Exploring the natural diversity of Utah, one glorious day at a time
Travelweek's Annie Cicvaric gazes out over Utah's stunning Bryce Amphitheater

Exploring the natural diversity of Utah, one glorious day at a time

If Utah isn’t on your radar, it should be.

Best known for its skiing – with mountains near Salt Lake City getting 500” of snow per year – and the world-famous Sundance Film Festival, Utah is also home to an eclectic mix of visitor (and local) favourites, from pastrami burgers, to craft breweries, to petrified sand dunes.

Utah, as I discovered first-hand, has so much more to offer year-round than winter activities. It has an abundance of natural diversity that photos can’t quite capture. You have to explore this magical place in person. It will touch you. And there’s nothing quite like it.

Exploring the natural diversity of Utah, one glorious day at a time

With an eye for adventure, Annie tackled the vertical terrain of the Via Ferrata with Utah Adventure Center

I recently visited the state with a short two-hour drive from Las Vegas to St. George, a pretty and peaceful community in Greater Zion, the southwest region of Utah. This state may be lesser-known to Canadians than some of its bordering neighbours, but it is no less spectacular.

Following a hearty lunch at Wood Ashe Rye in St. George, our afternoon unfolded with a tour of the Tuacahn Outdoor Amphitheatre. This remarkable theatre, nestled at the mouth of Padre Canyon, showcases 2-3 Broadway-style productions per season with an awe-inspiring backdrop of the cliffs of Zion. It’s a great way to spend an evening outdoors under a starry sky.

Exploring the natural diversity of Utah, one glorious day at a time

Tuacahn Outdoor Amphitheater, UT

Our drive continued through winding roads and scenic red cliffs that eventually led us to Snow Canyon State Park for a photo op. Here we witnessed the incredible rolling mounds of Navajo Sandstone, also known as the Petrified Sand Dunes.

As impressive as those sights were, the highlight of my day was the sunset at Via Ferrata, which, unbeknownst to me, was not the name of a hiking trail or mountain peak as one might imagine, but the Italian word for ‘iron road.’ Once harnessed and cabled for safety, this heart-racing activity led us to Angels Leading Ledge Walk offered by Utah Adventure Center. We climbed, often on vertical terrain, and enjoyed breathtaking views of Zion National Park. Not for the faint of heart, but if you want to experience something unique and are up for a challenge, this is for you.

Exploring the natural diversity of Utah, one glorious day at a time

The Narrows, Zion National Park

After a comfortable overnight in the town of Springdale, we ventured off to hike the ‘Zion Narrows’, also known as one of the most popular hikes in the area for a good reason. Once outfitted in rented rubber boots, neoprene socks to keep our feet warm, and a walking stick, the hike took us along the shallow Virgin River amidst the canyon walls. Tilting our heads back now and then allowed us to take in the soaring height of our surroundings and striking canyon contrasts, a truly humbling experience. The distance for the Narrows can range from 2 to 10 miles roundtrip and is doable for most hikers. However, be prepared to get more than just your feet wet, but hey, that’s part of the fun.

Fun fact: take an e-bike along the Pa’rus trail (under 6 km). Helmets and e-bike rentals are available and another fun activity to add to your list.

Located just an hour north of Zion is Cedar City, long-billed as the ‘gateway to Utah’s National Parks.’ But who would have known this little gem is also known as ‘Festival City’ with Tony-award-winning Shakespeare performances at a purpose-built theatre, plus concerts and other cultural events?

Our walk-about-town took in the Shakespearean theatre, the Southern Utah Museum of Art, and a tour of the local IG Winery, all within walking distance. Finally, we landed at the Pastry Pub for some refuelling. Judging by the young crowds, this was the place to be and where I was introduced to my first famed pastrami sandwich – yum!

The evening ended with a spectacular ‘Dark Sky’ experience, a star-speckled outdoor treat at Brian Head Resort. A local astronomer led us to see planets on his telescope to identify constellations and asterisms in the sky as we all gathered under the stars sighing our oohs and ahhs. As I learned that night, Utah leads the world in ‘Dark Sky Park’ locations with a total of 21 out of some 90 across the globe.

A trip to Utah’s southwest is not complete without a visit to the iconic Bryce National Park, home to the famous Bryce Amphitheater and one of the most visited national parks. The bulbous spiralling rock formations called ‘hoodoos’ (which means to bewitch and, yes, they certainly do) fill this vast, impressive basin. You can zigzag your way down into Bryce Amphitheater or sit by the edge and enjoy the serene tranquility. Either way, this is a not-to-be-missed opportunity.

One of my most memorable drives that week was between parks that led us on the Scenic Byway 12, a designated All-American Road. The sheer diversity of the terrain is uniquely beautiful, and views teleport travellers with each bend to an unending plethora of scenic overlooks and restaurants. Here, we stumbled upon a spectacular coffee shop perched on a cliff called the Kiva Koffeehouse. There is not a wrong view to be had, inside or out, while sipping a cup of java here.

Exploring the natural diversity of Utah, one glorious day at a time

Broken Spur Inn, Torrey, UT

Geographic diversity aside, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn of some of the quirky accommodations that add to Utah’s appeal. For example, the Broken Spur Inn, a western relic for those up for a bit of cowboy nostalgia, also offered fully-equipped covered wagon overnights. Another memorable visit was at the cozy Zermatt Resort & Spa, located in Heber Valley; it provided a little taste of Switzerland and access to local attractions. Coming next year, the Zermatt will offer its natural spring soaking pools.

Heading north, we left the red rock canyons behind, replaced by forests that displayed their beautiful fall colours, predominantly the golden aspens. The contrast from south to north was enormous and just as stunning, only different.

Our final days included the urban sophistication of Salt Lake City. The city is home to the Natural History Museum of Utah, craft breweries and bars, with a range of casual to fine dining. Bonus: it is also only a 35 minute drive to Snowbird, offering world-class skiing.

During this first-time visit to Utah, the common thread that captured my attention was the locals’ genuine warmth, pride and excitement to share their unique and diverse state with us.

More information can be found at VisitUtah.com.

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