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Adventure Travel – Running in Southern Utah

What is “Adventure Travel”? A Google search will lead you to this description – “a type of tourism involving travel to remote or exotic locations in order to take part in physically challenging outdoor activities.” We discuss a little bit about Adventure Travel and my recent trip on Episode 64 of The RUNATL Podcast. If you want more details and photos from the trip, continue reading.

By Dave Martinez

About 25 years ago, I visited Southern Utah, Arizona, and the area around the Grand Canyon. The views were awesome but I felt I needed more. The visit was part of a larger trip and we basically only saw the touristy spots along the road. I left wanting more and it has been a bucket list to go back and truly experience these areas on foot. Last year I saw an ad for Vacation Races that caught my attention. They put on races in and around National Parks allowing participants to explore these areas away by truly going into the region on foot. Distances for The Grand Circle Trailfest range from 10 – 13 miles over 3 days. While they are considered races and are timed, my goal was not to run fast but to run and be able to take in all the views while still challenging myself. I certainly got everything I expected and was not disappointed.

The Grand Circle Trailfest includes races in Bryce, Zion, & Horseshoe Bend which is part of the Grand Canyon. Basecamp is in Kanab, Utah and is centrally located to these destinations. Travel between each from Kanab ranges from 1 hour – 1 hour, 20 minutes. I chose the option to camp as they supplied a tent and I only had to bring a sleeping bag, pad, & anything else to camp. They provided breakfast & dinner which made the logistics easier. Since this was in a city park, restrooms were available as well as a rec center. They also brought a mobile shower trailer. The festival had musicians, Native American performances, and educational seminars in the evening. Free massages were also available to ease any aches and pains from the day’s activities. There were also over 700 participants representing 43 states & 14 countries. This was pretty impressive as I expected about 200 participants. It’s no wonder this event sells out in March.

Day 1 – Bryce

After a late start to Fall in Atlanta, I was really looking forward to cooler weather on this trip. That’s exactly what I got but it was cold on the first day. Temps dropped to 35ºF in Kanab and it was actually 20ºF once we got to Bryce. It wasn’t really uncomfortable as the low humidity made it feel more like 40ºF. There was a bit of a wait at the start as we got shuttled to the start but once we started running, the temps felt perfect. The views were spectacular as we ran and saw the varied terrain of crimson-colored hoodoos, which are spire-shaped rock formations. This was a 13.3 mile run with the most amount of elevation gain (1,867 ft.) out of all the races. There were some steep climbs and descents on the back half of the course. The finish was flat but over a rocky and technical dry river bed. Temps were about 70ºF by the time I crossed the finish line. There was a finisher’s medal awarded at the end of each race. I must say, I was really impressed with the medals and how they packaged the medals together for a unique display (you’ll have to see the final slideshow).

The great thing about this experience is that for those looking to explore a bit more, you can add to your adventure travel experience by exploring the area on your own after the race. Of course, that depends on how well you trained in advance and how tired you are from the race. I did run into a couple of women from Milton, GA that have been guests at our stores. It truly is a small world. I had issues with my calf prior to this trip and it made doing anything more than the race on the first day a bit difficult. I was able to see a good part of Bryce on the 1 hour -20 minute drive back to Kanab.

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Day 2 – Zion

The second day was still cold but it was a warmer start in the mid-’40s. We were promised a route with less elevation to accommodate those tired legs from the day before. However, the start was a few miles downhill which meant a few miles uphill back to the finish. We were in the southern part of Zion running on a mesa that provided some excellent views. One of the things that I learned is that a mesa is a flat mountain, typically it is wider than it is tall. A butte is taller than it is wide while still retaining a flat surface at the top.

As I was having calf issues, the goal was to enjoy the day running most of the course except when stopping to enjoy views and for the last few miles uphill, simply to run-walk and save the legs for day 3. Aside from the start and finish, the run was relatively flat and very runnable at whatever pace you felt comfortable doing so. At one point, there was a clown cheering all the runners. This was a 13.44-mile run route. Each day there was an aid station that you went by at least once (day 2 we went by twice). Once again, the views did not disappoint! Afterward I drove through Zion Canyon National Park. Walking was a bit difficult after 2 days of running but it was well worth the trip.

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Day 3 – Horseshoe Bend

Each day we were greeted with an incredible sunrise over the beautiful landscape and this was probably the best of all three days and set the tone for the rest of the day. Horseshoe Bend is in Arizona near the town of Page and is part of the Grand Canyon (and on Navajo land) and offers an iconic view of the Colorado River. A shorter route of 10.75 miles was on deck and we were told to expect a bit of sand throughout the day. The course started on a sandy road and quickly turned into Slickrock. The first of many incredible views was within .3 miles. This course allowed for multiple selfie opportunities of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. The terrain was rugged with a lot of the running on Slickrock on uneven surfaces which required careful foot placement. It also required a bit of scrambling (short climbs).

The route had us crossing a road from the desert to the aid station and then entering Waterholes Canyon, a slot canyon (a long, narrow, deep channel with sheer rock walls). This offered some spectacular photos of the sandstone and unique environment. Because it was narrow and many were taking photos, this area became congested and it was not ideal if you were truly racing. I didn’t mind taking it all in as it truly is a unique environment that you have to visit to truly appreciate. This day offered the best if not the most diverse views of the three days. After scrambling out of the canyon the finish was downhill on a dirt/sandy road.

As I mentioned, each race rewarded you with not only awesome views but also a unique medal. The interlocking pieces created a larger medal for the race series. We were also provided with a wooden plaque to display the medals. A nice touch after completing 3 challenging days of running. The entire experience was unique and the terrain each day was different. I couldn’t help but think how much of the area has remained unchanged for thousands of years. I also thought about what the early settlers encountered when they first came into this part of the country. It is a desert afterall and the conditions could be brutal and treacherous not to mention the very challenging terrain.

If you’d like to get into trail running and want to explore the local trails and get a better understanding of the gear you’ll need, visit one of our Big Peach Running Co. locations. You can also read this article to get you started.

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Getting To Kanab, UT

Kanab is a 3-hour drive from Las Vegas, NV, a 4 1/2 hour drive from Salt Lake City, UT, and a 5 1/2 hour drive from Phoenix, AZ. I chose to fly Southwest Airlines into Salt Lake City as I was told the drive would be more scenic. I also wanted to spend some time in Salt Lake City. I was also surprised that once outside Salt Lake City, the speed limit on the interstate was 80 MPH, which meant sometimes the flow of traffic got up to 90 MPH! If you have time either on the way to Kanab or on the way back, take the scenic route through Escalante. It does take you out of the way but it’s well worth the drive as the views are incredible even from your car.

My Run/Hike Pack & Gear

  • Ultimate Direction Anton Kuprika Vest (no longer available) Here’s a similar option. I had 2 soft flasks (17 oz. each) with Tailwind Nutrition. I also had a bladder with an additional 30 oz. of water which was helpful once I ran out of Tailwind.
  •  Clif Bars
  • Lightweight rain jacket/shell & arm warmers
  • GoPro 6 & iPhone
  • Hoka Speedgoat
  • RUNATL Goodr Sunglasses
  • RUNATL Trucker Cap
  • Recommended: Sunscreen

They had the option for gear bags at the start if you wore warm clothing before the start that you could pick up at the finish.

Why Adventure Travel?

Most people consider a vacation when you can lay down on a beach and do nothing for most of the day. There’s nothing wrong with that but there are individuals that want to be more active and have a more immersive experience while on vacation. One of the reasons I prefer adventure travel is the ability to get to areas where most people won’t get a chance to go or experience. As the saying goes, “take the road less traveled”. I’ve come to learn that this is when you get the best views. It’s also rewarding to know that through fitness, in this case running, you can have a unique experience. No matter what you’re into, a simple Google search for “Adventure Travel” will lead you to plenty of options. Whether you subscribe to a cliche like “life is to short, live it to the fullest” or not, I’d recommend you look into this type of experience. Especially if you’re already into running. I’m already thinking about my next adventure. How about you? Will your next vacation be an Adventure Travel experience?