“Getting there is half the fun- come share it with me!”
Kermit and Fozzie the Bear sang it in 1979, and those lyrics were certainly true for us as we hit the road to Boulder, Utah on St. Patrick’s Day. Our teensy, rustic cabin at Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch (home for three nights) was squeal-inducing. On our first full day of vacation, John bravely emerged from the warm hug of our bed to make hot coffee and bring the crackling fire in the stove back to life.
I pulled an extra-snuzzly Cholula closer to me and wondered what the day held. Though we had no set plan yet, I knew what we’d be doing. When you’re in the Boulder/Escalante area, you hike.
This is the land of deep slot canyons and sheer red rock cliffs. The trails have names like “Spooky” and “Coyote Gulch” and “Death Hollow.” As intimidating as they sound (especially in the remote Utah desert), I knew from my limited experience that my mind would be completely blown by unbelievable natural beauty multiple times during our hikes. This was a very special part of the world.
My main worry was my back. Treatment of my snowboard-fall/yoga-FAIL S.I. joint strain was in full effect: a short period of steroid pills, painkillers, prescription-strength anti-inflammatory pills as well as regular icing and light stretches. A strenuous hike was a guarantee to re-injure myself. I sat in a warm sunbeam, the heat from the stove at my back, and watched Cholula get happily filthy as I wrote in my journal. I felt apprehensive as we walked to the main lodge for breakfast: I didn’t want to ruin John’s time by limiting what we could do.
Can we talk about breakfast for a moment? Much like our effortlessly scrumptious dinner the night before, we had an awesome start to our day. A tasty offering of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and fruit would fuel whatever adventure we found.
John discussed nearby low-impact hikes with our host and pored over topo maps of the area. We decided to try the minimal-elevation, 6-mile start-to-finish hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. When we’d visited this part of Utah over Memorial Day weekend a couple of years ago, we’d driven to Calf Creek campground- it was crawling with people, overstuffed with RVs and VW Vanagons. Now, in mid-March, it was a mostly-deserted wasteland, save another dusty Subaru and a hippie’s Westfalia. Perfect.
We slathered sunscreen onto our pale skin, giddy at the opportunity to shed enough clothing to warrant it. Springtime in the desert! I signed my new name to the trail’s register, said a silent prayer for my back, and off we went.
Our solitude on the trail was an incredible gift. Over the whole day, we passed only three or four groups of other hikers. In between chatting about John’s new job and upcoming summer trips, we relished the sounds of this painted desert canyon. Birds chattered away, their songs bouncing back and forth off of the sheer, red cliff sides. Calf Creek, in springtime fullness, burbled alongside us for the whole hike, providing extra fun for our part-fish dog. Three petroglyphs etched onto the walls across the canyon were a reminder of an ancient civilization, long extinct.
Signs of life emerging after months of harsh desert winter were everywhere- the green reeds along the creek bed, the fresh purple of new cactus, an occasional blooming desert flower bringing a pop of unexpected color to the muted dirt. Gnawed-on tree trunks provided evidence of hard-working beavers. At one point, we bent down to see what Cholula was so interested in a tangle of branches. Then the barren sticks came to life, a squirming, writhing ball of SNAKES, likely just emerging from their hibernation hole. There were at least 10 of them, and from that point on, every branch was a threat.
We could hear Calf Creek Falls before we could see it. The sometimes painful three-mile hike in was immediately worth it, as we felt the mist from the 125-foot waterfall on our cheeks. How lucky to have this moment to ourselves!
The hike back out provided a different perspective of the trail. The mid-afternoon sun’s heat made our mouths water for the cold beverages awaiting us in the cooler. While I dug for a necessary pain-reliever in my bag, John set up a lovely happy hour in the empty day-use picnic area. A family “cheers!” ended our happy hike.
After a quiet, vacation-style nap back at the cabin, we washed off the desert dust and headed to one of my favorite restaurants ever: Hell’s Backbone Grill.
Anyone who’s visited this part of Utah knows about Hell’s Backbone Grill. Not only is it one of the only places to dine in Boulder, but it’s beyond scrumptious. Fresh, thoughtful ingredients come together into dishes like Spicy Cowgal Chipotle Meatloaf (grass-fed Boulder beef) or the delectable Jenchilada (pumpkin-pinon filled enchiladas with a house-made roasted tomato green chili sauce). But more fabulous than the food is the vibe. The focus on sustainability and the attitude of “if you’re here, you’re family” is tangible from the first step inside. It helps that we are friends with one of the favorite seasonal servers there. We spent a leisurely evening, chatting with our server (Colleen, who’s been at the Grill since the beginning) and enjoying a delicious supper. We ended the meal with a chocolate chili crème pot and felt extra love when Colleen brought us a little jar of their homemade peach butter to take home. What a blissful day we’d had.
Our inner-explorers took over the next day. After a return visit to the Grill for an incredible breakfast (leaving with my new favorite orange coffee mug) we headed toward Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
This dirt road goes for over 60 miles and ends up at Lake Powell, with trails and hikes tucked into hidden canyons all over the desolate landscape. Our intention was less to find another hike and more to see what we could see out here, literally in the middle of nowhere. We turned down a side road and ended up at Devil’s Garden.
When we parked the car and started walking, just to get our blood pumping, we had no clue what we were about to find. Red rocks, stone arches, and crazy hoodoos (uneven pillars of sandstone with hard caps) created a natural hide-and-seek playground. John, Cholula, and I crawled around the rock formations like little mountain goats, shouting echoes through the caverns and giggling like kids. The views were incredible; the day was ideal.
After getting lost in hoodoo-land for awhile, we continued on and turned down a road to an area on the map called Egypt. From the looks of it, we might end up on the rim of a large canyon. We made it almost to the end of the 10-mile road before needing 4-wheel drive to continue. So we found a flat area overlooking a rocky ravine and set up shop for happy hour. Alternating kisses from the desert sunshine and Cholula kept a smile on my face. We headed back to the cabin just in time for our last meal at the Ranch- pork posole and a grilled elk brat.
Packing up the Subaru to leave Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch was bittersweet. Our three days there had been a perfectly-timed unplug and reset. But we had more places to explore and family and friends to visit in Durango.
We left our gratitude with the little cabin, picked up some breakfast for the road, and headed off into the desert toward our next adventure.
**Up next: Utah versus Colorado, Grandma’s, losing at 31, a growler of margaritas, unexpected rustic mountain luxury, and Cholula’s boyfriend.
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