It wasn't all the recent commercials on Southern California television about skiing, boarding and otherwise adventuring in Utah that sent me to the Beehive State's southern territory for five days in January but an invitation from Ski Utah pals I met in a luxury box at Angel Stadium last season.
While I went solely because of the promise of putting waxed slats to the so-called "Greatest Snow on Earth," it was that experience and much more that proved to be reformative, enlightening, magical even.
#FindYourGreatest they say in the virtual funny papers, and I certainly found a great adventure despite the freezing cold.
My transformation from sour puss to upbeat fellow started with the sight of clay red mountains rising into purty blue skies and puffy white clouds upon passing through the driveway of the appropriately named Red Mountain Resort, which is just beyond St. George.
The resort, Windhorse Relations ranch, Padre Canyon, Brian Head ski resort, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and distant views of the stars above, the edges of Zion National Park and the southern Grand Canyon all helped return me to Orange County with a spring in my giddy up.
The resort setting immediately brought a sense of calm that the staff, spa and various activity guides would go on to capitalize on. Several women in our group said they wanted to come back with their mothers. General Manager Tracey Welsh says many men and women check in alone, even if they have life partners, to recharge or use the resort as a bridge to a new time in their lives. Whatever your situation, this place is for you. My room (actually rooms)—with a comfy bed, whirlpool tub, step-in showers, big screen TVs and fireplaces—was truly home away from home. I never used its kitchenette because three delicious meals a day are included in your $250-$300-a-night stay. Canyon Breeze Restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch buffets and made-to-order dinners, uses healthy ingredients and proper proportions. Also included in your stay are most classes, group activities and guided excursions. Some do have reasonable fees, as do spa services in one of the property’s original dome buildings that must have seemed futuristic when the then-health retreat opened. The resort’s friendly and attentive staff is dedicated to ensuring you leave inspired and rejuvenated. Red Mountain Resort & Spa, 1275 East Red Mountain Circle, Ivins, Utah, 435.673.4905, redmountainresort.com.
Two things I did not know until visiting this ranch: 1) Mustang is not a breed but a reference to all wild horses in North America. 2) People adopt these horses from the government and private parties to protect them because many farmers and ranchers target them due to property damage. One of those adopters is Mary Lee Brighton, who along with dedicated volunteers takes care of 30 mustangs, and to hear these ladies tell it, the mustangs take care of them, too. We looked at the ranch’s fenced enclosures as keeping the horses in, but the mustangs actually perceive them as keeping humans they do not know out. The horses are intelligent, have unique personalities and are mostly approachable if you come in peace. I thought one who backed up to me was about to buck. Actually, it wanted its butt rubbed. The mustangs are not for riding, but each of us on the M.E.E.T. the Mustangs excursion arranged by Red Mountain Resort got to become a “leader” of one horse and to warmly hug another before we moseyed down the trail. We also met newborn calves hanging out with their mothers a couple pens over. Kayenta Korrals, 988 West Tuomppian Court, Ivins, Utah, 801.557.1257, windhorserelations.org.
Another Red Mountain Resort-arranged activity sent me to pale red Padre Canyon to participate in canyoneering. That has you climbing up trails, over rocks and through thin crevices to a point from which you will then rappel down. Knit hats off to 23-year-old Cheney Gardner of Outside magazine for climbing to the canyon’s peak and rappelling like Tom Cruise in an action movie. Being severely out of shape and wanting to save something for the skiing to come, I cut my climb off at the halfway point and rappelled into a little tree and, for my last trip down, had my ass land squarely in the sitting position on a flat rock, like I planned it. Seth Gilles, who runs Southern Utah Guiding, was a wealth of information, whether it was explaining how the canyon was formed, pointing to Zion and the Grand Canyon in the distance or telling me what not to do (like “Don’t rappel into that tree.”). Amazingly, despite the contortions, I was not sore the next day. Southern Utah Guiding, 435.817.3600, southernutahguiding.com.
After checking in to Cedar Breaks Lodge & Spa, which was very nice but, honestly, very claustrophobic after staying in auditorium-sized quarters at Red Mountain Resort, it was off to the slopes of Brian Head Ski Resort, where there are two peaks: Navajo, which at 10,300 feet has runs mostly for beginners, and Giant Steps, which at 11,307 feet is mostly for advanced/intermediates, although either side has a little of what the other has. What a blast! Giant Steps’ groomed runs were excellent, but you did not have to go far to find knee deep (or deeper) powder. There was even something locals say has been missing for several seasons: moguls. I guess I have not seen them for several seasons either because on my first trip down I forgot how to ski them. Thankfully, I did remember how to scrape my way to a route where I could work the shortest skis I have ever skied around those mofo mounds. Day two of skiing started at Navajo, ended at Giant Steps and extended well into night as I participated in what is known as the Brian Head Marathon: Drink a beer in Last Chair Saloon, take the Giant Steps Express to the top of the mountain, ski back to the saloon, drink another beer, take the chair up again, ski down, etc., etc. Freakishly, the snow got better the darker and colder it got outside. Or maybe that was the IPA’s talking. Cedar Breaks Lodge & Spa, 223 Hunter Ridge Dr., Brian Head, Utah, 800.282.3327, cedarbreakslodge.com. Brian Head Ski Resort, 329 S. Highway 143, Brian Head, Utah, 866.930.1010, brianhead.com.
A word about drinking in Utah: I was politely pounced upon by state tourism folks when I mentioned I thought all beer served in Mormonville was only 4 percent alcohol by volume. That actually applies only to draft beer. You can get the same bottled beers in Utah that we have in California, with the same ABVs, at bars, restaurants and state-run stores. Same with liquor. Many homegrown brews and liquors take jabs at Utah’s early Mormon days; many menus I scanned included Polygamy Porter and Five Wives Vodka. With live hot jazz playing from the youngest hot jazz players I have ever seen, my party downed shots of the cinnamon-toasty Porter’s Fire Cinnamon Whiskey Liqueur, which is named after Orrin Porter Rockwell. Legend holds he was a bodyguard/assassin for Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Speaking of to-die-for consumption, as a treat to cap day two of skiing, Brian Head resort owner John Grissinger got up at 2 a.m. to start preparing brisket and pulled pork barbecued Kansas City-style, as that is where he is from. Not to knock the fine chefs of Red Mountain Resort or Cedar Breaks Lodge, but Grissinger made the best meal of the trip. And despite having started his day so early, he outlasted everyone in the bar afterward. That, my friends, is a ski resort owner! Last Chair Saloon, 329 S. Highway 143, Brian Head, Utah, 866.930.1010, brianhead.com/last-chair-saloon.
Well, due to clouds rolling in and an almost full moon, it was more like a moon gazing party near Brian Head’s Navajo Lodge. But “Dark Ranger Dave” Sorensen was very informative and entertaining as he used his laser pointer to identify the stars and constellations we could see or the approximate locations of the ones we could not see. He also set up a telescope and had it trained on the moon, which was so bright you could only look at it for a few seconds lest you go blind. A Cedar Breaks Monument National Park ranger by day, Sorensen is an amateur astronomer by night, having been looking up at the dark skies since he was a kid. He’s also an amateur photographer, and after his outdoor presentation he allowed each person in my group to pick out one of his photos as a souvenir. The Park Service has made protecting areas with dark night skies a priority, and the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau includes Sorensen’s star gazing parties in its mix of promoted events. This is one that educates and entertains you all at once. You don’t even mind the cold. Much. Brian Head Ski Resort, 329 S. Highway 143, Brian Head, Utah, 866.930.1010, brianhead.com/Star-Party; scenicsouthernutah.com/tag/dark-sky/.
I really did not want to go tubing with all those ski slopes waiting to beat me up. But tube we did. A track, I suppose one calls it, with several lanes is adjacent to the ski resort. A conveyor belt takes riders up to the top, they wait in line to throw themselves belly first and facing forward onto a tube they were given and they slide on hard ice to the bottom. The tubes have little bolts on the bottom to keep from going too fast, and you brake by digging the toes of your boots into the track. The track also angles back at the end to further slow you down, and there is a thick bumper to ensure riders don’t go flying off the track and into the parking lot. If you are caught crashing into that barrier, staff punishes you as I discovered when I borrowed a boltless tube. Wanting to see how fast I could get the thing going, I did not brake and crashed very hard into the barrier. It was so cool! But as I was making my way to the conveyor belt to repeat the feat, a staffer took my fast tube and handed me the “Tube of Shame.” I took one slow-poke trip down, gave the shameful tube back and went to drown my sorrows with Mr. Rockwell at the saloon. Brian Head Ski Resort, 329 S. Highway 143, Brian Head, Utah, 866.930.1010, brianhead.com.
I had never snowmobiled before, but I have motorcycled and found that came in handy steering the thing. But the area in front of my armpits got very sore very quickly. And my right hand was soon burning because of a handle warmer I did not know existed, so I did not know to turn it off. Zooming between trees reminded me of the scene in the forest of Endor in whichever Star Wars movie that was. I figure I got my ride up to 60 mph or more in the wide-open areas. That may not sound like much but it’s about the same speed on a motorcycle where I’ll say to myself, “Dang, I’m going fast.” We saw many incredible views along the way; some places we went to are only accessible by snowmobile or snow shoes in the winter. My rider for the first half of the trip was a photographer who, like me, is on the portly side. We only tipped our snowmobile over once! It took longer to get us upright than the machine. Later, my rider was a fellow journalist and things seemed to go well until we found ourselves at the top of hill where the snowmobile felt as if it was going to topple down. “I am terrified,” she informed before deciding to dismount. I then safely rode down but our guide, who had been up ahead, rode back to me and said incredulously, “You left her?” He then fetched her, returned her to my back seat and she white-knuckled it all the way back to the snowmobile shop, where I accidentally ran into the back of my guide’s machine. Lightly, I swear. “You’re crazy,” he told me. Thunder Mountain Motorsports, 539 N. Hwy 143, Brian Head, Utah, 435.677.2288, brianheadthunder.com.
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We had such a great time at Brian Head that, as snow fell the night before our scheduled departure for Bryce Canyon, where the plan was to cross-country ski, the powers that be with the Ski Utah and the state Office of Tourism decided if 10 inches of new snow fell by the morning, we could stay on the slopes for a fresh powder day. Unfortunately, only half that amount fell so it was off to breathtaking Bryce. I was not looking forward to cross-country skiing and it did, as feared, blow. That’s because Bryce also got snowed on so instead of gliding on cross-country skis we had to walk as if trudging through mashed potatoes in really skinny shoe shoes. But Bryce Canyon itself was beautiful and the Ruby Inn, our unofficial base, was a total trip. Think a restaurant/motel/store complex designed by Louis L'Amour. Indeed, I’d like to go back different times of year just to see how the views and colors change. I just won’t be renting any cross-country skis. Where’s that dang snowmobile? Bryce Canyon National Park, Highway 63, Bryce, Utah, 435.834.5322, nps.gov/brca; Ruby Inn, 26 S. Main St., Bryce Canyon City, Utah, 435.834.5341, rubyinn.com.
Before you plan your own trip to Southern Utah, check out SkiUtah.com (Ski Utah on Facebook, @skiutah on Twitter and Instagram), VisitUtah.com (Visit Utah on Facebook and @visitutah on Twitter and Instagram) and ScenicSouthernUtah.com (Visit Cedar City on Facebook and @visitcedarcity on Twitter and Instagram).
Special thanks to Paul Marshall of Ski Utah, Emily Moench of the Utah Office of Tourism, Deborah Park of Turner Public Relations and my fellow journalists who put up with me always being late to the van because I was putting on my makeup.