The Flying J service station at Eagles Landing has got to be my favourite petrol station in the entire state of Utah.
They sell almond and maple syrup Snickers; they've got the cleanest restroom south of Salt Lake City... and in a red aluminium stand beside the Mexican lunch counter, they've got complimentary copies of Truck Paper - the "go-to guide if you're in the market for a truck".
I'm not currently in that market. But if I was, and I was after a 15-ton Mack Granite standard cab, with 200,000 miles on the clock (one careful lady owner/full service history/ a bargain at $35,000), this would be the magazine for me. I don't even own a CB radio, so I don't know why I'm leafing through Truck Paper, other than luxuriating in the sheer Americana of it all.
I take a bite of my ridiculously sweet (but very moreish) Snickers and look out the service station window... at a zoo, right across the forecourt. It's a first for me. Before this day I'd never seen a petrol station with its own menagerie. I see sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, alpacas (or maybe they're llamas, I don't really know the difference). A zebra wanders behind a shed as some flashy peacocks' cries shatter the frozen desert silence.
In my mind's ear, someone just twanged a mouth harp.
Welcome to Utah.
The 45th state to join the union and the 13th largest by size, Utah has in recent years been scooping up visitors to the United States - though not all of them are here to chew the fat at the Flying J truck stop.
What they're here for is to feel the raw power of nature - a power that is peeled back and revealed by the red rock canyons, the craggy limestone mountains, the gurgling streams and the rock-cutting rivers, which all come together to present to us slack-jawed city folk some of the most awesomely majestic natural wonders of this world.
And then there's also the incredible skiing, the down-home friendliness and the outright quirkiness and enforced craftiness of being in a state that still comes down hard on the sale of alcohol (and more about that later).
But let's rewind a little bit, to get our bearings.
We flew in to Salt Lake City, the surprisingly low-rise state capital, and drove straight out again. OK, we could have checked out the Tabernacle Choir or piddled around the edge of the Great Salt Lake - but we didn't. That wasn't what we were here for. We were here to see the natural elevated side of Utah.
So we hired the ski gear at Ski N See and pulled on to interstate I-80 to take us up into the Wasatch Range - aiming for Park City and the ski slopes, just 45 minutes away.
I'd never skied in America before. In fact, I mused to myself, I'd never skied in English. I've skied in French, Italian, German, even Czech - but never English. This could be fun. Then again, I wouldn't be able to hide my skiing ineptitude behind a language barrier...
My fears were ungrounded. This was fantastic. The first thing that hits you about the Utah slopes is the quality of the snow. It's like nothing on earth. It's light, fluffy snow. You could almost say dry. It's certainly not the wet sticky stuff that we get in Europe. I found myself nodding at Utah's ad slogan: the greatest snow on Earth.
The next thing that you notice about skiing in Utah is that, compared to Europe, the crowds have all gone somewhere else. And for a 'make-it-up-as-you-go-along' skier like myself, this is wunderbar. The slopes were tree-lined and wide, and - a new experience for me - there was powder everywhere.
You'd best describe the joy of transitioning from a groomed slope on to powder as being sort of like driving on a pot-holed road with speed bumps, and then turning on to smooth tarmac with all the red lights gone green.
The rattle of the compressed snow gives way to the silent hiss of ski over slope. If I hadn't been skiing at whatever speed I was doing, I'd have closed my eyes to hear the silence better.
I told myself that the snow is like this because Utah is basically squeezed between a desert and the Rocky Mountains. That might even be true, but whatever the reason, this is the greatest snow I've ever skied on. Bar none.
Park City itself is a beautiful little western town. You may have seen pictures of it. It's where the Sundance Film Festival takes place every January - a week that sees the town transformed from ski-cute to high-rolling Hollywood swank. Apparently the Versaces of this world rent out the shopfronts for a couple of weeks, so the local drapers suddenly switches into a Cartier Jewellers or the like.
And we were told that during the festival, the pistes are empty. To quote one local in a cowboy hat: "Quentin don't ski."
One endearing thing about Park City is that it's got the world's only ski-in, ski-out distillery - High West Saloon and Distillery. I asked a barman there to explain Utah's drink laws - and while he spent 30 minutes explaining all the rules, he might have been explaining quantum theory for all the attention I paid. Like I said, Utah's relationship with the pure drop is many-storied. Basically, persist and you'll get a drink.
Anyway, after a great morning skiing at Park City, and a classic burger at Legends Bar and Grill, we set off for the US Olympic bobsled track.
Let me repeat that. We set off for the US Olympic bobsled track. And we weren't going as mere spectators: oh yes, we were going for it.
Only a 20-minute drive from Park City (just past the shopping outlet village, where there's a Macy's and the rest of the usual retail suspects) we got to the US training centre. One quick nervy orientation session and several insurance waivers later, we were ready. Ish.
This is how it works: three victims... sorry, three novices cram themselves into a long metal tube at the top of a wildly sloping, maniacally curved track, and hurl themselves down the mountain at speeds approaching insane. It might all sound a bit flimsy, until I point out that the bobsled is driven by someone who has done this before.
Did we scream? Yes we did. And laughed a lot too. Were we shaken about like big shaky rag dolls? Yes we were - up, down, left, and right. And very rapidly too. Would we do it again? Drop of a hat.
The next valley south from the Park City Mountain Resort is Deer Valley - where the tree-lined slopes were wider and even more fun than Park City. We lunched at Goldener Hirsch - a nod towards European Alpine classics, with a twist of America to spice things up.
While skiing Deer Valley we decamped to the town of Midway (best way to avoid the high on-mountain prices), and stayed in the Homestead Resort, an estate of houses and apartments built around a natural hot spring that bubbles up inside a 30m high crater, and yes, you can swim in it. If you've got a PADI licence you can even scuba dive in it.
From Deer Valley we motored southwest through Provo Canyon, which I mention because, while it's not one of Utah's big-ticket attractions, the 28-mile drive west through the Wasatch Range was jaw-dropping. It's a jagged limestone valley on the western side of the Rocky Mountains that hints at the geological forces that went into sculpting this most lovely of US states.
Once clear of the canyon it was all ahead south. Past my favourite Flying J truck stop, past the orchard country and low rolling hills of what geologists call the Colorado Plateau.
Here the snow was broken up by muted pale green sage brush and yellow-tinted rabbit grass, with the arresting dark green of the Utah junipers being the only forceful colour popping out of the snow... until we enter a different world.
The Red Canyon is the first sign that there's something special ahead. Honeyed ochre cliffs jut out of the white snow and slam into the bluebird sky. And though they're red as morning-after eyes, it's oxidised iron that gives them their fiery colour. They're limestone, not sandstone.
I wonder if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid knew this when they used the canyon to hide out in, back in the late 1800s? They certainly did know that when the rain falls on the crumbled limestone it goes rock hard - hard enough that your horse leaves no footprints for Deputy Dawg and his posse to follow.
In Red Canyon we see our first hoodoo - that's the name given to the tall skinny shafts of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements. But 10 miles beyond Red Canyon we hit our target: Bryce National Park.
Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon. It's an amphitheatre filled with red rock hoodoos - and we hiked down into the eroded limestone floor, feeling like we were descending into a dream. With night drawing near, we decided to return to see the sunrise.
So 6.30am and we're huddling in the hotel car park. The weather forecaster said it'd be -10°C but feel like -15°C. Can they really tell the difference? But when we stood on the rim of the amphitheatre where the wind blew snowdust off the ponderosa pines, -15°C seemed like optimism. This was cold.
Teetering on the edge of hypothermia, I found myself thinking that if hell is really hot, it means heaven is freezing. Which would make purgatory the go-to spot in the afterlife... this is how random thoughts go in Utah, baby!
I turned to face the sun, now rushing towards us as the Earth rotated through its orbital dance. Rays of light shot up into the clouds, painting them red and pink and purple. the air shook off its blackness and put on that bright blue... and then some *&7!* pulled out his mobile phone and on a tinny little speaker played Here Comes the Sun.
I could have strangled that George Harrison.
We'd had our moment, so it was back into the truck for three hours. And then we came to Zion. Here can I say that I've had a long life and done lots of weird and wonderful sh*t, but I think nothing beats Zion. And the jewel of Zion National Park is the Narrows.
This is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, carved out by the Virgin River. The gorge has walls over 300m high and in places the river is just 10m wide, but it wasn't in flood. Wearing dry suits with neoprene boots we waded through the river and clambered over boulders deposited there thousands of years ago. Every step was a revelation, every rock face a message in time, every waterfall, every turn in the river ... hiking the narrows could possibly be the most worthwhile thing I've done. Ever.
Best for eating...
The Goldener Hirsch Inn in Deer Valley is a great place to eat, with fondues jostling for space on the table beside local venison, trout, schnitzel - and an elk tenderloin which itself is worth the 5,000 mile trip. It just got voted best US boutique ski hotel. Nice one, folks!
Best for little ones...
The Ice Castles in Midway are sort of kitsch. Very sort of kitsch. But if you've little ones who love Frozen, you're going. No question. Great community spirit in that town too. Good peeps, y'know?
To hike the Narrows in Zion, rent your gear rental and guided tours from Zion Adventure Co (zionadventures.com).
Full dry-suit rental (including Gore-Tex dry suit, canyon shoes, neoprene socks and hiking pole) is only $55. And it’s the best damn value in the entire USA.
There’s a $35 entry fee per vehicle into the National Parks, valid for seven days (if you plan to visit more than one National Park it may be better to buy an annual ‘America the Beautiful’ National Parks pass for $80.
Bryce Canyon snow shoe hiking tour with Bryce Valley Tours (brycevalleytours.com). Private half day tours from $350 for a group of four.
15-mile Zion panoramic helicopter flight with Zion Helicopters from $70 per person.
Skiing equipment rental with Ski N See available from $22 per day (skinsee.com) and we hired it in Salt Lake City but you can drop it back to an of their stores in Park City Mountain (parkcitymountain.com) or Deer Valley Resort (deervalley.com). And buy your lift passes in advance to get the best rate.
The Winter Bobsled experience at the Utah Olympic Park costs $195 per person: utaholympiclegacy.org.
In Park City we stayed at Hyatt Place Park City which costs from €103.40 per room per night for a king bed room with sofabed; In Midway the Homestead Resort costs €89.70 per room per night for a traditional king room. The nearby Zermatt Adventure Resort & Spa has rooms from €117 a night during ski season plus a complimentary ski shuttle to Deer Valley or Park City
The Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel charges £154.52/€186.10 per room per night for a king or twin queen room; while in Zion National Park Springhill Suites in Springdale has suites available in January from €98 a night
Servings are BIG in Utah and you’ll see many locals asking for doggy bags to bring home uneaten portions of their meals. Tough to do when you’re hoteling it, so remember to eat up! That’ll be no problem at the High West Saloon and Distillery in Park City and at Legends Bar and Grill at the foot of the slopes.
In Midway, the Midway Mercantile serves delicious food with a Californian twist and a dash of personality.
When in Deer Valley, treat yourself to lunch at Goldener Hirsch. You won’t regret it. And finally, while we were driving to Las Vegas for our flight home we were lucky enough to stop in to Wood.Ash.Rye at The Advenire Hotel in the town of St George. An inspired choice.
Delta has extended their winter flying and now operates nonstop from London Heathrow to Salt Lake City daily year-round. Return fares start at £465/€560 inc taxes. delta.com
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Las Vegas to London Heathrow, the easiest gateway for southern Utah (virginatlantic.com).
Platinum Travel is offering a seven-night fly/drive winter itinerary to Utah from €1789 per person, including return flights (into Salt Lake City and out of Las Vegas), car rental and accommodation (based on two sharing). Visit: www.platinumtravel.ie / or call (01) 8535000
For more information on the state of Utah, go to visitutah.com.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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