Build it in the Sandstone Desert and They Will Come

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So, you’re headed north on Highway 89 from Zion National Park or Kanab in southern Utah. You look at the map and wonder why anyone would bother making a long, looping detour east on Highway 12. Trust me, just do it. For the journey and for the food. Oh, my yes, the food, produced with the passion you need to make a go of it in this harsh, lightly-populated environment.

First the journey. It’s easy enough to be lured a little ways east to Bryce Canyon National Park, justly famous for its intricately eroded rock spires, which can be explored via short trails into the canyon. But persevere beyond Escalante and suddenly you’re on one of the truly great drives in America. The road twists and dips through spectacular sandstone valleys and then climbs to panoramic viewpoints, culminating in the Hogsback, a ribbon of asphalt that drops off precipitously on both sides.

Just beyond is Boulder, home to less than 200 souls… and one of the finest eateries you’ll find in the middle of desert nowhere, let alone a big city. Indeed, the wonderfully named *Hell’s Backbone Grill is a destination restaurant, with its own cookbook to boot. Dinner reservations are recommended, but it’s quieter at breakfast and lunch, when I arrive.

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Hell’s Backbone Grill

Hell’s Backbone is the culinary inspiration of co-owners and chefs Jen Castle and Blake Spalding and features a menu devoted to local, organic ingredients. “Everything in the kitchen is done with love. There are all these nice little touches,” says my waiter, Breck, as he carries past a bowl of soup topped with a foamy heart. I savour a succulent piece of Spicy Cowgirl Meatloaf, with backbone sauce, organic greens and a biscuit. Breakfast choices (ranging from $8 to $12) are refreshingly different, including blue corn pancakes and poached eggs on brown rice with sautéed greens.

Hell's Backbone co-owner Jen Castle

Hell’s Backbone co-owner Jen Castle

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Breck with my meatloaf lunch

Hell’s Backbone Grill
20 Highway 12, Boulder
Daily 7:30 am-2:30 pm breakfast and lunch and 5 pm-9 pm for dinner from mid-March to end of November

Continuing north of Boulder, Highway 12 is merely superb, ascending to more than 9,200 feet, with views east to the Henry Mountains. At Torrey, it’s again highly worth your while to go right on Highway 24; think of it not as a one-hour detour but a side trip into heaven. The road winds tightly alongside the Fremont River, with red rock walls towering above, as it passes through Capitol Reef National Park. The canyon suddenly gives way to a more lunar landscape just before reaching tiny Caineville, where you’ll find Mesa Farm Market.

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Mesa Farm Market in speck on the desert landscape Caineville, Utah

When he first saw the place for sale nearly 20 years ago, Randy Ramsley figured nothing would grow in this austere place, but a local couple with a sizeable garden convinced him otherwise. Soon, he was growing lettuce for customers’ salads and baking round loaves of chewy white and whole-wheat/rye breads in an outdoor, wood-fired brick oven. More recently, he’s added a herd of goats and is producing excellent cheeses like creme fraiche and feta. I buy enough bread and cheese to make a fine picnic supper, chased by an Evolution Amber ale, while watching the setting sun turn a wall of sandstone orange.

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Meagan with goat cheese and fresh bread from Mesa Farm Market

Mesa Farm Market
Marker 102 (gotta love that), Highway 24, Caineville
Daily 7 am-7 pm from late March to late October

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Early greens at Mesa Farm Market

Note: There is no entrance fee required for passing through Capitol Reef National Park if you stay on Highway 24. There’s a nice park campground ($10 per vehicle) just off the highway or free camping, on the north side of the road, at mile marker 73, just west of the park boundary.

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