Southwest Weekenders travel series visits Panguitch: ‘Taking you back in time’

ST. GEORGE — When you’ve made an emotional connection to a place as a child, it feels like coming home when you return years later. Even if you can’t remember images, you never forget that feeling.

Cruising into the town of Panguitch, just 30 minutes outside of Bryce Canyon National Park, feels familiar. My parents managed the Bryce Canyon National Park Lodge when I was very young.

Some of my friends joined me on a recent journey to Panguitch. Despite their lack of prior visits, they were also filled with nostalgia as we drove down Main Street. The town’s rich history and charm resonated with them, creating an instant connection.

In 1864, the former lumber and ranching community was founded. Now, worn brick buildings housing gift shops and eateries line the roads. While the outside of locations often remain the same through the years, some, like the historic Gem Theater and the Two Sunsets Hotel, have undergone indoor renovations.

Roger Kaspar and his wife, Ruth Henrie Kaspar, are not just business owners in Panguitch; they are part of its rich history. Ruth’s family has strong roots in Panguitch and her forebears helped settle the Garfield County area. Her father, Panguitch native Jimmy O. Henrie, made significant contributions as a civil and nuclear engineer, she said.

(L-R): The manager of the Two Sunsets Hotel Lori (Loriann) Williams stands with owner Roger Kaspar, Panguitch, Utah, May 3, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

Although he is a “Californian through and through,” Roger said he fell in love with the area, noting its historic buildings and the surrounding natural beauty, such as the red rocks and cedar trees.

“The first time I came down here was before we were married,” he said. “I met many of her relatives. She’s probably related to half the town. I fell in love with Ruth and also with this area. I’ve been coming back ever since. I’ve hiked most of the slot canyons in the area. … I just really love this area and want to see Panguitch succeed, keep traditions alive and add new ones.”

One of those beloved traditions is the Pioneer Day Parade, which commemorates the day Brigham Young and the early Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. As part of the celebration, fire engines drive down the street during the parade and spray the children with water. There is also the Garfield County Fair each year.

“There’s an activity there that I’ve never ever seen anywhere else … what they call the fish grab,” Roger said. “They bring all these trout from the hatchery and put them into these big pools. The little kids and the older kids all get in there with the fish, catch them; many people take them home and do a big fish fry.”

Before the couple bought the hotel and theater, they purchased the two-story red brick home owned by Ruth’s parents, Jimmy O. and Evelyn Henrie. The house was built by Ruth’s great-grandparents, James Bell Heywood and Maria Clarinda (Larsen). Her great-grandfather not only built the home in 1899 but also formed the bricks and fired them across the street to build the house.

Panguitch native Jimmy O. Henrie built this home by hand and it is still in the Henrie family with the owners Ruth and Roger Kasper, Panguitch, Utah, May 3, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

Inspired by the theater’s history and love for the area, they purchased the Gem Theater in September 2020.

At the time, the Gem Theater had been up for sale after the previous person running the theater came down with cancer and died. The 1909 theater was on the verge of becoming a building for storage units, but Roger said it had too much history, such as his wife’s grandmother playing the piano there when it showed silent films.

The lobby of the Gem Theater now features an ice cream parlor where Roger makes homemade ice cream and carries BYU Creamery ice cream. He also makes other sweets like hand-dipped chocolates using a crunchy quinoa filling dipped in Belgian dark chocolate.

The theater shows first-run movies and classic films. Theater rentals are offered as well for people looking to celebrate birthday parties or family gatherings while watching a movie of their choice.

The Gem Theater features an ice cream parlor, rock shop and game room, Panguitch, Utah, May 3, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

Later, the couple bought the Panguitch Inn on Main Street, now the Two Sunsets Hotel, hoping to preserve its historic charm and add new visitor experiences.

The hotel was in bad shape after sitting idle during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was a lot of work,” Roger said. “And I think you can see it’s turned out quite nicely.”

He said the name “Two Sunsets Hotel” was derived from an illusion in the area: when the sun sets in the west, it simultaneously lights the mountains to the east, making it appear that there are two sunsets.

Roger’s eyes lit up when he talked about the memorable experiences he wanted visitors to have with each property having its own draw.

“I think it’s different for the hotel and the theater. With the theater, I want visitors to have a kind of a throwback-in-time feeling. It’s set up so that it’s like a 50’s-era ice cream parlor on the walk-in,” he said. “It’s a single-screen movie theater where you can see first-round movies, but it’s really walking into a historic building that’s taking you back in time.”

Roger Kaspar stands on the second floor of the historic Gem Theater, which has been restored, Panguitch, Utah, May 3, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

The Gem Theater also houses a game room with air hockey, foosball and chess, and upstairs, visitors will find a rock shop featuring unique rocks from the area, as well as rock lamps and decorative stones. 

“There’s some pretty cool rocks just from the surrounding area,” he said. “And some of my kids are really into rock hounding, rocks and things like that. So it’s been great fun doing that with them.”

When people visit, Roger said he wants them to have quality experiences and to remember their visit long afterward. 

“We have a tremendous number of people from different countries that come here and stay here, which is fun,” he said. “I sit here in the lobby sometimes of the hotel, and on a given night, there might be visitors from different parts of Europe, Singapore, and all over the United States. And that’s really fun to talk and share experiences with them. It’s fun to connect in different ways with people.”

Those looking for another one-of-a-kind experience should mark their calendars for the Quinoa Harvest and Andean Festival, which the Kaspars hold each September when the Panguitch-grown quinoa is ready to harvest. The festival features a Peruvian buffet, traditional Andean music, quinoa experts, a hike into a local canyon with llamas and other activities. 

The Two Sunsets Hotel which as been refurbished and modernized and is the location of many previous historic businesses, Panguitch, Utah, May 3, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

Roger, who plants quinoa on their property for the festival, said quinoa is an excellent crop for Panguitch to grow since it thrives at high elevations and originates in the high mountain valleys of the Andes Mountains. He added that it requires moderately cool temperatures to set seed, tolerates a short growing season, can grow in poor soil, requires less water than most crops, especially alfalfa, and has a bitter coating that deters birds and other animals, which is removed before cooking.

The Kaspars have six children and originally didn’t plan on entering the hospitality business, as both have doctorate degrees. Roger is a biochemist and continues to work on therapeutics for rare skin diseases. Ruth is an audiologist in private practice.

Click here for tips on visiting the area.

Editor’s Note:

“Southwest Weekenders” is a travel series exploring diverse destinations in the American Southwest. From majestic desert landscapes to historic towns, each article offers readers an insider’s guide to weekend getaways. Southwest Weekenders aims to inspire wanderlust and provide tips for planning short trips.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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