Rappelling, Eating, Drinking and More In Southern Utah

So purty
So purty
Mike Saemisch

Ambling up to a bar stool in the Last Chair Saloon at Brian Head Ski Resort in Southern Utah (329 S. Hwy. 143, Brian Head, 866-930-1010; www.brianhead.com/last-chair-saloon), I mentioned to Beehive State tourism folks that it was a shame we'd be ordering adult beverages that were only 4 percent alcohol by volume. With side-to-side head sways, I was informed that applies only to draft beer. You can get the same bottled beers, with the same ABVs, we have in California at Utah bars, restaurants and state-run liquor stores. Same with bottled wine, liquor and spirits.

Many homegrown brews and liquors take jabs at Utah's early Mormon days. Bar menus I scanned included Polygamy Porter and Five Wives Vodka. I downed shots of spicy and toasty Porter's Fire Cinnamon Whiskey Liqueur, which is named after Orrin Porter Rockwell, who, legend holds, was a bodyguard/assassin for Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Any day now, expect Matt Stone and Trey Parker's Booze of Mormon.

Look out the window from your saloon stool, and if it's dark outside, you must arrange a whole different kind of nightcap. A Cedar Breaks Monument National Park ranger by day, "Dark Ranger Dave" Sorensen is an amateur astronomer by night, having been viewing the skies over the area since he was a kid. The Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau now promotes the stargazing parties he leads. Because of electric beams emanating from homes and light poles, bright stars and constellations are mostly invisible in Orange County. A global movement aims to protect dark-sky areas, including Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah. The Park Service has made protecting such skies a priority, and there is an effort afoot to add Cedar Breaks to the International Dark-Sky Association list.

Our party near Brian Head's Navajo Lodge (www.brianhead.com/star-party or scenicsouthernutah.com/tag/dark-sky/) was nearly ruined by thick clouds rolling in and an almost full moon, making it more like a moon-gazing party. Sorensen saved it by being very informative and entertaining, using his laser pointer to identify what we could barely see or the approximate locations of what we could not. A telescope was trained on a moon that was so bright you could only look for a few seconds lest you go blind. After we moved into the lodge, amateur photographer Sorensen allowed each star partier to pick out one of his awesome night-sky photos as a souvenir. I got a comet!

I'd next like to stargaze in breathtaking Bryce Canyon National Park (Hwy. 63, Bryce, 435-834-5322; www.nps.gov/brca). Natural rock archways along Highway 63 welcome you into the national park, where these and other oddly shaped formations left standing by erosion are known as hoodoos. Bryce folk will tell you the colors there change with every season, reason enough to return multiple times. Guided and unguided activities include daytime and nighttime hikes and, depending on the season, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

My Bryce Canyon base, Ruby Inn (26 S. Main St., Bryce Canyon City, 435-834-5341; www.rubyinn.com), was a total trip—think a sprawling motel/restaurant complex designed by Louis L'Amour. You can bend the pages of what seems to be every book written about John Wayne in the massive gift shop.

Going down?
Going down?
Courtesy Matt Coker

Highly recommended when it comes to lodging and just hanging out is Red Mountain Resort (1275 Red Mountain Circle, Ivins, 435-673-4905; www.redmountainresort.com), which is just beyond St. George and cradled by stunning red-clay mountains. About two hours away from Las Vegas, the resort is all about helping you relax, rejuvenate and rehabilitate. Atop ancient black lava, hippies constructed what appeared to be futuristic domed buildings in the 1970s; one is now the spa, and the rest are staff quarters for the modern resort surrounding them. A woo-woo factor is found among the resort's list of activities and excursions, but if getting your groovy on is not your thing, there is plenty more to do such as hiking, bike riding, swimming and exercise classes. Most are included with your $250- to $300-per-night room fee, although some do have additional charges, as does the spa.

Highly recommended is the M.E.E.T. the Mustangs excursion at nearby Windhorse Relations (Kayenta Korrals, 988 W. Tuomppian Court, Ivins, 801-557-1257; www.windhorserelations.org). Mary Lee Brighton adopts wild horses from private parties and the Bureau of Land Management to save them from farmers and ranchers who targeted them because of the property damage they inflict. Brighton and her dedicated volunteers take care of 30 mustangs, and to hear the ladies tell it, the mustangs take care of them, too. The wild horses are intelligent, have unique personalities and are approachable. Scared to death of horses since one threw me as a young child, I thought a mustang who backed up to me was about to buck. Actually, she wanted her butt rubbed. These horses are not for riding, but I got to become a "leader" of one through an inspiring exercise that had me warmly hugging the equine before I moseyed down the trail.

Another enriching Red Mountain activity is canyoneering in pale-red Padre Canyon. You climb up trails, over rocks and through thin crevices before rappelling back down. You can begin your descent atop the canyon's peak or, if you are as out-of-shape as I am, the halfway point. It's a total rush, although I did swing into a little tree and had my ass land squarely in the sitting position on a flat rock, as if I planned it. Seth Gilles, who runs Southern Utah Guiding (435-817-3600; www.southernutahguiding.com), is a wealth of information, whether it's explaining how the canyon was formed, pointing to Zion and the Grand Canyon in the distance, or telling you what not to do, such as "Don't rappel into that little tree."

All that exercise left me starving. Fortunately, a mountain of delicious scallops awaited me at Red Mountain's Canyon Breeze Restaurant. That's where I had all my breakfasts, lunches and dinners—not only because everything is made with healthy ingredients and proportions, but also because they are included in the cost of your room. (Alcohol is extra).

With my tummy full, it was time to crash. I had checked into a large room with a patio, fireplace, whirlpool tub, walk-in shower, big-screen television, workspace and oh-so-comfy king-size bed. Noticing the door was open to the adjoining room, I figured the housekeeper forgot to lock it. No, the front desk informed, it was the rest of my suite. A corridor lined with a washer and dryer led to a huge living room with another fireplace and big-screen TV surrounded by a wrap-around sofa. Another bathroom had an even-larger step-in shower. A kitchenette included a small refrigerator, microwave and all the kitchenware. I could have entertained an NBA team.

It's actually solitude most resort guests seek. General Manager Tracey Welsh mentioned to me that several souls check in alone, either having just ended relationships or simply needing a brief break from normal life. They return home to a much better place, physically and mentally, thanks to rejuvenating at Red Mountain. Such a palpable positive vibe hums through the place that many women told me they want to return with their mothers. Their mothers!


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