Summer Special: Guided Adventure in Utah's National Parks: Why and How to Do It

Whether you're heading into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park (top photo), canyoneering in Zion National Park, or exploring slot canyons in Capitol Reef National Park, sometimes you just might feel more at ease with a guide leading the way. But how do you find one? Top photo by Kurt Repanshek, bottom two NPS.

Editor's note: There are some great adventures to be enjoyed in the National Park System, but at times we might not feel confident enough in our own skills to go it alone, or we might want a "local" to lead us to the wonders. Either situation could send you searching for a guided trek into the national parks. But where do you begin to find a guide, and how do you measure their qualifications? Julie Trevelyan, a guide herself and writer, offers the following framework for your decision-making process. While it's based around Utah's national parks, it can be applied most anywhere in the National Park System.

You want outdoor adventure? Head to Utah's national parks and contemplate your many options: To hike among red, crumbling hoodoo spires...delve far into rugged backcountry to gaze at rarely-seen natural arches that soar toward the sky...hop on the back of a pretty cowpony and retrace the steps of Butch Cassidy...zip along challenging bike trails that wind up, down, and all around.

If you want to do some or all of that but barely know where to start planning, you'd do well to consider a local guiding service. Why? Because, as Tim Gaylord of Holiday River Expeditions notes, “Expert guides will be able to share their knowledge of the area ... allowing you to kick back and enjoy the ride.”

Guides and outfitters have led tenderfoots and canyon lovers into the dry, stunning, countryside of the Southwestern national parks since before they were parks. A hundred years ago your guide would probably have been a local cowboy, à la the Wetherills of Mesa Verde, or maybe a prospector or miner down on his luck who needed to earn a little extra cash showing around the dudes.

Having guided a wide variety of clients for a wide variety of outdoor recreation companies, I vouch for hiring an outfitter, especially if you're not the most outdoorsy or detail-oriented traveler. Guides can take you to the best places and show off the secret spots. In effect, a guide can put you on the “fast track to being a local,” says Amelia Gull of Zion Adventure Company, and help make your visit more meaningful.

But how the heck do you decide who to use? You can't ask National Park Service staff; policy prohibits them from either endorsing or dissing any one company over another.

And with the number of outfits serving Utah's national parks, you've got your work cut out for you in making a decision. You can still find simple one-person outfits, but today's guiding companies also range to multi-state and even international mini-conglomerates.

First off, the Internet is your friend during this search. One good place to start is Utah Guides and Outfitters, which currently lists 50 recreational outfitters in the state. Secondly, I rounded up five good starter questions to ask yourself – then run them past your prospective guiding companies, too.

* What sort of adventure do I want?

Thrill ride; nice n' easy does it; kids on board; private trip; cheapest thing out there; cater to my every whim; I don't mind getting dirty or hiking several miles per day; want to get my yoga on during sunrise in the backcountry silence; drive me in a vehicle all the way?

Different companies mean different types of trips and clients. Browse their websites for specifics. And be sure what you want is actually offered within the national park of your choice, unless you don't mind just being near it.

* What do I need to know about my guides? How well do they know the area? How long have they been guiding?

Of course, all guides need to start sometime, so cut the fresh-faced kids some slack...as long as they actually do know what they're doing or are working alongside someone else who does.

Do they have all the necessary certifications? What are the necessary certifications? Every company will say they have the “best guides in southern Utah.” This may be true, within reason. But what you really want to know is, exactly how knowledgeable are they overall, and are they the best guides for your trip in particular? Feel free to ask any company about their people, and expect an honest answer.

* How long has this guiding company been in business?

Again, everyone must start sometime. If this is a newer company, find out how long the owners/guides have been guiding and how deep their familiarity is with the area. Also, make sure they hold the proper current permits and insurance for their activities. National park permits outline details by which commercial outfitters must comply, and each national park has slightly different requirements. National parks will not issue permits to outfitters who don't also hold appropriate liability insurance.

* What is the client return rate?

If an outfitter has the same people returning for trips year after year, you can bet they're doing something right. On the other hand, some people just like to experience diverse areas and different types of trips, so don't worry too much if a company serves mostly new clients each season. You can also request contact information for past clients who are willing to discuss their experience with this particular company. If someone happily raves, that's a great sign. But remember, the company is highly unlikely to give you names of dissatisfied customers.

* Have they ever had accidents? How serious were they, and how was the incident handled?

Statistically speaking, any outdoor guiding company will have an accident if they're in business long enough.

Accidents can range from a rolled ankle to death. (Yup, you're signing a waiver before any trip you take.) What you want to know is, was the accident preventable? Was it caused by guide error, client misjudgment of their own abilities and/or not listening to the guide's directions, slipshod management, or events completely beyond the control of any human being?

Poorly-maintained gear is the fault of the company. But a thunderstorm creating slick trails is an act of nature; remember, you're signing on for a wilderness trip, lightning shows possibly included. Also realize that guiding companies won't advertise their past mistakes, nor might they be entirely forthcoming even if you ask direct questions. No one wants to highlight the bad stuff.

Yet don't be afraid to use a company that has had accidents; they can still be a great company and provide you with an excellent trip. If you're really concerned and wondering, try an online search to see if any negative information pops up. But again, take it with a grain of salt depending on the source. A big city newspaper is probably accurate. Someone's personal blog could be overblown. Verify the information with the company itself.

Here's a very tiny smattering of guide services for you to consider for Utah's national parks (Please note this is not necessarily an endorsement of any company; I recommend you do your legwork and make your own informed decisions):

Arches National Park

Escape Adventures – multi-sport
Moab Adventure Center – multi-sport
Tag-A-Long Expeditions – hiking, driving, and paddling tours

Bryce Canyon National Park

Canyon Trail Rides – horseback riding
Rim Tours – mountain biking
Southern Utah Scenic Tours – multi-day driving tours with activities

Canyonlands National Park

Holiday River Expeditions – river rafting and mountain biking
Moab Adventure Center – multi-sport
Rim Tours – mountain biking
Tag-A-Long Expeditions -- multi-sport

Capitol Reef National Park

Hondoo Rivers & Trails – multi-sport (Author disclaimer: I will be guiding for Hondoo during the 2011 season)
Ted Winder, Tour Guide – driving tours and more
Backcountry Tours -- multi-sport.

Zion National Park

Canyon Trail Rides
– horseback riding
Zion Adventure Company – multi-sport
Zion Rock & Mountain Guides – multi-sport

Comments

Most of the larger parks have a Natural History Association, and many of them also have a Field Institute which has outdoor classes and guided hikes,including the Zion Canyon Field Institute. These are not-for-profits and the funds are channeled back into their mother park.