Exploring Utah’s Wilderness
Words by Christine Van Dyk
The Temple of Sinawava is the spot where the north fork of the Virgin River spills down from the desert mountains. Hikers begin an ascent using walking sticks to brace themselves against rushing water that falls from sandstone cliffs high enough to block the sun. At its tightest point, the riverbed squeezes into slot canyons you can almost touch with outstretched arms.
It’s called The Narrows, perhaps the most iconic hike in Zion National Park. As has most of Utah’s “Mighty Five,” it has grown in popularity as pandemic fears coax travelers outdoors and TikTok videos give rise to a younger audience for America’s National Parks.
Dani Seabolt is a fitness worker who fell in love with America’s parks while visiting the Grand Canyon as a kid. It was the first item on a bucket list that includes all 63. According to the numbers of millennials planning to visit a National Park this year, she’s not alone. A survey by the National Recreation and Park Association reveals 65 percent of millennials and Gen Z-ers think it’s essential to head outdoors to maintain mental and physical health.
“People my age are dealing with depression and anxiety,” Dani says, “but when I’m in nature there’s nothing to stress over, no things to get done, and no one to please. It’s just . . . quiet.”
This spring Dani is headed west. Lured by jaw-dropping scenery and the chance to escape thepressures of everyday life, she’ll be exploring the Mighty Five before crowds arrive in summer.
“Instead of defining my happiness by work, success, or the opinions on social media,” Dani says, “I choose to play in the great outdoors.”
As she prepares for the journey, Hiking Guide Mel Nader of Dreamland Safari Tours offers this advice about Utah’s wilderness, staying safe, and getting off the beaten path: “Get out. You can see Utah’s wonder from behind the steering wheel of a car, but why would you?
Instead, take a hike among the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon or into the Pioneer Register of Capitol Reef, where settler’s names from the 1800s are carved into rock. The efficient route lets you check off points of interest but doesn’t let you experience the place,” Mel says. “People have this urgency to see things rather than understand them. Park the car. Take a walk. Read the signs. You’ll have a better appreciation for what’s out there.”
Learn the History
“The southwest is unlike anywhere else,” Mel says. “Within 10 to 15 miles you can find sea fossils and dinosaur tracks. It’s the story of the world in layers of rock. Talk to the guides. Read up on the area."
People assume a National Park is safe, but a preserved environment is a wild environment. Flash floods, snowstorms, and rock slides are not uncommon, so be prepared.
- Drink Up — Begin hydrating three days prior to arrival and guzzle throughout your hikes.
- Carry Extra Fuel — Take along an extra 1,000 calories and three liters of water in case of emergency. After all, a sprained ankle could add several hours to your journey.
- Check the Weather — Major elevation changes mean you can enter an entirely different weather system in a single hike.
- Layer Up — Summer desert temps dip into the 50s and soar to the 90s, so layers are essential.
- Expect Rain — July and August are monsoon season. Watch out for snap thunderstorms, carry a rain jacket, and have plastic baggies along to protect electronics.
- Invest in Good Shoes — Waterproof, broken-in hiking boots help navigate unstable terrain and wet riverbeds.
- Sun Protection – A hat, sunscreen, and long-sleeve dry-fit shirt protect you from the rays.
Know Your Limits
There are plenty of multi-day backpacking treks, but just as many short hikes for those of all ages and abilities. Just remember to assess your limits based on exertion, not miles hiked.
Off the Beaten Path or Not — If you want an accessible, curated experience, Mel recommends the Mighty Five with must-see places such as Delicatie Arch and Island in the Sky. But if you’re willing to work a bit more (travel on dirt roads, use offline maps, and forgo cell service in spots), there’s wonder to discover a bit farther afield. Explore places such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Dead Horse Point State Park, or Spooky Gulch. National monuments and state parks offer just as many awe-inspiring experiences.
Establish Base Camp — While the Mighty Five can be seen in a single trip, it feels rushed.
Instead, choose an eastern or western itinerary. Sights to the east are clustered around Kanab, Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, and even the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Western parks such as Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches are best seen from Moab, Utah.
“Limit your trip to two or three parks,” Mel says. “Cramming in too many experiences is like watching the highlight reel and thinking you’ve seen the movie.”
So, whether Dani, and millennials like her, visit Mesa Arch or Fairyland Loop Trail, the Fiery Furnace or The Narrows, Utah is the place they’ll want to escape to again and again.