A Grand Visit to the Grand Staircase – Boulder, Utah

If you google Grand Staircase New York, a photo of the so-called Stairway to Nowhere, a now-closed visitor attraction in Manhattan, pops up.

Photo attribution: Epicgenius – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77449661

If, however, you search for Grand Staircase Utah, this is the image you’re likely to see:

Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

Having heard the term but admittedly not knowing what it meant, we figured maybe it was worth a visit. So what is it?

The Grand Staircase refers to the five major rock layers, or “steps,” that comprise the 88 miles (as the condor flies) of awesome geography between the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona and Bryce Canyon in southwest Utah.

The gigantic (1.9 million acres) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) protects a large section of the Grand Staircase plus the canyonlands of the Escalante River. The map below shows GSENM in relation to surrounding areas – mostly public lands with a few small towns dotting the landscape. The entire region is amazing.

We spent five nights in Boulder, Utah for easy access to the northern section of the GSENM, as well as for proximity to Capitol Reef National Park. (Here’s a link to our earlier visit to the southern part of GSENM.)

But first, we had to get from Kanab to Boulder – a short distance of 148 miles with lots to see along the way, so naturally it took us all day. Here are a few views from the drive.

We also visited the surprisingly colorful Escalante Petrified Forest State Park on the way. The main attraction was, of course, the petrified wood – best seen on the hiking trails.

And a few more photos from the trail:

We hoped that our stay in Boulder, Utah (elevation 6,703′) in November wouldn’t turn out to be a bad idea. With normal temps of 50 degrees for highs and 27 degrees for lows, we knew our plans for outdoor activities could be iffy. No worries, though – the weather was perfect.

Three Cool Day Trips from Boulder

1. Lower Calf Creek Falls

This hike (somewhere between six and eight miles round trip) turned out to be an all time favorite, with interesting views around every bend, and the reward at the end exceeded our expectations.

Unlike waterfalls that disappear during dry times, Calf Creek Falls is fed by rock seeps and springs, so it flows year round.

A few interesting views along the way:

Two thumbs up!

2. Capitol Reef National Park

Scenic highway 12 continues north from Boulder for another 36 miles, ending just outside Capitol Reef National Park. Traveling through the forest over 11,313-foot Boulder Mountain, this section was like driving on mountain roads in Colorado – slow-going in places with steep grades and sharp curves. Thankfully only a little snow on north-facing slopes to contend with during our visit.

Boulder Mountain is home to one of the largest aspen forests in the world, growing from clones estimated to be 10,000 years old. On many hillsides, it’s just aspens as far as the eye can see in all directions, without a single conifer tree. Since the leaves had fallen before our visit, we missed seeing what must be a spectacular autumn show of gold (plus a little orange and red).

No photos of the aspen forests, but we stopped to check out the views at a couple of scenic overlooks. The sun was in the wrong place to take photos in the morning, but the light was better in the late afternoon.

Of all the Utah national parks, Capitol Reef appears the most disheveled, as though it lacks a unifying theme. The photo below – from our 2017 visit to the park – illustrates my point, with many seemingly disparate colors, textures and angles.

That’s not really the case, however. The defining feature of Capitol Reef NP is a geologic formation called the Waterpocket Fold, a gigantic wrinkle in the earth’s crust created by uplift and erosion over millions of years.

We had one day to visit, and here’s what we saw.

Panorama Point
Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point Trail
The Castle
Scenic Drive
Hickman Bridge Hike

It was a super fun day. And here’s one final pic from the Chimney Rock hike during our 2017 visit to Capitol Reef.

Like all of Utah’s national parks, Capitol Reef deserves a place on everyone’s ‘to do’ list.

3. Burr Trail

Most roads within the GSENM are 4WD only, although some are accessible by high clearance 2WD vehicles during dry weather. An exception is the paved Burr Trail, which began just around the corner from our Boulder lodging, so we checked it out.

Almost right away, we found ourselves at the entrance to scenic Long Canyon.

The pavement ends after 30 miles, but the dirt road continues into the back entrance of Capitol Reef National Park.

After a few miles, we descended through the Waterpocket Fold via a series of 12% grade switchbacks. The views will wow you, but check your brakes before proceeding!

Once at the bottom, we turned around and retraced our steps to cap off a most memorable day trip.

That pretty well wraps up our most recent visit to Boulder, Utah. It’s a tiny and moderately isolated town (population ~253) with little choice in accommodations, but our stay at the Boulder Mountain Lodge was excellent, as was our first experience in 2017.

An award-winning on-site restaurant called Hell’s Backbone Grill serves outstanding food, and we were looking forward to indulging during our stay. Unfortunately, it closed for the winter a week or so before we arrived, and also unfortunately, so did the handful of other restaurants.

With no grocery stores within an hour’s drive, we had to survive on the foodstuffs we were traveling with, plus microwaveable frozen entrees available to purchase at the lodge (the locally made burritos were tasty), and a handful of items available at the Sinclair gas station, which needless to say, didn’t include an array of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Travel adventures certainly come in all shapes and sizes. And we thought the weather would be our biggest challenge!

Categories: UtahTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Spectacular! Thanks for the wonderful tour. I’ve not been to this area but now it’s on my list.


  2. Yay! Burr Road. Perhaps the best easy canyon trip ever. Loved it all!


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