In the vast and surprising landscape of Southern Utah, Winston Aldworth finds plenty to do.
An adventure tour in Southern Utah will challenge any preconceived notions about America being a land of litigious, sofa hogs. In a four-day roadtrip, my group of four antipodean travellers encountered a place of bracing outdoor adventure, with steely-eyed guides.
We did our Southern Utah adventure in January, meaning the place was a lot colder . . . but also a lot more empty. Many of the sites we visited would be heaving in summer, particularly the stunning national parks, Bryce Canyon and Zion. As a bonus, travelling in winter meant we could start our trip with a couple of days skiing at the renowned fields near Park City.
But it was Utah's vast adventurous south that blew me away.
Capitol Reef National Park
For pure Road Runner scenery, the drive into Capitol Reef National Park can't be beat. The horizon is dominated by vast red-rock cliffs, the road dotted with small towns.
We stretched our legs with the 7km walk into Hickman Bridge, a naturally formed stone bridge structure, the sort of thing that pops up in Utah to make you feel like you're on Mars.
Bryce Canyon National Park messes with your sense of perspective. You arrive high on the edge overlooking a giant canyon and look down into the gullies and valleys running between hundreds of towering hoodoos — pillars of red rock carved out by water and weather over aeons.
It's one of America's most famous national parks, and home to Thor's Hammer (so called because it looks like . . . well, have a guess). This is the kind of environment that you feel should dwarf you, so we entered the maze of paths along the Navajo Loop, walking along snow-framed empty paths between the red towers. The scene was made more eerie by the lack of other humans.
The mightiest of Utah's "Mighty Five" national parks, Zion is one of those rare places that immediately humbles you. Conversation in the car halts as the we emerge from a tunnel to find ourselves miniaturised by rock walls that seem to run a mile into the sky. We are ants in a ditch. Zion National Park is like a big, red Fiordland on steroids with a road through it. And there's loads of adventure in there . . .
Fearing where angels tread
Walking along a clear, mostly level path should not be this difficult. For the most part, Angels Landing is a straightforward hike on an uncomplicated surface. The difficulty is what's along the edges of that uncomplicated surface — along the top of the path at Angels Landing, there's a sheer 396m drop on either side. Trip up on this path and you're on the fast track downward. I found it challenging in the extreme, physically invigorating and mentally exhausting. I was stoked to get to the top — for the glorious views of Zion — and relieved to get back down.
You can check out a video of me crawling along fearfully at nzherald.co.nz/travel. (People die on this trail — including a teenager who hiked it little more than a week after us. There's a fatality every few years. Treat this path with respect.)
For a more relaxing tour of Zion's wonders, we suited up in thick waterproof pants and booties to follow the Virgin River as it wound between yet more towering cliff faces.
This walk — the Narrows — is one of Zion's most popular hikes. We set out early, feeling we had the whole valley to ourselves, and — sometimes up to our waists in freezing water — glad of our waterproof warmth.
Riding the Wave
Each morning in the little town of Kanab, there's a lottery. Travellers gather at the rangers' station in the hope of winning one of 10 permits to hike to one of Utah's most stunning rock formations. Even in Southern Utah — where mind-boggling rock formations are the norm — the smooth contours and easy patterns of the Wave are special.
You're assigned a number and balls tumble from a hand-spun lotto machine. Ranger Ron, who runs the lottery on our visit, gives dramatic warning of mortal risk ("People diiiiee out there," he intones).
Despite having just 40 there on our day (they get up to 400 in summer), everyone in our group of four missed out. (Top tip from locals in the know: South Coyote Butte lottery is at 10am and it's a good backup, with fewer people in it.)
Canyoning in the Huntress
Our bad luck at the Wave lottery ended in good fortune on the Huntress.
We had taken a sand-dune tumbling spin in a Humvee to Peek-A-Boo Canyon (check out foreveradventuretours.com), where we hiked twisting corridors of red earth through the carved landscape and saw millennia-old footholds carved in the walls by indigenous Americans.
Later, we abseiled through the stunning Huntress canyon, shimmying over multiple rock walls with a guide from Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort (zionponderosa.com).
We hit mountainbike trails to cycle the Hurricane Cliffs, where looping paths slide along hillsides, with occasional drops into a massive scrubland of low bush and intertwining trails.
It's beautiful riding, with around 65km of single-track trails meandering through tussocky terrain, with mountain views. As we ride the ridgelines, our drier-than-a salt-plain guide, Christian, from Zion Adventure Company, points out Zion dominating the horizon to the northeast, while out west the Pine Valley Mountains stand tall.
The ride — along with the views it offers — make a suitably knackering finish to a week of adventure.
You'll probably come through Salt Lake City on your way to Southern Utah. Aussie basketballer Joe Inglis, of the Utah Jazz, gave the Herald this tip for Kiwis seeking good coffee and a good cafe in the state capital.
"Publik — at the huge one on West Temple. You can get avocado on toast — like normal [food], not like deep-fried, shitty American food."