Shelby's and Sunsets: Our Trip Through Utah
About a year ago, Jesse bought a dream car - a brand new Shelby GT 350. Last August, he watched the salesmen at our local dealership drive her out of the showroom...then hand him the keys. It's not a practical purchase, but we both believe life is too short to not enjoy some of your hard work while you're still young.
A few weeks later, Jesse got a giant box in the mail from Ford with a bunch of "welcome to the club" Shelby paraphenalia. It also came with an invitation to a track day at the Ford Performance Racing School just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. After some googling, we found out "Track Attack" is a day of professional racing instructors, class time, and several trips around their race course really pushing the limits of the vehicle (except they provide their own Shelby, outfitted with a roll cage and 4-point harness). He was sold on the event, and I was sold on taking a few days off to explore Utah.
After Track Attack was booked and plane tickets purchased, Jesse let me loose on planning the rest of the trip. We decided to fly into Vegas (half the price of flying into SLC) and drive up to where the school was in Tooele. I found two Airbnbs around $50/night, looked up national parks that were on the way, and started a rough outline of each day in a Google Sheets document shared between us (my favorite way to keep trips organized). Let the countdown begin.
Let me just say, we have been INCREDIBLY spoiled with good luck on our trips so far. No wrong turns, no delayed flights, no issues getting into parks; just great all-around experiences everywhere. This ended up being the trip where we finally paid some of our dues. We got up at 4:30am, breezed through security (well, as breezy as you'd expect from ATL), and settled in our seats at the gate just in time to hear the flight had been delayed 3 hours. Jesse broke out some podcasts and I continued wrapping up some work so I could "unplug" as much as possible the next few days. When our flight finally arrived, we boarded and Jesse gave me the window seat, as usual, so I could stare out the window like a little kid.
Thanks to timezones, we still had the rest of the day ahead of us despite the slight delay! Although neither of us have been to Vegas, we just couldn't wait to be on the road headed to our first stay, near the beautiful Zion National Park. The dusty mountains loomed on the horizon and we were excited to see those red canyons up close.
A scenic 2.5 hours later, we were pulling into Hurricane, Utah (a small town 30 minutes outside of Zion National Park). We stopped by a local reservoir for a quick swim, stared at the purple majesty behind the lake, and soaked in some sunshine before heading to our Airbnb.
After a short drive through a really cute neighborhood, we found the private entrance to our master suite. The room was wonderfully frigid, clean as can be, and super comfortable. (Absolutely recommend this place.) Time for some naps, water, and then I was counting down the hours until sunset.
SIDE NOTE: Maybe skip the BBQ if you come to Hurricane. They haven't quite figured out the whole "southern comfort food" thing. I never met a bowl of mac n' cheese I didn't like...until this trip.
Jesse was still sleeping off our BBQ mistake, so I left him a note and hopped in the rental car to find a place for sunset. After a serene 10 minute drive, I saw signs for "Sand Hollow State Park" and decided to go exploring. The road took me out to some more beautiful plains and as the sun started to hit the mountains, I parked and took a little walk into the gorgeous 360-degree views.
Also, "lucky for me", there were forest fires burning on the horizon that made for a really dynamic sky. I did some googling and found out I was seeing one of THREE currently-burning fires in Utah caused by human negligence. As it got darker, you could even see the flames creeping over the ridge with your naked eye....creepy, a little depressing, but still so very beautiful.
Zion National Park
We slept GREAT in our icy Airbnb and woke up at a lazy 5:30am, Utah time. The drive was very peaceful and I got some pretty shots of the sun just starting to hit some of the mountains on the way (thanks to Jesse for always volunteering to drive us). However, as we got closer, we figured out among all my research about the park, I missed one key detail about touring Zion in the summer.
I honestly don't know how I missed this, but to control the amount of visitor traffic, they use a system of shuttle buses throughout the park from March - November every year. We would have left a lot earlier, had we known, so after thankfully finding a parking spot (spaces were getting limited, even at 6am!) we stood in line for about half an hour until boarding and then took another 30 minutes to reach the final stop deep into the park. My original plan was to start some higher hikes midway through the park, go until the sun started beating down, then end the day in The Narrows (a very wet and beautiful hike via the river that runs through the canyons for miles). However, due to the bus traffic, we decided starting at the deepest stop (where The Narrows trailhead begins) would be smarter. This way, we would be taking the shuttle out of the park around the same time a majority of people were still coming in (later in the morning).
The bus started to empty out as we got further into the park, and only a dozen or so people got off with us at last stop. By the time we started hiking, we enjoyed more than a few batches of time alone, silently snapping pictures of the pretty morning cliffs while we made our way to the river. The rising sun reflecting off of the red walls was making fluorescent orange highlights in the water, so we stopped for a minute to try and capture it.
...aaaand these were also the last pictures I took before our camera died.
The battery life on this camera had been spoiling me (because I can go SEVERAL shoots without charging it at all) and sure enough...now was the first time I forgot to check and it bit me in the butt. Hard.
Fortunately, Jesse shrugged it off and reminded me we still had our phones. I started into the river a little bit quiet, but after a few minutes, realized it would have been chaos trying to navigate the river stones with a camera in my hand (I'm as clumsy as they come). It stayed safely in the backpack and we continued down the chilly hike, drinking in the sounds and more tuned in than ever at the beauty that surrounded us. It was utterly peaceful.
After a few miles of The Narrows, Weeping Rock Trail, we headed back to the car. Our strategy with the shuttling worked; catching a ride down was a lot easier since everyone else was still coming up into the park (it was about 11am). We made it back to the car, hungry and praying we could find some local food to write home about.
PRAYER ANSWERED: Blondie's Diner is mere minutes outside of the park and we had the BEST meal of the trip sitting outside on their patio. (I recommend the bacon burger and philly cheesesteak!) We laughed with the waitress about last night's dinner, and she said we weren't the first to complain about the food in Hurricane. After leaving a big fat tip, weheaded back to the Airbnb for post-hike naps. (Looking back, I think we were also little jet-lagged, dehydrated, and/or sensitive to the slight elevation, because we slept about 15 hours between these naps and the following morning.)
We had a very glamorous Little Caesar's dinner that night while I edited some pics from the trip. Definitely ate all our burned Zion calories (and more), but NO REGRETS. We're on vacation.
On the road again with cold pizza for breakfast, good sleep under our belt, and more incredible views awaiting us on our way to Tooele. This time we had 4 hours to go, but Jesse still took the wheel so I was happily on entertainment duty. We spent most of the morning just talking over a playlist and contemplating the changing landscapes. I kept the camera in the my hand practically the whole time. It always amazes me what you can still capture out of a dirty car window going 80 miles per hour.
The sun is high, the skies are blue, and we just got our first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake. It's beautiful. Everything surrounding the lake takes on strange pastel tones and you can see salt crust forming anywhere the water meets the land. We happened to find another reservoir (but a lot smaller this time) and stopped to drink in the views. Jesse took the camera for a bit and I was happy to just sit and stare.
A few hours later, our Airbnb was ready, and again, so perfect. Similar master suite as the last, but this one was slightly bigger and had it's own little patio out front. We'd never rented single rooms before this trip, but both places exceeded expectations. I assumed we'd have to deal with noisy (or worse, NOSEY) hosts, but they kept to themselves and it definitely felt like we had our own space. The few times we DID meet our hosts, they were lovely to chat with and I just could not thank them enough for the hospitality and comfy rooms. Our luck is still clearly holding out with Airbnb!
We had a few hours to chill and gear up for my big ticket item...driving to the Bonneville Salt Flats for sunset.
Bonneville Salt Flats
I told Jesse I was happy to go to the Salt Flats myself (or at least drive us) since it was going to be an extra 3 hour round trip (on top of the 4.5 hours we just drove this morning from Zion). However, he wanted to come with me and instead of eating dinner in Tooele, he found a batch of food closer to the Salt Flats (passed where we were headed). Happy to have him along, I hopped in the car and said we could eat wherever he wanted.
Fast-forward and we were just now hitting the long highway to the flats. The parking for the flats would be on the right, but remember, we were passing them to go eat, then turning around to get to the official entrance. As we were gazing out across the salty expanse, Jesse suddenly says "huh...how we going to get there coming the opposite way?" My stomach sank. He was right. The hour-long divided highway we were on only had a handful of cut-throughs, and they were marked "NO U-TURN: Authorized Vehicle Only."
Yup, we just added 1.5 hrs of backtracking to our now 4.5 hour roundtrip (resulting in passing the flats about 4 times). At this point, half of me wanted to forget the whole thing. After we completely passed the flats for the first time, we also realized the random batch of restaurants Jesse found was because we were technically crossing into Nevada...therefore, someone built a depressing casino-town in the middle of the desert just over the state line. All our food options were inside casino buildings, except for a Subway, which is where we opted to eat dinner. I ate a very silent sub and could tell Jesse was exhausted, but he put on a happy face for me and we got back on the road. We passed the flats on the left this time and then finally found an overpass 45 minutes in that enabled us to head West again. Thankfully, we were still plenty early for sunset by the time we parked at the flats.
COMMON SENSE ALERT: double and triple check google maps when you're in a new place. We definitely aren't used to the kind of unforgiving terrain that results in long stretches of road with no exits or turn-arounds.
Nothing like a little exercise to clear the mind. We took our hiking gear (camelbak/sunscreen/camera) and walked out onto the salt. The ground is crunchy like snow, but a lot harder. I thought it would be more like sand, but it was interestingly the texture of rough concrete (my bare feet didn't last too long). Sandals worked well and we walked until there wasn't anybody else around. With the highway far behind us, I suddenly felt like I was on the moon.
Jesse put his stuff down and got comfortable. I pulled the camera out and started snapping. It was eerily quiet even though we could see plenty of people out and about, as well as cars doing donuts. But this place is so massive, we still felt completely alone. The mountains on the horizon broke up the fields of salt and as the sun started setting behind them, my little bit of stress just melted away.
Thanking god for self-timer, Jesse's interest in photography, and pastel skies.
After our long day, we slept in a little bit the next morning. I took a look at my little itinerary and we both were sold on seeing Antelope Island. It was an hour drive, but we got to see a little bit of Salt Lake City on the way in, and stopped by a little diner for breakfast (and some awesome lattes). Although Antelope Island looks like a peninsula on Google maps, its only connected to the mainland by salty, crusty marshland on one side, and then a long bridge on the other. The morning light was so beautiful on the soft pastel lake and mountains that surrounded us. I did a little more research on our way in, so we knew to be on the lookout for the cared-for herd of about 500-700 bison that inhabit island at any given time, along with a ton of other wildlife (birds, lizards, snakes, etc).
Some hiking notes; everything is mostly in the full sun due to the rolling-meadows landscape! We were very glad to have brought plenty of sunscreen and water.
We mostly toured the island by the few paved roads that run in various directions, however there were a few pull-offs and we decided to take at least one good heart-rate-doubling hike straight up to an enormous boulder. The view was worth the beating sun.
Something we DIDN'T expect that was actually a lot of fun; the historical ranch site. Fielding Garr Ranch was established in 1848 and it was honestly really interesting to see all the farming equipment, facilities, and buildings from that era. Maybe we're old people now that we enjoy a little bit of history, but living on that island really took a lot of ingenuity, so it was kind of inspiring to see how that first family lived and worked without electricity and other "modern luxuries" we take for granted every day.
ford track attack
I've written a legitimate BOOK at this point, so I'll spare you all the details of our time at the Ford Performance Center - but let me just say, those people have this event down to a science. Thanks to the reception the night before (which involved a pretty nice dinner) everyone was already accounted for and checked in with wristbands, so the next day could start immediately. Even as a non-driving guest, I still got to sit in on all the classes, watch Jesse do the various track exercises, and rode shotgun while a professional driver did some impressive laps on the main track. They made sure we had water fridges and bathrooms within 100 feet of us at all times to help us stay hydrated, and it worked. Even on an overcast day, the combined dry air and elevation can suck the moisture right out of you, but we stayed clear headed and headache-free!
Highlight of the Day: before they walk you out to the glorious garage of Shelbies, they let you know that your car has already been picked and stickered, so don't try and get "your color". So imagine Jesse's smile, when right there at the back of the line, sat his exact gray car (minus the black stripes) with his last name across the windshield. I think he was one of two guys out of the group to get that lucky.
The weather was beautifully cooperative, Jesse had a blast, and I came away with a new respect for racing and the mastery of maneuvering these growly machines.
That about wraps up our trip! We actually decided to switch our flight so that we would be flying out of SLC instead of Vegas. The drive back was starting to look really long, and after crunching the numbers, it was only going to cost us an extra $100 for the new plan (most of that being the charge for returning a rental car to a difference place). It was beyond worth the couple of phone calls, and meant we were going to get home a treasured THREE hours earlier than the original schedule, so we had plenty of time to do laundry and relax a little before work the next day.
Despite the now-funny hiccups along the way, this trip was definitely one for the books and we are really excited to continue exploring the beautiful United States...then potentially diving into our international bucket-list.