09-23-2021 Scenic Byway Highway 12, Torrey to Bryce

When we left camp on this Thursday morning, our last day in Torrey, we planned to drive south to Boulder and then west on the Burr Trail.  I wanted to share the iconic road with the famous switchbacks with Dan and Chere.  I have been there many times, and love everything about that section of Capitol Reef. 

Photos above from our 2019 road trip on the Burr Trail

The Waterpocket Fold is the geologic hallmark of Capitol Reef National Park, a 100 mile long uplift with magnificent views from the high points.  It was simply a “must-see” for anyone visiting Capitol Reef in my mind.  Another purpose of the trip south, was to have dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill

The restaurant is only open for dinner after 4 PM because of limited staffing.  We would have to schedule our timing to get back to the grill by 4, meaning that we would have to backtrack up the Burr Trail rather than taking the round trip road back to Torrey via the No-Tom Road that parallels the eastern boundary of Capitol Reef.

I also wanted to travel far enough south on Highway 12 from the Burr Trail intersection to take Dan and Chere on the Devil’s Backbone. We also had to consider that we would be leaving our dogs in the rigs back at camp for the entire day.  Mattie does fine with ten hours but Dan and Chere’s dogs might have a bit of trouble with such a long time cooped up inside with no breaks. Trying to manage the timing and logistics was getting to be a bit stressful.

While Dan drove toward the summit of Boulder Mountain on Highway 12, my mind was busy trying to figure things out.  By the time we reached the overlook at one of the highest points, I had an “ah-ha” moment.  I didn’t have to be so attached to showing them the Burr Trail Switchbacks, and could simply relax into traveling on Highway 12.  A quick check of Google Maps showed that we could easily make it to Bryce Canyon and back to Hell’s Backbone Grill by 4 PM, in time to get a patio table for dinner.

Highway 12 is listed as one of the most scenic byways in the United States, on a par with famous Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coast of California.  The northern part of the route crosses Boulder Mountain. 

Boulder Mountain, also known as Utah’s Aquarius plateau, is part of the High Plateaus section of the Colorado Plateau. Ranging over 11,000 feet in elevation, Boulder Mountain is roughly 90 miles long, north to south, and forms what looks like an S in reverse. The plateau covers more than 900 square miles, and is the largest and highest plateau in Canyon Country. Eighty lakes are found across the mountain that is covered in aspen, fir, spruce , sub-alpine grasslands and meadows. Along the middle elevations you’ll find ponderosa pine, while pinyon and juniper trees are found in the lower elevations.

From the northern end of Boulder Mountain you can see down on communities such as Torrey, Bicknell, and Teasdale, and you can see Thousand Lakes mountain. The Aquarius Plateau is said to be the highest timbered plateau in North America. The highest point is Bluebell Knoll 11,328 feet.

We stopped at the official scenic overlooks to see the views, but the skies were still a bit murky in the distance due to the smoke from fires in California.  No matter, there was a photo of what we were supposed to be seeing up to 100 miles distant.

We made a quick stop in Boulder to make sure the Grill hours were as posted on the internet, and continued south toward the Devil’s Backbone.  Throughout our time in Utah, Dan has often noticed the lack of roadside shoulders on secondary roads.  I laughed and told him I had a place to show him that might be the most dramatic example of narrow roads with almost nonexistent shoulders.

The view from the Devil’s Backbone is expansive, with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument landscape stretching for miles to the west, south, and east. 

Driving south on curvy Highway 12 toward Escalante we dropped toward Calf Creek, and the very over crowded Calf Creek Falls trailhead and campground.  Parked cars were lined up almost to the highway.  Just a bit farther south below the falls trail, Calf Creek runs into the Escalante River, where cars were parked all along the highway for the Escalante River and Canyon trailheads.  No matter, we had no time to dawdle with Bryce Canyon as our destination and a 4 PM dinner on the agenda.

I tried to write to Gaelyn, using email and text messages.  As many readers know, Gaelyn the Geogypsy is a ranger for the National Park Service who has been at Bryce this year.  I laughed when I wrote to her, saying, “We have two hours, what should we do?”.  If you have read her blog, you know she often mentions how often people ask this question of her at the Visitor Center.  It is hard to understand why someone would only spend two hours at such a magnificent destination.  Of course, our reasons made sense to us.  It was better to see the park for 2 hours than not at all.  Dan and Chere had never been there, and Mo couldn’t remember if she had.  I have hiked the Bryce trails in days past, but was delighted to get a opportunity to see the fairyland hoodoos once again.

As we entered the park, we were delighted that there were no waiting lines at the entrance kiosk. Skipping the visitor center, which we read was not open, we headed for Inspiration Point, the most distant viewpoint we felt we could manage with our time frame. 

The walk up to the overlooks was steep, but wide and fairly short.  The view of the canyon below opened up to a fascinating complex of hoodoos and cliffs with the trails far below. 

We returned to the parking area for Sunset Point, and again walked to the viewpoints.  There were many more people at Sunset Point, and it is from here that the infamous Navajo Loop Trail descends into the canyon. I remember hiking the Navajo Loop trail with Shera, and the more distant Peekaboo Loop which was visible across the canyon from our viewpoint.

We didn’t stay long at Bryce, but every one of us was happy for the long drive and the gorgeous reward of Bryce Canyon.  I was sorry to have missed Gaelyn, and felt a bit sad as we passed another ranger giving the geology talk at Sunset Point.  Later Gaelyn wrote saying she was in the middle of her move and was also sorry to have missed us.

It was close to 3 or so when we left the park to return north on Highway 12 to Boulder.  This time we didn’t stop at any of the overlooks or gawk at the views while Dan did his best to get us there in time for dinner.  Sure ehough, we arrived around 4:20 and seating on the patio was already filling up.  Lucky us, we got a table without a wait.  The restaurant is only serving dinner now due to Covid, and they are only serving outdoors on the patio.

Our dinner was as wonderful as we expected, with a perfect table, a charming and efficient waiter, and all natural, locally sourced, slow food movement meals. 

Chere had posole with a blue corn muffin. 

Dan enjoyed local red trout and vegetables from the restaurant farm.

Mo and I shared a grass fed pork chop, smothered on fresh local plum chipotle bbq sauce and farm vegetables. 

Dessert was perfect for a southwest meal, a rich chocolate creme thick pudding, flavored with chile, topped with whipped cream and locally grown flowers.  Best chocolate I ever tasted, with the chile provided a subtle kick. 

It was a perfect end to what turned out to be a perfect day.  Although Dan and Chere never saw the Burr Trail road, they saw extensive areas of the Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon National Park, and enjoyed every bite of their supper and the world renown restaurant.

The drive home over the mountain was punctuated by a few raindrops and some dark clouds hanging over Thousand Lakes Mountain.  As we rounded a curve, the western sunlight illuminated a distant ridge of Capitol Reef red rocks. We made it home before dark, with some time to relax outside and chat with a neighbor for a few minutes before heading for bed and a great night’s sleep.

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

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