Kick It Up a Notch
If Utah's state slogan is “Life Elevated,” this recent girlfriend getaway turned it into “Fitness Elevated.”
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I am fit. I work out at least five days a week. Note to self: I am not as fit as I thought. I understand now why elite athletes train in the mountains. Living at sea level and hiking the occasional hill in Laguna Beach didn't really prepare me for exercising in the heat and heights of the Utah mountain ranges and vast national parks. Yet I was undeterred as I gathered with six other women (and one awesome male guide) to hike some of Utah's glorious peaks, road bike down the reddest mountain paths, and ride many of the Colorado River's Class IV rapids.
Our first stop was Cougar Ridge Lodge, the perfect getaway spot for families or groups of friends wanting to ride horses, walk pet pigs, watch the sun rise over red mountains, and eat and drink great food and wine. There is a fitness center, bowling alley, Jacuzzi, and a big deck circling the ranch where you can sit together, listen to music, stare out at land that goes on forever, and then retreat to one of the four suites or the community bunk bed room. The Ranch hosts weddings and corporate retreats and has a chef's kitchen, plus a second kitchen with a cellar for cooking lessons, making beer, and bottling your own event wine.
Eat, Pray, Bike
Moab exceeded my expectations as the mountain biking capital of the world, and we were lucky enough to have the royal treatment. By 7 a.m., Rim Tours was packed up and ready for the 20-mile drive up the mountain in our van, stocked with food, drinks and $3,000 bikes.
Guides Carl and Mike toasted bagels on a griddle and carved avocados, cucumbers, onions, and smoked salmon. We feasted on cinnamon buns, coffee and juices while we sat in a row of matching blue beach chairs hovering at cliff's edge. The peach-and-rose vista was so majestically unreal it looked like a watercolor painting.
My foray into mountain biking was world-class. The heat was oppressive, but the scenery was otherworldly. I was scared just enough to be sensible as I navigated the variegated mountain paths. I strove to keep my balance and speed under control enough to avoid embarrassment and serious bodily injury.
Some Like It Hot
Back in Moab, we inhaled an incredible lunch at Peace Tree Cafe. Order the PB wrap (peanut butter, blueberries, banana, apple, and granola) off-menu to fit in with the locals. I felt renewed and ready to face Delicate Arches – right up until we arrived at 5 p.m., post 18-mile bike ride, and watched the tiny people (who looked like millions of ants) climb the exposed trail in 120-degree heat. Instead, two of us chose a 500-yard hike up the side of the mountain for a breathtaking photo op of the Delicate Arches and a drive through the park in an air-conditioned car.
We retreated to Ray's Tavern for beer and burgers after exploring our Moab rental cottage smack dab in the middle of town. Ours was named Three Dogs and a Moose. A porch swing complimented the wooden deck, which looked out over a white-picketed fence pathway that led to my favorite part of the house: the hammock. The fridge was stocked with almond milk, half and half, fresh-ground coffee, organic berries, bananas, and small peanut butter snack cups with apples. Having slept in the double bunk bed room at Cougar Ranch, I had first dibs on a bedroom. My pick: a cozy queen bed, airy double-hung windows with two rotating fans, wall hooks and little bedside lamps for reading.
A few of my friends take their mixed drinks seriously. After a quick run to the liquor store (before it closed at dinner time), we made homemade simple syrup, squeezed fresh limes, muddled mint, and reinvented the classic mojito with Absolut vodka instead of rum, while we tossed up a spinach and goat cheese salad with candied pecans and cranberries dressed in a raspberry vinaigrette. We ran around town hoping to run into the newly single Johnny Depp. We heard he was in town filming his new movie. Seems we drank, played pool or were chatted up by each and every crew and cast member except the man himself.
50 Shades of Red
The hiking was off the charts. Every mile stretched before us revealed a different layer of colored sedimentary rock imbedded in mountain walls. Monument Valley was cartoonish. As we ran along the newly built entry into Goblin Valley, my born-and-bred California pride keep me thinking to myself, "well, we have Joshua Tree and Big Sur," but honestly, we don't have anything like this. The stone “goblins” made faces at us at every turn. We played with them, posing for pictures, climbing up and across, with each one a more crazy shape than the last. There were yurts available to rent in the middle of the park, surrounded by mountains and nature on all sides, but with some of the conveniences of home.
A River Runs Through It
The International Scale of River Difficulty grades rapids. Class IV are long rapids; waves, high, irregular, dangerous rocks, boiling eddies, passages difficult to scout, powerful and precise maneuvering required. They demand expert boatmen, excellent boats and good quality equipment. Fortunately, Sherri Griffith Expeditions provided all of the above for our 17-mile ride through rapids with names like Surprise, Son of Surprise, Skull, Sock-it-to-me, and Last Chance. We were in the capable and secure hands of our expert head guide, Max. What he lacked in years, he made up for in knowledge, experience and humor. Cruising the Colorado River with a cooler of hand-crafted beers, we rode rapids, told stories and chilled. We wanted to bring him home with us, but alas, he loved the river more.
As usual, the things I expect to love about a destination turn out to be the unforseen diversions. In this case, the friendships deepened, the scenery reminiscent of a deep, rust-colored planet, and the quiet beauty of mornings on mountaintops with women who love the outdoors.
What’s New in Salt Lake City
The jewel in Salt Lake's crown must be the newly opened University of Utah Museum of Natural History, a 40-year-old state museum on the University of Utah’s campus. I am hopeful LEED will grant Gold Certification to this well-planned building that took nearly 20 years and a $103 million budget to complete. Led by a team of architects from GBSS (Salt Lake-based) and Ennead (New York-based), it’s definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The majestic concrete and copper Rio Tinto Center perched atop a hill, blends organically into the vista. The striations in the building resemble those in the mountains and the roofline rises and falls in harmony with the background. I imagine how the sun will reflect the light once the copper weathers to a verdigris patina. The museum derives a quarter of its power from solar energy and has many green features such as a rooftop garden, a rainwater collection cistern, pervious pavement to absorb runoff, and fretted glass to allow views and prevent heat transfer in or out.
The best way to enjoy the exhibits is to go immediately to the top floor and make your way down. Start at the significant Native American Indian multimedia displays. Every age group and personality type can find some fun here. For those pensive types, all you need to do is perch yourself at a table directly in front of the 60-foot-high multi-story glass window wall (dubbed the Canyon) that overlooks Salt Lake and the mountains beyond. There is a rooftop exhibit with native plants, a children's class and party room, and 1.2 million objects on display. I love that the curators chose an interdisciplinary approach to the exhibits. One of my favorite exhibits was the Evolution of Man wall of about a dozen resin skulls morphing over a 6,000-year journey. The entire museum was every child’s dream - you could touch everything! There were 3D exhibits and computer-aided visuals, cartoon animations, life-size diaramas, exhibits you could walk through, feel, smell, and you could take pictures too.
Isn’t It Grand?
The Grand America Hotel was a perfect base to explore downtown SLC. We were fortunate to catch the Utah Arts Festival going on during our stay and score some VIP passes for appetizers and drinks. After coming in from the heat and enjoying the 17th century Flemish tapestries, luxuriating in a tranquil massage in the calming Grand Spa, we were off again on foot to explore the city.
Determined to provide the freshest food (bread is baked daily in-house, ice cream handmade and sirloin ground fresh daily), with smaller plates meant to be shared, Ryan Lowder and his wife, Colleen, opened The Copper Onion to provide seasonal food in a casual environment with a reasonable price point. Ryan Lowder, a Utah native who had trained with the CIA (not that one – but the Culinary Institute of America) honed his culinary skills at Jean-Georges in New York, then traveled and cooked in Columbia and Spain and in New York developed the menu based on his strengths and preferences for fresh local food. I left satiated and slightly overstuffed after trying several veggie side dishes (think broccoli rabe and sautéed mushrooms) as well as appetizers and pasta ladled with fresh cream and butter accoutrements (carbonara).
We waddled back to our suites, stopping back by the Arts Festival for some live music, and returned to the Grand America on foot, nestled in our cozy beds and slumbered peacefully with our aching bodies soothed by massage, our bellies full and our minds clear.