Beyond the 'Mighty 5': finding adventure in northern Utah

author photo
Jacqui Agate
12/14/2020

Splash. Chocolatey water surges up and over the windshield of our ATV. My guide, Dallin, peers at me through mud-splattered sunglasses. When he sees I’m laughing, he thrusts down the pedal and hurtles towards the next puddle. Gravel grinds beneath the wheels, and water crashes into the vehicle once more.

We’ve been racing through Wasatch Mountain State Park for about thirty minutes. Snow-glazed peaks rise from the valley below, flickering in and out of view as we snake between fir and spruce trees. As the trees dissolve, a sheer drop makes itself known. I dig my muddied fingernails further into my seat.

“Don’t worry – I’ve never turned one of these things over…” Dallin assures me, taking his eyes off the dirt track once more. I nod, appeased, and go back to drinking in the view.

This place, with its greener-than-green hills and fir-tree-coated mountains, appears almost Alpine at first glance. But a whirl of rust-coloured dust reminds me I’m in Utah.

Here, in Heber Valley, northern Utah, every turn defies my preconceptions of the state: as a place of only red rocks and ruggedness. Here, so the locals say, ‘Swiss meets West’. But despite the area’s crisp beauty, an hour has passed and we’ve yet to see another soul.

Tourists tend to rocket through this swathe of the state – or forget it altogether – heading north instead to Yellowstone, or south to Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ national parks. And while large chunks of northern Utah remain under the radar, visitor numbers down south are taking a toll.

National Parks countrywide are sighing under the weight of ever more visitors – and Utah is no exception.

According to the National Park Service’s Jim Ireland, recreational visits to Utah’s 13 National Park units (including the ‘Mighty 5’: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion and Capitol Reef) increased by more than 67 percent between 2013 and 2017.

Zion logged a record 4,491,125 visitors in 2017, making it the third most visited national park in the United States that year.

While large chunks of northern Utah remain under the radar, visitor numbers down south are taking a toll.

The reason for this, Ireland tells me later, is twofold. It’s to do with tourists’ fascination with the southwest, and the marketing surrounding the ‘Mighty 5’ – but also the fact that, population-wise, Utah is a fast-growing state. Locals residents, as well as tourists, spend ample time in these parks.

Utah

“Noise, dust, less visible wildlife, lines, crowds – collectively it degrades the very reason most people come to parks in the first place,” Ireland laments – but it’s something the organisation is working hard to manage.

“Zion, Arches and other Utah parks are in middle of significant planning efforts to address congestion and crowding,” he says. Some sort of “reservation or timed entry system” is one consideration – though this is not set in stone.

“We need people to visit, love and value these places if they are to continue to exist,” explains Ireland. Yet he concedes, too, that “spreading people out to other destinations would help”.

“Here in Utah,” he continues, “there are lots of beautiful but lesser-known areas worth visiting.”

The wild reaches of Wasatch Mountain State Park come to mind. Now beating our way back down the vertiginous path we’d been rising, Dallin and I raise a hand to a pair of quad bikers speeding the other way – they’re the first people we’ve seen during our route.

I squint into the rear-view mirror. The pair speed round a hairpin bend, the grumble of their bikes vanishing with them. As quickly as they arrived, they are gone, and the park is ours once more.

There's plenty more of northern Utah to discover. Here are five ways to explore this under-the-radar adventure playground.

1. Make a splash on Bear Lake

It's hard to spot where the lake ends and the blue sky begins at this watery state park, on the border with Idaho. The calm waters of Bear Lake lend themselves perfectly to kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding.

Bear Lake © Jacqui Agate

2. Test your mettle on a ride around Park City

Some 450 miles of mountain bike trails lace the Park City area – and they're recognised as some of the best in the world. Courses range from flatter paths with smooth ground, to more rugged routes with challenging switchbacks and slopes. The single-track Flying Dog loop is particularly popular with intermediate bikers.

Cyclist in Park City © Jacqui Agate

3. Hike the Adams Canyon Trail

The showpiece at the end of this trail, overlooking Layton in Davis County, is worth the effort. Trudge through woodland, scramble over rocks and climb steep dirt tracks to reach thundering Adams Canyon Waterfall, rushing over sand-coloured stone.

The entire 'out-and-back' route is 3.5 miles long and rated medium to moderate. Especially if you're trekking in summer, bring plenty of water and don't skimp on the sunscreen.

Adams Canyon Trail © Jacqui Agate

4. Hold your nerve at Utah Olympic Park

Utah hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and the Olympic Park remains a top attraction. If you've a head for heights, tackle one of the lofty rope courses, or brave the Drop Tower: a 65-foot platform, reached by zipline and exited only by walking straight off the edge.

If you'd prefer to stay on the ground, fear not: the site is home to two museums, the Alf Engen Ski Museum and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum. Each house fascinating sporting displays related to the 2002 games and beyond.

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5. Join a 'star party' on Antelope Island State Park

Antelope Island was designated a 'Dark Sky' park in 2017, and the regular star-gazing 'parties' here are the perfect way to explore the cosmos. Keep an eye on the state parks website, which shares details of star-spotting events.

The annual 'Antelope by Moonlight Bike Ride' happens each summer and is another way to get to grips with the park after dark.

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