Next time you’re visiting Southern Utah and are in need of outdoor supplies, head over to Escalante Outfitters. If you need a morning meal to fuel your adventure or a cold local beer afterwards, you can head there, too. Want a tour of the area or a place to say for the night? Look no further than Escalante. Oh, and if you want to chat about public lands and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, home to the business, you guessed it, Escalante.
“We all work really, really hard,” said Dana Waggoner, co-owner with her husband, Dennis Waggoner, since 2007.
The shop is a family business, and each member takes on roles that play to their strengths. Dana buys the apparel and Dennis keeps track of finances. Their son, Nathan, is in charge of tours, ordering gear, and also runs the restaurant. His wife, Kristina, buys all of the books for the store and does the bookkeeping. The family also employs a team of about 20 to help with day-to-day operations.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was cut by about 50 percent and Bears Ears was shrunk by about 85 percent by President Donald Trump in December 2017.
Working up an appetite
When the Waggoners bought Escalante Outfitters in 2006 from Steve Roberts—the store’s been open since 1990—they also took over the attached restaurant despite knowing nothing the food business. At the time, the cafe was holding its own, making up 20 percent of the business. But Dana decided to amp up the menu by swapping frozen, pre-made pizza crusts for homemade ones and concentrating on nutritious options. Today, the cafe is half the operations.
The menu is inspired by outdoor adventurists. In the morning, the most popular items are grab-and-go options: baked oatmeal, muffins, and breakfast in a basket, which is a bacon and egg-baked croissant cup topped with hollandaise sauce.
Pizzas are a perennial fan favorite. The Day Hiker, described as “something to dream about on the trail,” has a homemade red sauce base and is topped with mozzarella, and pepperoni. In addition to pizzas, you can also order salads, calzones, and sandwiches, like the Muffaletta Hogs Back Rustica, a toasted baguette loaded with a homemade tapenade spread, ham, prosciutto, smoked provolone, and veggies.
Their goal is to have fresh, local, and organic ingredients whenever possible. Since asparagus is currently in season, they’re whipping up bowls of creamy asparagus soup right now. Wash everything down with the local Utah beers on tap, including brews from Wasatch, Squatters, Uinta, and Epic breweries.
All in one place
Cruise up All American Scenic Byway 12 and you’ll first notice the store itself. The space may be tiny at 850 square feet, but Dana Waggoner said they pack in the best quality gear they can offer clients passing through. KEEN, Smartwool, Patagonia, PrAna, Osprey, and CamelBak are just a handful of brands Escalante carries.
The store also has an extensive selection of Utah-area maps and local books, everything from trail and field guides to Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations. And half-day and full-day tours, and overnight fly-fishing trips that depart from the shop help people discover the solitude and learn the history of Grand Staircase-Escalante.
“When people come to Utah, they most often come for the national parks—Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, and Capitol Reef. But there’s a lot to be seen in our national monuments,” she said. “You’ll find more solitude here. You can actually hike without seeing someone.”
Just beyond the store, there are seven cozy cabins that sleep between two and four— $55 to $150 per night—and all but one are dog-friendly. Tent campers can set up in the campground, that has access to the bathhouse, picnic tables, a group fire pit, and the on-site laundromat.
Worth fighting for
Even with everything the family has going on, they still prioritize fighting for the preservation of public lands and getting the current rulings overturned. Many outdoor businesses are passionate about fighting for public lands, but Escalante Outfitters has even more of a reason—they’re located in the heart of the monument itself.
“Grand Staircase is part of our business and the experience out here,” Dana Waggoner said. “We don’t want to see it shrunk into three units. We don’t see the value in that.”
She has traveled to Washington D.C. as a representative of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, a group supporting local businesses, to fight for the national monument to remain untouched. The team also has worked with The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Association to fundraise in support of the monument.
When asked how her business has been impacted since the big public lands debate began, Waggoner said she has actually seen about 20 percent of growth. “People want to see what they’re talking about and what all the commotion is about,” she said. "All our guests are asking questions about the reductions and what is being done to protect public lands."
However, she reports that she’s been getting lots of cancellations from European guests that had planned to stay on the property. “They’re confused about what’s going on out here. They’re not really sure if they can still get into the monument,” she said.
But now more than ever is the time to draw visitors to the site so they can see for themselves what's worth fighting for.
"One of the points people really miss about this is the value of wilderness. It truly makes for a healthy society and culture, and it should be protected,” she said.
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