GSENM: Mighty in Its Own Rig

Posted On
Apr 15, 2016

By Shawn Stinson

Photos –Monique Beeley


Utah’s national parks – The Mighty 5 – are just that: mighty. Each of them in their own right is the definition of true grandeur on an incredible scale, the epitome of awesome.

But Utah has another, oft-overlooked, embarrassment of riches, also known as our state parks and national monuments. Typically playing second fiddle to Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Zion national parks, Utah’s numerous parks and monuments are no less stunning while often being much less crowded. And of this equally phenomenal collection of outdoor wonders, perhaps the most awesome in sheer size, scope and varied beauty is Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument.  Admittedly, a mouthful.  To locals, GSENM, or simply The Monument.

Designated a national monument in 1996, GSENM is located in Southern Utah’s Garfield and Kane counties and measures a jaw-dropping 1.9 million acres. And following a long weekend in The Monument with my wife and daughter, I’m here to tell you it offers an equal amount of “Wow!”-inspired views and experiences.

It’s a quick road trip to the fun and funky town of Escalante – about 4.5 hours from Salt Lake – where I recommend basing your stay to experience much of what the area has to offer. Once you pass Panguitch, the drive to Escalante is a fantastic primer for the days to come as the vast majority of it is along the famed Scenic Highway 12, traveling through Red Canyon, past Bryce Canyon and other of Utah’s beautiful western landscapes.

Once in Escalante, make tracks to Excursions of Escalante immediately and book an adventure or two. Rick Green and his staff of fantastic guides offer anything and everything you might want to do including canyoneering, hiking and multi-day trips. Nursing a self-inflicted injury sustained near another of our famed national parks a few weeks earlier, I opted for a driving tour of Grand Staircase-Escalante while my wife and 9-year old daughter got outfitted for their first attempt at canyoneering. I watched as my girls – both filled with nervous excitement – each got fitted for a climbing harness and helmet before heading out for the day. (Excursions of Escalante prides itself on taking guests to its “secret stash” of lesser-known canyons and pristine corners of the region rather than the more popular and crowded routes.)

When I saw them again six hours later, their smiles were ear-to-ear, each excitedly trying to explain the day and their experiences to me but knowing their words were barely scratching the surface of the incredible time they had. And though their pictures helped paint a slightly better picture, I could tell they were falling short of doing the day justice, too. Needless to say, their friendly and knowledgeable guide made quite the impression and enhanced their experience tenfold, creating a memory that won’t soon fade.

If you’re not one for adventurous outings, I can personally recommend a self-guided driving tour. The ribbons of road in Southern Utah wind through varying landscapes, from red rock to open plains, from river bottoms to high alpine forests, mountaintop plateaus to deep canyons. Driving northeast from Escalante and crossing the spectacular Hogback section of Ut-12 (Utah’s only designated All-American Scenic Highway) , I ventured down the Burr Trail Road from the town of Boulder.  Well past its paved section and onto the dirt road, an exciting switchback-riddled drops to the Notom-Bullfrog Road in one of the Mighty 5, Capitol Reef National Park.  Back in Boulder, a burger and beer at the Burr Trail Grill hit the spot. If you continue north on Highway 12, you’ll eventually reach the town of Torrey, the gateway community of  Capitol Reef, but I took the Hell’s Backbone Backway route back to Escalante. This is where the high alpine forest came in, something I was not expecting after spending the day in a more desert setting. The views, like everything else in Grand Staircase-Escalante, are impressive, to say the least. Checking out the vistas and deep canyons from the summit, near Hell’s Backbone Bridge, is a must.

Back in Escalante, we stopped for a quick bite at the Circle D Eatery. Talk about a great way to end an active day (for the girls, at least)! Circle D offers a simple, yet excellent menu, featuring its house-smoked signature entrees as well as pastas, fish, fantastic burgers, sandwiches and salads. Its beer and wine menu was impressive as well, with a good selection of local and imported beers.

Our first night in Escalante, we dined at the North Creek Grill, five miles west of town and part of the Slot Canyons Inn B&B. North Creek Grill is an epicurean experience (but not over-the-top) offering beautiful outdoor seating and breathtaking views. It, too, features a casual menu (excellent brick oven pizza, salads, steaks, soups and desserts) one that would please just about any palate.

To make your stay in Escalante one of the most unique experiences ever, hotel-wise at least, book a “room” at the Shooting Star RV Resort along the Escalante River. And when I say room, of course I mean an Airstream trailer. That’s right, you have the chance to stay in one of the resort’s very cool and retro-themed classic Airstream trailers. With Southern Utah’s rich film history, each custom trailer is decorated as the dressing trailer of a Hollywood movie star of a bygone era -- think Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne. Trust me when I say the trailers are anything but cheesy, as some have asked. Each is wonderfully comfortable and very well appointed, and they fit incredibly well in the red rock landscape. The comforts of each trailer are befitting of a movie star, too, with comfortable bedding, a fully-equipped kitchen, bathroom and shower, and a private deck with a your own grill, all with stunning views.

And to complement the Hollywood-themed Airstream trailers, the Shooting Star RV Resort features a full-scale drive-in theater, complete with converted Airstream trailer serving as its Snack Shack. Bringing the experience full circle is the drive-in’s collection of vintage 1960s convertibles you can reserve for a few dollars. When the sun goes down, pop the top and watch a classic movie in a truly unique setting.

The relatively new owners of the Shooting Star RV Resort, Troy and Michelle, are more than accommodating and work to make the experience of each guest a special one. If you want a truly unique and memorable time in Escalante, book your Airstream today. For those driving their own RV’s, the Shooting Star also offers numerous sites with full hookups. And, of course, feature-length films at night!

Utah boasts 43 State Parks.  Before heading home, we drove through Kodachrome Basin and stopped at one of the state’s gems, Kodachrome Basin State Park, a few miles off Scenic Highway 12 and well worth the short drive. We figured the best way to see the unique red rock spires throughout the park was by horseback, and we were right! Once the fine folks at Red Canyon Trail Rides got us fitted, we were riding past and between the park’s towering and colorful monolithic spires. Riding to an overlook plateau offered an incredible 360-degree vista of the park. Trust me when I say this was a very, very cool way to end our trip to a wonderful adventure-packed weekend.

Once our horses found their way back to the stable, we were heading for home just a few hours north. Not only was our visit to GSENM a wonderful family outing with a few new adventures thrown in, it was all so close to home. How fortunate we are to live in such an amazing and diverse state with so much to do and see just a few minutes or hours away, including Utah’s mighty national parks as well as our equally impressive state parks and monuments. I strongly urge you to make this the year you discover more of what Utah has to offer, right here in our own backyard.