Utah has so much natural splendor, it’s a shame we feel so strongly that it can only be enjoyed in the spring and summer, the same time the rest of the state—and the rest of the world, for that matter—also decides to enjoy the canyon country. Consequently, those wide-open spaces can sometimes feel a little cramped when you’re elbowing way your past German tourists in ridiculously short shorts along the trail, or waiting in line for a table behind two scout troops at the local grill. But if you’ve ever watched The Shining and thought, “If it weren’t for all the horrifying ghosts, that would be a lot of fun,” then I have two words for you—off season.
Recently, my two brothers and I decided on such a getaway as a Christmas gift for our mother. Our destination, The Boulder Mountain Lodge, 20 N Highway 12, Boulder, Utah. We kept the itinerary open and only really planned on a jaunt to nearby Escalante.
Being in a small car full of brothers meant the drive down was filled largely with sarcasm and farts. These were balanced out, however, by the refreshing beauty outside the car. Canyon country is always breathtaking, but the winter adds its own extra flourish when one considers the red rocks, hoodoos and distant buttes capped in frosty layers of white. It also turned out to be an incredible time of the year for birds. We counted no less than seven eagles on the drive down. Primarily bald eagles, keeping sentry-like vigil from rocks and dead trees, but outside of Loa, we were treated to watching two gargantuan golden eagles trundling toward some tasty but unrecognizable carcass just off the side of the road.
The lodge itself is a beautiful and rustic—but not primitive—retreat. The rooms were warm and comfortable; the continental breakfast was well provisioned, and we had the lodge almost entirely to ourselves. Yes, the off season means fewer amenities in town—but again fewer crowds. The world-famous Hell’s Backbone Grill on site was unfortunately closed, but we brought our own food to enjoy. With the run of the lodge, we were also able to enjoy the hot tub as well as the miraculous massage chairs in the common area. Those robo-magic fingers kneaded my knotted lumbar with amazing precision.
The famous Hell’s Backbone road was unfortunately too snowy for our little car to tackle, but we nevertheless were able to enjoy stunning views along the Hogback—the stretch of Scenic Byway 12 between Boulder and Escalante where the ground disappears along either side of the road giving way to stunning desert vistas (and sweaty palm driving).
We stopped at the Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead and made a short walk of it, and were treated to some damn majestic scenery. Winter doesn’t kill the life of the desert, but rather brings new sides to familiar sights. The leaves of the cottonwood trees were gone, but in their place, ghost-like branches zigged and zagged in stark contrast to the red canyons around them, and along the trail the prickly pear cacti had turned a striking shade of purple.
While many restaurants are closed for the winter, we still found incredible eats like Mimi’s Bakery & Deli, 190 W Main, Escalante, where the turkey sandwiches on fresh-baked bread were a delight, and the walnut chocolate chip cookies were a revelation.
On our way out of town, we stopped at The Wild Rabbit Café, 135 E Main in Torrey, and enjoyed one of the tastiest Reuben sandwiches I’ve ever had. Ground mustard and a little pickle juice in the dressing added the perfect kick.
The air is cold and the options are fewer, but the desert still has promise in the winter. It’s worth the trip just to get up early for the sunrise. There is something to be said about the sun’s rays filling the gunmetal gray world with a lifeblood that allows you to watch the mesas and cliffs come to life before your very eyes.
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