Clouds break within minutes of sunset, setting a spark to the rocky red spires skyscraping 2,000 feet out of the sand and snow far below. From a high cliff, we silently stare as we did minutes ago into the campfire.
Sensing the plummeting temperature, we instinctively hug our steaming tin cups of cider ever closer to our faces. It'll soon be dark and down to 11 degrees. And we're three miles from the nearest plowed road, person or power. We have nowhere to go but our tent nestled in the trees a few steps away. So, we stand and sip until the sun's a splinter, enjoying the view from atop the world at 10,500 feet elevation.
To think, just seven hours ago I was facedown on a massage table at Cedar Breaks Lodge in the ski resort town of Brian Head, Utah.
I've never had a professional massage before. Snowshoeing into the cold, quiet Cedar Breaks National Monument suits me more.
That's the beauty of Brian Head. It offers everything from the plush and pampered life of a ski resort town to the rustic, roughing-it adventure at Cedar Breaks just two miles up the road on state Route 143.
Even better, Brian Head is an easy three-hour drive from Las Vegas on Interstate 15. And Brian Head Resort isn't your usual ski resort. In a state known for skiing, Brian Head is at the top, literally. With chair lifts starting at 9,600 feet elevation, it's the highest ski mountain in Utah, summiting at 11,000 feet.
Although it's smaller than most at 640 acres of skiable terrain, Brian Head features wide runs for the beginner and advanced skier. It averages 400 inches of annual snowfall, allowing the mountain to be open from mid-November to mid-April. At such an altitude, the snow is dry, making it a fluffy powder.
However, that wasn't the case when our group of four arrived on Jan. 20. It hadn't snowed in a month. Even though the resort claimed to have an 18-inch base, warning signs dotted the mountain for exposed ground, tree stumps and rocks. The runs were extremely icy, but it was sunny and manufactured snow kept all but one run open, including three terrain parks of jumps, rails and more.
Then, 16 inches fell in the next three days, which sounds like good news. But we soon learned that a resort as high as this has its disadvantages. The storm hit our second day, bringing a fresh few inches by morning, and it snowed all day. But the resort opened only its bunny run that day because of 40 mph winds and 65 mph gusts high on the mountain.
A manager told us this isn't uncommon during heavy snowfalls because Brian Head is so high and exposed in Utah's desertlands. We grew tired of the lift by noon and took a break until sundown. We made our way to Brian Head's six-lane tubing hill just behind our hotel. Being competitive, our group of four raced. The mountain also has nighttime skiing on a small portion of its terrain.
Brian Head can be as expensive or cheap as you want it to be.
For example, Cedar Breaks Lodge is only a stone's throw from the bunny lift (which can be used to connect to every lift on Brian Head's two mountains) and costs $139 a night for the cheapest room of two queen beds during the weekend. The room, although least expensive, offers a gas fireplace and jet tub. And all guests have underground parking.
It also has a day spa (with a 10 percent discount for guests), pool, two hot tubs, sauna and steam room. For a step up, you can stay at the Hilton-operated Double Tree for a minimum of $189 per night for two queen beds. Cedar City, 33 miles away, offers such chain motels as Best Western, Holiday Inn and Comfort Inn.
Also, lift tickets are on the cheaper end for ski resorts at $49 for adults. They're even cheaper through hotels such as Cedar Breaks, which can buy them for you ahead of time at a discount. Just make sure to ask about it while booking your room. You can also get 35 percent off by purchasing the new Midweek Punch Pass, which provides five adult, full-day lift tickets for $159, equaling less than $32 per day. It's fully transferable and good for one punch per weekday.
Equipment rentals at the resort are $30 per day.
Similarly, restaurants range in price from the expensive options at lodges to cheaper stand-alone restaurants. We ate at the mildly priced and enjoyable Mi Pueblo Mexican restaurant half a mile from our lodge the first night.
For our last restaurant meal before snowshoeing and cross-country skiing into the wilderness, we tried Double Black Diamond Steakhouse at Cedar Breaks the second night for dinner. Offerings include grilled swordfish for $28, a New York strip steak for $25, a buffalo rib-eye for $41 and more. But beware, the menu is a la carte. If you want any sides, you'll have to pay more.
After a Sunday morning Swedish full body massage for $72, we checked out of the hotel and headed up Route 143 until reaching the T-intersection in two miles. The road would normally continue straight ahead into Cedar Breaks National Monument but is closed in the winter and becomes a great snowshoeing or Nordic skiing trail. It's relatively flat at 10,000 feet elevation.
To continue driving, the road takes a sharp left. We parked here, grabbed our overnight packs and headed in. Within 1½ miles, we reached a ranger-operated yurt offering a warm wood stove, hot chocolate and cider. Donations are encouraged. Within another 1½ miles, we reached Chessmen Ridge Overlook and decided to camp there, digging 3 feet down to the ground for our tent footprint. The snow walls would provide some natural insulation.
Atop the 10,000-foot plateau, extreme winter conditions are frequent and include high winds, extreme cold, heavy snow and whiteout. Lucky for us, the day was mostly calm and clear. We quickly shed our layers and trekked in comfort (except for our 5-pound packs).
In the winter, camping is permitted anywhere beyond 100 yards of the road or any developed facility. No permit is required to stay overnight and there are no fees, but check the weather forecast. It's suggested that you check in with a ranger at the monument headquarters office in Cedar City.
Despite the night's low temperature, our group survived as comfortably as could be expected in a tent. Our sleeping bags were graded for zero degree temperatures. We wore three layers of winter gear and tucked handwarmer packets (which produce heat for eight hours) in our socks.
Low clouds rolled in overnight, bringing not snow but high winds and low visibility by morning. For breakfast, we melted snow using a portable propane burner, ate our oatmeal, broke camp and headed to our cars.
By early afternoon, we were back in Las Vegas and what seemed like a whole new world.