Life on the edge: Utah

Epic sandstone arches, desert-like landscapes, unearthly geographical formations… the state of Utah is cinematic in its proportions and addictive in its nature.

By Helen Warwick
Published 18 Apr 2012, 19:16 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 08:53 BST

This must be what a lilliputian feels like Hanging off the tip of the canyon, ropes taught and harness squeezed around my waist, I lean back into thin air and Glimpse the vast sandstone precipice towering above me — I feel tiny.

"You're making some pretty amusing noises down there," our guide laughs. I can't help but groan. Despite feeling utterly at the peril of the mighty drop below me, the pressure to keep on moving downwards magnifies with each backwards bounce. My guide for this little adventure at Yankee Doodle canyon, on the outskirts of Zion National Park, had positively pranced his way down in a matter of seconds — in a pair of sandals. But then again, he'd decided to forgo life as we know it to live in a car for the summer, purely for the excitement of waking up in a different spot each morning.

And so I lean back. Slowly and unsteadily I feed the rope through my hands and attempt my descent, feet scrambling against the sandstone until I find a rhythm and — almost elegantly — bound down to the chasm floor below.

How this heart-thumping, physically demanding activity was carried out by a severely dehydrated and starving man with just one functioning arm, I'll never know. I am, of course, talking about Aron Ralston, the carefree canyoneer and all-round adrenalin junkie, who, in 2003, famously cut off his right arm after it became trapped behind a boulder during one of his escapades in south-eastern Utah.

Ralston had been canyoneering — traversing the bottom of a deep and narrow canyon system — on the periphery of Canyonlands National Park. As he descended a precipice in Blue John Canyon, he dislodged a hefty boulder, pinning his right arm against the sandstone wall. His crucial mistake? Before setting off, he'd told friends only that he was heading to Utah — giving his rescuers an eye-watering 84,899sq miles to search for him in.

Thus, five days later, he was still trapped, dehydrated, starving and utterly disorientated, with only one option left to help him out of his prison — cutting off his lower right arm with a blunt penknife. After performing this gruesome self-mutilation, he was then forced to stumble several miles and, incredibly, abseil 65ft before being rescued by helicopter.

So inspirational was his story, it attracted the attention of director Danny Boyle, who in 2010 transformed Ralston's extraordinary tale into 127 Hours, an enthralling yet bloody film, with James Franco in the lead role. If you haven't seen it yet and are wondering how Boyle managed to enthral viewers with Franco glued to a rock for two hours, you'll be pleasantly surprised; its cinematography brings the state's unbridled majesty and wild sense of adventure to life.

And I'm here, artlessly abseiling down canyon walls and confronting my fear of snakes. As we round a corner, while pacing the pathways of the chasm floor, I stop sharply as my guide hisses, "Snake." Squinting at a squat, feeble looking tree, I spot it. A brown-tinged serpent, graciously curled around the arid branch, stares straight back at me, its forked tongue flicking in my direction as if to say, "move along, nothing to see here."

Yes, welcome to the big-sky state of Utah, the realm of rocks, rattlesnakes and religion. It's believed around 60% of Utahns are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a denomination that traces its roots back to the band of Mormon pioneers who settled Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

After stumbling upon its enchanting extremities, Mormon leader Brigham Young was so taken with the location that he declared to his weary followers, "This is the place." Here they prospered, despite the dry, desert-like landscapes, imprinting a culture that continues to thrive and influence local life today.

What's also enduring is its Native American heritage. Long before European settlers arrived, the state was home to a handful of tribes, from the Anasazi who constructed monumental cave dwellings, to the Fremont, who disappeared with little trace in the 15th century. Today, five tribes remain — a living chain stretching back to the 18th century: the Goshute; Paiute; Shoshone; Ute; and the largest single federally recognised tribe, the Navajo, which constitutes its own government body. The Diné, as they call themselves, continue to live by deep-rooted, centuries-old beliefs, including the notion they've passed through three different Worlds before emerging into this one — the Fourth, or Glittering, World — and that an illness can be cured with herbs, prayers, ceremonies, or a visit to a medicine man.

And it's not just the Navajo whose culture is awash with myths, folklore and rumour. Utah is fantasy territory — a realm of barely-trodden canyons and crevices where every unturned rock could lead to a parallel universe and every chasm conceals a passage to an underground world. I grasp this within hours of landing in Salt Lake City — Utah's gateway — while ascending my hotel's elevator, jet-lagged and exhausted after a 12-hour flight from London.

"Miss, you ever heard the legend of Emo's grave?"

"Can't say I have," I reply, glancing up at the middle-aged man in thick-rimmed glasses who reeks of the tobacco that has stained his teeth a turbid brown, and whose bedraggled beard resembles a home for sheltering insects.

"You will," he smiles. And, leaning into me, whispers creepily, "Walk around his grave at Salt Lake City's cemetery three times and his ghost will appear right before your eyes." And with that he got out, leaving me alone in the elevator to ponder his words.

Dismissing him as a drunk, I continue up to my room, where, unable to suppress my curiosity, I type 'Emo's grave' into Google. According to urban legend, locals burned Jacob 'Emo' Moritz after he was exposed as a satanic worshiper. And walking around his grave three times while chanting, "Emo, Emo, Emo," will prompt the face of Jacob Moritz to appear at its foot.

I'm no believer in ghost stories, and yet this weird paranormal folktale makes me more curious to see what else this mysterious state has in store.

Mormons, mighty canyons and mountain goats

I travel next to Arches National Park in eastern Utah. A land of towering sandstone arches that nurtures thousands of unearthly geographical formations, the most famous and recognisable of which is the lone-standing, 65ft-tall Delicate Arch, the main symbol of the state. The hike to this geological icon, just 1.5 miles from the parking area at Wolfe Ranch, is an easy one. Unfortunately, it's also a busy one. And while guides aren't mandatory, I'd recommend using one, if not for their guidance, then for their tales of solitary wanderings and missing hikers.

"I've got it pretty damn perfect," nods Mike Coronella of Deep Desert Expeditions. "There's nothing better than throwing a few things in a truck and camping in the wilderness. I like to go walking out by myself — you never know what you're gonna find."

I'd been chatting to guide and occasional search-and-rescuer Mike for 10 minutes and was already hooked — not just by his soft accent (he greets me with a "howdy") and tales of lone strolls in the red-rock state, but by his lifestyle. It sounded like such an idyllic existence.

"Sometimes I just decide to go away for a few days into the wild — to explore with just the open sky and the sunshine," he murmurs.

I later discover his life wasn't originally mapped out for the great outdoors. Growing up in New Jersey, the bearded trailblazer was all set for Wall Street, until a visit to the domain of Mormons, mighty canyons and mountain goats, made him question his materialistic sensibilities. Within months of returning home, the allure of wide-open spaces and a landscape of innumerable secrets became too much to bear and he returned as a permanent dweller.

I feel it too. Bordered by Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada, this little-populated state seduces visitors with its big and beautiful scenery; the name Utah literally translates as 'people of the mountains' in the Native American Ute language.

Mike's story was to reoccur throughout my Utah road trip; the majority of locals weren't in fact local at all, but visitors who'd been charmed by its geographic grandeur and moved here without a second thought. It's a sort of utopian rock-world that's very easy to get lost in, Mike warns. "You could starve to death, never to be seen again, if you're not careful," he adds. And as a member of the local search and rescue team, he's seen it all.

"It was our search and rescue team who found his severed arm trapped behind the rock. We had to retrieve it for cremation. Can you imagine cremating your arm?" Mike is, of course, talking about Ralston.

Land for the imagination

But 127 Hours wasn't the first time Hollywood had descended on Utah. Monument Valley's sandstone masterpieces had already starred in the John Ford classics Stagecoach and The Searchers, as well as Forrest Gump, Back to the Future III, Easy Rider, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Thelma & Louise.

Drawing closer to the valley, the rusty-red contours boldly loom above the desert floor, and it's hard not to imagine a galloping cowboy silhouetted against the lonely sky.

And this is exactly what awaits me on a tour of the valley; locals dress as cowboys, with checked shirts and chaps, for the tacky tourist shot. I'm greeted by the statuesque Bennet, a local Navajo guide, who despite my best efforts, refuses to look me in the eye — something I later learn is typical of his people. From a quiet hotel, Goulding's Lodge, the Navajo run myriad guided tours of the mighty Monument Valley, taking you beneath the crimson bluffs and to local jewellery stalls to sell their craft.

"You gotta use your imagination in the valley," whispers Bennett. "You can see all sorts of shapes if you look hard enough."

Leaving Navajo territory, we arrive in Torrey —­ the epitome of a US small town, as the burnt orange sun is melting into the horizon. With around 200 inhabitants, I'm expecting hillbillies and cowboys. Instead we stumble upon Cafe Diablo, a slick, buzzing restaurant serving haute cuisine, where I indulge in the novelty rattlesnake fritters, pumpkin seed-encrusted trout and, for the first time in days, several glasses of wine. Liquor laws are pretty strict across Utah (both the Mormons and Navajo are against its consumption) and, judging by the complete absence of motel bars, the authorities are clearly not shy about enforcing them.

After leaving the restaurant, I chat to the locals. Pat — originally from New York, jokes,  "if you want to bury a body, you won't have any trouble round here."

"The 1970s serial killer Ted Bundy supposedly buried his bodies all across Utah." I shiver. "There's an urban legend his initials have been scratched into trees across the county," she adds.

The red wine has flushed my cheeks but Bundy's story chills me.

Lying in my motel that night, I've never felt so terrified. Despite bolting the door and hiding beneath the bedsheets, I can't get Pat's words out of my head: "Sometimes Bundy would simply break into motels and dwellings to bludgeon victims to death…" When I finally drop off, it's presumably after exhausting my imagination.

Utah, I've realised, is a land for the imagination. And if you don't take my word for it, take Ralston's, as he stood looking out across Canyonlands: "Like looking through a telescope into the Milky Way and wondering if we're alone in the universe, it made me realise with the glaring clarity of desert light how scarce and delicate life is, how insignificant we are when compared with the forces of nature and the dimensions of space."

I couldn't agree more.

Great outdoors

Awash with giant geographic formations and blessed with incredible scenery, Utah is the adventure capital of the USA. Here's our pick of what to do and where…

Mountain biking
From off-road descents to mellow trails, Utah has some serious adrenalin-pumping activity on two wheels. Old Ephraim's Grave Trail in the north is a popular 20-mile loop, rolling through the northern Wasatch Range hinterlands, while a ride along the Bear Lake Loop Bicycle Trail brings stunning views of the lake's brilliant blue waters to the forefront. But it's south-west Utah that's laced with some of the state's most rewarding rides, from the winding road of Highway 14 through pine and aspen forests to the paths through Bryce Canyon National Park.

Scaling the inner body of a desolate canyon will bring you closer to Utah's incredible landscape and geology, whether taking a simple stroll through sweeping slickrock or harnessing yourself up for an abseil down to the water-filled chasm floor. With its huge, sweeping walls and deep canyons, Zion National Park has myriad developed trails for guided trips, while multi-day tours make up the lion's share of exploration around the canyons of the Escalante.

Rock climbing
If you've a head for heights then Utah is the place to strap yourself in and scale sheer rock faces. Zion National Park's big walls are world-renowned, and while beginners can have a go, it attracts many pro climbers, like Austrian-based British climber Dougal Tavener (pictured on page 120) who descended in to Zion for its splitter cracks (rock face cracks, just wide enough to fit climbers' hands).

Whitewater rafting
Utah's Green and Colorado Rivers offer all levels of rafting, and there are plenty of professional outfitters able to take guests, from remote gulleys and gorges in Canyonlands National Park to the ominous-sounding rapids of the Lodore Canyon such as Disaster Falls and Hell's Half Mile.

Hiking is your best bet if you want to revel in Utah's scenery at your own pace. Many key sites, like Delicate Arch and Bryce Canyon, have easily navigable paths that don't need a guide, but for serious backpacking trips into the wilderness, never step foot into trail territory without an experienced outfitter — the thought of Ralston should be enough to put you off.


Getting there
Delta flies to Salt Lake City from Heathrow via New York, Atlanta, Boston or Detroit. British Airways flies to Salt Lake City via Dallas or Chicago, as does American Airlines. For access to south-west Utah, fly to Las Vegas from Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic.

Average flight time: 13h35m.

Getting around
Hiring a car is essential as planes, trains and buses don't cover many areas. Mountain biking and rafting are an option.

When to go
Spring and autumn are ideas as summers are often too hot and the national parks are inundated with visitors. Ski resorts are busiest over Christmas. Winters are often cold with snow, except in the south-west. Head here for the annular solar eclipse on 20 May.

Need to know
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.57.
Time difference: GMT -7.
International dial code: 00 1.

How to do it
TrekAmerica offers the 10-day Canyon Adventure trip, taking in Zion, Bryce and Arches National Parks and Monument Valley from £959, including accommodation, camping equipment, tour leader, and transport but excluding flights.

More info
The Rough Guide to Southwest USA. RRP: £14.99.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. RRP: £10.99.
Paragon Adventures: canyoning guide, in south-west Utah.
Deep Desert Expeditions

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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