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Ready For a Close Up

UTAH’S NATURAL BEAUTY DRAWS TOURISTS, ADVENTURERS AND FILMMAKERS

By Spencer Sutherland

When you arrive in Utah for the first time, you notice something interesting — it’s not just the stunning views at the State’s five national parks, the world-class skiing or the vibrant nightlife — it’s that all of it feels so familiar.

For years, moviegoers have been transported to Utah through films as diverse as the landscapes they have featured. Audiences were introduced to the gorgeous red rock of Monument Valley when Doc Brown’s DeLorean rushed through the Wild West in Back to the Future III, the natural wonders of Arches National Park as Indy flashed back to his first adventure in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the ski town charm of Park City as two loveable buffoons tracked down the elusive Ms. Samsonite in Dumb and Dumber.

Utah has been a cinematic hotspot for almost a century. “Filmmakers started looking at Utah all the way back in the silent film era,” says Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. “In particular, they were drawn to Southern Utah and its beautiful red rock landscapes.”

Those Southern Utah landscapes really put Utah on the movie map in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when they served as the backdrop for westerns like John Wayne’s The Searchers and Robert Redford’s classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
These films aren’t just bringing big production dollars into the State; they’re bringing tourists, too.

“You’d be surprised at the number of people that come to the State to see these sites,” Moore says. “They want to see where John Wayne and John Ford worked or where Forrest Gump stopped his run across America and went back home. They want to see the baseball diamond in The Sandlot or ride through Monument Valley like Indiana Jones.”

Though it’s hard to quantify the exact numbers of film-related tourism, it’s easy to see its impact. East High School, the Salt Lake City school where Disney’s High School Musical was filmed, watched T-shirt sales jump from $1,000 to $10,000 the year the movie was released. “They couldn’t keep T-shirts in stock,” Moore says, “and they had to offer tours of the gym and the locker room where Zac Efron had his big scenes. It became a hot tourist stop.”

More recently, tourists have also been flocking to Blue John Canyon. The remote slot canyon in Canyonlands National Park has received international attention since the release of 127 Hours, the true story of Aron Ralston, a rock climber who was forced to amputate his own arm. “As soon as the movie was released, there were more permit requests for Blue John than ever before,” Moore says. “People want to hike the area and to see what it was really like for themselves.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

While many tourists come to Utah to get a look at what they’ve seen in a movie, they quickly realize there is more to experience than could ever be captured on film. And there’s no better place to start than on the top of a mountain.

“People come from all across the world to ski on our slopes,” says Vicki Varela, Utah’s managing director of tourism, film and global branding. For decades, Utah has prided itself on having “the Greatest Snow on Earth®,” and there is plenty of evidence to support the bold claim. In fact, you don’t have to look farther than Deer Valley Resort, the Park City ski destination that was named the country’s top resort by SKI magazine for five straight years. The same magazine has also given top satisfaction honors to Alta Ski Area, located up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“Travelers don’t just come to our state for the quality of our resorts, but the quantity as well,” Varela adds. Utah is home to 14 ski resorts, 11 of which are located less than an hour from Salt Lake International Airport. “As opposed to a place like Aspen, Colorado, where the resorts are four hours from the airport,” Varela says, “visitors can fly into Salt Lake and be on the slopes just a few minutes later.”

“We’d put our skiing up against any destination in the world,” Varela says, “but it’s far from our only winter attraction.” Those who aren’t as keen on heights or steep declines may prefer ice skating at the Olympic Oval in Kearns or outdoors in the heart of downtown Salt Lake at the Gallivan Center. Utah also offers more than 25,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and thousands of acres of cross-country skiing terrain. And for those who want to blaze their own trail, a pair of snowshoes and some warm clothing will take you just about anywhere.

Endless Summer

While there is no shortage of winter activities in Utah, the State’s summer opportunities are nearly endless. “Our five national parks are certainly our biggest tourist draw,” says Varela.

“Each park offers such unique experiences, whether it’s hiking through the Narrows in Zion, looking across the spires in Bryce Canyon or walking through Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.”

Because they are located so close to each other, travelers can complete the “Grand Circle” of all five parks in one week-long trip. But with so much to do throughout the parks — biking, climbing, hiking, fishing and even off-roading — you’d be better served by adding a second week to the vacation.

It’s hard to believe that Utah’s national parks are only the beginning of what the State has to offer. Also included in the Grand Circle is Lake Powell, one of the world’s most unique man-made reservoirs. The 186-mile lake is a destination attraction for boaters, kayakers and fishers. “It’s also one of the most iconic places you can water ski in the world,” Varela adds.

Those who would rather propel themselves through the water than be pulled behind a boat will love rafting the Green River or the Colorado River. “You can experience all kinds of water, from mild and family-friendly to some of the biggest rapids you’d want to see,” Varela says. “And you’ll find a very experienced group of guides and outfitters who will help you all along the way.”

Though Utah’s national parks are all located in the southern half of the State, there’s still plenty to do up north. Within minutes of Salt Lake City, you can be mountain biking down wooded trails, fishing in streams or lakes, or horseback riding through countryside. City Creek Canyon lies just east of the city’s historic capitol building and two blocks from downtown Salt Lake. A short walk up the canyon gives access to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and the expansive Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. And within an hour of the city, you can be on Antelope Island at the Great Salt Lake, surrounded by a herd of buffalo.

Indoor Adventures Await

Even the greatest adventurers enjoy a little downtime. And what better way to relax than to do a little shopping? Utah offers all of types of shopping experiences, from ski-town boutiques in Park City to outdoor outfitters throughout the Salt Lake Valley to factory outlets in Southern Utah.

The state’s newest shopping destination, City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City, was recently named the best retail development in the Americas and ranked No. 3 in the world by International Property Awards. The 700,000-square-foot shopping center features more than 100 stores and restaurants, as well as a retractable roof, pedestrian skybridge and choreographed fountains.

A long day of shopping is enough to make anyone hungry — and thirsty. Luckily, award-winning local breweries like Epic Brewing, Squatters and Red Rock are all located within walking distance of City Creek. If it’s home-brewed whiskey you’re after, it may be worth your time to visit High West Distillery & Saloon in Park City, the only whiskey distillery in the world that you can ski right up to (and whose flagship whiskey took Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition).

Impressive dining options are available all throughout the state. A growing trend in Utah dining is the farm-to-table concept, where restaurants prepare meals with locally produced ingredients. “A lot of our chefs are buying local produce and meats and incorporating them into the menu,” Varela says. “It ensures the freshest foods and really gives travelers a great taste of the local cuisine.”

The Farm, a restaurant located at Canyons Resort, focuses its menu on ingredients from farms and artisans within 200 miles of Park City and was named the “Best New Restaurant in Utah” by Salt Lake magazine.

Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder (near the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument), takes the farm-to-table concept a step further. The Zagat-rated restaurant’s ingredients come from the restaurant’s own organic no-harm farm located three miles down the road.

When it’s time to call it a day, there’s nothing more important than having the right place to lay your head. “Whether you want to camp, stay in a high-end property or anything in between, Utah has it,” Varela says.

There are boutique hotels in the city center, lodges on the Colorado River, and bed and breakfasts tucked away in the mountains. And despite a sluggish national economy, the state’s accommodation capacity keeps growing as national chains continue to expand their footprint in the state.

Over the past few years, Utah has also added a string of world-class accommodations, including St. Regis, Montage and Waldorf Astoria. “All these properties came online during a really tough economy. That says a lot about the potential they saw in the state,” Varela says. “If you look at those high-end properties, Utah is quickly becoming known as a luxury destination.”