The dramatic and colorful lands of southern Utah are filled with cliff-lined gorges, forested plateaus, twisting slot canyons, and rainbow-tinted badlands. Below Utah’s turquoise sky, the sprawling landscape spreads to clear horizons. Southern Utah is the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts put together. The region boasts the wonders of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the immense Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the pocket-sized Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Southern Utah’s scenic byways and highways are your passport to explore these richly pigmented landscapes, twisting past sand dunes and canyons, over slickrock bluffs and forested mountains, and through historic towns and Hollywood movie sets.
The Old West town of Kanab sits smack in the middle of southern Utah’s red rock country, making it an ideal base camp to discover the region’s natural wonders. Kanab’s landscape once attracted every major film studio that wanted to shoot a western picture, but it now draws adventurers, tourists, hikers, and scenic drivers to its historic streets. The town offers plenty of hotels and restaurants, as well as nearby campgrounds. How do you best explore the area? Here are five scenic drives that offer the best that southern Utah has to offer.
1. Highway 12 Scenic Byway: Red Canyon to Torrey
The Highway 12 Scenic Byway, running 124 miles from US 89 to Torrey, is simply one of Utah’s best scenic drives. The paved road traverses a rugged landscape of red rock domes, slickrock canyons, wooded mountains, and real western towns like Tropic, Escalante, and Boulder. It passes the wonderland of Bryce Canyon National Park and Kodachrome Basin State Park, and edges along the northern boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an immense swathe of sandstone wilderness, before ending on the west side of Capitol Reef National Park.
While it takes just three hours to drive the byway, you would need years to explore the Kaiparowits Plateau south of the highway and its network of back roads, campgrounds, and trails. Besides the national parks, other scenic treasures include Calf Creek Falls, Hell’s Backbone, Escalante Petrified Forest, and alpine woodlands on Boulder Mountain. A good side-trip for high-clearance vehicles is the 57-mile drive down rough Hole-in-the-Rock Road to a staggering view of Lake Powell. After driving Highway 12, you’ll agree with a Mormon homesteader who described the wrinkled land in 1875: "It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow!"
2. Zion Park Scenic Byway: Utah Highway 9
The 60-mile Zion Park Scenic Byway, following Utah Highway 9 from Mount Carmel Junction to Hurricane, offers dramatic scenery with soaring cliffs and deep canyons in iconic Zion National Park. Starting in Kanab, it’s only a 20 minute drive via US 89 to Mount Carmel Junction, where you can head west on Utah Highway 9 toward Zion. The highway follows Pine Creek Canyon, twisting past domes like Checkerboard Mesa. You’ll hit the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel on the east side of the park, which is followed by a series of switchbacks out of the canyon.
Be sure to stop at the visitor center in the national park to get oriented and board a free shuttle for a six-mile ride up Zion Canyon. On the drive you’ll be able to see Zion’s grand canyon lined with sandstone monoliths like Mountain of the Sun, Angel’s Landing, and the Great White Throne. After you pass Springdale, you’ll find the ghost town of Grafton, the movie set for *Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. *Finally, you’ll pass through the Virgin River Gorge before reaching Hurricane.
3. Johnson Canyon Road and Skutumpah Road
The Johnson Canyon Road, beginning eight miles east of Kanab, runs 18 miles up a cliff-lined canyon to a three-way junction. The scenic backroad introduces the western edge of 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, passing stair-stepped formations including the Vermilion, White, and Gray cliffs. While irrigated hay fields cover the broad canyon floor, occasional pullouts allow views and trail access. The abandoned set for the long-running television series Gunsmoke lies 5.5 miles up the road. The crumbling 1960s replica of Dodge City lies on private property but can be viewed from a pullover.
The junction at the end of the road is decision time: Turn around and return down the canyon or go right on Skutumpah Road, a rough road that travels another 33 miles along the monument boundary to Kodachrome Basin State Park. Expect stunning scenery and hiking adventures in Bull Creek Gorge and Willis Creek Narrows.
4. US Highway 89: Kanab to Page
The lonely 75-mile stretch of U.S. 89 from Kanab to Page, Arizona, crosses a wide-open landscape punctuated by colorful sandstone cliffs, sagebrush-covered flats, and high ridges dotted with piñon pine and juniper. The desolate desert is unpopulated except by coyotes, pronghorn antelope, and scattered ranches. While it’s easy to speed along the highway, it’s best to slow down and explore back roads and trails to hidden wonders. Start from Kanab and drive east past the striking Vermilion Cliffs. At milepost 31 go north on the Paria River Valley Scenic Backway to the scenic ghost town of Paria, once used as a movie set.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sprawls north of the highway, inviting drivers to discover its dramatic canyons and mesas. The Cottonwood Canyon Road heads north into the heart of the monument. The House Rock Valley Road busts south from route 89, leading to The Wave, a famed sandstone formation, and access to the spectacular Buckskin Gulch slot canyon. The east highway section passes colorful badlands and cliffs before crossing the Colorado River to Page in Arizona.
5. Scenic Byway 143: Patchwork Parkway
The 51-mile-long Scenic Byway 143, also called the Patchwork Parkway, climbs over the lofty Markagunt Plateau between Parowan and Panguitch. The breathtaking route gains 4,500 feet of elevation and passes through six life zones from scrubby desert to subalpine forest. A side road leads to the timberline summit of 11,307-foot Brian Head and expansive views across Utah above its namesake ski resort. Drive highlights include the historic Mormon towns of Parowan and Panguitch; fishing at Panguitch Lake; ancient lava flows; Native American rock art; and bright meadows strewn with wildflowers.
The Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway heads south from the drive on Highway 148 to Cedar Breaks National Monument. This remote parkland is similar to Bryce Canyon with eroded hoodoos, fins, and buttresses chiseled into a high-elevation amphitheater.