Off-Roading Through Utah's Desert Proves Why We Should Trade Beaches For A Spring Break To The Wild West
The sky is impossibly blue, like that first blue crayon you picked up as a kid, like the blue of Vincent van Goh’s Starry Night. And it’s also filling up our entire windshield, no sign of ground anywhere.
We’re angled, straight up, like that first climb on a roller coaster. Just next to the driver’s side window is a Scotsman squinting into the sun. “Cut it hard right,” he says.
After I cut the wheel, he urges me to let off the brake, then just a little gas. The front wheels of our Land Rover start to drop. Then the weight of the front end takes us over the cliff. And soon we’re falling, right into that Starry Night sky.
This is day one of Spring Break. This is a road trip across southern Utah. This is facing your fear of heights, of falling, of what’s new.
Our trip came together as part of the launch of the new Land Rover Discovery, the brand’s largest and perhaps most off-road-ready vehicle. They’ve been flying hundreds of journalists from as far as China and Russia and Fort Lauderdale to St. George, Utah, to take an epic journey into the desert.
But this is also a completely replicable trip for any Spring Break family or college student or vacationer. You can likewise do it through Land Rover during off-road driving schools the company holds. Or you can build it yourself, fly west with your own itinerary of Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon and Lake Powell.
Our trip started in west Utah in the high desert, where nothing seems to grow from the rusty sand more than knee-high and where thousand-foot mesas seem to pop out of the desert like rocky mohawks. We flew into St. George and headed to Zion National Park, a bucket-list place, a park that, like the Grand Canyon or Statue of Liberty, lives up to every single accolade you’ve heard about it.
The rock formations in Zion are blue and yellow and orange and green and white and every other color, like layers of a kid’s birthday cake, one after the other, everywhere you look. From a distance, they seem smoothed to a sheen. Route 9 burrows through it in a series of switch-backs, steep climbs and descents, and a tunnel borne through a mile of solid stone.
After we pass through the national park property, southern Utah rolls out in a series of micro-climates that seem impossibly close to one another. At one moment, we’re in a valley with the Virgin River burbling between boulders and below a sheer rock face on its way toward Arizona. Then we’re in a vast dry land with rocks oddly gathered here and there, as if some giant hand placed them in a pile. Miles later we’ve ascended a couple thousand feet up, surrounded by evergreens covered in snow, which is a good foot deep on the ground.
During this Spring Break trip, nowhere in the high desert does it get all that warm. The lower canyons might see 60s and 70s during the day, but the higher elevations will get into the negative numbers at night. For us Floridians, that means serious bundling up against the wind that whips endlessly.
Before we reach our hotel, the Land Rover handlers direct us off-road, to a two-track stretch of dirt cutting through the desert. It’s easy-going at first, but then we approach smooth boulders with no way around them. There’s a Land Rover guide standing on top. He directs us left and right, when to hit the gas, when to brake. We climb, seemingly straight up, one wheel at points three feet off the ground, the dashboard nearly at 45 degrees to the horizon. The Discovery is a three-row SUV with heated seats and leather trim everywhere, but the boulders are still just a playground for it.
We arrive, just as the sun is setting behind the mesas, at the Amangiri Resort. It’s all at once a concrete bunker and an architectural marvel. It’s the exact color of the gray and khaki rock and desert that surround it, sprouting from the sand. This is once-in-a-lifetime accommodation, with just 34 rooms that feature ethanol fireplaces between the outside loungers, with their stunning views of the canyon.
In the morning we’re off again to a spot that’s far more beautiful than famous, a little-known state park called Coral Pink Sand Dunes. It’s simply impossible to comprehend how this formation of dunes were formed: wind crossing the nearby mountains picked up bits of sand over millennia. The breeze got stuck swirling around in this valley and then deposited its cargo, grain by grain, until a rolling desert formed. Just as the sky is bluer than imagination, the dunes are Martian red. It’s a contrast so unbelievably rich in color that every photo seems Photoshopped.
Once more, the Land Rover guides point us off-road and onto the sand. We let air out of the tires and switch the Discovery into sand mode. Then we floor it, the only way to drive through such soft earth. We drift around turns with our engines howling, and speed up the sides of dunes like surfers hitting a break.
Then we reach the edge of the cliff, and the Land Rover handler directs us into the drop. It seems straight down, the hill descent feature catching us and keeping us from picking up too much speed. Then we reach the bottom, into a valley still icy from the freezing night before, and I have to step on it to make it out. As we ascend, there’s a moment where we seem ready to careen over the cliff, and so I let off the gas. Our tires plow into the sand and the Discovery grinds down.
“Back up and try it again,” the handler says over our walkie-talkie. I back down, into the gulley behind us, barely able to see where I’m going. If I turn left, I might end up in the bog of snow and water that’s collected at the bottom of the cliff. Or maybe we’d back right into a soft pile of gook to the right that would suck us down like quicksand.
But as we back into whatever lies behind us, it’s clear that this is exactly why we should take a Spring Break to the Wild West. It’s an adventure into something new, into something that you’ve likely never seen until this moment.
And so, with the guava-colored hill of sand that bested me once before laid out in our windshield, I gun it one more time, headed for the sky.
Land Rover Fort Lauderdale, 400 W. Copans Road, Pompano Beach, 888.721.9414, $49,990
What used to be called the LR4 has been renamed and repackaged into a luxury three-row SUV, with space for seven. Road tires and an incredibly quiet cabin will make it a plush commuter back home in South Florida, but off-road, the Discovery’s hill descent and adjustable suspension settings mean it can take on anything from boulders to standing water that’s three feet deep.
12500 Sanddune Road, Kanab, Utah, 435.648.2800
This rolling collection of sand dunes offers sections for off-roading and for hikers. Admission is just $8, or camp in these other-worldly conditions for $20.
1 Kayenta Road, Canyon Point, Utah, 435.675.3999
The resort looks as if it bloomed from the 600 acres of desert around it, tucked between rock formations that creep right up to the stunning pool. Expect to spend a couple grand per room, just like the movie stars and musicians said to frequent the place.
1 Zion Park Blvd., State Route 9, Springdale, Utah, 435.772.3256
Named for Temple Mount in Jerusalem, there are few stretches of nature that’ll feel closer to the heavens than this collection of colorful rock formations. A drive along Route 9 will be adequate, but hike or bike Zion’s many trails to find a quiet slice of high desert.
(Photos by Eric Barton)