Walking off the Ledge Into Capitol Reef
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 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.
Paula Colman is a recovering attorney and practicing parent. She is an expert at nothing but enthusiastic about everything. She has lived in seven states but calls Utah home. You can follow her adventures on Instagram (@harpo_utah).
- Gifford Homestead
- Fruita and U-Pick Orchards
- Capitol Reef Petroglyphs
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.
Take a walk back in time and learn about Capitol Reef’s early pioneer life at the Gifford Homestead Museum and store. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a freshly-baked piece of pie — your taste buds will thank you. Open March through November.
In the spring, the blooming historic orchards of Capitol Reef splash mesmerizing colors against the sandstone backdrops. Come harvest, happy visitors wander unlocked orchards and sample ripe fruit in season. There’s a self-pay and bagging station to carry out ripe fruit for a nominal fee.
Petroglyph panels throughout the park depict ancient art and the stories of people who lived in the area from approximately 600 to 1300 A.D. Venture through Capitol Reef to see various panels and take your guess at what these works of rock art represent.
- Article: Rappelling Into Capitol Reef
- Hickman Bridge + Navajo Knobs
- Robber's Roost and Cafe Diablo
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 free-range Rattlesnake Cakes (the caged ones are self-serve) at Cafe Diablo in Torrey.
Some of the best scenery of Capitol Reef is only accessible by dropping in, 20, 50, sometimes 100 feet or more. Whether you're 8 or 80, there are few physical limitations to canyoneering. Follow Utah SkiMums blogger Paula Colman on she learns the basics of canyoneering with a guide and walks off the ledge into Capitol Reef.
These front country hikes in Capitol Reef National Park lead to amazing rock formations and panoramic views of Southeastern Utah. Hickman Bridge is a short out-and-back (about 2 miles). The Rim Overlook and/or Navajo Knobs add 2.3 and 4.7 miles, respectively, for an elevated view of Capitol Reef’s tilted landscapes.
The next time you visit Capitol Reef, be sure to stop in the tiny town of Torrey for tasty eats and interesting treats from handmade ice cream to unusual dishes of the southwest. While at Robber’s Roost Bookstore and Beverages, browse the selection of books by regional writers focusing on life on the Colorado Plateau.
- The All-American Road Scenic Byway 12
- Anasazi State Park Museum
- Hell's Backbone Grill
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.
Discover two national parks, the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the tranquil beauty of Boulder Mountain along with national forest lands and state parks unlike anywhere else. While you can complete the whole drive on one scenic three-hour tour, even a four-day itinerary only cracks the surface.
Get an up close and personal look into life from almost 1,000 years ago at Anasazi State Park Museum. Explore what was once one of the largest Ancestral Puebloan communities west of the Colorado River.
An iconic meal for an iconic road trip. This Zagat-rated, organic-farm-to-fork restaurant in Boulder, Utah, serves regionally-based cuisine. The varied menu receives rave reviews from happy patrons for its blend of Western Range, Pueblo Indian and Southwestern flavors. The proprietors source from their own organic farm and heirloom fruit trees. Reservations are recommended, so call ahead before you decide to stop in.
- Burr Trail Outpost
- Kiva Koffeehouse
- Lower Calf Creek Falls
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.
The Burr Trail Outpost calls itself “Your oasis at the end of the trail.” Like its neighbor the Hell’s Backbone Grill, the Outpost is focused on local: homemade baked goods, local organic coffee, local art, jewelry, books, crafts and more.
Nestled amid the beauty of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah, Kiva Koffeehouse offers a relaxing stop for travelers in need of homemade food and gourmet coffee or an overnight stay in one of two 700-square-foot cottages, each complete with a jetted tub, fireplace and spectacular views.
At the lower falls of Calf Creek, a clear stream descends 126 feet into a pool, where happy folks take a swim after a 3-mile hike that is relatively flat, but frequently very sandy. It’s 6 miles total, and a great introduction to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.