The Great Outdoors
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Utah sprawls across the Great American Mid-West and is dubbed the Canyon State – home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, dominated by deep, windy canyons, delicate arches of rock, steep cliffs and tall needles of stone piercing the sky.
Climbers love this place.
But the Colorado River and Lake Powell also offer water sports, and in winter this is skiing, snowboarding and tubing paradise.
ERIC PASQUIER camped out under the stars and tastes adventure in this rugged destination for thrill-seekers.
With place names around like Death Valley, Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley and even Starvation, the average visitor could be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy on entering the state of Utah. The names hark back to simpler times when geographical landmarks took care of place names.
Edge of the Cedars, for instance, marks the point where, well, the cedars end.
This Is The Place (no, really) evokes images of the early settlers putting down their bags after the long stage-coach ride, looking around at the wide, empty skies and sighing with happiness at having found a home.
Utah is an odd mix of Wild West, Native American, Anasazi Indian and Mormon – and there are reminders everywhere of this rich history. But for those wanting to get back in touch with nature, and risk their lives (or at least their bones) in a true wilderness, the real treats are in the many canyons, whitewater rivers, hiking trails, climbing routes and great skiing in winter.
Most of Utah lies on a plateau higher than 4,000 feet above sea level, but some of the elevations reach spectacularly into the skies at 13,000 feet. These extreme highs, lows and every-which-way make for some of the best adventure terrains on earth. Nor is it neat and contained –in Utah, there are black bears, grizzlies, bobcats, grey wolves, lynxes, cougars, rattlesnakes and all manner of dangerous creepy crawlies. Plus of course, the terrain is very rugged and wild. Utah is not to be under-estimated.
Rafting on Utah’s major rivers is an experience of a lifetime. There are five of them - the Colorado, Dolores, Green, San Juan and Yampa. They are a part of the Colorado water system in Utah and drain the expansive Colorado Plateau occupying most of the eastern and southern portions of the state. For beginner canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts, the Colorado River, in particular, offers some nice, gentle waters in which the water-bound tourist can drift, watch the scenery roll past and stop off once in a while for a picnic. A trip from Moab Boat Ramp to either Gold Bar Canyon or the Postash Boat Ramp will take you past a wetlands preserve and down through sheer red walls of Navajo sandstone and gently rolling rock fins and arches.
For those who like screaming fear and struggling with the elements, the San Juan River offers great rapids and stunning scenery (of course), while taking you past some of the richest archaeological sites found in Utah: 1000-year-old Native American ruins.
These waters are also famous among rapid enthusiasts thanks to Haldane ‘Buzz’ Holmstrom, whose epic quest took him through Utah’s whitest waters. "Dear Mamma, I am writing this as I lay in my sleeping bag, and this is the only paper I have up here. I had no intention of writing a letter now but it is so beautiful here right now I must tell someone about it..." These words were penned in 1937 in the Red Canyon, on the shore of Utah's Green River, as Holmstrom set out on his journey. In a wooden boat, he built himself, he rowed from Green River, Wyoming to Boulder Dam in Nevada and would be the first to run this thousand-mile stretch of whitewater alone. Among the fearsome names on his itinerary were Disaster Falls, Hell’s Half Mile, Big Drop Three and Cataract Canyon, the famed "Graveyard of the Colorado".
"...I can hear that miserable Red Creek rapid roaring back up the river and the voice of another downstream but it doesn't sound so unfriendly," wrote Holmstrom, and for those who have experienced white-water running or rafting, they will know that rapids almost take on human characteristics. Some are mercifully gentle, almost as though they begrudgingly let you through; others are not so forgiving of trespassers. Others still seem to have a sense of humour: lulling you into thinking “that wasn’t so bad” and catching you unawares just as you think the end is in sight. Anthropomorphisms aside, Utah offers some splendid adventures on its rivers and lakes.
For those who prefer dry-land activities, the state also has some of the most astonishing scenery through which to hike – beware those snakes – and in which to camp outside under a starry night. It’s so quintessentially American, it’s almost absurd.
Biking enthusiasts can hurtle to their hearts’ content through the canyons and over ridges so steep that vertigo seems an understatement. The famous Slickrock trail is fast becoming known for wonderfully diverse alpine mountain biking, including lift-served access at some ski resorts.
The 250 miles across southern Utah from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Powell's Canyon Country, make for some of the most awesome and notorious off-road biking experiences around. The best trails of Brian Head (the third highest peak in Utah), Red Canyon and Bryce are to be found here, and anyone who is considering the off-road experience must first ask themselves: “Am I fit enough?” An obvious enough caveat, but necessary. The worst place to discover you may not be up to the challenge is in the middle of a very hot nowhere. Be prepared for some serious up-and-downing, skinned kneecaps and adrenaline rushes.
And then there’s the weather. There's a saying in Utah: "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." Some of the mountains receive over 500 inches of snow in the winter, while in the summer, parts of the state can reach temperatures well over 100°F. Spring and autumn bring every type of weather imaginable, so be prepared for anything.
Given the very real possibility of 500 inches of snow blanketing the higher mountains, it’s no surprise to learn that skiing, snow-boarding and snowmobiling (think speed, snow and screaming fear) are big in Utah. The Deer Valley Mountain Resort was recently rated by Ski Magazine as the best ski resort in America, while Snow Basin and Powder Mountain give the Alps a run for their money.
It should also be no surprise that the headquarters for the US Ski and Snowboard Associations are in Utah. You can go skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling here. Utah is also home to Sundance, a mountain community for Art and Nature featuring beautiful overnight accommodations, a world famous film festival, award-winning restaurants and a full schedule of mountain recreation, art and culture opportunities.
For the truly brave – or mad – helicopter skiing should fulfil their needs. Skiing untracked powder under sunny skies must surely be the dream of all skiers, which is what heli-skiing is all about. Dropped off on some eagle’s perch by the helicopter, you have hours of powder snow ahead of you – and Utah offers some of the best heli-skiing around. This is one of the advantages not just of Utah, but of the US – seemingly infinite space and wilderness.
If you prefer a slower pace to take in the landscape, then get up on a horse or hire a 4x4 vehicle. Utah is home to the most spectacular concentration of geological landmasses in the world, principally in the south-eastern portion of the state. Here, the land is made up essentially of rocky terrain that can take on a multitude of forms and colours. Over stretches of hundreds of kilometres, the landscape is dominated by deep, windy canyons, delicate arches in the rock, steep cliffs and tall, needle-like masses of stone that tower over the desolate landscape.
South-west Utah is known as the ‘land of colour’: it consists of especially hot regions, without a lot of relief, located around Cedar City all the way to the high wooded mountains. The region is characterised by a diversity of colours and magnificent rock formations. In this part of the state are the stunning nature-scapes famous around the world, such as Bryce Canyon, composed of natural sculptures of orange and pinkish rock, such as those in Zion National Park. But there exist numerous other wonders in the state of natural wonders, such as its canyons, its hills and its amazing sand dunes.
The landscapes of Utah, or ‘The Canyon State’, are made up of a fascinating variety of colours, even if the colour that dominates all others is rusty-red. Centuries of erosion have carved out the canyons that are another speciality of the landscapes here.
Erosion is also responsible for the famous and fascinating natural rock arches and bridges in the state’s National Parks.
The sights – as extraordinary as they are improbable – are concentrated around the Green River, the San Juan River, the Colorado River and their tributaries.
The major attraction of south-western Utah, however, remains Lake Powell, a body of crystal-clear water surrounded by canyons and landmasses of red stone.
For anyone with a desire to leave civilisation behind and discover what the Great Outdoors is all about, Utah is the place to start.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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