Living on the west coast of Canada, there’s a certain pleasure we take in teasing our eastern counterparts: that it’s not only possible, but a very common practice, to ski and golf in the same day due to our climate and beautiful surroundings. But these boasts pale in comparison to our most recent trip which had us skiing, mountain biking and hiking our way through Utah over the course of one unforgettable week.
What became almost immediately clear to us was the accessibility to Utah’s diverse natural beauty, not only in terms of distance but also in terms of levels of experience. Whether you’re a hard core outdoor enthusiast or a family with young children, the options in terms of trails and activities are seemingly endless. And with Fodor’s Travel recently naming Utah THE top place to visit in 2016, we were excited to discover for ourselves why.
We landed at Salt Lake City International airport and within 20 minutes of picking up our car rental, we were at our Salt Lake City hotel (Hyatt Place ) at the base of Cottonwood Canyon, a short drive from Alta and Snowbird ski resorts. Although we are very active, we hadn’t been on downhill skis in more than 2 decades and we couldn’t have asked for better conditions when we arrived at Alta. Dry powder snow combined with clear blue skies and stunning scenery certainly made us wonder what took us so long! The runs were long but the lines for the lifts were not since we were lucky enough to be there the first week of March, well before the Spring Break crowd was preparing to descend en masse.
After 3.5 solid hours of skiing, we ended up at Alta Lodge for a terrific lunch made up of Dungeness crab sandwiches and seafood chowder. To say that ski resorts have come a long way from hot dogs and fries would be a vast understatement! Alta was the first lodge in the area and turned 75 this year. Its relaxed yet elegant atmosphere is a welcome respite at the end of a long day skiing. The restaurant thinks of everything: they even provide slippers to put on after you take off your ski boots! Featuring panoramic views, communal dining, and a fantastic après-ski bar, it is located directly across from the main lift providing true ski-in / ski-out access. It’s a very popular option with families largely because of its unpretentious feel and the fact they provide a complimentary kids club. But what speaks volumes about their success is the fact that more than 70% of their clientele are repeat guests—practically unheard of in the travel industry.
Following a fantastic day of skiing at Alta, we made the relatively short 40 minute drive to Park City, another world-class mountain destination featuring two major ski resorts: Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort . Both gained international notoriety when Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002. In 2015, Park City launched a major initiative combining with Canyons Resort to create the largest ski area in the United States. The result is close to 3,000 hectares of great skiing combined with a town filled with award-winning restaurants, great live music venues and lodging from Bed & Breakfasts through to five star luxury resorts.
After 2 days of skiing, we gave our legs a rest and made the 4 hour drive to Moab, universally recognized as one of the world’s great mountain biking destinations. It also doesn’t hurt that it sits just 4 miles from Arches National Park and next to the Colorado River meaning world-class river rafting and hiking as well. Known as the place “where adventure begins”, we were about to get a taste of its storied trails thanks to Rim Tours, one of the area’s best mountain biking outfits. Established in Moab in 1985, owner Kirstin Peterson has built a fantastic reputation within the community as the most reputable biking guides around that make safety and their clients’ enjoyment their top priority.
Our guide Dave was completely consistent with what we had heard from the locals, first ascertaining our experience and comfort level and then making a couple of suggestions based on what time would permit for our ride. He ended up taking us to Dead Horse Point State Park, a spot that afforded incredible panoramic views of mountains, reefs and canyons with very little traffic. In fact, during the 3 hours we spent with Dave, we only ran into one other mountain biker. We had, almost completely to ourselves, a network of trails that offered the full spectrum from easy to moderate to quite technical trails.
One of the things we discovered while biking in the area, were 3 Yurts that the federal government recently built. Each of the Yurts is large enough to sleep 6 and feature a large wrap-around wooden deck complete with barbecue. We could only imagine what waking up first thing in the morning watching the sunrise above the canyons would look like from those decks! We are determined to come back and stay in one of those Yurts someday (hopefully in the not too distant future).
As we set off the next morning for Bryce Canyon, we broke up the 4.5 hour drive with a stop on the way at Capitol Reef National Park, approximately two hours drive from Moab. While we had both heard of Bryce, Capital Reef was unknown to us but we were beyond gratified by what we found. More spectacular and extensive views of multi coloured cliffs, arches and enormous canyons.
An added benefit to Capitol Reef not being as well known as Bryce, meant far fewer people. After close to two hours of hiking the Rim Overlook trail and Hickman’s Bridge, we passed only two couples. Certainly this had a lot to do with the timing of our trip being in March but we suspect it would still be relatively quiet compared to visiting its more famous counterparts Bryce Canyon & Zion, the latter of which receives 3 million visitors a year.
When we arrived 2.5 hours later in Bryce Canyon, no amount of reading our guidebook or seeing photos on the internet prepared us for the stunning view at Inspiration Point. We happened to get there about an hour before sunset and the famed red clay “hoodoos” (spire-rocked limestone formations) were lit up by the sun and beautifully contrasted against a dusting of crisp white snow.
Truly a spectacular sight to behold and we spent a good hour just soaking it all in. We eventually wandered down the Queen’s Garden trail toward the natural amphitheater to get a better view of Thor’s Hammer before taking one last look from the top of Sunset Point.
Just when we thought we had seen it all, we made our way the next day to Mother Nature’s masterpiece, Zion National Park. It basically included some aspect of everything we’d seen along the way…and then multiplied it tenfold in terms of size! It is virtually impossible to capture either in words or pictures the sheer magnitude of Zion. As we wound our way down into the Canyon, we stared in silent awe at the canyon walls that stretched more than a thousand feet up into the air.
Being close to lunch time, we began our exploration at Zion with the Emerald Pools Trail. An easy hike that leads to 3 different waterfall pools, each more beautiful than the last. We grabbed lunch at the Red Rock Grill in Zion Lodge across the road from the trailhead. As we tucked into our hearty salads, we were treated to more views of the canyon while we plotted our afternoon hike.
Next up was Angels Landing Trail; simultaneously the most frightening and exhilarating hike we have ever experienced. Frightening in that you made your way up over 1,000 feet along very dramatic sheer cliffs. Exhilarating in that you’re rewarded with some of the most spectacular views you will ever be lucky enough to experience. The last half hour as you walk up the spine from the first lookout to Angels Landing, chains are in place to assist you but you’ll need to balance that small sense of security with the fact you’re looking straight down more than 1,000 feet as you hike further up.
This is not for the faint of heart or for anyone with a fear of heights. It is however, breathtakingly beautiful and worth the climb if you’re up for it. Needless to say, when we got back to the bottom, we celebrated the pure adrenaline rush with more than one Zion craft brew!
And just when we thought our experiences of the week couldn’t be topped, we spent our final day in Zion hiking the famed Narrows Trail. What’s so unusual about this trail is that there is no path, instead you walk up the riverbed and find places to regularly cross the river as you make your way along. This time of year, the river varies in depth from up to our ankles to up to our waists. We were fortunate to have Zion Adventure Company’s very capable Diana Hall as our personal guide leading the way. First she outfitted us with dry suits, neoprene socks, special shoes, fleece layers and walking sticks.
Then we spent a magical 4 hours exploring the Narrows and experiencing what National Geographic calls one of its Top 10 recommended outdoor adventures. There were more than a few times that we simply stared straight up in awe at the towering walls that framed our hike and more than a few times we pinched ourselves for being so lucky to experience something so unique and beautiful.
Of all the things we took away with us from this trip, we can’t reiterate enough the absolutely breathtaking beauty of Utah combined with its accessibility. For us, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting during the winter. There were far less tourists and the beauty wasn’t diminished in the slightest in terms of weather. In fact, we benefitted from lots of sunshine as well as perfect temperatures for taking part in so many physical activities from skiing at Alta & Park City to biking in Moab to hiking in Zion.
In terms of access, Vancouver and Calgary already benefit from direct flights and this May (2016), the same will be introduced to Toronto through not one, but two airlines (Air Canada & Delta). Of particular note this year is the fact that the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial on August 25, 2016. Be sure to plan ahead if you want to visit this summer as there will likely be a greater draw that month along with several events commemorating this auspicious milestone. Whatever time of year you do get there, do NOT miss the opportunity to discover a place that will stay with you long after you leave.