Thursday, July 24, 2014

Southern Utah is God's Art Studio

When Kathleen and I married, we honeymooned in southern Utah.  It was the right place to start our marriage, holding in abundance so much of what we both love -- the stunning beauty of the earth.  Our mutual desire to explore every bit of that beauty -- hiking, biking, driving, camping and photographing it, has been a binding glue for us, something we both cherish and turn to again and again for renewal, peace and joy.  So it seemed appropriate, in celebration of our 25th this past June, to take a short four day southern Utah trip to a little town called Boulder.

Yes, Boulder, which actually is a place in southern Utah (and you thought it was in Colorado!).  When people ask where it is exactly, I respond the only way I know how: "Just over Boulder Mountain from the town of Torrey."  Blank stares inevitably follow, even among most Utahans.

That isn't surprising,  I guess, as Boulder is a seldom-visited, hard-scrabble farming settlement of a few dozen people or so, whose first claim to fame is that it was the last town in the United States to still receive its mail by mule ( I think that changed in 1934 thanks to the CCC, but I am not sure).  As you might guess, the people there are at least three parts tough and two parts eccentric, a delightful combination sweetened by at least one part nice.  I think they would be more parts nice, except they want to keep this place a secret -- and well they should.

Boulder is the only place I know where if you drive 15 minutes one way, you will find yourself at 10,000 feet amongst towering pines and aspen, but if you drive 15 minutes the other way, you will find yourself in the heart of true southern Utah desert red-rock, otherwise known as the Escalante river drainage. It is absolutely spectacular.  Here are a few pictures of what greets you as you come up over Boulder Mountain.

Note the deer in the photo above.  How much more alpine can you get?

The place to stay in town is the Boulder Mountain Lodge, an oasis of reasonable accommodation in an otherwise unforgiving place, and our destination this trip. Here are a few pictures of the lodge and what constitutes the town of Boulder:

If you look closely you can see our trusty jeep hiding next to our room, above.

This is what the rest of Boulder looks like:

Okay just kidding, but really, it is just a bunch of scattered farm homes. Luckily, there was also a Sinclair station and convenience store just down the road (it was the only gas or grocery in town), so at least I was still able to get my morning shot of diet coke before heading out for the day.

But the gem of the lodge (and town) is unquestionably Hell's Backbone Grill, which grows all the food it cooks at its own farm just down the road, and which has a 27 food rating from Zagats.  You can trust that rating -- Kathleen and I ate here at least six times, and did not regret a single bite.  Run by Blake and Jennifer, two kind ladies who take everyone in like family--employees and guests alike, the restaurant has also been reviewed by the New York Times, Sunset Magazine and Oprah, so if you don't trust us, check them out.  Blake even let us visit the farm where they grow the food they cook (and asked us to pitch in with some weeding -- family indeed!).  Here are some photos of the farm:

But as good as Hell's Backbone Grill can be, the real draw here is what you find just down the road from town.  Route 12 between Boulder and Escalante may be one of the prettiest drives in all of Utah, and that is saying something.  The photo below may give you some idea, but definitely not the whole picture:

Drive it at sunrise or sunset and you will never be the same.  Half way between Boulder and Escalante on Route 12 is the trailhead to Calf Creek Falls, an oasis of green in this kaleidoscope of sandstone, and our first destination.

The trail is listed as 2.6 miles one way, but it feels like five, because half of it is pure sand.  Still, it is worth every step.

Would it surprise you to learn, that in this little stream, in the middle of this wilderness of rock, there were beavers and beaver dams?  That fact alone may tell you everything you need to know about how unique this place is. Besides that, it is just darn pretty.

It was a hot summer day, with plenty of people on the trail, so why no swimmers at the bottom of that luscious cascade?   BECAUSE IT IS COLD. Dang cold. Stinson Beach Cold (and trust me, that is saying something). It hurt to put your feet in it. Yet another surprise in this most interesting place.

After finishing our hike, we headed into Escalante for a snack and a cold diet coke (why does that stuff taste so good and cold?).  We learned that before Route 12, there was only one other way to get from Escalante to Boulder -- Hells Backbone Road.  With a name like that, of course we had to take it.  Here are a few pics from the trip back:

I am always amazed to see that something as soft as wood can split something as hard as rock the way these trees do. Talk about patience and how remarkable and resilient life is.  Not to mention just darn beautiful:

This was actually the worst part of the road, but thanks to the CCC's bridge building prowess, the jeep had smooth sailing over a pretty decent drop.

Route 12 and Hell's Backbone are not the only famous roads running out of Boulder though.   The Burr Trail, named after a 19th century rancher that ran his cattle along it, received national attention when it was paved by Grand County, even though it was in a designated Wilderness Study Area. Environmental groups and federal officials were up in arms.  The press was such that at the time, I remember thinking "why did those Grand County yahoos do that?"

But having now visited the place, I'll tell you what -- they were right. The road is spectacular, and should be enjoyed by all, not just those willing to brave it on foot in 100 degree weather. Here are a few shots of overviews and Long Canyon, all of which are just a couple of minutes from Boulder along the Burr Trail:

The holes in the sandstone are great examples of the reason this area is known as the "Water Pocket Fold." During rainstorms, water collects and then remains in the small sandstone pockets you see here.

And there is the infamous road.  There are times when the wilderness everywhere people drive me nuts.  Paving did nothing except increase access to a beautiful area, which will make more people care about this place, and that is important. I tend to be a protection minded person when it comes to Federal land, but I also think all people should be able to access and appreciate it, and that it doesn't really ever work without local cooperation and buy-in.  I think of how much I have benefitted from all the national park and forest service roads, largely cut by a Democratic administration in the 30s and 40s, and believe that if we all just behave sensibly, we can do these things right and enhance local and national commitment to our beautiful places.

Speaking of beauty, here is what the canyon looks like when you drive that road:

And this is what you find on the other end of Long Canyon:

The colors are astounding, like paint splashed everywhere.  As we descended ever further towards the borders of Capitol Reef National Park (the part that sticks south like a tail on the map), the road turned to dirt, as the Grand County Commissioners showed respect for the National Park.  Just after that transition happens, there is a small dirt road called Upper Muley Twist Canyon.

We decided to try it out, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing places we have visited in our great state.  Here is what greets you as you head towards Capital Reef and turn up Muley Twist:

It's like half the world decided to live at a 45 degree angle.  Some other highlights of Upper Muley Twist:

This water tunnel through the sandstone was really amazing.  Hate to be at the mouth of it during a hard rain . . .

But the real treat of Muley Twist comes at the very end of the road (passable by car anyway).  There is a small dirt parking lot at the base of a 3/4 mile trail, which leads to this:

It is called Strike Valley, and there is really no way to convey the sense of scale, but here are a couple of pictures with Kath in them, by way of the old college try:

The size of those uplifted slabs is really something to behold.  I have been to a lot of beautiful national park spots in my life, and this one holds up pretty well with any of them.  Yet I will be surprised if you can find many Utahans even that have been to this place. Sitting and watching the sun go down and the stars come up here could change your life.  Hopefully we will do that with the kids one day.

You can actually drive down into that valley, along this road:

which we did.  Strike Valley bottom has its own kind of beauty:

After a bit we headed back to the lodge to eat.  But as sunset approached, I was drawn back to route 12 for some final pictures at twilight.

Looking back on the trip, I think now when people ask me where Boulder, Utah is, I will simply say 'it is where God goes to paint when he is tired of sunsets.'