A pretty good case could be made for Utah being the most visually arresting of America's 50 states, and the stunningly situated town of Moab - in the state's southeastern corner - is an epicenter for soaking up the beauty. It's home to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and it's one of the more liberal and gay-friendly areas in a state with a fairly conservative reputation (this is changing, as Salt Lake City and the ski areas to the east become more liberal and popular with GLBT visitors).
There are plenty of cool ways to experience Moab, but one that really stands out as unusual, tremendously fun, and spiritually enriching are the intimate four-day backpacking retreats offered by Moab Yoga on the Rocks (MYOTR), a gay-friendly company run by Elisabeth T. Lilja and Mickey Vandeventer.
MYOTR stands out for a few reasons. First, the four-day (three-night) backpacking adventures take place in one of America's most breathtakingly beautiful wilderness areas, Canyonlands National Park. These camping adventures are led along the 9-mile Squaw-Lost Canyon loop trail, which wends through the Needles District of the park, taking in the fantastic hoodoos, spires, and other mesmerizing red-rock formations that characterize this vast wilderness. Just having the chance to partake of this area's incomparable beauty is good incentive to take one of these trips.
The other notable feature is that these treks, which are super-intimate because they're limited to just five participants (plus guides Elisabeth and Mickey), is that they're focused on yoga and meditation. Your guides are experienced not only in camping and wilderness exploration, they're also certified experts on yoga (taught by Elisabeth, who also teaches in Salt Lake City at Centered City) and meditation (led by Mickey, who has many years of yoga and meditation experience).
The retreats, which are quite reasonably priced at $650 per person, are offered four to five times each spring and fall, and they tend to book up quickly, so your best bet is to sign up early. The program includes all meals (cooking is organic and done communally), morning meditation each day, two yoga classes per day, Evening Dharma and wilderness talks, and a clinic on backpacking in the desert.
The retreats are completely accessible to all experience levels, and although MYOTR draws a mainstream clientele, the company welcomes diversity. Moab is 4.5-hour drive from Salt Lake City, and because the retreats leave at noon, participants are advised to arrive a day early. This also gives you a chance to explore the town's other major wilderness area, Arches National Park. You might also want to spend your first night at one of the area's gay-friendly accommodations, including the lesbian-owned Mt. Peale Inn, the gay-owned Mayor's House B&B, and other welcoming places around the area, including Red Cliffs Lodge, Castle Valley Inn, and the ultra-posh Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa.
I talked recently with Moab Yoga on the Rocks guide Elisabeth Lilja about her tours:
About: Tell me a little about your background - what led you to form this company
Elizabeth: I was motivated by wanting to help people to connect through something that is greater than themselves. when you stick people in the desert, with no Internet or cell phone distractions, it almost forces them to slow down and appreciate what's around them.
The desert is such an amazing space, and backpacking allows us into so many wonderful places. With yoga, it's a great combination.
About: Were you always into the outdoors?
Elizabeth: I grew up in Utah, and always liked the desert, but I wasn't quite so into the outdoors when I was young - I used to have that mentality, of, well, 'I can't plug my hairdryer into a rock out here.' But I got more into nature in my late teens and 20s. And then I went through my teacher training in yoga, and I began to realize that it would be so phenomenal to take people backpacking through the desert while also teaching them yoga.
When you put people into a an element where they can really look at themselves, the results can be amazing - just seeing all this personal growth during the retreats.
About: When exactly did you begin Moab Yoga on the Rocks?
Elizabeth: I started it in 2006, but the company really came into full fruition in 2007, which is when just started doing the first retreats.
About: Have you found that most of your clients have a lot of experience?
Elizabeth: They truly come at this from all different levels. We get people who have never camped, and some who have never done yoga. And then we also get plenty of advanced practictioners. Because it's such an intimate setting, in that we only take five people, everyone really gets to fully immerse themselves. There's a lot of opportunity for one-on-one interaction, and we're able to answer everyone's questions and really spend time with each person.
About: What is the typical demographic on your trips?
Elizabeth: It's very diverse - from early 20s to late 50s. We've only had one couple - mostly people come with friends, or by themselves. We get all walks of life. Oftentimes, this is a time of growth, or self-discovery, in the lives of those who attend. They're on that particularly path, and that's when they decide to attend.
About: Compared with a lot of multiday tours out there, your prices are pretty reasonable. Did you purposefully price your trips to be affordable?
Elizabeth: I wanted to make the retreats accessible. I have a full-time job in Salt Lake City - I really don't do this to make money. I do it because the desert in Moab is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I love taking people here, and giving them a chance to incorporate yoga into their lives.
About: Utah has a somewhat conservative reputation, which sometimes gives gays and lesbians pause about visiting. Have you had any openly gay participants on any of the retreats?
Elizabeth: Not yet, but we'd love to see that happen. We're all about acceptance and diversity. Everybody who attends is so unique, and offers such a special perspective. It's pretty amazing how fantastically each group fits together, almost like it was meant to be.