“I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”
That line, delivered by Paul Newman to Robert Redford in the classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” always makes me smile. But as I watched the film from the front seat of a ’64 Caddy convertible parked under the Drive-In movie screen at the Shooting Star RV Resort just outside of Escalante, Utah, my grin busted even bigger than usual.
Sitting beneath the stars, surrounded by the epic rock formations of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and watching a movie from the 1960s, in a car made in the same decade, put me in another place and time.
For Aspenites, spring is a time of exodus.
Once the lifts shutter, we load the bikes for the ceremonial trip to Moab where all we hope to find is an empty campsite with outstanding views. But this spring I went a little further — which is to say about three hours farther — and the extra effort made all the difference.
My destination was Escalante in central Utah. Wrapped around a tiny strip of asphalt about a mile long, Escalante is what Moab never was but perhaps always wanted to be — small, laidback, and devoted 100 percent to the land that surrounds it, Escalante is the gateway to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.
For many, it is a stopover town, a place to bed down, have a meal and get supplies before heading out into some of the most scenic and enchanting backcountry terrain to be found anywhere on earth. But if you have the time to disconnect from the artificial world for a while and reconnect with the real world, it is a place where the thrill of discovery can be an every-hour occurrence.
You’ll find a handful of restaurants, a few motels, a top-notch visitor center and not much else to distract you from the outdoors. But Escalante is also home to some of the friendliest ambassadors to the treasures of the desert outback that you can imagine. And there are a just enough “don’t miss ’em” places to make the area totally enchanting.
The Drive-In Movie
Just a mile outside of Escalante sits one of the coolest and quirkiest places to spend a night anywhere in the American West. The Shooting Star RV Resort is home to eight Airstream trailers that pay homage to the stars of Hollywood past while offering visitors super-comfortable places to bed down.
Spread out over 17 glorious, rocky and undulating acres, the resort’s custom Airstream trailers can be rented from $119 to $139 per night. These are not shady relics from the past, but rather perfectly reconditioned make-up trailers, each named for a Hollywood star and “styled” in their memory.
You can stay in Ann’s Cabana and feel like Ann Margaret when she was filming “Viva Las Vegas” with Elvis. Is John Wayne your matinee idol? Then book “The Duke,” a 31-foot Airstream with a bedroom, a hand-tooled leather sofa that folds out with a full-sized bed, a kitchen and a (fairly) roomy shower and bath. My favorite was “The Kid’s Hideout,” named in honor of Sundance, of course, which featured a pair of cowboy boots and a copy of William Goldman’s script for the film, including the “bifocals” line.
These are all tricked-out trailers with flat-screen TVs, kitchens, showers, towels and soft comfortable beds surrounded by the signature wrapping of the curved Airstream windows. And the views are outstanding. Each trailer has a wooden deck and a gas grill. This is “glamping” to the max.
And if your star’s Airstream puts you in the mood for a movie, you can stroll over to the drive-in each night, just after the desert sunset, to catch a flick. Owners Troy Wittusen and Michelle Levandoski, who took over operation of the four-year-old resort this spring, have more than 100 selections for your viewing pleasure ranging from classics to action adventure.
This is the real thing, just like when you were kids back in the ’60s — a big drive-in screen, the sound playing through your car radio, hot popcorn and a soda. “My favorite time at the resort,” said Troy, “is when we first fire up the movie at night. We get the Snack Shack (also an Airstream) going, you can smell the popcorn and everyone gets excited.”
If you want to take the experience to the extreme you can rent one of the resort’s classic cars and sit inside it for the movie. A ’65 Dodge remind you of your youth? Maybe a ’62 Buick Skylark? If your kids have never had the opportunity to take in a drive-in, this is your chance to show them something “new.”
The Shooting Star RV Resort also has 32 hookup spots for RVs and a number of campsites. It is a perfect place to base for a week in the center of this incomparably beautiful country.
THE DESTINATION RESTAURANT
Boulder, Utah, just up the hill from Escalante, has fewer than 200 residents. It is more than five hours from the closest major airport and the main road, Hwy. 12, crosses a 9,000-foot pass that is closed for much of the year due to snow. Yet, amazingly, it is home to one of the nation’s great destination restaurants.
For 15 years, owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding have operated the quintessential farm-to-table restaurant, Hell’s BackBone Grill. This remote jewel has been featured six times in The New York Times, named as Utah’s restaurant of the year by the Salt Lake City Weekly and picked by the Wall Street Journal as a go-to.
Jen and Blake were chefs on Colorado River expeditions. A shared love of food and the desire to be change-makers in how we look at our food led them to this remote outpost. Combining passion, sweat and Buddhist principles, they labored to create not just the restaurant, but a 6-acre “no-harm, organic farm” that produces more than 12,000 pounds of produce each year.
Open seven days a week and serving three squares a day from the organic produce, eggs from their henhouse, and grass-fed beef, the cuisine is as tasty as it is healthy. A “Dinner Jenchilada” with “farmy pumpkin-piñon” rolled into blue corn tortillas and baked in a spicy-sweet corn habanero cream sauce beckons, as does the “Spicy Cowgal Chipotle Meat Loaf.”
The Hell’s BackBone Grill sits on the grounds of the Boulder Mountain Inn, so if you plan to go you can book a room for the night or you can make a reservation for a meal and commute from your campsite. A special treat is the annual Thanksgiving dinner. A perennial sell-out, the $100-a-plate dinner offers not just an exceptional meal, but the true spirit of what being thankful for the bounty of the land is all about.
With close to 2 million acres of terrain, the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument is vast. In other words, you are going to need a guide to help you find your way to the best spots.
Fortunately, in the center of town is Escalante Outfitters, the go-to place for, well, everything. With a café, campground and cabins, they have the “Cs” covered. But is their knowledge of the area that is their most valuable commodity.
Family owned and operated by the Waggoners (Pére et fils), Escalante Outfitters can provide guided fishing expeditions into both the Staircase and the Dixie National Forest that sits right outside their back door. The lakes of the Aquarius Plateau yield cutthroats, tiger trout and giant brook trout, as well as amazing views of the desert below.
They also offer natural tours into the surrounding terrain that highlight both the historic outposts of the Anasazi, the incredible geology of the region and the scenic spots that are off the beaten path.
You can both begin and end your day at their Esca-latte Internet Café and Pizza Parlor. Down some fair-trade coffee and sweet, homemade cinnamon rolls in the morning as you check your emails, then swing by in the evening — tired, hungry and a little sunburnt — for exceptional pizzas and salads with a Wasatch brew on draft for dinner. There is also a library-worthy collection of books on the region, as well as the best in backpacks, Patagonia clothing and anything else you might need in the backcountry.
Escalante Outfitters also has campsites and rustic cabins for overnight stays. It is the perfect get-it-all stop in the desert.