When you drive through the charming towns of Escalante and Boulder, Utah and see the majesty of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you’ll be amazed that most national park visitors never make it to this hidden gem.
Start with a drive down Hole in the Rock Road, a 62-mile dirt road through Grand Staircase that’s accessible to higher clearance two-wheel drive vehicles in dry conditions. Access is just southeast of Escalante on Hwy. 12. Along the way you’ll find great opportunities for hiking, camping and exploring slot canyons such as the popular Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch canyons. Make sure to stop at Devil’s Garden, 12 miles from Hwy. 12, to see incredible rock formations like Metate Arch. If you’re not familiar with the area, the best way to explore is with a professional guide. Utah Canyon Outdoors will take you hiking in stunning, remote spots where you’ll really get a sense of the vastness of the Utah desert.
“It’s such a peaceful area,” says Garfield County’s executive director Falyn Owens. “There’s no cell service, so it’s a really great escape.”
Slot canyons have long inspired a sense of awe and wonder – and a desire to squeeze through their narrow depths. If you’re new to slot canyons, head to Willis Creek Slot Canyon in the national monument. This 2.6-mile roundtrip hike doesn’t have any technical sections and never gets too narrow, so it serves as a perfect introduction to canyoneering. Wear waterproof shoes since you’ll walk through Willis Creek most of the way as the canyon walls tower above you. As with all slot canyons, make sure to check the weather and postpone a hike if rain is in the forecast as flash flooding is possible.
If you’re looking for more adventure, book a trip with Excursions of Escalante. Owens refers to owner Rick Creed as a “slot canyon genius.” He knows many off-the-beaten-path slot canyons to get visitors away from the crowds. Creed is great at matching skills and abilities to trips, making sure you have just the right amount of fun. After spending the day guiding, Creed spends his evenings serving on the local search and rescue team. Book at excursionsofescalante.com.
Or, head to another hidden gem, Kodachrome Basin State Park. This park is filled with brilliantly colored spires and was named by a National Geographic Society expedition in 1948 after the popular color film. It’s 20 miles southeast of Bryce Canyon off Hwy. 12. Panorama Trail, which is 3-6 miles is among the most popular and for good reason for the gorgeous views.
After a day spent exploring, head to the town of Boulder for dinner. The Burr Trail Grill offers burgers, sandwiches and more with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. Don’t miss Owens’ personal favorite, the fried green tomatoes served with chili jam and chipotle aioli.
Another mouthwatering option is the Stone Hearth Grille in Tropic. Only open in the summer, the grill serves some of the area’s best food. Sit on the patio nestled under the canyon walls and peruse the vibrant and inventive menu you wouldn’t expect in the middle of the desert. Make sure to start with the Beet “Ravioli,” sliced beets served with cashew butter, walnut pesto and microgreens. Locals consider it one of the best dishes in the county.
The drive between Boulder and Escalante itself is worth the visit to these two off-the-beaten-path towns. You’ll cross over Hell’s Backbone Bridge, an engineering marvel with 1,500-foot drops on either side.
Looking for more ways to experience solitude? Bryce Canyon National Park is an International Dark Sky Park, which means the stars are incredible in the entire area. Be sure to fuel up at Wanderlust Cowgirl Coffee in Panguitch before heading out, so you can stay up late to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way.
After an evening spent looking for meteors, sleep like a star in the Shooting Star RV Resort on Hwy. 12 in Escalante. You can stay in one of nine Airstreams that are decorated to resemble a Hollywood movie star’s dressing trailer.
Perhaps the best time to visit to find solitude? Winter.
“Seeing Bryce in the snow is wild,” says Owens, “It looks like cake and icing.”
Ruby’s Inn is the perfect place to base your winter Bryce Canyon adventure. Many groomed cross-country ski trails originate from the lodge, and there are several snowshoe trails that allow you to get down into the canyon. You can even take a horse-drawn sleigh ride.
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