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Mountain Musings: Rooting for the Underdog

In my September 12 blog entry, I extolled the virtues of Canada’s Banff National Park, a world-renowned mecca for mountain lovers, and my ultimate road trip destination. “Banff or Bust!” This was my party’s half-mocking, half-deadly serious mantra as we whizzed past Portland, Oregon and gave Vancouver the once-over in a record-breaking two and a half hours. We zoomed toward the Canadian Rockies as if they were our salvation.

To be frank, in several ways, they were. The park’s charmingly petite Lake Louise has crystal-clear turquoise waters–yes, they’re actually turquoise–that make you wonder if somebody somehow strapped Technicolor goggles on your peepers when you weren’t looking. Cradling the Banff valley are jutting peaks and ice-blue glaciers. Find an out-of-the-way trailhead, hike an hour or two, and you’ll end up feeling like you’re the only person on the planet.

Like most international attractions, though, Banff was filled with, well, international visitors. The crowds in town were as majestic as the scenery, and we met throngs of people from as far away as Wales and Korea (according to their website, the park welcomes about three million visitors per year). Eventually, we found a backwoods trail that led us through a cool glade to a massive, lonely glacier. We snapped some pics, then hit the road and bent our course back south toward the good ol’ U.S.A.

Our next stop was the home of a childhood friend of mine in Logan, Utah. Before I go on, I’d like to get up on a soapbox for a second and say a few things about Utah. First, it’s piteously underrated as a vacation destination. Piteously. People see it as a state of quiet religious types–which, in many ways, is true. But these people have obviously never visited the likes of Arches, Zion, or Bryce Canyon National Parks, not to mention the countless other pristine wilderness areas found throughout the state.

As for the quiet, small-town stereotype, I’m going to wholeheartedly and happily agree with this one. Small towns are by definition inconspicuous, and therefore much more modest and serene than popular vacation spots. They can be quite friendly, and surprisingly unique: Just north of Logan is tiny Preston, Idaho, where the hit film Napoleon Dynamite was both filmed and set. We stopped and bought some kitsch mementos in a thrift store featured in the movie.

I could go on about the virtues of Logan itself–its organic local produce, pleasant bakeries, and charming temples–but its real treasure is the wilderness in its backyard. Just a 15-minute drive from my friend’s house in the city center is Wasatch-Cache National Forest, a wonderland of delicate maples, quivering aspens, and trim evergreens. Possibly, I wasn’t prepared for the blazing fall colors (remember, I’m from California), so it was all I could do to keep myself from stopping every 10 seconds to snap photos as we trekked up winding trails to shimmering lakes and stunning peaks.

Maybe it’s because I live in a major metropolis with buzzing streets and thick rush-hour traffic that I love the wilderness so much. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a family that prized camping and spent two weeks exploring Utah’s outback when I was 10. Or maybe it’s just that Utah has one of the nation’s best combinations of incredible natural scenery and small-crowd getaways. Banff, don’t get me wrong–you’re beautiful. The whole world knows it. But you’re Marilyn Monroe, and Utah’s Wasatch-Cache is more like Bette Davis. Not as glamorous, perhaps, but startlingly beautiful and unique. Sometimes you’ve got to root for the underdog.


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What a great post, Jessica. I’m so glad you had such a wonderful time, and totally agree with you about Utah. Arches and Zion are two of my favorite national parks.

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