Southern Utah’s rugged beauty at Amangiri
The American Southwest is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s majestic and ancient, a time capsule of sand and rock. There aren’t many places like it in the world. I’m just back from a short trip to southern Utah, where we stayed at Amangiri (part of the Aman hotel group), a hotel nestled in a valley between orange, red, and grey mesas as tall as a skyscraper.
There are a bunch of activities to choose from at the hotel, like horseback riding, rock climbing, and yoga, but we primarily spent our time hiking. There are about 10 trails on the 600-acre property, providing amazing vistas of the surrounding desert. Spending a few days on these trails will introduce you to geological features we on the East Coast never see, such as mesas, buttes, hoodoos, gullies, slot canyons, and many others.
I wake up early, way before everyone else, so I got to know Amangiri’s hiking trails pretty well. The hotel activities staff did a great job of marking the routes with easily visible wooden stakes or rock piles. I found that if you can find the start of the trail, usually marked by a sign with the trail’s name on it, you won’t get lost. The trail map provided by the hotel is really helpful because it shows the actual topography of the area.
I’ve spent time in the desert before, including almost a full two years in the Middle East while I was in the Army, but I’ve never experienced the complete silence I experienced out on those hiking trails. They say silence can be deafening, and I sort of understand what that means now. The resort itself is basically in the middle of nowhere, but walk about a mile away from the main property and you’re out there by yourself with no one around for miles. All around you is rock, sand, shrubs, some cliffs in the distance, and the occasional jack rabbit or crow here and there. Sitting out on a rock, with huge cliff face behind you, it almost sounds like you’re in a sound-proofed cell.
I’ve described below some of the trails I took during our stay on the property:
This is a relatively straightforward trail that begins at the sandy slope overlooking the Amangiri property. The trail snakes a path through sandy and rocky shrub land towards one of Amangri’s prominent mesas towering above the desert floor. At the base of this massive slab of orangish rock is a huge hole carved by nature into the side of the cliff face.
This is Broken Arrow Cave, a filming location for the 1994 movie with John Travolta and Christian Slater. Some of the movie set still remains: a mining camp shed and mine shaft, framed in wood. I didn’t know it at the time; I thought I was looking at a closed off mine shaft and mining shed from the 1800s Gold Rush or something.
The cave, about the size of an amphitheater, was used by Native Americans for shelter and storage on their hunting expeditions going back to 6000 BC. You can still on the ceiling of the cave black marks from ancient fires marks. Take a look at the petroglyphs patterns and pictures of antelope and other animals etched on the cave walls. There is also some more recent graffiti by pioneers from the early 1900s.
The Studhorse Trail, which begins on Amangiri property, crosses over into public property (the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area). Studorse’s main draw is its slot canyon, a relatively rare geological feature found in some arid areas of the world. These narrow canyons form over millions of years and water and wind erosion through sandstone. They look like huge gashes in the earth, as if a huge axe swung down from the sky and smashed a cut through the rocky ground. The Studhorse slot canyon was narrow enough in spots that my shoulders were touching the walls on each side. It’s the longest hike on the property though. Budget about 2.5 hours round trip.
To the “right”
This is probably the most accessible hike after the short Coyote Trail near the hotel grounds. It begins on the road near the hotel and takes you up the sandy hill up onto a plateau towards a huge mesa. This part of the trail is pretty easy as there no big rock faces to shuffle up or big drops requiring you to get down on your butt to shimmy down. Once you reach the back of the big mesa the trail loops around to the left. Follow it a little ways down a path through juniper trees and sage brush and you’ll see ahead a few towers of rock called hoodoos. The ones near Amangiri are really interesting because the towers consist of an older rock base with a newer rock perched on top of it, like a Super Bowl trophy.
To the “left”
You can also take the Hoodoo Trail around to the left of the huge mesa. It requires a little bit more rock climbing but nothing too hard. There is an extra large hoodoo on the trail, right at the base of a cliff, that looks like it’s about to crash down any minute. I was nervous walking by it since the rock on top looked so precariously perched on the base rock.
For those who are a little bit more adventurous, I recommend doing one of the resort’s guided via ferrata tours. Via ferrata, or “iron road” in Italian, is a type of climbing sport where you strap on a helmet and rappel gear and climb up a mountain and even cliff faces following a path of steel rungs and cables that are hammered into the rock. On your waist is a stretchable cable that you hook onto the steel cables in the rock, limiting any potential fall to a few feet rather than hundreds of feet and an assured death.
This route took us to the top of another mesa on the property. I’m pretty athletic and I thought the way up to the top of the mesa was challenging.
Our guide Wright was excellent though and talked us through each leg of the climb. The key is to just strap yourself in with each segment of the rope so that if you fall you will only fall like 5 feet and be suspended in the air.
At the top of the mesa is a 200 foot long rope bridge suspended over a deep crevice. I didn’t used to think I was scared of heights but walking across a 300 foot-high foot bridge the width of my shoulders got me nervous. My brother-in-law was fearless in the attempt, even doing a push-up in the middle of the span.
That was enough adventure for me, Laurie, and Ca, but Will went on another, more challenging via ferrata route the next day. Check out these pictures:
Three Canyon Tour
This tour takes you off the Amangiri property and across the Colorado River and the massive Glen Canyon Dam to a huge gully with three slot canyons. Our guide, a man of Navajo descent named Logan, first took us to Upper Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon about the length of a football field that snakes through orange sandstone. Even though it was low season, the canyon was crowded with tourists—most of them Chinese—but the groups were spaced out enough that I was able to snap some good pictures. The canyon is about 150 feet tall in the highest areas and with the walls almost touching each other on the way up, blanketing the trail in darkness.
Nearby in the same gully is another slot canyon called Rattlesnake Canyon. This canyon, while a lot smaller than Upper Antelope, also features orange sandstone walls whose surfaces almost fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Towards the end of the track through the canyon, the path becomes so narrow that we literally had to squeeze our way through to the exit.
The third canyon, Owl Canyon was significant wider the first two—you could drive a car through it comfortably in some areas. Its 50 foot high walls are home to grey horned spotted owls. Logan spotted one high up on a little cave, its profile looking little different than a cat’s.
Glen Canyon Dam, Page, and Horseshoe Bend
I borrowed a car from the resort and headed off the property for a few hours to check out the area around Page, Arizona. My first stop was the massive Glen Canyon Dam, which dams up the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The visitor center is worth stopping by to read about how the dam was built and what it provides the region in terms of electricity and flood control. I recommend going out on the top Glen Canyon Bridge and looking straight down — see if that doesn’t get your head spinning.
My next stop was picturesque Horseshoe Bend, about 5 miles south of Page. About a 10 minute walk down from the dusty parking lot is an awesome overlook of the canyon where the Colorado River takes a sharp bend through the Navajo sandstone on its way south. I was surprised how crowded the place was, even in low season. There were hundreds of Chinese tourists there. I saw one woman bend down on the path and tear out shrubbery from the ground, presumably to take home with her as a souvenir.
I also suggest taking a drive through Page, a town of 7,000 that owes its existence entirely to the Glen Canyon Dam. There’s not too much to see there besides a huge string of churches—I think it has the most churches per capita in the country—but there are a few cool trading post type stores that sell all sorts of Navajo merchandise and cowboy boots and stuff.
If you’re going to pick one, go to Blair’s Dinnebito Trading Post. It has a huge selection of Navajo jewelry, art, southwestern food like corn meal and hot sauce and beans, cowboy gear, yarn, books, and other items unique to the area.
A very unique property nestled in the beautiful Utah desert miles away from civilization. Nature lovers and those seeking to get away from it all will be in heaven at Amangiri. The hotel’s 36 rooms are decorated simply in white and beige and of course, the view out the windows is unbeatable from every angle. The grounds look a little spartan but that is the beauty of it. The desert is defined by its simplicity. Any attempt to put a fancy, decorative resort in the middle of such simplicity would have flopped.
The food was really good, but after a few days, the unchanging menu got a little old. The Aman chain is known for its high level of service and it was obvious that the hotel staff aspired to that standard.
The main pool is gorgeous; it’s built around a huge grey boulder that dips down into the water. The white umbrellas and white sun chairs provide a subtle contrast to the sandy hues of the smooth concrete and rock faces surrounding the property.