There can be few better places on the planet to climb than the national parks of Utah. Just remember to bring your penknife with you
DOUGAL Tavener stretches high above his head, searching for a crack in the towering red sandstone rock face. We’re in south-west Utah, in the renowned rock climbers’ playground that is Zion national park. It is a sunny, blue-sky October afternoon and a perfect day to climb. Our cliff-face position gives us views of steep red rocks, monoliths and deep canyons as far as the eye can see.
Tavener, originally from Wales, belongs to a group of the world’s top rock climbers and mountaineers. He is a world-class professional who can be found regularly gracing the pages of international climbing magazines, and favours Utah’s parks for the challenging and exciting climbs. Places such as Zion, which offer big-wall climbing up to 1,000 metres, and Moab, in eastern Utah, are among his favourites.
Our journey through the state’s national parks starts in the south, at Zion, which means ‘promised land’. It is Utah’s oldest and most-visited natural attraction, covering nearly 150,000 acres. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit as summers can get very hot and dry, while winters are cold.
Tavener speaks in a voice that is quiet and cool. “I’d heard lots of good things about climbing in Utah, so I came here to try it for myself. The crack-climbing – climbing fissures that go all the way up the wall – is outstanding, but you need to be experienced. Utah is the only place in the world where you can find this type of climbing,” he says.
Zion is not only about climbing. There are stunning hiking trails, cycling, horse riding and canyoning (known as canyoneering in the US) for all ages. There’s also a Junior Ranger Explorer programme for children, where they learn about the park, join in activities and go on guided hikes.
We try our hand at canyoning, dressed up like seals in wetsuits with climbing gear on top. It’s fun sliding down rock chutes and ending up in deep-water pools, and we down-climb narrow, twisted, super-tight slots, abseil down walls and walk through a labyrinth of 50m-high canyons barely a metre wide.
Zion offers plenty of easy walking routes that include Weeping Rock and the Grotto trails, while more adventurous trekkers should take a hike to Angel Landing, a beautiful yet strenuous, five-mile steep, narrow hike with wonderful views from the top.
Our route takes us north to Bryce Canyon national park, where we walk at an easy pace along the Queen’s Garden Loop and take in the spectacular sight of multicoloured hoodoos and tall, chimney-like towers made of rock that protrude from the ground. Nowhere in the world are they more abundant, and when the sun hits them they glow.
Next we head north, along the scenic Byway 12, a 120-mile journey through some of the most diverse, remote and ruggedly beautiful landscape in the country. The route connects Bryce Canyon in the south to Capitol Reef in the north and passes red rock bluff, slot canyons and Navajo sandstone formations. Our journey takes us through the town of Escalante and the fascinating Anasazi State Park Museum. The ancestral Puebloan Anasazi village, occupied between 1050 and 1200 AD, was one of the largest communities west of the Colorado river in its day.
Reaching Capitol Reef national park, we take a jeep adventure into the desert with Hondoo Tours to visit Cathedral Valley and the natural sandstone formations called the Temples of the Sun and Moon. After all of this hiking, we call it a day and stop in a town called Mexican Hat, where we dine at the Swingin’ Steak restaurant, where the meat is cooked outside over dancing flames on a huge swinging grill.
Finally we press on to Arches national park, north of Moab, where climbing is permitted and there’s lot’s of hiking. This is where Danny Boyle made 127 Hours, the true story of Aron Ralston, whose hiking trip ended in the self-amputation of his arm with his penknife after he became pinned by a boulder in Blue John Canyon, in the Robber’s Roost area. Ironically, I was given a penknife as a gift by a local guide just before heading into the park. A joke perhaps, or a precautionary measure? Either way, I hoped I wouldn’t need it to perform DIY surgery.
Our destination was Delicate Arch, a stunning natural arch and Utah’s answer to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. To get there, we hiked for an hour up an easy, slow incline over dusty red rock. Then, on reaching a narrow ledge, we rounded a corner to be met by a breathtaking view.
Against a piercing blue-sky backdrop was the 20m-tall, freestanding arch, with its bow-shaped structure that resembles a cowboy’s legs in chaps – a fitting end to our Utah journey and one that summed up the majesty, natural beauty and remoteness of the unmissable, sun-drenched red rock canyon country.
• Delta Airlines (www.delta.com) flies from London Heathrow to Salt Lake City, Utah, from £665 return, including taxes
• For information and entrance fees, see the Utah State Parks site (www.stateparks.utah.gov)
• Hiking tours can be booked through America As You Like It (www.americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299). Tours like the one featured, cost from £1,115 per person and include return flights, three-star accommodation and car hire
• Scenicebyway (www.scenicbyway12.com)
• Canyoning, Zion (www.zionadventures.com)
• Hondoo tours, Escalante (www.hondoo.com)
• Navajo Nation, Monument Valley (www.navajonationparks.org)