Finding Calm Amid Crisis at a Desert Retreat in Utah

When personal tragedy strikes, two friends seek healing on an adventure-filled trip to Yonder Escalante.

Road through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah

A remote outpost off Utah’s scenic Byway 12 offers road-trippers an oasis to disappear to.

Photo by The Nomadic People/Yonder Escalante

“Oh god,” my friend exclaimed as she saw she had an incoming call on her phone.

It was late September, and we were driving from Las Vegas to southern Utah. We had been gasping for breath amid hysterical laughter, the kind longtime friends share when they haven’t seen each other for awhile. As we were peeling away from Harry Reid International Airport, we were in hot pursuit of an In-N-Out Burger, a rare treat for my East Coast friend. I told her she needed to look for one immediately and she suggested waiting until we were a bit farther beyond the city. I reminded her that Las Vegas was surrounded by endless desert. At the last-minute we managed to stop at the actual last In-N-Out on the outskirts of Vegas before the city dissolved into sandstone cliffs and tumbleweeds. We were giggling at how narrowly we had escaped hours of hunger.

“What?! What is it?” I asked, seeing the terrified look on her face.

“It’s my mom’s assisted living facility. Shit is hitting the fan. I’m not going to answer it. I’m letting it go to voicemail. I can’t deal with this right now,” she said, visibly upset.

Silence followed. I didn’t have anything to say given everything she had been through with her mother these past few months. I knew as well as she did that the call was likely some bad news. The question was, how bad?

“Do you need me to pull over?” I asked, after an extended pause.

“No,” she replied. “I just need a minute.”

Thankfully, she had much more than a minute. We would be on the road for at least another four hours, and we would be in Utah for the next three days on a much-needed, canyonland-filled journey of escape, laughter, exploration, and connection—connection with each other, with strangers, and with the natural wonderland that is southern Utah. We had plenty of time to address the trauma of losing an aging parent to rapid onset dementia, of becoming a caregiver overnight, of being thrown into the complete unknown. I was silent because I wanted to give her the space to say everything or nothing. I had no plan for how to address the myriad thoughts and emotions she was likely going through. Neither of us did. We were just plowing ahead with something we knew we had to do regardless of the wild circumstances that led us here.

Several months prior, when I first began hearing about the rapidly declining health of my friend’s mother, I remember feeling totally and utterly helpless. She lives in Connecticut and I live in California, so I was too distant to physically help. No one close to me had ever experienced a neurological condition as severe as what her mother had been diagnosed with, so I had no words of wisdom to offer.

But somewhere along the way, I began to plant the seed that when things settled down somewhat, we would go away together. I knew she would desperately need a break, even though I didn’t know when she would be able to take it.

A few months later, once she had found a somewhat stable living environment for her 79-year-old mother, the chance presented itself.

Airstream trailers and a drive-in movie theater take travelers back in time at Yonder Escalante.

Airstream trailers and a drive-in movie theater take travelers back in time at Yonder Escalante.

Photo by Kim & Nash Finley/Yonder Escalante

In April 2021, a new vision for modern outdoor adventure was born in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. A former drive-in movie theater set among the desert brush and surrounded by colorful sandstone cliffs was transformed into a 20-acre desert lodging experience now known as Yonder Escalante.

“The concept is rooted in the spirit of the American road trip, with the goal of connecting travelers to timeless Americana—the nostalgia of our past, an appreciation for the present day, and a bright outlook toward the future,” says Charles Tate, founder of Yonder.

In this remote outpost off Utah’s scenic Byway 12, travelers journey back in time through renovated ’60s-era Airstream trailers (all outfitted with midcentury furnishings, a queen size-bed, twin-size daybed, and dining area) and colorful vintage cars parked at that original drive-in theater, from which guests can watch screenings of classic films.

It's easy to be transported when watching an old Western under the stars in a classic car.

It’s easy to be transported when watching an old western under the stars in a classic car.

Photo by Michelle Baran

But the property is also effortlessly modern. Sleek, black, glass-encased A-frame cabins (also with comfy queen beds and twin daybeds) and spa-like public bathhouses with outdoor rain showers are designed to showcase the real star of the show—the beauty of the awe-inspiring desert landscape: striated, jagged plateaus in hues of deep red, orange, and brown.

There are also pull-in sites for RVs and campers, and all guests have access to the property’s laundry facilities, a general store, swimming pool, hot tub, and the open-air lodge, which is the central gathering place of the property with its ample couches, board games, vintage record player, and firepits. An on-site food truck sells killer breakfast sandwiches and burgers, plus meal kits can be purchased at the general store with options like seasoned chicken and flank steak that guests can then grill on their private firepits.

Part campground, part outdoor enthusiast’s resort oasis, Yonder Escalante is a road-tripper’s haven more than anything else. It’s not easy to get to, and that’s part of the point. It’s nearly a five-hour drive from the closest major airports, which are in Vegas to the west and Salt Lake City to the north. Whether you’re driving cross country, exploring the great national parks of the West, or heading straight to Yonder, you are hitting the road for at least several hours to get there, plenty of time to transition into a new state of mind.

On an escape into nature, beauty and tragedy can, and do, co-exist.

On an escape into nature, beauty and tragedy can coexist.

Photo by Michelle Baran

After a few moments of silence and some deep breaths, my friend started to tell me the latest of what was going on with her mom. As she spoke, she gathered the courage to call her sister, who was back at home holding down the fort. She let her sister know that their mother’s assisted living facility had called, that she had let it go to voicemail and hadn’t listened to the message. Her sister told her she was in touch with the facility and not to worry about it. They had made a pact prior to this getaway that our Utah trip was going to happen come hell or high water and that her sister would handle any issues that came up. Getting that reassurance again over the phone brought my friend to tears.

“It’s just so much,” she told me after hanging up. “Everything that is going on and what it took for me to even be able to be here.”

“I know,” I said. “But somehow, we made it. We’re here. And there’s no turning back now.”

The truth was it hadn’t been that easy for me to head out on our journey, either. My troubles were nowhere near as severe as hers, but just as I was leaving, my three-year-old daughter had gotten sick to her stomach. It’s hard enough knowing that my husband has to manage our two young kids on his own when I’m traveling but add illness to the picture and it’s impossible for me to be totally carefree while out on the road knowing my family is at home in less-than-ideal circumstances.

After we drove for a couple more hours, talking about everything and nothing in particular—work, kids, dogs, home renovations, fun memories from our 20-year-plus friendship—we realized we needed to fuel up. We stopped at a roadside gas station seemingly in the middle of nowhere that featured a sign advising, “Warning! Please do not feed the Sasquatch.” We took a photo of it in between chortles. Our age-old silliness was setting back in.

Later on, we pulled over at the entrance to Dixie National Forest to photograph our first glimpses of the beautiful rock formations and hoodoos that have made this southwest corner of Utah so famous. As I reached into my purse to grab my phone, I found its contents completely smothered with warm yogurt I had for some reason brought with me after not eating it on the plane. “The yogurt!” I yelled to my friend, who had already questioned my decision to bring the yogurt when she spied it earlier in the drive.

“Noooooo!” she cried when she saw the disaster that had befallen my belongings. We flung the purse onto the side of the road and began to dissect and clean the contents. We were cry-laughing so hard that people stopped to see if we were OK. No, not really. But we were going to be OK. Because we were here on this adventure, we were together, and we were somehow laughing so damn hard despite tragedy, trauma, and the daily troubles that awaited us back home.

Yonder Escalante front view of an A0

Yonder Escalante is a road-tripper’s paradise, whether you are staying in an Airstream, a cabin, or your own camper van.

Photo by The Nomadic People/Yonder Escalante

Straddling the line between camping and comfort, roughing it and resort lifestyle, is what makes Yonder Escalante both unconventional and undeniably memorable. For travelers like us, looking for a true retreat from reality, this is the place to disappear to. I had warned my friend that while our cabin would certainly be scenic (hello, glass walls with endless desert views) and comfortable (plush bedding for the win), there were no bathrooms in any of the accommodations, which meant that we would have to walk outside to the on-site bathhouses whenever we needed to use the facilities, including in the middle of the night.

The bathroom situation was definitely a bit of an inconvenience at times, but it also enhanced our connection with our surroundings by forcing us to view the night sky in all its glory and take in the vastness of the desert at all hours—the dramatic quiet and stillness of the morning sunrise was particularly breathtaking. We also got several chuckles out of our bathroom adventures, like when my friend tried to take a shower in the cold and dark predawn morning and came back to the cabin admitting that wasn’t the best idea she had ever had. (I stuck with post-hike showers in the warmth of the afternoon sun, which were honestly a dream.) The good news for those who prefer a bathroom inside their room: currently under construction are cabins that will feature their own bathrooms and showers and will sleep up to four people, slated to be unveiled in March. (Yonder is closed for the winter season and will reopen on March 15.)

After settling in at Yonder Escalante, public bathhouses and all, my friend and I fell into a bit of a routine over the next few days: blissful escape on nature-packed outings with little or no cellphone service, filling our souls up to the brim with immense joy and awe . . . only to then brutally return to reality when our phones would chime as cell service returned, delivering worry-inducing messages that often brought on stress-filled tears.

Hikers heading to Peekaboo Gulch in southern Utah

Conquering fears and pushing physical limits out on the trails of Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch

Photo by Michelle Baran

The emotional roller coaster of traveling in the midst of trials and trauma made the highs feel extra high and the lows, well, as deep as the crevasses of Bryce Canyon National Park that we descended (on horseback and on foot). We congratulated ourselves for conquering fears of heights, pushing ourselves to our physical limits as we navigated the steep climbs of Peekaboo Gulch, and overcoming some of the hardest hikes we had ever endured, including the suck-our-guts-in narrow slot canyons of Spooky Gulch only to then get knocked down by the challenges we faced back at home.

Even if fleeting, these excursions into otherworldly landscapes and primal rock-filled adventures were priceless. They offered a form of therapy nothing else could provide. When we had run out of words, run out of reasons, run out of ways to address the “whys” of how this had all happened, rather than talk, we just hiked. And hiked. And hiked—until we were dirty, and sweaty, and tired, and fulfilled. It didn’t matter that we had nothing more to say, no solutions to offer, no grand scheme to fix the mess. That wasn’t why we came here, and we knew it. We came here to flee and to hike and to be distracted and totally humbled by something so much bigger than us, by the immeasurable and at times unimaginable beauty of nature.

At the end of each day, we returned to the warm and welcome embrace of Yonder Escalante, our enchanting basecamp where no one knew of our woes back home. Here, we could just blend right into this perfect no-man’s-land of nature warriors, where strangers exchange daily trekking tales in between bites of tasty food-truck burgers and sips of a shared bottle of wine bought at the general store. During these utterly charming desert nights—in the lounge, soaking in the hot tub, or sitting under the stars in a classic car watching an old western—we were able to briefly forget in a place and time seemingly far, far away. For that, we will be forever thankful.

Book now: Yonder Escalante

Getting there

Yonder Escalante is located within Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in southwestern Utah, about a five-hour drive from both Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, and from Salt Lake City International Airport. It is also 46 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. Travelers who aren’t already road-tripping will likely need to rent a car at the airport to get to the remote property.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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