SALT LAKE CITY — I've driven through Utah on a couple of occasions, staying for the most part on Interstates 15 and 70. That’s why, when I got an invite from the Utah Office of Tourism to join a backroads cultural heritage tour through never-before-seen parts of the state, I jumped on the chance.
The trip started in St. George, located in the extreme southwestern part of the state, and ended about 800 miles and five days later north in Salt Lake City, a beautiful, engaging city where I managed to catch a walk-around look at the gorgeous Mormon Temple and the recently opened Natural History Museum of Utah. It’s perched high in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains overlooking the city and Great Salt Lake Basin.
Years ago I remember driving through St. George on my way elsewhere. This time around I was impressed by its sophistication and almost Sedona-like qualities. Billed as the gateway to spectacular Mt. Zion National Park, the city of less than 72,000 has also become a haven for retirees and snowbirds, people from northern climes who like to winter here. The town, famous for its red bluffs, is also a sports mecca and hosts the St. George Marathon, unbelievably, for this small town, the 5th largest in the U.S.
Originally established in 1861 as a cotton-growing mission by Brigham Young, then Mormon president, St. George was settled by 309 families sent south from Salt Lake who promptly set about building irrigation ditches to water their crops.
Time and again flash floods washed the ditches and crops away, and I heard some not-too-happy stories of the early settlers of "Dixie," as the cotton-growing area was called. Tales of the early settlers were sung in the town’s Opera House by a spirited band of musicians headed by Clive Romney, a relative of Mitt, who also happens to be running for president.
One of the remarkable stories told of the 309 families who were directed by Young to build a red brick tabernacle. How they found the time to do so while battling the climate and arid conditions around them is nothing short of heroic.
Young made St. George his winter home and his comely house a block north of St. George Boulevard is open for public touring daily. Also worth seeing, especially at night when it’s beautifully floodlit, is the St. George Temple, the longest continuously operating Mormon temple built by thousands of faithful who came from all over southern Utah to help in its construction.
The interior of the temple is off limits to non-believers, but the temple visitors center and grounds are accessible to the public.
A brochure for a walking tour of the historic center of town lists 26 attractions, including the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum and an art museum housed in what used to be a warehouse for sugar beet seeds.
Twenty minutes from St. George, the Tuacahn Amphitheatre stages Broadway musicals, concerts, a Halloween "Thriller" and a Christmas light show set against the red rock backdrop of Snow Canyon.
Day two of my excursion took me north along I-15 to Parowan, a climb from St. George’s 2,000 foot altitude to Parowan’s 5,970. Still it was nothing like the 15 mile ascent up Route 143 from Parowan to Cedar Breaks Summit which tops off at 10,400 feet. Naturally, the terrain changes, from semi-arid desert to alpine forest and flower-covered meadows with spectacular scenic vistas that include wondrous multi-colored rock formations called hoodoos.
Further on in Panguitch, we heard another moving pioneer story that told the tale of a heavy snow that killed the early settlers’ wheat crop. Facing starvation, a party of seven men set out for Parowan but encountered such heavy snow they abandoned their oxen and wagons.
Walking, too, was next to impossible - until one in their party pulled out his quilt, laid it gently on the snow pack and proceeded to walk forward without sinking.
Step after step, the quilts were laid successively in front of one another until the determined men made their destination and saved the day.
Each June, the town’s modern day residents throw a "Quilt Walk Festival to commemorate the expedition.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at email@example.com.