Walking off the Ledge Into Capitol Reef
Tucked between the popular kids — Zion and Moab — Capitol Reef Country is a morning drive from Salt Lake City. Once there, use this 4-day itinerary to choose from gorgeous hikes and adventurous rappelling then eat well at nearby Torrey and Boulder.
Travel & Leisure sits on your table, and you secretly watch reruns of "House Hunters International," but you book the same hotel, lounge by the same pool and watch the kids splash around and grouse that there's nothing to do.
"…But it’s easy and I know it and…" Keep going. I've got time.
If you long for adventure but aren’t the adventurous type — or you want to be and just don’t know where to start — then consider a trip to Capitol Reef Country. Never heard of it? Capitol Reef National Park?
That's precisely why you should go.
Tucked between the popular kids — Zion and Moab — Capitol Reef Country (anchored by the towns of Boulder, Torrey and Escalante and abutting Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument) is a morning drive from Salt Lake City. It’s still off the beaten path but has a surprising range of activities and amenities to satisfy kids and grandparents, dirt bags and foodies.
This accessibility and variety mean you can choose your level of adventure and stretch from there. You could forage for food, but Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder is one of the state's best and is, in itself, a destination. Opt to sleep under the stars in one of the darkest spots on the continent or under luxury sheets in a historic schoolhouse. Rise and ride by car, bike or Harley Davidson along Scenic Byway 12, designated an All-American Road, and understand why travelers from Lewis & Clark to Clark Griswold have been drawn to exploring the West. Hike the gorgeous Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase–Escalante or go canyoneering in Capitol Reef (both are easier than they sound, and the pics will blow up your Instagram).
Planning. Pick where you want to sleep and explore from there. If you want to stay in one place, then choose day trips. If you want to keep moving, then select accommodations along the way and head out each morning. Just don't plan too much! You’ll want to be a bit spontaneous, because that is the heart of adventure. Most importantly, Capitol Reef Country took millennia to create. So, slow down, look around and absorb the details, the ones that no magazine, travel show or fabulously written website could capture.
Capitol Reef, the Historical Food and Art Fest
Like most cultures, it's all about the food. Even in the middle of nowhere, or especially in the middle of nowhere, food is important. In Capitol Reef National Park, it's memorable, too.
The ancient Fremont and Pueblo people, including the Anasazi, settled here between 1 and 1300 A.D., and their Petroglyphs, visible to visitors in Capitol Reef and the surrounding area, illustrate that food was on their minds even if experts still can’t decode what-the-heck-else they mean. Locate one or more of the turnouts or hiking trails to view, sketch or photograph these incredible artworks, especially in morning light.
Mormon pioneers arrived later in the 19th Century making their culinary and commercial mark in the park with the planting of the Fruita Orchard. Today, over 3,100 fruit and nut trees crowd the roadside near the Visitor Center, and ripe fruit is available for public picking. If you're thinking, "Those apples would make a mighty fine pie," then walk over to the Gifford Homestead, where you can indulge in fresh, local pies, treats and other local goods. Don’t expect much hiking after that. A nap under one of the trees is a better bet.
Pro Tip: Sleep, eat and relax at the Torrey Schoolhouse, a beautiful historic B&B that anachronistically has whole-body massage chairs in each room.
Discover Your Capitol Reef Adventure
Food was a tasty introduction to Capitol Reef on Day 1. Everybody eats, but let's face it, you came here for adventure, to use that new camera, to take that picture that will go viral or show your kid, grandkid or new girlfriend just how cool you are.
What photo or video would you like them to see? Leave the “I cant's” at home. Would it be hiking to a waterfall and 600' gorge? Driving a high-clearance vehicle off-road through a narrow slot canyon? No, you cannot take your Prius. Just no! What about canyoneering to a natural arch where a legendary bandit hid?
Choose an adventure. Most areas of Capitol Reef are accessible to the public, but if you’d like someone to guide you through or teach you to rappel down (kids and seniors do this; stop mumbling), this is one of the few national parks that allows private outfitters, the best splurge on an otherwise budget vacation.
Pro Tip: Finish your adventure with slow-cooked dishes made from local ingredients like wild game, fish, stone fruits, organic vegetables and spices at Hunt & Gather in Torrey.
Boulder and a Royal Road
Don’t blow through Boulder! At first glance, this is a one-stop town among many one-stop towns, but definitely pay homage to Hell's Backbone Grill, deemed one of America's best restaurants. If you forget to make a reservation, then stay on-site at the rustic-luxe Boulder Mountain Lodge, and grab breakfast the next morning.
After eating like a king, head to the museum. Seriously. Even if you prefer exploring outdoors, not indoors, you will enjoy the Anasazi State Park Museum in Boulder. It could be because the pony-tailed Park Manager Mike Nelson infuses visitors with a childlike enthusiasm and reverence for this wonderland of artifacts and exceptionally preserved kivas or, perhaps, after exploring Capitol Reef Country a few days, the lives of the Anasazi are beginning to astound and humble you. Although they may have been the original artists in town, images, books and jewelry created by modern local artisans are available down the road at the understated (this ain’t MoMA) but impressive Burr Trail Outpost.
You are now ready for the heart of Scenic Byway 12 aka Route 12, aka "A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway," aka "All-American Road" — a 124-mile ribbon of pavement with as many titles as The Queen. You could spend days or years exploring and photographing this byway, backways and trails from The Hogback outside Boulder extending all the way down to Kodachrome Basin. Pick the one you have time for before your dinner reservation.
Pro Tip: Burr Trail Grill has a delicious Red Rock Burger and the best pie after grandma's. Order your own slice of Wild Berry & Ginger. You won’t want to share.
Intro to Grand Staircase–Escalante
Along Scenic Byway 12 outside Escalante, a stretch with no lampposts, no bipedal inhabitants, and definitely no cell coverage, the otherworldly beauty extends to the horizon and you think, "I wish I had a soy latte…" If you're near milepost 73.86, then enjoy your fresh grind and the incredible 360° view at Kiva Koffeehouse (closed Tuesdays, because even locals like to explore).
Well-fueled, backtrack about a mile to Calf Creek Campground where you'll find the trailhead to one of the most popular hikes along Route 12, Lower Calf Creek Falls. Yes, a 130' mineral-streaked waterfall pouring out of the sandstone. No, no one spiked your coffee. That’s how it got its name, because even the bovines who wandered there were transfixed. Gorgeous little oasis. Grab your hat, swimsuit, sunscreen and water for this "moderate" 5.8-mile round-trip hike.
Though it would be about an hour faster to return the way you came, you might want to take the long way and finish the incredibly scenic Highway 12.
Pro Tip: If your teenager or boyfriend want more adventure, then have them keep going another steep, rock-scrambly mile to Upper Calf Creek Falls. If they're really annoying you, don’t tell them about the abundant poison ivy.
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