It was a sunny and bright January morning when I strapped my seatbelt on and drove East through the Nevada desert, heading for the Las Vegas airport to pick up my friend Tally. On the agenda? A fun-filled weekend in Cedar City and Brian Head, Utah.
Just a few short hours away from this busy international airport, Cedar City is easily accessible, resting right below vibrant red rocks and snowy mountain peaks. It’s the gateway to several of Utah’s famous National Parks and Monuments, and boasts some attractions of its own, including great food and a historical downtown. We popped into The Grind Coffee House to grab some caffeine before heading to higher elevations.
Our main objective was to experience the wonders of winter in Brian Head, exploring all the activities it has to offer and taking full advantage of the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Just knowing we had so much more in store for us than only downhill skiing was such a thrilling prospect. What makes the snow at Brian Head so great? Most likely it’s the 360” of average annual snowfall and the high elevation of the resort, sitting at 9,800 ft.
First thing we did upon arrival was settle into our cozy condo at the Kristi Condominiums, conveniently located within walking distance of all our planned excursions. However, when we didn’t feel like walking, we had access to a free shuttle that carts you from place to place in this small resort town, available most hours of the day and just a phone call away! We took advantage of the shuttle many times, especially when the wind was blowing hard.
Our first full day on the mountain was primarily focused on testing out our ski legs at Brian Head resort. We had a choice between skiing at Giant Steps or Navajo (or both!), boasting 71 runs and 8 lifts. Since it was Tally’s first time downhill skiing, we opted for Navajo, which offered several beginner runs that could keep us busy all day. Tally was also able to rent all her ski equipment from the staff at the resort, which was extremely convenient and gave her the opportunity to test out the sport without making a huge commitment.
Although the weather was quite blustery, we had a wonderful time navigating the easiest runs, giving ourselves plenty of opportunity to get accustomed to the skis on our feet. Brian Head felt like the perfect place to learn the ropes with less crowded slopes and lots of short, easy runs. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of tough stuff there too, if you’re an advanced skier. After we’d practiced plenty, we decided to throw caution to the wind and head for more difficult runs.
But when the weather rolled in and visibility was shot, we decided that the fireplace back at the condo and a cup of hot chocolate was calling.
Not ready to call it a day yet, we decided to round out the day at the Last Chair Grill for some delicious local beers and live music.
After a relaxing Saturday morning at the condo, we went in search of fuel for our day. We had some big activities planned that afternoon and wanted to be ready! Tally and I walked the short distance to the local coffee shop, Mountain Peak Coffee and got lattes and veggie sandwiches.
We’d bought tickets for tubing at 3pm, so time was on our side. It was a bluebird day, a far cry from our experience on the slopes the day before, so we slathered on some sunscreen and made our way to the Navajo tubing park! They set you up with an inner tube based on weight and how fast you want to travel. With 3 speed options, Tally and I both opted for the middle speed. You sign a waiver and the staff gives you instructions on how to ride the tube (on your stomach), how to slow yourself down (dragging your feet) and how to stop. It felt perfectly accessible for beginners like us.
However, the nerves still made a giant ball in my stomach as we rode the moving walkway up to the top of the run. We stood in a line awaiting the go ahead from the staff member. When she yelled “GO,” I swallowed my fear and dove onto the large tube, gaining speed while bouncing over large bumps and catching significant air. I held on tight and squeeeeee’d all the way down. When I finally slowed to a stop, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. What a thrill! We repeated that process over and over and over again until we just couldn’t tube another inch. With the sun still shining overhead, we headed back to Last Chair Grill to sit outside and sip some brews. With a direct view of Giant Steps from the patio, we had a great people watching opportunity and a chance to marvel at the expert skiers and snowboarders coming elegantly down the slopes.
Later that night, we traded our snow boots in for ice skates at Brian Head Ice, Utah’s best recreational ice rink! Pre-purchased tickets are recommended since it’s a highly popular activity for all age groups. Both Tally and I were a bit “rusty” on skates and it took us some time to warm up to the motion. But that wasn’t a problem, the ice skating rink has skate walkers available (aids for the inexperienced) and ample seating if you need to rest. The rink is beautiful, too. You circle trees lit up in an array of colors and lights, giving it a dreamy atmosphere that I won’t soon forget. We twisted and twirled our way around the rink as long as our energy allowed.
By the time we finished up, we were ready to relax back at the condo with hot beverages and a movie.
Our last full day at Brian Head was the day I’d been most excited about. We had an early 3 hour snowmobile tour booked with Thunder Mountain Motorsports! Having never ridden a snowmobile before, I was thrilled to experience the adrenaline rush. At Thunder Mountain, you can adventure in winter in the outdoors in a whole new way. Their knowledgeable guides will take you through the backcountry of Brian Head, Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. This is a special treat because Cedar Breaks closes the road to vehicle traffic in the winter.
Our 9am tour started with getting fitted for helmets and going over snowmobile logistics and safety precautions. Since Tally was an experienced snowmobiler, she opted to be the driver while I took photos and videos from the rear. I quite enjoyed being the passenger and taking in all the beauty around me during our ride. Our first destination was a large field to practice our driving skills, speeding up, slowing down, and taking corners. This is an integral part of the tour that really helped us warm up to our machines before hitting more difficult terrain.
We sped through bare Aspen forests and through wide open clearings. We zig-zagged up and down hillsides and across roads. By the time we reached Cedar Breaks National Monument, we were feeling very comfortable and confident driving the snowmobiles. Our guide stopped us at the entrance and made it clear that we were not to drive off trail in the monument. The landscape there is protected from any off-road travel, and it’s vital that we not create any sort of negative impact in such delicate areas. As the tour continued, we passed cross country skiers and snowshoers, all out enjoying a beautiful day in that peaceful place. Suddenly, views of orange and pink hoodoos started to appear. The excitement mounted. I love the contrast of red rocks in fresh snow, so I knew we were in for something spectacular. Unsurprisingly, the view was just as beautiful as I imagined it would be.
We wound our way up to the weather globes where you could see Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park all looming in the distance. On our way back to Thunder Mountain Motorsports, the guide made one more stop just below Brian Head Peak and told us about the historic observation hut at the top, built in 1934-35 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and restored in the 1990’s. During the warmer months, you can drive all the way to the summit. But this time of year, it’s closed to cars. The only way up the mountain is by snowshoe, ski or snowmobile. Tally and I had been pondering where we wanted to spend sunset that evening, and it sounded like that view would be impossible to beat!
After we finished up the tour and thanked and tipped our wonderful guide, we went back to the Kristi Condominiums to prepare for our sunset trek. We knew it would be cold at the top, the summit reaching a dizzying elevation of 11,312 ft. With temperatures in the single digits and a high wind chill, we had to be ready for a very cold hike. In my backpack I carried extra layers, food and water. I had hand warmers to keep my digits comfortable and a wind breaker for the wind gusts. I packed my headlamp as well, knowing we’d be returning during dusk. Lastly, I secretly packed 2 cans of beer so we had something to celebrate with when we reached the top. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, so always be prepared for the “what ifs.”
We parked along the road just an hour and a half before sunset. Tally and I expected the hike to be around 3 miles with at least 1500 ft elevation gain. We started by following the summer road to the top, slowly gaining elevation, but decided to cut up in an attempt to save mileage. But the snow was deep in places and it made it slow going. Ultimately, I don’t think we saved much time at all with our spontaneous shortcut. Making it to the top was exhilarating, however, especially since our timing landed us on the summit right before sunset. We dipped into the historic stone lookout to enjoy our hard earned beers and cheers to a job well done.
We had a bird’s eye view as the sun set beautifully over the hoodoos of Cedar Breaks National Monument. But the heavy winds made the summit a little too unpleasant to stay for long. With our headlamps on, we easily followed a rocky ridge line back to the car as darkness fell over the snowy landscape.
On our last morning in Utah, we woke up early to drive down the mountain and catch a glimpse of the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap, just a few miles outside of Cedar City. I love experiencing the rich history of native peoples while respectfully visiting these cultural treasures. Although it is not fully known what these panels represent, it’s always interesting learning the histories and speculations. This trail is kid-friendly and accessible to all, at just a quarter mile long and paved the entire way. But please tread lightly when visiting these important sites, leaving as little disturbance as possible. Rock art can be viewed, photographed or sketched, but do not cross barriers and touch the petroglyphs, as our skin can leave oils that can speed deterioration.
Our last monumental stop in Cedar City was for coffee and home baked bread at the Silver Silo Bakery and Espresso, delicious!
We needed a bit of a pick-me-up before the drive back to the Las Vegas airport. After our action packed trip, we were both tired and happy.
It was a weekend of firsts. First time skiing for Tally, first time snowmobiling for me, and first time tubing for both of us. It all felt so easy and accessible, not once was I worried about being the beginner. It helps that everyone we came into contact with was so warm and welcoming. Our time in Cedar City and Brian Head was so packed with activity, it made it abundantly clear that there really is something for everyone. So next time you’re looking for a winter adventure with your partner, friends and/or kids, remember all the wonderful opportunities that await you in Utah!