Running Southern Utah
It’s certainly no secret that southern Utah is a unique and spectacular trail running destination. There are now numerous races in the region as well as some routes in national parks like the Zion Traverse and the White Rim Trail that have become common destination runs. I have been running trails in Utah for nearly 20 years, since well before I began doing trail/ultra races in 2006, and it’s certainly no surprise to me that the region is becoming a bit more ‘discovered’ by the trail running masses. It is without question one of my favorite places in the world to be as a runner. I think the ‘tip of the iceberg’ metaphor is often over used, but in the case of southern Utah it is entirely appropriate to state that the few dozen well-known trails are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to world-class running options.
To begin a discussion about the appeal of running in southern Utah you have to start with the appeal of simply being in southern Utah. The solitude and aesthetic quality of the region, combined with the huge percentage of land that is in the public domain make it quite unlike anywhere else in the Lower 48. People have written hundreds of books about the unique aspects of this place. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is a great place to start if you’ve never read any of them. You can fairly easily find places in the Utah desert where you can just about be guaranteed that you will not see another person, no matter how long you stay. In this day and age there are very few places on the planet where this is the case. The Colorado Plateau, which comprises the majority of southern Utah, is one of the most breathtaking and unique places anywhere. It can initially feel like a harsh and unforgiving land, and in many ways it is, but once you become comfortable with the climate, terrain, flora, and fauna it can actually be a very comfortable and easy place to visit.
In the past 20 years, I have spent at least three years of my time outdoors in southern Utah–camping, backpacking, hiking, canyoneering, running, mountain biking, rafting, fastpacking, bikepacking–among other things. The amazing thing to me is that the wilderness aspect of southern Utah has diminished very little in this time. I still manage to find places on a very regular basis that feel like they are completely in middle of nowhere. Many frontcountry areas (state and national parks as well as areas close to the handful of small towns in the region, especially Moab) have become much more developed and crowded in these past two decades, but these developments seem to have focused so many people on these specific areas that any new pressure on the truly backcountry areas seems to be nearly non-existent. I couldn’t begin to recount all the times I’ve been somewhere out in the Utah desert, seemingly in middle of nowhere for several days without seeing anyone, when I drive 10 miles down the road to a national park and there are thousands of people packed into a small area that is often geographically no more spectacular than where I just was. Don’t get me wrong, I love our national-parks system, and there are some truly wild and remote places within these parks, but I’ve never quite understood why people will flock to anything that is labelled “National Park,” but ignore similar geographical features mere miles away. Not that I’m complaining. This reality has allowed vast regions of southern Utah to remain every bit as wild and remote as they were a few decades ago.
All of this said, here are some aspects of and ideas about southern Utah that might help anyone visiting the region appreciate it for the trail running mecca that I believe it is.
Most importantly I think you need to be willing to think outside the box. Don’t go to the Utah desert looking for a typical trail running experience. There are thousands of trails in the region, but the vast majority of them are not on maps, and often do not even have names. Don’t limit yourself to singletrack. Sure, we all love singletrack, but Utah has thousands of miles of old mining roads that have been virtually unused for decades. They might not be true singletrack, the way we have come to understand singletrack, but they will be some of the most rugged, scenic, and remote trails you will ever find. They also have potential, if you let them, to be some of the most frustrating trails you will ever find. You will often be running in loose sand with constant ups and downs as you pass from one dry drainage to another. In many cases you will find yourself covering ground at a much slower clip than you are used to. If you let this be a bad thing you will probably never come to love running in the Utah desert, but if you accept it as part of the experience you will come to find an allure in the novelty of the terrain.
Another thing that always seems to be a challenge to people who are new to the desert is the apparent lack of water. Once you spend enough time around the Utah desert you will discover that there is a lot more water out there than there first seems. It certainly varies a lot based on the time of the year, but for the most part there is some source of water within a few miles of most places in Utah. It takes some time to think of a couple gallons of water trapped in a pothole in a shaded portion of slickrock as a source of water, but once you learn how to find water in the desert you will find yourself traveling through the land in a different, more confident, more comfortable way. There’s a great book by Craig Childs, called The Secret Knowledge of Water, which goes much further into the relationship between deserts and water. I consider this a must read for anyone planning to spend a lot of time anywhere in the American Southwest.
It’s easy to think of southern Utah as too hot to be a desirable trail running destination. For about five months of the year it can be a scorching hot place to be, but another thing one learns with time spent in the region is that there are huge variations of altitude which allow one to simply move higher or lower as the weather shifts. In the hottest summer months it’s very convenient to make camp somewhere in the high desert terrain found in the 5,500-to-7,500-feet-above-sea-level areas that make up the majority of southern Utah. At these altitudes you will find comfortable early-morning, evening, and overnight temperatures, and then you can simply go to higher terrain to do longer runs which will span the middle part of the day. Everyone thinks primarily of the red-rock canyonlands when thinking of southern Utah, but the truth is that there are dozens of remote mountain ranges with incredible trails all over the region which will take you up into very cool weather, even on the hottest days of summer.
Speaking of camping, nearly all of the points that I am touching on in this article go with the assumption of running as part of a camping trip. It’s certainly possible to do some great runs in southern Utah while staying in hotels in towns, but the reality is that there are so few towns in the more remote parts of the state that if you aren’t planning to camp you will be spending more time driving than running, or you will be stuck with only accessing the frontcountry trails. Although these easily accessible trails are great in their own right, it is the remote, backcountry regions of the state that stand out as a truly unique running experience. In almost all cases you will access these areas much more easily if you are willing to pack up several days of camping gear and head out well away from civilization. A reliable high-clearance vehicle is generally necessary, but other than this all one really needs is some patience, good maps, and an adventurous mind. The camping alone will make this one of the most memorable running trips you have ever been on. The vast majority of southern Utah is Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land where one can camp pretty much anywhere. There is no dispersed car camping allowed anywhere in the national parks, but if you are on forest service or BLM land you can more or less camp anywhere that is not posted as no camping. (In the national parks, you can often get a permit to camp in the parks’ car campsites along remote dirt roads, and you should note that dispersed car camping on forest-service or BLM lands is becoming off limits near southern Utah’s towns. However, those rules lift once you get about 10 miles out of town.) Next time you are driving through southern Utah, pay attention to the various roads which lead off from the main highways. Rarely do you travel more than a couple miles along a highway without seeing a secondary road off in some direction. When you start to explore some of these roads you will discover that they then have even-more rugged roads shooting off of them. It becomes a spider web of thousands of miles of desert terrain to explore.
The majority of users in these areas are on motorized vehicles: jeeps, ATVs, motor bikes, dune buggies, snowmobiles, and more, but very rarely does this mean you will be having regular interactions with these users. There is enough open space that you will generally have no problems finding areas where you will not see anyone else on your entire run, including any motorized users. Twenty years ago it seemed to be the norm that motorized users pretty much went wherever they wanted to on public lands in Utah, but through pressure from conservation groups (primarily the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), things have changed drastically in this regard. Now it seems that 99% of motorized users follow the laws that state that they must stay on designated routes. I think it’s absurd that the vast majority of designated trails and routes on public lands in Utah are open to motorized use, but at least most of the users have become respectful enough of the land and of other user groups–or deterred by laws–to generally stay on the designated routes. The nice thing about this dynamic is that a traveler on foot can roam off of designated routes and begin to get into terrain that often feels like they are the first person ever there. Another nice thing about this dynamic is that these motorized user groups have very well mapped and marked networks of trails to help them know where they are and aren’t allowed to travel. It’s generally a great idea to stop in the local BLM or forest-service office and see what maps they have. In most cases there are maps designed specifically for motorized use that will give you more options for places to access than you could ever run through in a lifetime.
By now you are probably wondering when I’m going to get to specific trail recommendations, but that’s not my intention with this article, and might take away from the value of the larger meaning here. The most appealing thing about running in southern Utah is that it is a place where one can truly discover trails and routes that few people have ever run. I could tell you some of my favorites, but this would take away from some of the appeal of discovering these things on your own. I will, however, conclude with mention of a few general areas which I have come to love for running in southern Utah. This should give any runner totally new to the region somewhere to start.
As far as more easily accessible areas are concerned I think Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem that few runners seem to have ‘discovered.’ If visiting Capitol Reef I highly recommend checking out the more remote Waterpocket Fold (southern) region of the park. The San Rafael Swell is probably my favorite area in the state to go and find a remote place to camp for several days and wander around on foot through canyons and overland off designated routes. I have likely spent a year’s time in the Swell over the course of my life and I still don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface of what’s out there. The BLM office in Price, Utah has a map called “San Rafael Motorized Route Designations” which I consider an essential for exploring most areas of the Swell. Escalante National Monument and the surrounding area is another region which I could spend half a life and never run out of new things to explore. I can’t imagine any runner ever being disappointed with a venture into this area. When it’s hot in summer nothing beats the remote and rugged nature of the Henry or Tushar Mountains.
More than anything though, I recommend you simply wander around and find what comes your way with a little trial and error. If you look at a map of the few areas I’ve mentioned here you will see that there are hundreds of miles between these locations, nearly all of which contain hundreds more appealing options for an adventurous trail runner. Sometimes the hardest part about running in southern Utah is that you always feel like you are only scratching the surface of what’s out there. Twenty years into this obsession and I still feel this way every time I’m lucky enough to spend time in the Utah desert. I suppose this isn’t a bad ‘problem’ to have.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you trail run or visited southern Utah? What characteristics of the landscape have you come to love?
- How does trail running in southern Utah differ from other places you have run?