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Exploring the spectacular landscape of south-central Utah

Each spring, the desert in south-central Utah blooms. It's a good time to visit.

DINA MISHEV/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By DINA MISHEV | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 25, 2018

Like most hikes and drives in south-central Utah, Lower Muley Twist Canyon is both heavenly and hellish for someone curious about what's around the next corner - and I definitely am. It's possible to hike down the canyon, in Capitol Reef National Park, for 12 miles and turn at least three times as many corners.

I'm in this part of Utah because it's still snowing where I live in northwest Wyoming and, in late March, the temperatures are in the 60s, maybe even the 70s. I'm already somewhat familiar with the area, but there are plenty of hikes and back-road drives I haven't yet done. Also, one of my favorite restaurants, Hell's Backbone Grill -- in its 19th season - is here.

Doing pre-trip online reconnaissance, the full 12-mile Lower Muley Twist endeavor piques my curiosity. I don't have the physical fitness to do it in a single day, though. Still, I don't trust that this is reason enough to make me turn around, so I make a 6:15 p.m. dinner reservation at the farm-to-table restaurant in the traditional Mormon town of Boulder (population about 250). Hell's Backbone Grill serves "four corners cuisine," which draws from Mormon pioneer recipes, Puebloan cultural dishes, cowboy fare and whatever grows on its farm at 7,000 feet in elevation.

I figure if I hike about two miles down the canyon from the trailhead on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway and then retrace my route, I'll have just enough time to drive back to Boulder, check in at the Boulder Mountain Lodge -- which is the only lodging "downtown" -- and shower before dinner.

Mine is the only car in the small trailhead parking lot. The trail immediately descends about 40 feet through Utah juniper trees and onto the canyon floor, which is a dry creek bed. I'm quickly dwarfed by undulating red sandstone formations. The canyon lives up to its name; every twist reveals another twist. And every corner reveals a surprise.

One corner delivers a section of narrows, where the canyon walls suddenly come together and the sandy path down the middle shrinks to a width of 20 feet. Coming around the next corner, there is a "weeping wall," where seeping minerals make the otherwise vermilion, 500-foot-tall sandstone wall look like it is crying soot-black tears. And then comes a corner that is itself a corner: an undercut, 300-foot-long, 90-degree bend in the canyon that, when Lower Muley Creek floods, is obviously the scene of much violence. The bottom 15 feet of the sandstone here bears the scars of all manner of injury. There are holes, dents, dings, scratches and scrapes.

Before I know it, I am one mile past my planned turnaround distance and have a blister on my left foot. But I'm not yet ready to turn around. After all, Hell's Backbone Grill, and pretty much everywhere for several hundred miles in every direction, doesn't care if I shower before dinner.

I get around two more corners before I realize I'll miss my meal if I don't turn around and run back to the car. But the extra corners are worth it. The last opens into a blocky rock garden at the base of Zionlike sheer cliffs that appear to be illuminated from within. I first think that my polarized sunglasses are playing tricks on me; when I take them off, the cliffs have every bit as much glow.

Driving back to Boulder on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway, a 66-mile paved and dirt road between Boulder and Bullfrog Marina on the northwest shore of Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it kills me that I don't have time to stop and take photos. Near the start of the drive, I see Peekaboo Arch to the west. Next comes a high desert forest of pinyons and Utah junipers. Even though some of the juniper trees may be almost 1,000 years old, I don't think any are more than 20 feet tall. From about A.D. 400 to 1200, the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this area made use of both of these species as food. I open both front windows so that the junipers can infuse the inside of my car with their sweetly resinous smell, similar to that of cedars.

I exit Capitol Reef National Park and enter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and its 1 million (formerly 1.9 million, but President Donald Trump reduced its size last December) tangled acres of sinuous slot canyons, mesas and cliffs.

Despite the monument covering some of the country's harshest landscape, upon entering it, the Burr Trail goes from dirt and gravel to pavement, albeit without the amenities found on most roads, such as centerlines or shoulders.

Not taking photos in Long Canyon, a seven-mile-long one with sheer golden and dark red sandstone walls that stretch several hundred feet high, takes more self-discipline than turning around in Lower Muley Twist Canyon did. But driving past the white sandstone sand dunes at 6 p.m., which I know are six miles from the lodge and restaurant, I allow myself a brief photo stop. The clouds, like overstuffed down pillows, split the evening sun into biblical beams.

You might think that no restaurant could be worth a popped blister and speeding through the Burr Trail's landscape. You'd be wrong. I talked myself into missing the surprises around future Lower Muley Twist corners because the constantly changing menu at Hell's Backbone Grill is a guaranteed good surprise. I've eaten there four times before.

When President Bill Clinton established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, it was big news, but it wasn't until the grill opened in 2000 that the monument, and Boulder, came onto my radar.

At the turn of the millennium, there were about 100 national monuments, but the grill was the Rocky Mountain West's only woman-owned, chef-owned restaurant operating its own farm. In 2002, it made national news by obtaining Boulder's first liquor license. That was when I took the time to look it up on a map. My search revealed that Boulder was in the booniest of boonies, off Highway 12 and on the way to nowhere. The nearest airport was 4 1/2 hours away.

Someday I'd get there. Maybe.

As it turned out, that day was more than a decade later, in 2012, and it happened more because of Highway 12 than the restaurant. It might be a road to nowhere, but it is a gorgeous road to nowhere, one of only 29 All-American Roads in the country. Its 124 miles pass through two national parks, three state parks, the Dixie National Forest and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It sounded like the perfect road trip for my first brand-new car, a Nissan Xterra.

From that trip, my strongest memories are of the restaurant's and Highway 12's "stars." At the former, it was the spicy meatloaf, which was every bit as good as the reviews said it would be. On the latter, it was the hogback, a section of road about two miles long with sheer drop-offs of more than 1,000 feet on both sides.

I have returned to Highway 12 and Boulder several times since. I now make an effort to search for subtler joys, even though the hogback was recently repaved and the restaurant has gained more and more recognition. (It has been named Utah's best restaurant several times and, last year, co-owners and co-chefs Blake Spalding and Jen Castle were semifinalists for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest region. Also last year, Spalding and Castle published their second cookbook, "This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness." (Former secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt wrote the foreword.)

It has a 6 1/2-acre farm -- named Blaker's Acres after Spalding -- that annually grows about 23,000 pounds of produce and keeps more than 150 chickens, and the farm staff tends about 150 fruit trees (including five different kinds of apricot trees), so the menu continually changes. And of the ones I'd seen before, I wanted to order and eat at least half of what was on each of them.

This evening, as I am dining alone, choosing is more excruciating than usual. How to pick between goat-cheese fondue and a steamed artichoke served with lemon aioli made from eggs laid by Blaker's Acres' own chickens? A family of five is seated next to me and puts in their entire order before I settle on the artichoke. And that's just the appetizer.

There's the spicy chipotle meatloaf entree -- a few things on the menu are constant -- but I instead order a New York strip steak. The beef is from a cow that grazed in Grand Staircase-Escalante. (Unlike national parks, national monuments, especially this one, are sometimes managed for multiple uses and not just protection of the land.)

It might just be my imagination, fueled by driving through the forest on the way back from Lower Muley Twist Canyon, but when the steak arrives and I begin to eat, I taste notes of pinyon and juniper.

The next morning, I drive my favorite section of Highway 12, the 28 miles between Boulder and Escalante, which, with a population of about 800, is the largest city in the area.

The hogback is in this stretch, but this time the corners on the road as it descends to the Escalante River and the Calf Creek Recreation Area really enthrall me. Unlike Lower Muley Twist Canyon's corners, I know what's around these. Still, I grin, giggle and press harder on the gas pedal as I go into each one.

A hiker navigates an easy sandstone slot canyon at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
DINA MISHEV/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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