Edward Abbey, protoenvironmentalist, writer, and onetime Arches National Park ranger, put it best: "This is the most beautiful place on Earth." Feel free to disagree, but not before venturing into canyon country yourself. This month, while mountains to the north and east get their first shot of fresh powder, daytime temps in southeastern Utah hover in the 60s. So as area skiers and snowboarders head for the hills, the desert's slickrock routes, hidden arches, and luxe lodges are yours for the taking. Desert solitaire? Don't mind if we do.
Day 1: Yes, the biking around Moab is phenomenal. But whizzing by sinewy slots and hefty arches on two wheels may not be the best way to see canyon country for the first time. For a more intimate introduction, tour Arches National Park's Lomatium Canyon on foot with Moab-based Desert Highlights. The eight-hour trip combines chimney climbing, technical scrambling, and a hundred-foot rappel, with first-rate instruction to put you deep inside the slots and high atop a sweeping mesa. After rocking out, bed down at the secluded Sorrel River Ranch, where rooms sit a mere ten feet from the banks of the Colorado River.
Day 2: Now it's time to pedal. Come November, most bike shuttle services stop running, which means your climb from Moab to the Slickrock Trail just got a little longer. To save a mile on pavement, turn onto Hell's Revenge Trail just beyond the Sand Flats Recreation Area fee booth. The 12-mile (19-kilometer) out-and-back intersects with Slickrock after three miles. Or, skip the long trails and head 18 miles (29 kilometer) north of town to the freeride-friendly Bartlett Wash Trail. The path itself is only about four miles (six kilometers) long, but the surrounding slickrock moonscape offers a week's worth of jumps and drops. After the ride, refuel on the no-frills fare at Moab Diner on Main Street (the Kokopelli chicken dinner is a sure bet) and then repair to your riverside room.
Day 3: Stark, remote Capitol Reef National Park is the unsung gem of Utah's impressive parks system. To see it at its best, hike the 9.6-mile (15-kilometer) Upper Muley Twist Canyon loop. The canyon and trail cut directly down the spine of the Waterpocket Fold, a hundred-mile-long (161-kilometer) depression punctuated by towering, polished domes (hence "Capitol") and jagged, sandstone fins (hence "Reef"). There are no official markings; just leave your car at the Strike Valley Overlook parking area and follow the wash north. Book a room at the intimate Red River Ranch near Torrey, where private land abuts the Fremont River and the lodge's restaurant serves up simple, tasty trout.
Day 4: Desert goblins aren't as wily as their woodland counterparts. It can take millennia for them to peak up from the desert floor. En route to Grand Junction, Colorado, visit the thousands of sandstone figurines at Goblin Valley State Park, where wind and rain have converted a wasteland into a playground. Still haven't gotten your red rock fill? Hike the nearby, undertraveled Little Wildhorse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell—consider it Utah's version of playing the slots.
Do: Desert Highlights ($130 for a Lomatium Canyon day trip; www.deserthighlights.com); Rim Cyclery ($38 for a day-long bike rental; www.rimcyclery.com); Capitol Reef National Park (www.nps.gov/care)
Goblin Valley State Park (www.stateparks.utah.gov)
Eat: Moab Diner (www.moab-utah.com/diner)
Sleep: Sorrel River Ranch ($269 for a king, river-view room; www.sorrelriver.com); Red River Ranch ($145; www.rroutfitters.com)
Ryan Shupe & the Rubber Band are the biggest thing to happen to the Utah music scene since, well, the Osmonds. The country-pop act's latest album, Dream Big, is their first on a major label (Capitol Nashville Records) and showcases their catchy hooks and bluegrass-influenced musicianship. Here's what they cue up on their iPods for a tour of canyon country.
1. Willie Nelson "On the Road Again"
No way you could have seen this one coming.
2. John Denver "Country Roads"
Is there a theme developing?
3. U2 "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
Shupe says: "I inevitably sing 'I have climbed highest mountains' when I'm climbing highest mountains."
4. Steve Miller Band "Fly Like an Eagle"
Yes, there are eagles in the area.
5. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers "Learning to Fly"
That's right, eagles.
6. Dire Straits "Brothers in Arms"
Never thought Dire Straits were very profound? Listen again, in a canyon.
7. Gillian Welch "Rock of Ages"
Bluegrass for the geologically inclined.
8. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones "Big Country"
Banjo player Craig Miner says: "This song captures the grandeur of the canyonlands." He's right.
Map by Baker Vail
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