims to have “something for everyone.” But not every state has five national parks, 45 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. There isn’t a single amazing thing about Utah. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.
When visiting Utah, definitely take in the Mighty 5. But don’t let the splendor of it all blind you to the other spectacular experiences the state has to offer.
Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. Notable landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, Park Avenue, and Balanced Rock.
In Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.” The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.
Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, and photographers.
The past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a series of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. You’ll find the best views at the first four overlooks.
Canyonlands has four separate districts and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs. With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.
Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.
Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.
Grand Staircase-Escalante contains three distinct units, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyon. The Monument was the last place in the U. S. to be mapped. From its spectacular Grand Staircase of cliffs and terraces, across the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau, to the wonders of the Escalante River Canyons, the Monument is a diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches.
Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower to heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.
The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.
Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.
Utah Lake State Park
Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.
Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is known for its aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake lies in a down-faulted valley at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state.
This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.
Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway
Cutting through the red rock gorge of the Colorado River, this 44-mile long byway (UT-128) offers a panoramic view of the LaSal Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rise in vivid contrast to the red rock sandstone typical of this canyon country. About four miles from Grandstaff Canyon, the byway passes the Big Bend Campground and picnic area with its white sand beach. The next section of the road closely parallels the Colorado River.
Dixie National Forest
This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon but those who linger will be rewarded with amazing sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon) but also explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.
Quail Creek State Park
Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures campers, hikers, boaters, and anglers year-round. The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.
Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area.
La Sal Mountain Loop Road
A special place full of wonderful sights, smells, and sounds is the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. The second-highest mountain range in Utah, the La Sals have six peaks that soar over 12,000 feet. One of the best ways to become acquainted with these mountains is to take a road trip along the La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop. The La Sal Mountains occupy a relatively small area running just 15 miles north to south and 6 miles across. They are most easily accessed from the west on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road that begins south of Moab.
The twin, towering buttes are so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or in English: Bears Ears. The land includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts.
Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. Located on BLM land, the area is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections. It provides a fun drive through an area that is usually deserted. It is a great place to get away from civilization
Dead Horse Point State Park is located at the end of a beautiful mesa where you can look for miles into Canyonlands National Park or 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.
The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures. The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
Sand Hollow State Park
With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.
Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest. Bordering the massive Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12 allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest.
Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway
The Moab area is known for its abundance of Indian rock art. This byway (UT-279) features several petroglyph panels with many individual carvings depicting symbolic animals. Other ancient traces include a roadside display of dinosaur tracks and a number of delicate, naturally formed stone arches. There are also many opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Climb Wall Street, a popular stretch of cliffs just after JayCee Campground.
As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”
Experience the cultural, historical, recreational, and scenic qualities of these roads less traveled
These routes are perfect for spontaneous Sunday drives or pit stops along a greater cross-country journey.
There are several designations used to honor these routes. The most common type of designation is the National Scenic Byway though there are also state scenic byways, National Forest Byways, and Back Country Byways. Another type of scenic byway is a National Parkway, which is a type of protected roadway within federal park lands that is managed by the National Park Service for recreational use.
Sometimes a road can have multiple honorary designations. If a particular parkway or scenic byway is especially outstanding, it may sometimes be bestowed with the additional title of “All-American Road.”
Not sure where to start planning your next road trip? We’ve listed a few of our favorites below.
Plan for three to six hours to drive, including backtracking.
Start your journey among giant saguaro cacti of the Sonoran desert and climb to shady conifer forests at nearly 9,000 feet, passing biological diversity equivalent to a drive from Mexico to Canada in just 27 miles. Enjoy spectacular views and recreational opportunities from hiking and camping to picnicking and skiing.
Allow three hours to drive or three days to experience the byway.
Scenic Byway 12 takes you to the heart of the American West. This exceptional 124 mile route negotiates an isolated landscape of canyons, plateaus, and valleys ranging from 4,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level. You’ll encounter archaeological, cultural, historical, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities while driving this exhilarating byway.
The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokee tribe and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Appalachian Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage, as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests. It is a 2-laned road with wide shoulders and 15 scenic overlooks.
Depending on route, allow four or five hours to drive or two days to visit the byway.
Known as Louisiana’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail meanders through marshes, prairies, and along the Gulf of Mexico. As you loop through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes in Southwest Louisiana, view alligators and birds up close and in the wild, along with colorful wildflowers and rare cheniers shaped by salty winds
Surrounded by the beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the byway winds through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians. From the vistas atop Brasstown Bald to the cooling mists of waterfalls, scenic wonders fill this region. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream.
Nine hours to drive (including backtracking) or six days to enjoy the byway
Explore the long and intriguing occupation of the Four Corners region by Native American peoples. Travel through the archaeological heartland of America while crossing the beautiful and diverse landscapes of the Colorado Plateau. World-renowned Mesa Verde National Park, Monument Valley Tribal Park, and Four Corners Monument are highlights on the trail.
There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.
The onset of winter doesn’t automatically mean that sunny days in the great outdoors are over
Arrival of winter means a reduction of tourists— and traffic—in many popular destinations so it can be the ideal season to explore America’s open roads. With a little extra research and creativity, winter can be a fantastic season to go camping whether that’s a sunny desert escape or a swampy wonderland.
As always during the pandemic, locations mentioned are subject to alter their hours and operations at any time, so check with attractions and food joints before hitting the road. Likewise, it’s a good idea to read up on state travel restrictions prior to commencing a trip.
Hug-the-Coast Highway, Texas
Don’t be fooled by the name. State Highway 35 is an easy cruise through green marshes and across bays with intermittent glimpses of the Gulf of Mexico. This slow ride begins south of Houston in West Columbia. Route 35 steers you straight toward Matagorda Bay and the town of Palacios, home to birders and fishermen. Grab a fishing pole and beach chair…it’s time to go to Port Lavaca. This coastal town has all the seaside fun you could ask for but without all the crowds found in other Gulf Coast locales. Checking out Port Lavaca’s beaches is a no brainer, regardless of whether you’re looking for a quiet barefoot stroll, hunt for shells, or kick back and relax.
You can keep on RVing toward Rockport or take a 45-minute side trip to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This pristine sanctuary overlooking San Antonio Bay attracts more than 400 species of birds and is the winter home of the endangered whooping cranes. The natural wonders continue 10 miles north of Rockport in Goose Island State Park where the Big Tree prevails. Scientists have calculated this live oak could be more than 1,000 years old—and it’s so resilient even Hurricane Harvey couldn’t knock it down. Heading toward Corpus Christi, you are thrust back into the rush of multiple lanes and cars in a hurry to get somewhere—a jolt after so many miles of traffic-free driving.
Creole Nature Trail All American Road, Louisiana
Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail is a network of roads where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, 28 species of mammals, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Part of America’s Byway’s system, the Creole Nature Trail is known for its distinct waters and pristine blue skies. The marshland, bayous, prairies, and coastal shores along the Gulf of Mexico teem with wildlife. Although the Creole Nature Trail is primarily a driving route, there are numerous stops where you can take advantage of a nature walk. Each of these excursion areas provides excellent wildlife and birding photography opportunities.
Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail, an All American Road, takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s back roads. The scenic byway features four wildlife refuges, three national and one state: Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, and Rockefeller Refuge. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass. Throughout the trip, expect to see exotic birds; this area is part of the migratory Mississippi Flyway.
Highway 60 through the Salt River Canyon, Arizona
In the middle of the 32,000 acres that are the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, U.S. Route 60 is a narrow ribbon buckling through the harsh terrain. By starting in Apache Junction you’ll traverse the 1,200-foot-long Queen Creek Tunnel cutting through the mountain at a 6 percent upward grade. Then you’ll climb 4,000 feet via tight bends, S-curves, and three consecutive switchbacks plunging into the canyon. The first half of this trip twists through the Tonto National Forest with views of the Superstition Mountains—the second half winds through the more brutal terrain of the Fort Apache Reservation where you’ll chase the Salt River for a while. Here, the canyon dictates the road. There shouldn’t be a lot of traffic, so it’s good for a scenic drive.
Spend time exploring Superior, Miami-Globe, and Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park before continuing onto San Carlos Reservation with stops at Apache Gold Casino and RV Park and Peridot Mesa, a broad hump of land often ablaze with poppy fields starting in late February and carrying on through March. Just past mile marker 268 on U.S.-60, turn left on a dirt road marked by a cattle guard framed by two white H-shaped poles. Drive a half-mile down this road, park, and walk around to see poppies, lupines, globemellows, desert marigolds, phacelia, and numerous other flowers along the road and sweeping down hillsides. It’s an amazing sight.
Panguitch to Torrey, Utah
Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats. Deservedly recognized as an All-American Road, the 123 miles of Scenic Byway 12 highlight Utah’s sheer diversity of natural wonders. Additionally, there are nine communities along Scenic Byway 12, each with a character all its own. Settled by Mormon families who established homes and ranches in the area, the towns proudly display their unique heritage and invite you to visit.
Scenic Byway 12 has two entry points. The southwestern gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of Panguitch. The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park. Shortly after entering the southwestern terminus at Highway 89, the scenic byway passes through U.S. Forest Service’s Red Canyon and two short tunnels in bright red rock masses. Other major attractions include Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Hell’s Backbone, Hole-in-the-Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Burr Trail, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, and The Hogsback, a narrow ridge barely wider than the two-lane roadway with cliffs falling away on either side.
Charleston to Savannah
Lined with massive oak trees that drip with Spanish moss and elegant antebellum plantations, the two-hour drive between two of America’s favorite southern cities make for a fantastic road trip. With a rich 300 year history, Charleston is America’s most beautifully preserved architectural and historical treasure. The best way to see this town is by foot. Around every corner visitors can discover another hidden garden, great restaurants, historic houses, quaint shops, and friendly people. Stroll the charming cobblestone streets and wander past secluded gardens and historic buildings that boast intricate iron wrought balconies.
Walk down the cobblestone streets of Georgia’s first city, a place filled with southern charm. Steeped in history and architectural treasures, Savannah begs to be explored by trolley and on foot. Much of Savannah’s charm lies in meandering through the Historic District’s lovely shaded squares draped in feathery Spanish moss—all 22 of them. Shop and indulge in the regional cuisine on River Street where historic cotton warehouses have been converted into trendy boutiques and restaurants making sure to sample fried green tomatoes and hearty plates of shrimp and grits.
Our wish to you is this: drive a little slower, take the backroads sometimes, and stay a little longer. Enjoy, learn, relax, and then…plan your next RV journey.
Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend
The reappraisal of Utah over the past decade has been astounding. Long mistaken as a bland expanse of wasteland, more and more people are coming to appreciate the state’s charms and otherworldly beauty. And especially now, its combination of mind-blowing— and isolated— natural landscapes make it ripe for exploration in an RV.
From the snow-capped mountains of the north to the iconic red-rock desert landscapes of the national park-packed south, Utah’s terrain changes with every bend in the road. Taken alone, each of these 11 places construct a solid argument for Utah’s scenic dominance. Together, they cement Utah as one of America’s most gorgeous destinations.
Situated near the banks of the Colorado River in southeastern Utah, Moab is the gateway to many of Utah’s grandest locales. Here you’ll find easy access to iconic Arches National Park, the lesser-visited Canyonlands National Park, and diamond-in-the-rough Dead Horse Point State Park all of which combine to make Moab a mind-blowing amalgam of everything that Makes Utah so grand in scope.
But the town in the middle of this vortex is also a thing of beauty. The longtime mountain biker magnet attracts more than its fair share of funky artists, spirit seekers, and people looking to live life to the fullest. In fact, you could easily spend your entire Utah vacation here and still make it one for the books without setting foot in a park.
Zion National Park
Attracting more visitors than Yellowstone and Yosemite, Zion‘s stunning landscape offers a variety of terrain from desert to mountains with many visitors looking to hike Angels Landing and The Narrows. Those looking to take it easy can cruise the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (shuttle service has resumed with advance ticketing) or meander the wide-open Pa’rus Trail along the valley floor.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon, Utah’s second-most popular national park is a short 90-minute drive from Zion making it a heck of a one-two punch of southern Utah wow. Yet the landscape undergoes a complete transformation along the way, serving up some of the most epic canyon vistas on Earth. Marvel at the huge concentration of hoodoos (rock spires) that line the seemingly never-ending canyons as you cruise the 18-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping off at the park’s 13 scenic viewpoints including Sunset Point and Natural Bridge. Can’t get enough canyons? Check out the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument for more.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
The land encompassing Cedar Breaks was described in 1868 by early Mormon settlers as “a paradise on the mountain”. A colorful palette of weathered pinnacles and cliffs, Cedar Breaks National Monument is home to some of the most dramatic desert erosion features on this planet. The multi-colored geological amphitheater found at Cedar Breaks is 2,500 feet deep and 3 miles wide with the highest point of the amphitheater’s rim standing at 11,000 feet.
Capitol Reef National Park
Utah’s outdoor tour de force continues over at Capitol Reef National Park where a star-studded assortment of cliffs, domes, arches, and canyons do their best to overwhelm the senses of the relatively few visitors who make their way to this park. A bit more off the beaten path with roughly half the visitation as Bryce Canyon and one-quarter of Zion, this fascinating park is something of a cross between those two more famous cousins. In addition to 15 hiking trails and plenty of room for 4WD road touring, visitors can also harvest fruit from the various cherry, apple, and peach orchards in historic Fruita during summer.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges. Hiking trails provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges, which are located in two adjacent canyons.
The debate over the quintessential image of the American West starts and ends in Monument Valley. Straddling the Utah-Arizona border within the huge Navajo Nation near the Four Corners, this stunningly cinematic landscape has served as an acting background for everyone from John Wayne to Forrest Gump—and it’s not hard to see why. Visitors can tour this living artist’s canvas by driving its 17-mile dirt road, posting up for some glorious sunset photography or even spending the night in a traditional native dwelling while learning about Native American culture over campfire stories and Navajo tacos. Unfortunately, all Navajo tribal parks—including Monument Valley—are currently closed until further notice due to the pandemic.
Valley of the Gods
Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers similar scenery and is located on BLM land and is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley.
Quail Creek State Park
Equal parts refreshing and beautiful, clear, green water dominates Quail Creek State Park. Red, white, and orange cliffs surround the shore, and are set against the Pine Valley Mountains as a backdrop. Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.
Scenic Byway 12
A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes, ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests, and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats. The history and culture of the area blend together, making Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.
Dixie National Forest
This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon, but those who linger will be rewarded with a bevy of national park-worthy sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are its most famous and easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon), but don’t forget to explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area, or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.
As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.
The All American Road, Utah Scenic Byway 12 is one of the most beautiful drives in America! To top it off, it connects two beautiful national parks!
Scenic Byway 12 has it all: isolated canyons, grand plateaus that rise 9,000-feet above sea level, deep valleys that plunge to 4,000-feet, and the natural and man-made history to prove it. This 122-mile byway is one of the most scenic in the nation and Utah’s first All American Road takes you from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. Some TripAdvisor reviewers describe the scenic drive as “something out of a movie” or “like a trip to another planet.”
Scenic Byway 12 begins to the west in Panguitch and ends in Torrey to the northeast. It connects Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, but getting from point A to point B is only a fraction of the fun. The real adventure lies in what you’ll encounter along the way. From the hoodoos to red rocks and a scenic overlook near the road’s summit at 9,000 feet, travelers enjoy breathtaking views that provide countless opportunities for exploration.
Locals say you can do it in three hours or three days. Others say it will take three years to fully take advantage of all it has to offer. To get the most out of your travels, it’s better to take your time. Here’s a glance at what you might encounter along what’s known as “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.”
Though there’s more than one way to enjoy Scenic Byway 12, one suggested itinerary is to travel from west to east. The adventure begins in Panguitch and takes you through a scenic drive of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Known for its hoodoo-filled red rock desert that contrasts with high alpine forests, Bryce Canyon is the perfect place for hiking, camping, and horseback riding. You can learn about the park’s unique geology through their ranger programs or take guided hikes under a full moon. Shuttles travel back and forth the length of the park from the visitor center 17 miles south to Rainbow Point, with plenty to do at every stop along the way.
Between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, you’ll find some of the most beautiful parts of Southern Utah. The town of Escalante is located along Scenic Byway 12 in the south-central part of the state—about 90 minutes south of Capitol Reef National Park.
This charming little town has seen an uptick in visitors since the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante as a National Monument in 1996. It’s the perfect destination for hiking, camping, fishing, canyoneering, horseback riding, and four-wheeling. Travelers are frequently awestruck by the ancient multi-hued rock formations and the twisting, turning narrows of its famous slot canyons.
Hikers will enjoy dipping their toes in cool riverbeds, hiking miles of soft-sand trails, and gazing at the inscriptions of humans who stood in the same spot thousands of years ago. For a trip to prehistoric times, take the family to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park where ancient petrified trees, dinosaur bones, ammonite and shell fossils abound.
The town itself offers a handful of down-home cafes and diners. As an added bonus, while most of Southern Utah experiences sweltering summer heat, Escalante’s higher elevation makes for more moderate temperatures—most of the time. But it’s always a good idea to prepare for an unexpected rainstorm.
Capitol Reef National Park is a great way to cap off your Great American Road Trip adventure. While you’re taking in the view of stunning overlooks, you can discover abandoned Mormon outposts, explore unearthed Fremont Indian villages and petroglyphs, and wind through the slot canyons.
Though the park itself is alluring, there’s also charm in the surrounding areas with its small towns, secluded getaways, and rich history. You can pick fruit directly from the orchard in Fruita, wander aimlessly through a valley full of red rock goblins, camp out under the stars, and stroll an art gallery in Torrey.
As beautiful as it is in the day, the park is even more stunning at night. Capitol Reef is an official International Dark Sky Park which means you can see incredible views of the Milky Way Galaxy in the pitch-black night sky.
As you get ready to pack up the RV, don’t forget to check road conditions and other travel information you may need for your trip. And to ensure a fun and safe experience, it’s a good idea to check current COVID-19 precautions so you can plan for the road ahead.
A Delaware-sized museum of sedimentary erosion that walks you down through a 200-million-year-old staircase
Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.
So called for the series of plateaus that descend from Bryce Canyon south toward the Grand Canyon, marked by vertical drops at the Pink Cliffs, Grey Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermillion Cliffs, and Chocolate Cliffs. Lots of colorful scenery herein, natch! They ought to call it the Grand Stare-case.
The sense of wonder inspired by the magnificent beauty of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument excites the imagination and invites exploration of the natural world. Within this vast and untamed wilderness, visitors find places for recreation and solitude.
This is a huge area consisting of a maze of sandstone cliffs, canyons, and plateaus. The Canyons are part of a natural basin surrounded by higher areas of the Colorado Plateau. Parts of the Colorado Plateau, such as the Aquarius Plateau, rise to above 11,000 feet, while lower parts of the canyons empty towards Lake Powell at 3,700 feet.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument dominates any map of southern Utah and spans 1.7 million acres of America’s public lands between the Utah-Arizona border to Bryce Canyon National Park on the west and Capitol Reef National Park on the east. It is unique in that it is the first monument to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), rather than the National Park Service.
Entry into the national monument is by two paved roads: Highway 89 between Kanab and Big Water on its southern end and All American Road Scenic Byway 12 between Bryce Canyon and Boulder on the north. Johnson Canyon Road and Burr Trail are two other hardened-gravel access roads. All the other roads into the Monument are dirt, clay, or sand. Caution should be exercised when traveling on unpaved roads as conditions can change quickly and dramatically depending on the weather. High clearance four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended. Services, smart phone access, and water are generally not available.
The monument is a geologic sampler, with a huge variety of formations, features, and world-class paleontological sites. A geological formation spanning eons of time, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante.
Despite their different topographies, these three sections share certain qualities: great distances, enormously difficult terrain, and a remoteness rarely equaled in the lower forty-eight states. Human activities are limited on these lands, yet their very remoteness and isolation attract seekers of adventure or solitude and those who hope to understand the natural world through the Monument’s wealth of scientific information.
The Grand Staircase rises in broad, tilted terraces. From the south the terraces step up in great technicolor cliffs: vermilion, white, gray, pink. Together these escarpments expose 200 million years of the earth’s history.
The highest part of the Monument is the Kaiparowits Plateau. From the air, the Plateau appears to fan out southward from the town of Escalante into an enormous grayish green triangle, ending far to the south at Lake Powell and the Paria Plateau. The 42-mile-long Straight Cliffs mark the eastern edge of the plateau, ending at Fiftymile Mountain in the southeast.
To the north of Fiftymile Bench is the Aquarius Plateau, dominated by the 11,000-foot Boulder Mountain. To the east lies an expanse of pale Navajo sandstone which the Escalante River and its tributaries, flowing down from the plateau, have carved into a maze of canyons. In this arid territory, it is ironically water that has done the most to shape the landscape.
As intriguing as it is beautiful, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument also provides remarkable possibilities for scientific research and study. Researchers continue to uncover new insight about how the land was formed and the life it sustains.
What scientists are learning and the methods they use to understand what it all means can be discovered at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument visitors centers located in the communities of Kanab, Big Water, Cannonville, and Escalante. With so much information to share, each visitor center’s interpretive exhibits focus on different scientific themes, including paleontology (Big Water), geology and archaeology (Kanab), the human landscape (Cannonville), biology, botany, and eology (Escalante).
Through interpretive exhibit, visitors learn about the spectacular Monument resources and gain a greater appreciation for the natural world.
There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.
With over 4 million miles of roads weaving their way throughout the US, there is no end of opportunities to explore
Few things having to do with travel will be unchanged in the post-coronavirus world but of all the ways we travel the road trip might be least affected—at least from a regulatory standpoint. No one will tell you to wear a mask or take your temperature, or demand blood work before you hit the road this summer.
The road trip: One of the most beautiful stretches of road in the US, Scenic Byway 12 spans 124 miles in Utah’s red-rock country. The history and culture of the area blend together, making Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.
The pit stops: Scenic Byway 12 has two entry points. The southwestern gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of the city of Panguitch, not far from Bryce Canyon National Park. The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park.
Best South Dakota Road Trip: Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
The road trip: Allow four hours to drive this 68-mile byway or one day to fully experience it. This byway will lead you on a delightful adventure as it winds its way around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles and over pristine, pine-clad mountains.
The pit stops: Highlights include Mount Rushmore, Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, the Needle’s Eye, and Cathedral Spires rock formations.
Best Virginia Road Trip: Colonial Parkway
The road trip: The Colonial Parkway not only illustrates the English colonial experience in America, but is also an outstanding example of American parkway design. Retaining its original scenic and historic integrity to a remarkable degree, the 23-mile roadway stretches from the York River at Yorktown to the James River at Jamestown.
The pit stops: This All-American road connects Virginia’s historic triangle: Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.
The pit stops: Arguably the best way to experience the beauty of the Red Rock Country is to go into the wilderness and soak it in and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing by hiking any of over 80 trails interspersed throughout the area.
Best Washington Road Trip: Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway
The road trip: Take a ride on the Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway, an amazing 150-mile road trip revealing the story of the Ice Age floods when vast reservoirs of water flooded and receded from this valley hundreds of times.
The pit stops: Between three state parks, a national wildlife refuge, visits to the Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, or Othello’s Sand Hill Crane festival (23rd annual, March 20-22, 2020), you’ll find something for the whole family.
Best North Dakota Road Trip: Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit
The road trip: This 36-mile scenic road trip offers about two hours of breathtaking overlooks and trailheads. As you weave through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, keep your eyes open for wildlife, such as bison, deer, antelopes, and prairie dogs.
The pit stops: Walk through Ridgeline Nature Trail, go on a guided hike with a ranger, or spend the night at Cottonwood Campground.
Best Louisiana Road Trip: Creole Nature Trail
The road trip: The Creole Nature Trail, one of only 43 All-American Roads in the U.S., runs 180 miles through three National Wildlife Refuges.
The pit stops: The main route is U-shaped with spur roads along the Gulf shoreline and angling into other reserves like Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge and the Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary. This is the Louisiana Outback.
Best Texas Road Trip: Gateway to Big Bend
The road trip: On this 80-mile drive from Marathon to Big Bend National Park, get comfortable and take in the dry, desert landscape of Texas. You’ll enjoy views of the Chisos Mountains, various species of cacti, and maybe even catch a glimpse of a coyote.
The pit stops: Big Bend National Park is the end destination, as well as the highlight of this scenic road trip with its mountains, canyons, wildlife, and more.
There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.
Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon
A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds
and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through
memorable landscapes, ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of
the world’s highest alpine forests, and from astonishing pink and russet stone
turrets to open sagebrush flats.
The history and culture of the area blend together, making
Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.
Scenic Byway 12 has two entry points. The southwestern
gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of the city of Panguitch.
The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol
Reef National Park.
Shortly after entering the southwestern terminus at Highway
89, the scenic byway passes through U.S. Forest Service’s Red Canyon and two
short tunnels in bright red rock masses.
Established in 1924, Bryce Canyon National Park is famous
for its towering eroding-sandstone pillars called hoodoos. The breathtaking
three-mile-wide amphitheater is especially colorful at sunrise and sunset from
Bryce and Inspiration points.
Other major attractions include Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Escalante Petrified
Forest State Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Hell’s Backbone,
Hole-in-the-Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Burr Trail, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness
Area, and The Hogsback, a narrow ridge barely wider than the two-lane roadway
with cliffs falling away on either side.
Additionally, there are nine communities along Scenic Byway
12, each with a character all its own. Settled by Mormon families who
established homes and ranches in the area, the towns proudly display their
unique heritage and invite you to visit.
Settled in 1889, Boulder was America’s last town to receive
mail by mule (until 1972). The town’s main attraction, the Anasazi State Park
Museum, encompasses the ancient ruins of the Coombs archaelogical site.
Excavated in 1959, the site’s ruins and exhibits provide an interesting
look into how the Anasazi or ancient ones lived almost a thousand years ago.
About 20 miles south of Boulder, the Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic
Byway dirt road cuts south into the Escalante Canyons where you’ll find dozens
of arches, ancient Native Indian rock art, and the mind-boggling rock
formations of Devils Garden.
Escalante is often called the “Heart of Scenic Byway 12” as
it is nestled between the elevated meadows of the Aquarius and Kaiparowits
Plateaus and the low desert country surrounding the Escalante Canyons in the
middle of the byway.
About two miles northwest of town is Escalante Petrified
Forest State Park. A series of short hiking trails leads to groupings of
petrified logs, thousand-year-old petroglyphs, and dinosaur bones dating from
the Jurassic period. In the center of the park, the Wide Hollow Reservoir
offers great canoeing and bass fishing. Camping is available.
Thirty miles west of Escalante, you’ll come to the small
town of Cannonville and the Highway 400 turnoff to Kodachrome Basin State Park.
The changing warm light on the park’s towering sandstone chimneys prompted the
National Geographic Society to name the park Kodachrome in 1949.
What makes Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other?
The way that nature strings together the best that the
Southwest has to offer in high density of scenery, iconic national parks, state
parks, museums, and scenic backways.
Mile for mile, few of America’s national scenic byways can
compete with the diverse scenery and number of natural attractions along Scenic
Byway 12. Recognized as one of the most beautiful drives in America, the byway
showcases some of Utah’s uniquely scenic landscape.
When lighted by the morning sun the gorgeous chasm is an
immense bowl of lace and filigree work in stone, colored with the white of
frost and the pinks of glowing embers. To those who have not forgotten the
story books of childhood it suggests a playground for fairies. In another
aspect it seems a smoldering inferno where goblins and demons might dwell among
flames and embers.