Utah by Dirt: Off Road and Behind the Lens

Photograph by Max Lowe
Carston Oliver airs off a small rock formation at about the halfway mark for the White Rim Trail, still energetic and stoked to get airborne after riding 30 miles in the roasting sun; Photograph by Max Lowe

A desert road trip is something that I look forward to year in and year out. As a neighboring Coloradan, it’s become a staple of the yearly adventure diet. While I may not call Utah my home, there is something there that I can’t live without. Anyone who has been there and experienced the full value of the desert understands this lure. The biggest problem with adventuring in Utah is that once you’ve seen some of it, you realize how little you have actually seen. It’s enough to drive you mad, but ultimately you realize that this is what makes it so special. The fact that the you will never see it all proves how complex and powerful it truly is.

Photograph by Max Lowe
Carston Oliver and their guide Collin steer a raft through the tumultuous Skull Rapid in the gut of Westwater Canyon, Colorado River, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

As a photographer, there is always a thirst to shoot and create here. The subtle color pallet, strong shadows, and obscure geologic shapes are otherworldly, and keep your mind always curious as to what you and your camera can produce. The desert is a land of contrasts. As our friend and guide Sam said, “There are two ways to die in the desert: heat exhaustion and hypothermia.” This same motif is present everywhere you go in the desert. With blistering hot days on the trail and freezing plunges into the depths of slot canyons, we experienced the full gamut of extremities, often with not much middle ground. It’s these same kind of contrasts that make the photos and stories you can tell here so interesting.

Photograph by Max Lowe
Sam Keller rappels into the reflection pool at the base of Grand Cathedral in Neon Canyon, Escalante National Monument, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

While our vehicle was the perfect tool for getting from location to location, often times via a rough and gnarly dirt road, I stand by my statement that Utah is not a place to be observed from the window of a car. The second you step out of the car and jump on your bike or rappel into a canyon is when you really get to see this place for what it is. The only way to know this for sure, is to get out there and experience it for yourself. With our 10 days touring around the state, we were able to sample a great swath of terrain and adventure, ranging from the freeride MTB zones of Green River, to the hundred-mile White Rim trail, to the waves and eddies of the Colorado River through Ruby-Horestheif and Westwater Canyons, and to the slot canyons of Escalante. An adventure like this is a beautiful experience, and one that is attainable to many of us. I would recommend a similar trip to anyone who is excited and willing to go out there and get after it!

Do It Yourself

Mountain biking guiding and tours:


Raft guiding and tours:

Canyoneering guiding and tours:

The Adventurists blog series “Utah by Dirt” is sponsored by Toyota 4Runner, which provided vehicle for this adventure.

Follow us on Instagram at @NatGeoAdventure!



  1. Lisa Skillett
    Los Angeles
    October 10, 2015, 3:31 pm

    I discovered the beauty of Utah thru reading Edward Abbey’s book, “Desert Solitaire”. Hungry for more, my husband and I journeyed there in 1993 and spent a week in the “Maze” portion of Canyonlands National Park. Climbing down the sheer cliffs into the Maze we used the hand and footholds of the Ancient Anasazi Indians. We were in search of the storied “Harvest Scene” petroglyphs/pictographs when I saw two people (amazingly enough) enter into a small horseshoe canyon. Being the extrovert I am, I followed them into the canyon, but only found & flushed two deer out of the tiny canyon. My interest was thoroughly piqued, even tho my husband said I was crazy…..

    We found the Harvest Scene and marveled at the craftsmanship of the petroglyphs/pictographs, but I began to feel uneasy in their presence, as if I didn’t belong there. We headed back early and were well halfway up the canyon walls when a furious thunderstorm hit. Perhaps the Anasazi were urging me on to avoid being caught up in the possibility of the canyon flooding.

    I am still 55 years young, but disabled from fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue and can no longer attempt these kind of journeys of a lifetime. Thanks to your sharing your journey with NG, I can vicariously journey back to Utah.

    If your interested in protecting this beautiful land from the state of Utah who is trying to appropriate these lands from the federal government in order to run cattle, mine & drill them for profit, check out http://www.suwa.org for more info. Don’t forget the lasting legacy Obama left us in preserving the Escalante canyon!