Exploring Southern Utah with my kids is one of my favorite things to do, so I squeeze it in to any opportunity that presents itself. We just got back from a family wedding in Boulder, Utah, a tiny, picturesque town that is conveniently the jumping-off point for hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Capitol Reef National Park and Goblin Valley can be “on the way,” so we managed to toss in a few adventures there, too.
You could spend weeks, months, even years exploring the originally designated 1.8 million acres of wilderness that make up Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (it was reduced by 47% by executive order in 2017 and is currently the subject of a legal battle). We had two days, in between family dinners and talent shows and, oh yeah, a WEDDING. If you are similarly pressed for time, here are your must-see sights on the road trip from Salt Lake City to Grand Staircase-Escalante!
Goblin Valley is one of the most magical places in Utah, and I was overdue to take the father of my monsters there. Everyone should experience hoodoos, the mystical rock formations that rise out of red dust, and create the perfect hide and go seek playground.
Technically, the fastest way to drive to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Salt Lake City will not take you past Goblin Valley, but bear with me here. Take a look at a map rather than listening to that GPS voice (she’s going to disappear once you’re in the wilderness anyway, so take a map!) If you start your journey at Goblin Valley, your route will take you through one of Utah’s “Big Five” national parks before you head south into the wilderness. And you will thank me.
Capitol Reef National Park
You should probably spend days exploring this wrinkle in the Earth’s crust, and not just treat it like a drive-through park; but we are on a schedule here, remember? Capitol Reef National Park is long and skinny, and Highway 24 passes through the very northern tip of it. The only visitor center is located on the eastern side of the park, so if you are driving east you won’t see it until you are almost out of the park.
No matter how pressed for time you are, do not miss the road-side petroglyphs. These are located on the north side of the road, with clear signage, protected by a boardwalk. Never have you ever seen easier to spy 2,000-year-old petroglyphs.
Hickman Bridge is the perfect choice for your quick hike here. It is only a mile to a stunning natural bridge, and the river at the bottom is a great place to cool off. This is not a difficult hike if you are an adult in reasonably good shape, but there is some elevation gain. It turned out to be as difficult as summiting Mount Kilimanjaro on a 99 degree day with my four- and seven-year-old and only three liters of water. (Spoiler alert: I took the kids back to the river, because giving my kids heat stroke isn’t worth it, even for this blog). Make sure you have tons and tons of water and be wary on very hot days.
The old Mormon farming town of Fruita is, interestingly, still part of this national park, so if you have time, stop and see the old buildings and orchards. There are great shaded picnic areas around Fruita, which is near the visitor center. In the late summer and fall, the orchards still bear fruit and you can buy apples and peaches.
The Flute Shop in Torrey, Utah
As you head south at Torrey toward Grand Staircase-Escalante, you will see The Flute Shop. Pro tip: Do not let your husband stop there and buy your four-year-old a Native American wooden flute. The piercing tones of it will torture you for the rest of the trip.
Hell’s Backbone Grill
This Zagat-rated restaurant is located right on Highway 12 as it passes through Boulder, Utah. Hell’s Backbone Grill has been written up in The New Yorker and is about as famous as a restaurant in a bend in the road can get. If you’re passing this way, you probably ought to stop.
Hell’s Backbone Road and Hell’s Backbone Bridge
It’s worth driving this entire road just to say you did, as long as you don’t have kids in the car asking every five seconds, “Are we there yet?” If you do, it’s still not too far from Boulder to Hell’s Backbone Bridge and the astonishing lookout there. This may be one to do only with older kids, however, as impulsive toddlers could easily fall to their deaths at multiple spots here.
After driving back from Hell’s Backbone Road and heading south again on scenic Highway 12, you’ll eventually need sustenance. Kiva Koffeehouse rises out of the surrounding rocky wilderness like a phoenix rising from the ashes…like the sun dawning on a new day…like…well, you get the idea. There’s exactly nothing between the tiny towns of Boulder and Escalante except this unique coffeehouse nestled into the mountain, so make sure to stop and take in the astounding views. The food isn’t bad either.
Escalante River Trail
There are lots of hikes in Grand Staircase-Escalante to choose from, but it was seven million degrees over Labor Day weekend when we were here, so the choice was easy. Hiking up the Escalante River means the trail is flat with frequent shade and the chance to cool your feet in the river. The reward is a sweeping natural bridge, and if you go farther up the trail you can also find petroglyphs. As long as you are wearing appropriate footwear and it’s not the dead of winter, this is a great hike for kids.
Petrified Forest State Park
You know it’s dangerously hot when the state park ranger tells you NOT to pay your $8 to enter and hike up a little hill to see the petrified forest. This is what happened to us, so no, I do not have any photos of the petrified forest, but if you are in Escalante, make sure to stop at Petrified Forest State Park at the south end of town. Then send me some pics, will you? I was sad about this one.