Utah: Extreme, Extraordinary and Exhilarating
In the south, the state boasts five stunning national parks and a bevy of challenging mountain biking trails. In the north, Utah has some of the country's best and most accessible skiing. For those who prefer to take nature in without taking it on, there are plentiful Jeep, ATV, horseback riding and helicopter tours.
Salt Lake City
Few cities can boast Salt Lake City's accessibility to the great outdoors. With canyons in its backyard and top-notch skiing and golf next door, it's a snap to combine activities in the open air with any meeting.
"Salt Lake surprises many first-time visitors with its truly spectacular mountain setting," says Mark White, vice president of sales for Visit Salt Lake. "By building on the unique and exciting outdoor themes and activities, planners are able to offer groups the shared experiences that bring great enthusiasm to any event, winter or summer."
Salt Lake City is girded on its eastern and western sides by picturesque canyons carved out of the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges. Groups from a half-dozen to thousands can enjoy a unique experience of the canyons, including a hike or tram ride followed by a barbeque picnic. With numerous canyons within five to 35 minutes of the main convention district, it fits nicely into most itineraries.
The region's four ski resorts are regularly listed among the top 10 winter sports destinations in the U.S. An hour's drive or less from the city center and airport, the area is collectively billed as "the greatest snow on Earth." Each resort has its individual personality: Alta is ski-only; Brighton is noted for its terrain; Snowbird has one of the longest seasons, often open through May; and Solitude has a pedestrian-friendly, European feel.
The fun doesn't stop in summertime. Snowbird offers group avalanche rescue training, an alpine slide descending 1,300 vertical feet and more traditional team-building options, such as zip lines and a ropes course.
Due to Salt Lake City's geography, it is sometimes possible to play a round of golf in the warmer valley region while the ski resorts up in the mountains are still open for the season.
A half-dozen four-star-and-above golf courses lie within a short drive of the city center. The highly-rated, city-owned Wingpointe was inspired by classic Scottish links. Bountiful Ridge, just north of Salt Lake City, was designed by famed Utah golf course architect William H. Neff. One of the top-ranked courses in the state, it offers golfers panoramic views of the Great Salt Lake and valley beyond.
The higher altitude of Park City makes it a cool escape from Utah's summer heat. Its wealth of sports adventures and outdoor activities draw tourists from all over the world, especially since it gained fame as the host site for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"Our easily accessible mountain community offers a multitude of activities to pack anyone's itinerary, from mountain biking and golfing to art and music festivals," says Vicki Gaebe, meetings and conventions marketing manager of the Park City COC and CVB.
Groups can experience the thrill of victory at Utah Olympic Park. Built to host 14 activities, the facility can welcome as many as 1,000 for an array of exciting opportunities. Zoom down the bobsled track behind a professional driver at 80 miles per hour, zip line down a 1,454-foot line with a 435-foot drop, or try the unique Quicksilver Alpine Slide down the mountain. The wheeled street luge event makes a great team-building activity. For those who prefer spectator sports, there are jaw-dropping aerial performances by professional athletes.
Park City is also a great base camp for white-water rafting. Dinosaur Expeditions can take groups as large as 25 for trips on the Green and Yampa rivers. Some trips take in parts of the fantastic Dinosaur National Monument, and trips can focus on exploring the geology and biology of the area if groups wish. ATV tours and gentle "floats" down calm stretches of river are two lower-impact options.
The area's three ski resorts are Olympic-quality, having been used for many snow sports during the 2002 Winter Olympics, and even easier to access than the Salt Lake resorts, although their seasons are slightly shorter. During the summer, they offer mountain adventures ranging from the 4,000-foot Alpine Coaster at Park City Mountain Resort to mid-mountain disc golf at Canyons Resort to a chuck wagon hayride at Deer Valley Resort.
Groups visiting in winter shouldn't miss a visit to High West, the world's only ski-in distillery.
Provo/Sundance (Utah Valley)
The cities of Provo and Orem constitute the metro hub of the beautiful Utah Valley south of Park City. The Wasatch Range's Y Mountain towers over Provo, and the fact that it's the state's second-largest city doesn't stop occasional deer or moose from wandering down into its streets. The area offers a wide variety of outdoor opportunities.
"Utah Valley's stunning scenery and majestic landscape is awe-inspiring," says Charlene Christensen, director of services at the Utah Valley CVB. "Whether your group's ready to pump their adrenalin on a good mountain bike ride or would prefer a more passive activity such as wildlife viewing or fly-fishing, it's a great place to mix business with pleasure."
From May through October, Timpanogos Cave National Monument makes a fantastic day trip. The cave lies in American Fork Canyon down a moderately difficult 1.5-mile trail. Trekkers are well rewarded with many bizarre and colorful mineral formations. Guided tours for groups as large as 20 leave every 15 minutes. The canyon itself offers chances to hike, bike and rock climb.
Utah Valley is also home to Sundance Resort. At the base of Mount Timpanogos, Sundance is famed for its skiing but has a plethora of year-round adventures. Groups as large as 20 can go horseback riding through the forest, and as many as 60 can try their skill at fly-fishing on the Provo River. Hiking and river rafting are available for groups of any size, and taking a ride on the chairlift is a great way to appreciate the mountain views.
Two of the state's most distinguished championship golf courses are found in the Utah Valley. The Johnny Miller-designed golf club at Thanksgiving Point sprawls over 200 acres with alternating mountain and garden views. Hobble Creek Golf Course, owned by the city of Springville, is nestled in a small canyon populated mainly by wildlife.
Situated at the foot of a mountain range at the confluence of the Ogden and Weber rivers, Ogden offers a choice of great outdoor breaks without even leaving its city limits.
"Ogden is a great location to open minds, elevate souls and inspire your meeting attendees," says Sara Toliver, president and CEO of Visit Ogden. "Our community is nestled up against the Wasatch Mountains with its many outdoor recreation options."
Groups can keep it simple with a hike on Ogden's extensive (210 miles!) trail system. Just a five-minute walk from downtown, four separate trailheads lead to easy, moderate or difficult trails. One local favorite hike starts at the 29th Street trailhead and winds up at Waterfall Canyon, where groups are rewarded with a lovely 200-foot waterfall. In the winter, the trails are perfect for snowshoeing.
Biking is another popular way to enjoy the area. Ogden River Parkway is a paved, beginner-level trail that starts just a few blocks north of the major meeting properties and takes in the botanical gardens and Dinosaur Park. Bikers hungry for a challenge can pick up the East Bench trail at the mouth of Ogden Canyon. Canyon Sports Ltd. can rent approximately 25 bikes at a time during the summer months.
Weber State University's outdoor recreation program helps groups take advantage of the local rivers with rafting and kayaking trips throughout the summer. A rock wall is available for sharpening climbing skills before taking on the mountain.
The southern portion of the state is blessed with five of the nation's most sublime national parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. Each presents an exquisite and unforgettable visitor experience. St. George and Moab are the two main airline hubs for accessing these wonders.
"St. George is nestled in a landscape of colors, layers and shapes that won't quite fit inside your camera," says Kevin Lewis, director of sports and adventure marketing for the St. George Convention and Tourism Office.
"The relatively new community is built for active outdoor adventure," he says. "You won't find a more accessible area that offers the variety of activity, adventure and scenery available in St. George and Zion National Park."
Zion Rock & Mountain Guides offers guided canyoneering trips that can be customized for groups of any size. Full- or half-day adventures include hikes spotlighting Zion National Park's breathtaking scenery, climbing over logs and down rock chimneys, and rappelling down canyon walls.
The phenomenal geography of Arches National Park includes more than 2,000 sandstone arches. Moab Adventure Center offers tours of the park's Fiery Furnace area, a labyrinthine network of narrow canyons. An expert guide navigates the twists and turns and points out hidden features most tourists miss.
Skydiving is on many people's bucket lists. What better place to freefall from above than Canyonlands National Park, one of the most magnificent locales in the world? Skydive Canyonlands offers discounted rates for groups of 10 or more on tandem jumps.
Solutions of Moab is a volunteer organization dedicated to promoting eco-friendly practices and keeping the region's natural splendor free of garbage. Groups of any size can participate in the Adopt-a-Canyon program or other clean-up opportunities while visiting the Moab area. It's a fantastic way to enjoy and benefit nature at the same time.
For small groups eager not to miss a thing, Southern Utah Scenic Tours offers the multiday "Grand Circle National Park Tour," which encompasses all five Utah national parks as well as the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and other regional sights.
Kelly Crumrin is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her road trip through Utah's national parks with her father was her favorite family vacation ever.