Utah, USA: Where the West was won
It’s a familiar scenario: John Wayne riding off into the sunset against a backdrop of Monument Valley’s towering red rock buttes and mesas.
This is the very heartland of the Old West. If majestic scenery is your quest, then here in the Mormon state of Utah is where you should head.
The mighty Grand Canyon, coursing through neighbouring Arizona and Nevada, might be far more renowned but, with its organ pipe pinnacles and multitude of other weird rock formations – known locally as ‘hoodoos’ for their haunting shadows – Utah’s Bryce Canyon is even more spectacular. It’s just one item on a long tick-list of The Beehive State’s ‘must sees’.
Navajo Indian reservations, scruffy old mining camps, sprawling ranches, timeworn settlements and tumbling tumbleweed show that Hollywood did not lie. This is ‘big sky’ country, with spectacular sunsets, scorching hot days and chilled desert nights.
Salt Lake City, the state capital, founded in 1847 at the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, is known as ‘The Crossroads of the West’ and makes a perfect jumping-off point for an endlessly fascinating fly/drive adventure.
I started with an orientation visit to the impressive new Natural History Museum of Utah (001 801 581 6927/ umnh.utah.edu/newmuseum), at the trailhead for the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. From there it’s a five-hour, 258-mile drive to the welcoming little town of Moab, world-renowned as the spiritual home of mountain biking.
In the canyonlands hereabouts you’ll find the luxury Sorrel River Ranch hotel and spa (001 435 259 4642; sorrelriver.com), with its programme of horseback rides and guided hikes, and the Red Cliffs Lodge (001 435 259 2002; redcliffslodge.com), itself star of many a western and today home to a remarkable movie museum brim full of posters, artefacts and other memorabilia as well as a showcase for the 30-plus award-winning wines produced by the nearby Castle Creek Winery.
Close by, ‘Canyonland By Night’ (001 435 259 2300; canyonlandsbynight) jet boat tours on the Colorado River, white-water rafting, 4x4 excursions and horseback rides provide lots of adventure amid glorious scenery.
Utah has an abundance of state and national parks. Take time at the iconic Arches to hike the fairly easy three-mile Delicate Arches round trip to see the awesome natural sandstone arches and impossibly balanced rocks – there are more than 2,000 arches in all around the park, the largest such natural display on earth. Then drive the switchback road to Dead Horse Point State Park’s skyline overlook, nearly 2,000 feet above the lazily winding Colorado River.
The largest of all Utah’s many public spaces, Canyonlands National Park is just as spectacular while the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum ( stateparks.utah.gov) has a massive collection of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) native pottery. The Anasazi – the word means ‘Ancient People’ in the Navajo language – mysteriously died out around AD 1200.
Now this part of the world is not exactly renowned for fine cuisine. Over-sized burgers, greasy Indian fried bread, red-hot chillies and disgustingly gargantuan chicken fried steaks – a slab of beef cooked in an oil-laden batter – are the norm. At least it’s filling!
None of my travelling companions opted for the 32-ounce beef monster offered at The Swinging Steak in Mexican Hat but we all voted the next evening’s dinner, prepared by American Culinary Institute certified chef Gary Pankow at the Café Diablo (001 435 425 3070; cafediablo.net), in Torrey, as the culinary highlight of the whole trip – with lovingly prepared ingredients, inventive presentation and sensible European-sized portions. Our delight even extended to the surprisingly delicious rattlesnake patties we had as starters!
At the entrance to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, an area that is still a Native American reservation, Goulding’s Lodge (001. 435 727 3231; gouldings.com) served as an Indian trading post for close on a century, as well as being a base for John Ford’s movie crews as they shot those John Wayne epics. Here a small museum, restored to look as it did in the 1940s is jam-packed with evocative displays of the household items that were once traded over its counter.
The best way to enjoy the valley area and its hidden delights is to take a guided Jeep tour (navajonationparks) out into the wilderness.
Caineville’s Capitol Reef National Park boasts Cathedral Valley and the Temples of the Sun and Moon among its myriad natural attractions. From Torrey it’s a 112-mile drive to Bryce Canyon City via the spectacular All-American Scenic Byway Highway 12, a 124-mile route rated by ‘Car & Driver’ magazine as being among the ‘Top 10 Scenic Byways of America’.
The Ancestral Puebloan village you can visit at Anasazi State Park Museum is believed to have been occupied from as far back as AD 1050 while Escalante State Park is an atmospheric showcase of petrified trees and fossilised dinosaur bones.
You can horseback ride down into the yawning chasm of Bryce Canyon or take an enervating two-hour hike to enjoy the ever-changing colours – pinks, reds and browns – as the sun sweeps cross the sky. It’s an almost otherworldly experience as you wander the endless succession of red sandstone amphitheatres past thousands of towering spires and hoodoos forged over the ages by wind, rain and geological movement.
Just as impressive a sight is the largest free-roaming herd of bison in the country. It’s spectacular here at night too. Far from big city lights and other air pollution, blessed with clear skies, there’s a fabulous display of twinkling stars on nights that are inky black.
80 miles away, Zion National Park – named by the Mormons whose pioneers did so much to forge the character of Utah’s human heritage – is the state’s most visited natural attraction with its peaceful but dramatic landscape, narrow-slot canyons, hidden rivers and waterfalls and wooded valleys. To make things easy, there’s a free shuttle bus service linking the visitor centre to strategic locations.
Utah is a year-round vacation wonderland. You can rent a houseboat on expansive Lake Powell, marvel at ancient Fremont Indian rock paintings, discover Park City’s silver mining heritage, drive National Scenic Byway 143 taking in Cedar Breaks National Monument and Panguich Lake en-route, cross-country ski at Soldier Hollow or water-ski at Steinaker State Park. Then there’s a big programme of round-ups and rodeos.
Fly fishing, bird watching, rock-climbing, downhill skiing – they are all well catered for among Utah’s five national parks, 43 state parks, seven national monuments and two national recreation areas.
For something really different, take Amtrak’s California Zephyr train tour ( essentiallyamerica.com/Amtrak) from Chicago to San Francisco, stopping off on the way at Salt Lake City for a week in Utah.
Why visit Utah?
This is the Old West of cowboy, Indian and outlaw legend – and the scenery is simply stunning
Movies shot in Utah
How The West Was Won
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
Back To The Future III
For further information go to visitutah.com