Like most hikes and drives in south-central Utah, Lower Muley Twist Canyon is both heavenly and hellish for someone curious about what’s around the next corner — and I definitely am. It’s possible to hike down this canyon in Capitol Reef National Park for 12 miles and turn at least three times as many corners.
I’m in this part of Utah because it’s still snowing where I live in northwest Wyoming. Not so here in late March, with temperatures in the 60s, maybe even the 70s. I’m already somewhat familiar with the area, but there are plenty of hikes and back-road drives I haven’t yet enjoyed.
Also, one of my favorite restaurants — Hell’s Backbone Grill — is not far.
Doing my pre-trip online reconnaissance, the full 12-mile Lower Muley Twist endeavor piques curiosity. I don’t have the physical fitness to do it in a single day, though. Still, I don’t trust that this is reason enough to make me turn around, so I make a 6:15 p.m. dinner reservation at the farm-to-table restaurant in the traditional Mormon town of Boulder (population about 250). Hell’s Backbone Grill serves “four corners cuisine,” which draws from Mormon pioneer recipes, Puebloan cultural dishes, cowboy fare, and whatever grows on its farm at 7,000 feet in elevation.
I figure that if I hike a couple of miles down the canyon from the trailhead on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway and then retrace my route, I’ll have just enough time to drive back to Boulder, check in at the Boulder Mountain Lodge — the only lodging “downtown” — and shower before dinner.
Mine is the only car in the small trailhead parking lot. The trail immediately descends 40 feet through Utah juniper trees and onto the canyon floor, which is a dry creek bed. I’m quickly dwarfed by undulating red sandstone formations. The canyon lives up to its name; every twist reveals another twist, every corner reveals a surprise.
One corner delivers a section of narrows, where the canyon walls suddenly come together and the sandy path down the middle shrinks to a width of 20 feet. Coming around the next corner, there is a “weeping wall,” where seeping minerals make the otherwise vermilion, 500-foot-tall sandstone wall look like it is crying soot-black tears.
And then comes a corner that is itself a corner: an undercut, 300-foot-long, 90-degree bend in the canyon that, when Lower Muley Creek floods, is obviously the scene of much violence. The bottom 15 feet of the sandstone here bears the scars of all manner of injury. There are holes, dents, dings, scratches, and scrapes.
Before I know it, I am a mile past my planned turnaround distance and have a blister on my left foot. But I’m not yet ready to turn around. After all, the folks at Hell’s Backbone Grill, and at pretty much everywhere for several hundred miles in every direction, don’t much care whether I shower before dinner.
I get around two more corners before I realize I’ll miss my meal if I don’t rush back to the car. But the extra corners are worth it. The last opens into a blocky rock garden at the base of Zionlike sheer cliffs that appear to be illuminated from within. I first think that my polarized sunglasses are playing tricks on me; when I take them off, the cliffs have every bit as much glow.
As I drive back to Boulder on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway, a 66-mile paved and dirt road between Boulder and Bullfrog Marina on the northwest shore of Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it kills me that I don’t have time to stop and take photographs. Near the start of the drive, I see Peekaboo Arch to the west. Next comes a high desert forest of pinyons and Utah junipers. Even though some of the juniper trees may be almost 1,000 years old, I don’t think any are more than 20 feet tall. From about A.D. 400 to 1200, the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this area made use of both of these species as food. I open both front windows so that the junipers can infuse the inside of my car with their sweetly resinous smell.
I leave Capitol Reef and enter the adjoining Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and its 1 million tangled acres of sinuous slot canyons, mesas, and cliffs. (It was 1.9 million miles at its 1996 designation, but President Trump reduced its size last December.) Here, the Burr Trail switches from dirt and gravel to pavement, albeit without the amenities found on most roads, such as centerlines or shoulders.
Not taking photos in Long Canyon – seven miles long one with sheer golden and dark red sandstone walls that stretch several hundred feet high — takes more self-discipline than did turning around in Lower Muley Twist Canyon. But driving past the white sandstone sand dunes at 6 p.m., which I know are six miles from the lodge and restaurant, I allow myself a brief photo stop. The clouds, like overstuffed down pillows, split the evening sun into biblical beams.
You might think that no restaurant could be worth a popped blister and speeding through the Burr Trail’s landscape. And you would be wrong. I talked myself into missing the surprises around future Lower Muley Twist corners because the continually changing menu at Hell’s Backbone Grill is a guaranteed good surprise. I’ve eaten there four times before.
When President Bill Clinton established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, it was big news, but it wasn’t until Hell’s Backbone Grill opened in 2000 that the monument, and Boulder, arrived on my radar.
Back then, there were about 100 national monuments but only one woman-owned, chef-owned restaurant in the Rocky Mountain West operating its own farm. In 2002, it made news by obtaining the first liquor license in Boulder. That was when, looking at a map, I realized how remote the town was.
Someday I’d get there. Maybe.
As it turned out, that day was more than a decade later, in 2012, and it happened more because of Highway 12 than the restaurant. Its 124 miles are gorgeous, one of only 29 All-American Roads in the country, basically connecting Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks while passing through three state parks, Dixie National Forest, and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
From that trip, my strongest memories are of the restaurant’s and Highway 12’s “stars.” At the former, it was the spicy meatloaf, which was every bit as good as the reviews said it would be. On the latter, it was the hogback, a section of road about two miles long with sheer drop-offs of more than 1,000 feet on both sides.
I have returned to Highway 12 and Boulder several times since. I now make an effort to search for subtler joys, even though the hogback was recently repaved and the restaurant has gained more and more recognition. (It has been named Utah’s best restaurant several times and, last year, co-owners and co-chefs Blake Spalding and Jen Castle were semifinalists for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest region. Also last year, Spalding and Castle published their second cookbook, This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness.)
Its 6½-acre farm annually grows 23,000 pounds of produce and keeps more than 150 chickens, and the farm staff tends about 150 fruit trees (including five different kinds of apricot trees), so the menu changes all the time. This evening, as I am dining alone, choosing is more excruciating than usual. How to pick between goat-cheese fondue and a steamed artichoke served with lemon aioli made from eggs laid by the farm’s own chickens? A family of five is seated next to me and puts in their entire order before I settle on the artichoke. And that’s just the appetizer.
There’s the spicy chipotle meatloaf — a few things on the menu are constant — but I instead order a New York strip steak. The beef is from a cow that grazed in Grand Staircase-Escalante. (Unlike national parks, national monuments, especially this one, are sometimes managed for multiple uses and not just protection of the land.) It might just be my imagination, fueled by driving through the forest on the way back from Lower Muley Twist Canyon, but when the steak arrives and I begin to eat, I taste notes of pinyon and juniper.
The next morning, I drive my favorite section of Highway 12, the 28 miles between Boulder and Escalante, which, with a population of about 800, is the largest town in the area.
The hogback is in this stretch, but this time the corners on the road as it descends to the Escalante River and the Calf Creek Recreation Area really enthrall me. Unlike Lower Muley’s corners, I know what’s around these. I grin, giggle, and press harder on the gas pedal as I go into each one.
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
Boulder Mountain Lodge
20 N. Highway 12, Boulder; 435-335-7460 or boulder-utah.com
Spacious rooms with private decks and patios on a lush, 11-acre bird sanctuary. Rooms from $140.
Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch
3621 Hell’s Backbone Rd., Boulder; 435-335-7480 or bouldermountainguestranch.com
Cabins, bunk rooms, “glamping” in a canvas wall tent or Native American tepee, hiking, horseback riding, and croquet on a ranch four miles out of town. Rooms with shared baths from $80, with private baths from $95.
Shooting Star RV Resort
2020 W. Highway 12, Escalante; 435-826-4440 or shooting star-rvresort.com
Five minutes from Escalante, this friendly, funky resort has RV sites (from $25) and eight Hollywood-themed Airstreams (from $129) — each with a kitchen, private bath, and air conditioning — and screens movies outdoors three nights a week.
Where to Eat
Hell’s Backbone Grill
20 N. Highway 12, Boulder; 435-335-7464 or hellsbackbonegrill.com
The often-changing menus focus on fresh ingredients, many from the grill’s own organic farm. Open daily for breakfast (7:30 to 11 a.m.), lunch (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and dinner (5 to 9 p.m.) through Thanksgiving. Dinner entrees from $22. On the grounds of Boulder Mountain Lodge.
Burr Trail Outpost
14 N. Highway 12, Boulder; 435-335-7565 or burrtrailoutpost.com
Coffee, loose leaf teas, smoothies, baked goods, and breakfast bagels served amid work from local artists. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Items from $4.
Escalante Outfitters Café
310 W. Main St., Escalante; 435-826-4266; escalanteoutfitters.com
Baked goods and quiches for breakfast; pizzas, salads, and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Several Utah microbrews on tap or in bottles. Open 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. Lunch and dinner entrees from $10.
What to Do
All-American Road Scenic Byway 12
Between Torrey and Panguitch; scenicbyway12.com
A 124-mile drive on a two-lane highway past (or through) Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks, three state parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Dixie National Forest.
Burr Trail Scenic Backway
Between Boulder and Bullfrog; 435-826-5499 or nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/driving-the-burr-trail.htm
This 66-mile road between Boulder and Bullfrog Marina on Lake Mead passes petrified sand dunes, soaring red sandstone cliffs and the Waterpocket Fold as it travels through Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Glen Canyon. In dry conditions, no special vehicles are required. Only the first 36 miles are paved.
Hell’s Backbone Road
Between Escalante and Highway 12 near Boulder; 435-826-5499 or www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dixie/recarea/?recid=30316
In Dixie National Forest, a 35-mile drive on a packed-dirt and gravel road past sandstone formations, ponderosa pine forests, and aspen groves and over the 14-foot wide Hell’s Backbone Bridge originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and spanning a gorge several hundred feet deep.
Lower Calf Creek Falls
Highway 12 between Boulder and Escalante; 435-826-5499 or blm.gov/visit/calf-creek-recreation-area-campground
In Calf Creek Recreation Area, a six-mile, out-and-back, mostly flat hike past Navajo sandstone cliffs and granaries and pictographs left by the Fremont people who inhabited the area from A.D. 700 to 1300, as well as a 126-foot waterfall with a swimmable pool at its base.
Lower Muley Twist Canyon
Burr Trail Scenic Backway, 35 miles south of Boulder; 435-425-4111 or nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/lowermuley.htm
In Capitol Reef National Park, hike as far as 23 miles down this mellow, circuitous canyon, which cuts lengthwise along the spine of Waterpocket Fold and was formerly used as a wagon route by Mormon pioneers. Free.
General information: visitutah.com