A Family Journey Through Utah’s Color Country
Part 2: Enchanting Escalante
This is the second in a three-part series about Highway 12 in Utah. Click the links above to access the other installments.
After visiting Capitol Reef, head south on Highway 12 from Torrey. (That is, if you didn’t take the Burr Trail option mentioned in Part I of this series.) You’ll wind over the eastern shoulder of Boulder Mountain and through the town that shares its name. Soon after passing through Boulder, you’ll be on The Hogsback. Steep cliffs cling to this narrow, winding stretch of blacktop. As you snake along the highway, a steady stream of “Whoa, check that out!” will play like cracked bakelite, tempting your eyes away from the road. Stop at the obvious pullout and take in the 360-degree vistas of some of the most varied landforms in Utah.
Once you’re back on the road, Escalante is your destination. It’s the midpoint of your journey along Highway 12.
Originally settled in the 1870’s, Escalante is now the jumping-off point for some of the most incredible desert backpacking and canyoneering routes on the planet. One cannot overstate the appeal of the Escalante landscape. It’s the kind of environment you could lose yourself in on purpose, and some have. (Google: Everett Ruess). Many of the area’s recreational opportunities lie in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established in 1996. (Pro tip: Don’t ask the locals how they feel about this.)
Carrying on the theme of “the road,” you’ll find a lot of the adventure you’re looking for down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Turning south off of Highway 12, this road gets its name from the eponymous wagon “trail” Mormon pioneers dug to access the Colorado River during the San Juan Expedition. A nice interpretive site commemorating the expedition popped up in recent years just east of town. It’s free and worth a quick visit.
Hole-in-the-Rock is graded for most of its length but can become a little washboarded. A 2WD vehicle with normal clearance and a little common sense is adequate for reaching most of the sites, including all of those mentioned here. Please don’t attempt it during heavy rain, though, no matter what you drive. Anyway, here are some Hole-in-the-Rock highlights:
Devils Garden- Hands down, this is my kids’ favorite place in the Escalante area. It’s a little like Goblin Valley (if you’ve been there), but smaller and less crowded. And it really is a great playground for kids and grownups alike. Hoodoos spring up like sandstone giants playing Twister. Mini-arches and windows, tiny slots and domes are perfect for playing hide and seek–or in my kids’ case, “Secret Adventure Spies.” Just keep an eye on the little ones and respect the hoodoos. Please, please, please don’t climb on Metate Arch. Picnic sites abound. (12 miles from Highway 12)
20-mile Wash Dinosaur Megatrackway- Less than a mile past the turnoff for Devils Garden is the route to this truly amazing portrait of the past. Atop a hunk of yellow Entrada sandstone, you’ll find what appears to have been a dinosaur dance hall. Over 1,000 tracks have been mapped in the Entrada formation, not all of them at this site. It took us a little time to figure out what we were looking for, but once we did, tracks seemed to appear everywhere. (13.6 miles from Highway 12. Take the turnoff for Collet Top and head west. The obvious sandstone bluff is your destination. Access the trails to the tracks from the southwest side of the bluff.)
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulches– You might say that these two little slot canyons have gotten more than their share of attention, but if you have time to spare, they are not too be missed. These slots are good for older kids (10+) with decent climbing skills. Go up Peek-a-Boo and down Spooky. Their non-technical nature and easy access have contributed to some ecological distress at the trailhead. Be sure to pack out what you pack in. (26 miles from Highway 12. Dry Fork. Description.)
Where to stay: Primitive camping abounds along Hole-in-the-Rock Road. In town you’ll find the Circle D Motel very accommodating, with rooms of varying sizes to fit your family. A popular spot with tour groups, the Circle D is right in the center of town and books quickly. Each room is stocked with area guidebooks. Just don’t take them with you. $82 for a room with two queens. Restaurant onsite is great for breakfast.
Where to eat: It’s no exaggeration that Escalante Outfitters makes Utah’s best pizza. I dare you to challenge me on that claim. The sourdough crust is made by hand daily, and the toppings are harvest fresh. Go for the Devil’s Garden (if you like veggies). Gluten-free crust is available and quite good too. In addition to food, EO is a the region’s gear outfitter and bookstore, rents small cabins and has an onsite campground.
Click to continue reading “Utah’s Highway 12, Revisited” Part 3: A Tropical Setting
Escalante Image Gallery: