Escape the West Coast With This Utah Road Trip

Winston Ross
·7 mins read
Courtesy Winston Ross
Courtesy Winston Ross

When I loaded up a mustard-colored Kia Seltos in June with a cooler, a suitcase, a kayak, and a mountain bike and struck out of Portland for the rust-colored rockscapes of Utah, it felt a little reckless.

Oregon had begun to get a weak grip on the coronavirus, but too many of the reddest Utahns were proudly rebuffing epidemiologists' urgent pleas to stay 6 feet away from one another and wear masks. Moab, a city of 5,000-ish people that draws 3 million visitors annually to its uncanny collection of rock arches and flowy trail systems, was actively discouraging anyone from coming to town. The region’s tiny health care offerings would be quickly overwhelmed by a tourist-driven spike in COVID-19 cases.

But I was quarantine-cooped and desperate for a scene change and went anyway, hewing as close as possible to parts of the state where I could quickly retreat to Salt Lake’s robust hospital network if I caught the Bug. And now, after nearly two weeks of sweltering in the stagnant soup of PM 2.5 from the wildfires that have gobbled up what feels like half of the Cascade Range’s towering forests, I’m again eyeing the Beehive State as refuge.

The journey to blue skies depends of course on where it starts, but all roads ultimately lead to Salt Lake City and the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Salt Lake, a fine vantage point to explore a downtown whose biggest strengths are a series of excellent restaurants, all within walking distance: pork belly lettuce wraps and short rib polenta poutine at Whiskey Street; charred beets and togarashi on the artsy back patio of Eva; snowball shrimp and shaken steak cubes at the Vietnamese/Chinese fusion joint Pleiku.

If it makes the most sense to stay closest to big hospitals, keep eating your way through Salt Lake City and pick up a Connect Pass, which affords access to museums, parks and gardens around the city. If southwest spires are calling, pack your belongings, change into hiking or biking clothes and work in a jaunt on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which rings the city via the foothills of the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges cradling the valley, on your way out.

For higher elevations, bluer skies and literally greener pastures, the bougie outdoor mecca that is Park City is less than an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake, where just off of the main drag into the cutesy downtown is a mid-century modern homage: the Park City Peaks Hotel, which offers direct links to area trails.

Park City is best known for its epic ski scene (and the Sundance Film Festival,) but in balmier months there’s plenty to do, from 450 miles of mountain biking on an impeccably built trail system to post-adventure bites at fine restaurants like the family-owned Silver Star Cafe and it’s “roots cuisine”: blackened shrimp and polenta, organic half-chicken with a persimmon-chili glaze, pan-seared Scottish salmon. There’s also the High West Distillery, where the finest Sazerac in the Wasatch range pairs nicely with a charcuterie and cheese board.

It makes all kinds of sense to do Utah for its famed series of national parks and monuments: Zion, Canyonlands, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to name a few. But national parks can be crowded and prone to closure, and there is much to Utah that lies off of well worn paths. From Park City, then, slide down the eastern side of the Wasatch on State Highway 189, past Utah Lake, through Provo and Spanish Fork and then on to the Goblin Valley, the San Rafael Swell, and Hanksville, all nice jumping off points for an array of uncrowded adventures.

The Valley of Goblins features a nice network of established trails from one overlook to the next, in a maze of sandstone formations. But it’s also perfectly acceptable to wander off trail to check out the hoodoos, mushrooms and goblins scattered throughout the area. A 21-mile-long graded dirt road ferries bikers to a 360-degree view of Capitol Reef, Thousand Lake Mountain, Boulder Top, Factory Butte and the Henry Mountains.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Winston Ross</div>
Courtesy Winston Ross

You might not find a high-degree of pandemic respect in Hanksville but there’s at least one nice place to crash: Duke’s Slickrock, with tent sites, fully furnished cabins and a restaurant that somehow excels both at vegetarian fare and baby back ribs.

From Hanksville it’s about an hour to the Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch’s old stomping grounds: the Green River, where various whitewater guides offer multiday trips through the wild Gray Canyons. For more of a Tarzan vibe, travelers can track down the excellent and patient guides of Get in the Wild, for canyoneering. (I am terrified of heights and was foolish enough not to have googled what canyoneering actually is until after I went canyoneering, so I had to beg my way out of the adventure that included a 40-foot rappel down a rock face in favor of one with shorter drops. But it was still a blast.)

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Winston Ross</div>
Courtesy Winston Ross

Up next is a quick drive west to Torrey, a jumping off point for Capitol Reef National Park. The Broken Spur Hotel and Steakhouse is a fine alternative to park lodging if that’s full, especially if you’re a meat and fish eater.

From Torrey it’s about a three-hour drive to St. George and if you’re lucky, The Advenire, a grand boutique hotel with 60 spacious rooms and a rooftop space with sweeping views of surrounding red rocks, and an on-site restaurant, Wood. Ash. Rye. There’s enough to do around here to warrant at least a week in this charming little burg, from a stroll around downtown to a plethora of adventure options all within an hour’s drive.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Winston Ross</div>
Courtesy Winston Ross

For mountain biking, Bearclaw Poppy is a meticulously built trail system within 15 minutes of the hotel. For hikes and strolls, A half hour from the Advenire lies Snow Canyon State Park, whose folded sandstone layers make for a fun scramble at the end of a hot day and a swell place to camp, if there are spots available.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Kurt Windisch</div>
Courtesy Kurt Windisch

Stick around awhile, or head back the way you came. On that note: From San Francisco, it’s a largely uninteresting blast through Reno and Battle Mountain en route to Salt Lake. From Los Angeles, you’d effectively take the reverse of my road trip, which began in Portland, because the southernmost stops on the journey will show up first on the map. From Portland, the first stop is either Bend or Boise, depending on what level of road warrior you are. If a blast down the interstate feels more prudent, you’ll stop in Boise.

The prettier and slightly longer route is through Bend, where two idyllic hotel options await: the crowd favorite Old St. Francis School Hotel, where like many of the hotels in the Portland-based chain McMenamins there are surprising little meticulously restored touches around every corner, and where unlike many of the hotels in the chain there’s a turquoise-tiled soaking pool. For a swankier but not snootier choice, opt for The Oxford, which rises gallantly from the heart of downtown and whose rooms and suites are spacious and well-appointed, with enticing views of the Three Sisters mountains to the west. If proximity to the great outdoors is what lured you to Bend, check out LOGE Bend, which bills itself as the city’s closest property to Mt. Bachelor, a 15-minute bike ride to breweries downtown or a few moments on singletrack to one of the region’s best mountain bike networks, Phil’s Trail. The hiply designed rooms include hammocks and bike racks, and the communal space features outdoor kitchens, Traeger pellet grills, bike tuning stations and ski lockers.

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