The Grand Staircase

Today we are heading from the people-packed Bryce Canyon to the relatively deserted Capitol Reef in central Utah. Much of this trip is along Utah route 12, which dips in and out of the northwest corner of the large Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Just to prove to you how deserted this area is, the eastern end of the road receives an average of 435 vehicles per day. The George Washington Bridge, closer to my neck of the woods, receives 297,000 vehicles per day.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a newly designated monument and comprises some of the last truly desolate places in the lower 48 states. With names like Dark Canyon Primitive Area and Death Hollow Wilderness Area, I will admit I feel a sense of mystique here.

Mel really wanted to go to a place called Grand Gulch Primitive Area. After dialing it up on the web and in Google Earth, I found that it was miles from anything. There is a 50-mile dirt road that traverses the barren land from the town of Escalante to Hole-in-the-Rock on the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Once at the turn off for the gulch, days of hiking await you. Unfortunately, we didn't have the equipment or the car for this, but someday I hope to see this remote wilderness.

What we did see was a lot of desert lowland interrupted by small towns every 25 miles. With no sign of grocery stores or gas stations in most of these towns, I was left wondering, as I do in many parts of the west, what people do when they want food or, god forbid, some entertainment.

An overlook outside of Escalante, Utah

An overlook outside of Escalante, Utah

East of Escalante the town, we drove into nothingness. desert flatlands of various shades of sandstone. It's this landscape that makes it easy to see that this used to be the at the floor of a prehistoric seaway. The road is often the only trace of modernity in these parts.

The road turned north and straddled a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on either side. On the west side of this ridge is a deeply cut canyon by Calf Creek. We stopped to take a look.

Standing over a desert canyon

Standing over a desert canyon

Soon we climbed into the Dixie National Forest along the steep Boulder Mountain and Aquarius Plateau, the highest plateau in the U.S., with over 50,000 acres over 11,000 feet. We ascended the steep side of the plateau and, once on top, comfortably drove through the lush, forested oasis for some time. To my surprise, it began to rain, making the harsh, sandy, oven-like conditions from which we came all but forgotten. Up here deer frolic and squirrels dart about happily ignorant of what lies below.

But, I knew our stay in this wonderful, green mountaintop was temporary, for Capitol Reef lies among the hot sandstone below. Soon, we quickly, and by quickly I mean a speedy roller coaster ride down a 14% grade, descended the high plateau and landed in Torrey, Utah, about 4,000 feet below. Capitol Reef was just a few miles to the west. Near the park, I snapped this photo showing one of the "steps" in the huge Colorado Plateau.

Heading into Capitol Reef

Heading into Capitol Reef

We arrived at the park only to discover that we had no cash. Adding insult to injury, when we inquired about availability in their campground, we were practically laughed at. We are off the beaten path now, a fact that would only become astonishingly obvious to us later in the day.

Having humbly received word that the campground was not likely to fill up, we headed back to Torrey in search of cash. Torrey is not large. It has 171 inhabitants and covers an area of 0.4 square mile, about 30% the size of Central Park. We were given the locations of the three cash machines in Torrey. First on the list was the newly built chain motel outside of town.

I don't know who keeps sending people down here for cash. was the frustrated response.

We drove downtown and stopped in the Chuckwagon, a modern day general store that had the highest possibility of possessing an ATM. Sure enough, a small ATM was hidden in the corner. When I requested $80, it balked and spit out a receipt that just read system error 0100. This repeated again for $60 and for $40 and, had I not been so desperate, I would have moved on, but who knew how far the next ATM would be? I tried one last time with $20, and this worked. My cynicism led me to initially believe that the ATM only disbursed money in $20 intervals so they could collect more fees. However, this theory was proven wrong when the following person behind me was hoping for cash and got none—the machine was out of cash. And, because that appears to be the only cash machine in town, that meant that the entire town was out of cash. We had snagged the last $20 in town!

With cash in wallet, we set up our tent. We were hungry so we decided to return to Torrey to see if we could find a decent bite to eat. We ended up choosing a lovely Southwest restaurant on the west side of town called Cafe Diablo. We arrived about 15 minutes before they opened, so we waited with a glass of wine on the outdoor patio.

This high-end cuisine seems out of place in such a rural, informal setting, but here it is serving up southwest fusion dishes. Some menu highlights include rattlesnake cakes, duck mariachi, and firecrackers, which remain a mystery to me. When we asked about the rattlesnake, our waitress flashed open her photo album containing some recent pictures of snakes she had taken while hiking in the area.

We had a lovely view of the late afternoon Sun as we looked upon a yellow-grass field that gently rose to meet a rocky ridge of mountains. I had Beef Flank Steak Carbon and Mel had the Pumpkin Seed Trout. The food was expensive, but very good. If you find yourself in Torrey, I recommend stopping in.

We stopped off at Sunset Point about two hours before sunset. Clouds spoiled our view of the deep ravine whose steep walls would otherwise reveal a splendid array of colors. There was not another soul for miles; we had this trail all to ourselves. But, suddenly, a strong wind invaded our peace and we decided to head back to the car.

The wind remained, driving us inside the tent. Eventually, as night fell, the wind quieted and I spent the remaining minutes of daylight writing on a picnic table.