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Brian Head / Cedar City

Southern Utah's year-round hot spots, Brian Head and Cedar City offer snow sports, mountain biking, scenic byways, and Shakespeare.

red rock country of Cedar Breaks National Monument, image
Photo caption
Stunning red rock vistas are one of the draws of Cedar Breaks National Monument.

A solitary figure shifts his weight on his skis and carves a wide turn through dry Utah snow. Soon, another follows, and another. Then the mountain is quiet again for a few minutes. Later that same year, a lone mountain biker winds down the same mountain.

This is no Park City, teeming with skiers, or Moab, crawling with mountain bikers. It’s Brian Head, perched high on the Markagunt Plateau in the southwest corner of the state. In the middle of what Utah residents call the "Grand Circle of National Parks," Brian Head is four hours south of Salt Lake City, and three hours north of Las Vegas.

Up Scenic Byway 143, 45 minutes from Cedar City, Brian Head has maintained an existence as a sleepy winter retreat for skiers and snowboarders and summer haven for mountain bikers. For biking, the locals say it doesn’t get much better. For skiing, Brian Head is great for families and beginners—especially beginning snowboarders. The powder is soft, and the runs, although short, are wide and empty. And best of all: the ragged canyons and red hoodoos of Cedar Breaks National Monument just a couple of miles away.

Such a jewel can’t stay hidden forever. The former Brian Head Hotel has new owners and a new name: the Cedar Breaks Lodge and Spa. A total renovation is underway; emerging is a cozy high-mountain lodge. The spa is already complete, and offers luscious aromatherapy, 100-minute massages, and more.

Following suit, big plans are shaping up for the town and the ski resort. Today, the most difficult ski runs at the top of Brian Head Peak (11,307’) are reachable only by snowcat service. In seasons to come, you will be able to choose from a wider menu. Brian Head recently received a permit to develop another 350 acres. Not interested in strapping planks on your feet? Try Utah’s first snow-tubing park here.

But you seek the quiet side of snow country: Brian Head offers 300 miles of snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails, many of which turn to hiking and biking trails in summer and fall. To stay near the lodge, take the Town Trail. Just below Brian Head’s tiny cluster of stores, it winds through a thick forest of aspens and firs.

Not to miss: a cross-country ski, snowshoe, or bike ride to the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument. At the edge, you look across a 2,000-foot-deep, 3-mile-wide natural coliseum, carved into badlands by millions of years of uplift and erosion. In spring Indian paintbrush, columbine, and wild rose fill pockets in the breaks. On the rim are some of the world’s most ancient living things: gnarled bristlecone pines. In summer and fall a 5-mile drive through the monument takes visitors to hiking trails and main viewing spots.

From mid-June through October, Brian Head literally shifts gears. The snow has gone, replaced by blooms of mountain bluebell and scarlet gilia. Skis have been replaced by fat tires.

Towns with a permanent population of 95 rarely need four bike shops unless they are ranked as one of the country’s top destinations by every major bicycling magazine in the country. Brian Head has made the grade due to 100 miles of single-track and downhill trails.

One popular way to bike the mountain: ride the resort’s chairlift or catch a shuttle up to Brian Head Peak. Views at the top are of red canyons, mountains, and plateaus. As you descend, they change to forests of fir and spruce, alpine meadows edged by aspens, and rust-colored canyon walls. Brian Head offers a variety of easy to hard-core bike trails.

Nourishment after either a long day of skiing or biking: The Cedar Breaks Lodge offers the Summit Dining Room for fine dining (pasta, salmon, elk). Across the road is the Mountain View Cafe, famous for its homestyle cooking and Brian berry pie.

There’s also Big O’s Pizza, The Bump n’ Grind for coffee addicts, or The Edge—where locals say don’t miss the desserts.

Skiing, biking, snow-boarding, snowshoeing all sound like hell on earth? Get behind the wheel. This is scenic byway country.

Follow Scenic Byway 143 east out of Brian Head through the Dixie National Forest, and you’ll come upon Panguitch Lake Recreation Area. Those with rod and reel might appreciate that Panguitch is Paiute for "big fish."

The town of Panguitch marks the eastern end of Byway 143. Take a walking tour, or check out the Paunsagaunt Wildlife Museum. For BBQ, stop by Cowboy’s Smokehouse.

Head south on Scenic Byway 89 to Scenic Byway 14. It runs west to Duck Creek (cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter; fishing, hiking in summer). Farther, the Zion Overlook offers a view of the National Park. The road eventually cuts down Cedar Canyon to Cedar City.

Cedar City offers a different take on a vacation: an old-fashioned Main Street, a beautiful stone church, and the history-filled Iron Mission State Park. And, if you’re there from late June to Labor Day, this is Utah’s Shakespeare country.

Fine dining in Cedar City: Adriana’s, housed in a 1908 manor, offers up pork chops stuffed with crab, glazed in a plum sauce, and Cajun-style prime rib. Don’t pass up the to-die-for rolls or pie. And ask about the ghost. For a top-quality steak, try Milt’s Stage Stop or Rusty’s. For extraordinary Mexican (especially the chili relleños), stop on Main Street at Escobar’s.

Half an hour south of Cedar City is the Kolob Canyon of Zion National Park. The scenic byway through the canyon takes you past towering vermilion cliffs speckled with Christmas-tree-shaped spruce. In summer and fall, a 15-mile round-trip hike will take you to the world’s largest freestanding arch, the Kolob Arch.

For a sweeping look at the wide-open West, drive north of Cedar City to the Parowan Gap; carved by wind and water, it holds an impressive exhibit of petroglyphs.

All around this southern Utah corner are small towns tucked into high canyons or on the edge of wide valleys. Some are growing fast, as big homes pop up in the middle of once-verdant alfalfa fields; others stay small, thriving on their past. Don’t just drive by. Even the emptiest place can be worth a visit if you look closely enough.

Photography courtesy of Averette/Wikipedia

This article was first published in March 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.