Remember that awesome anti-littering campaign in the ’90s that encouraged schoolchildren to “Don’t Waste Utah”? (With that Mad Max-ed Chevelle and that hunkier-than-Mel-Gibson protagonist kickin’ litterbug butt?)
Well I was one of those schoolchildren, and I spent the first 30 years of my life wasting Utah. Not by cavalierly chucking Kleenexes from car windows, but by wasting Utah’s ridiculous abundance of unbelievable destinations. Comparing our nation’s distribution of natural beauty to its distribution of wealth, Utah is the One Percent and I was the billionaire’s son getting McDonald’s delivered to the pool house.
My wife and I started to make amends a couple years ago with a trip to the Broken Spur Inn and Capitol Reef (Utah’s Fourth-Most-Popular National Park! ™). We dragged two toddlers on a series of incredible, incredibly slow hikes, and while it was hardly enough to consider ourselves experts, we checked a box off our growing list of Utah must-sees.
And we discovered more than just great hiking trails. Taking a lesson from our kids, for whom spotting a common sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus) is more exciting than walking under the 133-foot Hickman Bridge, we learned that the joy of Utah travel is in the details. I’ll leave the profiling of Capitol Reef’s natural wonders to the geologists, but I do feel qualified to hold forth on the unique pleasures of a small-town motel. Especially a small-town motel like Broken Spur, run with pride by Francine and Gary Hallows.
For about two miles on the western border of Capitol Reef, Highway 24 straightens out to become Main Street in Torrey, Utah, population 180. Right where the road starts to bend toward the park, a little driveway jogs north up a hill to the campus of Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse.
Now when you’re booking a hotel in San Francisco or Chicago, there’s no limit to what you can spend, so it becomes a matter of balancing cost with location and amenities. (And if you travel on a budget like I do, you consider it a bonus if the towels are clean.) But in a small town like Torrey, you look online at the three or four faded-sign budget hotels and try to guess which has the least filthy carpet. You can’t be picky when you’re paying less than $100 a night, right?
On a first glance, Broken Spur fits the bill. It’s a simple two-story motel where you park in front of the door to your room. There’s a little front office that leads to a restaurant, and a detached building with a smallish pool and hot tub. Breakfast is included.
But Gary and Francine ain’t tryna run no Motel 6. Here are a few things they do to set Broken Spur apart…
The motel was showing signs of wear when the Hallows bought it in August 2012. It was 20 years old, having been through two owners and sitting vacant for a year before they took over. “It was a big decision,” Francine remembers. “I didn’t know if we could do it. But I also thought, September’s going to be a busy time. We probably need to get a few rooms open.” They worked day and night and got 15 rooms cleaned, painted and comfortable for the high season. “We filled them every night.” That winter, they readied the other 35 rooms and gutted the restaurant.
Capitol Reef is Utah’s newest national park, and it’s stayed quieter than the other parks because it’s a little more remote. Arches is 30 minutes from Canyonlands, both of them right off the prettier route to Denver. Zion and Bryce Canyon are an easy stop for those traveling between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, less than an hour from I-15.
But the park in the middle can’t hide forever. Capitol Reef is actually the shortest drive from Salt Lake, and tourism is predicted to jump 40% over the next few years. That kind of demand means Gary and Francine could probably get away with phoning it in. Just change the sheets and swipe credit cards. But talking to them, you can tell Broken Spur isn’t a means to an end. “It has to reflect who we are,” Francine says. Rather than worrying about filling their rooms, their first concern seems to be making sure Broken Spur is up to their own exacting standards.
So they turned the restaurant into a steakhouse and hired a local all-star chef. Francine’s husband Gary, a cattle rancher for 30 years and counting, “is very particular about the kind of beef we serve,” she says.
And they built a bakery to make the (incredible) pies sold at the Gifford House in Fruita, a Mormon homestead preserved inside Capitol Reef National Park (for real, the pie is delicious). (And I’m not usually a fruit-pie guy.) “We take them in ourselves every morning because we want to see what they look like every day. If there’s a pie Gary doesn’t think looks right, he’ll bring it back.
Capitol Reef National Park
And they put in wood floors and a new ceiling in the steakhouse, and replaced the carpet in the rooms, and knocked down a wall and moved the gift shop to make the office more comfortable. And they redid the bathrooms, and the conference center. They did all that in the first 2-½ years.
You see a commitment to quality in every detail at the Broken Spur. I’ve stayed in swankier places — never by choice — but for a very affordable and comfortable motel, the room had a few great touches: flat-screen TV, tile bathroom, jetted tub… Even the cowboy decorations rang true to a city slicker like me.
(The international dudes in particular love Broken Spur’s western aesthetic, Francine says. “Everyone wants their picture taken with the cowboy statue in the foyer.”)
And while the Hallows can’t take credit for it, waking up to a view of Capitol Reef’s red rocks is another excellent detail.
But the thing about Broken Spur I remember most clearly… most fondly… almost emotionally… was breakfast. When a motel web site mentions its “complimentary breakfast,” what do you imagine? Cereal dispensers, preservative-flavored muffins, tiny cups of watery orange juice or burned coffee and some hard bananas if you’re lucky, strewn coldly atop a blue-gray Formica cupboard. And for $65 a night, I’ll take it. I might even steal a second free banana for the road.
But if we’re gonna call that breakfast, we need another word for what Broken Spur serves in the morning. It’s a different thing altogether. Throw on your best sweatpants and tuck into a loving buffet of bacon, sausage, OJ, coffee, hot chocolate, cereal, cinnamon rolls, fresh hotcakes, waffles, pastries, fried potatoes and eggs. The chef — an actual chef! — walked around making sure everything was just right. My only complaint was that he was ruining every other hotel breakfast I’ll ever eat.
Broken Spur has a good thing going, and, as I speculated before, they’d probably do just fine if they sat back and let the world come to them. But their approach is more bullish; they’re like the Google of small-town lodging, staying ahead of the curve with a handful of new projects in development at any given time.
After they built the bakery, they decided to lease The Sweet Shop down the hill to sell their pastries and homemade ice cream. And the steakhouse itself is a work in progress. “We try to add new things to the menu every year,” Francine says. “We made our own smoker to smoke ribs we serve on Saturdays and brisket we serve on Sundays. Travis built that.” Travis VanOrden, who also built the fountain out front, and his wife Holly are the Hallows’ business partners, and he’s not the only one pulling double duty. One of the bakers is also a massage therapist and one of Gary and Francine’s daughters is a cosmetologist — add a beauty salon and a massage to the list of services available at Broken Spur. They’re adding 20 cabins for guests who want a cozier stay, too. And who knows what other ideas are forming in the back of Francine and Gary’s minds?
It’s a thousand little things that set Broken Spur apart, a thousand little things that make a little town special, and a thousand little details that make Utah’s back roads so much fun to explore. When you take this state for granted, you’re missing more than the great big national parks. You’re missing lacquered, life-size horse statues in motel parking lots and the most genuine smiles you’ll ever find behind a reception desk.
We may have checked Capitol Reef off our Utah bucket list, but you can bet we’re going back to Torrey. I mean, we only got to try one flavor of Gifford Park pie…
• Hickman Bridge — a short hike to a must-see
• Navajo Knobs — nine miles and some scrambling; for avid hikers
• Capitol Gorge — the drive is as great as the hike
• Gifford House — pick up books, candles, jam, dried fruit & other pioneer-era souvenirs
• Boulder Mountain — great fishing, especially from a float tube