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GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE — My wife and I love the Grand Staircase-Escalante region of Utah and spend time in Boulder each summer hiking, exploring and fishing. Our friends Carson and Olivia accompanied us on our most recent trip.
We got a late start on Friday and it was about 10 p.m. before we reached those majestic mountains that herald your arrival into the Boulder area. Passing over the Boulder Mountains can be precarious at night due to the numerous cows and deer encountered along the highway. We passed hundreds of them on this drive and also had to stop to allow a large herd of elk crossed the road.
As we descended the backside of the Boulders, a mountain lion stepped out of the darkness in front of us. An adolescent tom, he probably weighed around 100 pounds. The cat continued across the road and paused about eight feet from our car. He stepped up onto a rock as if posing for a nature photographer — my camera was in the trunk — and peered into our car with curiosity.
After several stunning moments, the sleek cat stepped down from the rock and vanished into the darkness. We all high- fived each other and talked excitedly about what we’d just seen. And motivated by our mountain lion sighting, we spent the rest of the drive eagerly scanning the night for other seldom-seen wildlife like bobcats, foxes, lynxes, wolverines and chupacabras .
When we rolled into Boulder, it was uncharacteristically active for so late at night. The reason for the revelry was that we’d planned our trip to coincide with the Boulder Heritage Festival, an annual event that brings out all the best elements of the town.
We continued on a couple miles south of town and left the highway for the legendary Hell’s Backbone Road. Three miles down the road, well before reaching the formidable cliffs that give it its name, we arrived at the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch. Tucked away in the desert hills, the ranch has a beautiful main lodge and a trio of small cabins for rent.
We stayed in cabin #2 and loved every minute of it. What the cabin lacked in square footage it more than made up for in comfort. It was immaculately clean and featured a plush king-size bed and a less than plush bunk bed. In the morning, we ate breakfast burritos on the porch and watched jackrabbits, cottontails and chipmunks scamper around the meadow.
Our first stop of the day was the Lower Calf Creek Falls trailhead. It’s popular for its stunning scenery, archaeological sites and relatively mild terrain. It’s five and a half miles round-trip to the falls and well worth the effort. The large pool at the base of the 126-foot waterfall is the perfect place for a dip on a hot summer day.
Following our visit to the lower falls, we drove about five miles up the highway and found the trailhead for the upper falls. This hike is less than three miles round-trip but requires you to navigate some steep slick rock areas that may be difficult for young children. There is no visible trail for several stretches of the hike, but kind souls have left cairns (rock piles) to help you find your way along the sandstone.
The ruggedly beautiful oasis of Upper Calf Creek Falls was the highlight of our trip. A large grotto on the east side of the creek offered shelter and a comfortable home base for the day’s activities. Jen and I fished below the falls while Carson and Olivia walked downstream and explored several of the shady pools dotting the canyon.
We followed the trail up to the ledge at the top of the falls and peered down to the pool 90 feet below. Continuing upstream, we came to a swimming hole fed by a small waterfall and surrounded by steep walls. The middle of the pool was quite deep and we spent the next hour jumping in from the rocks above.
We only saw one other hiker the entire time we were down in the canyon. She seemed satisfied sitting on a rock above the swimming hole, watching us jump for a while before continuing along the trail.
The hike back to the trailhead was somewhat strenuous, but we made good time because we were more familiar with the trail and spent less time looking for cairns.
We stopped by the Boulder Heritage Festival to enjoy some live cowboy music and then hit the road. In Salina, we dropped in at Mom’s Café for an amazing dinner. If you’ve never eaten at Mom’s, you’re definitely missing out. It’s a Utah legend and has been featured in numerous magazines, including National Geographic.
Jen and I ordered a delicious chicken dinner, which included with a Frisbee-sized scone. Some of the items in the salad bar looked a bit past their prime, but we didn’t let that deter us from loading up on all the fixings.
We left Mom’s Café full and happy. This summer’s Boulder adventure had been unforgettable and we’re already making plans for next year.
If you’re interested in exploring the Grand Staircase-Escalante region, Utah.com has great trails listed, giving directions and details for all the major hikes. It’s an amazing opportunity to leave the crowds behind and see some of our state’s most inspiring sights.