Destination: St. George, Utah in a GMC Canyon

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: Nov 27, 2017
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I can say without any hesitation that I never thought I’d drive a snowplow through three tons of sand, ride a board down a dune in 90 degree heat, nor drive a pickup truck that gets 30 miles per gallon. Oh, I also got airborne in a 4-wheeler, but to be honest, I figured that would happen sooner or later. Thanks to GMC I did all those things a few weeks ago in St. George, Utah.

The event was billed as Pickup and Plow and we were to put a few of the newer GMC trucks through their paces in the southwest corner of the state. I was confused (not a rare occurrence) however, because it rarely snows in that part of Utah, at least not in October. You have to head up to Park City or Sundance to chase the white stuff. It turns out that GMC engineers get tired of the cold as much as most people. Once they discovered that fine desert sand has about the same weight and consistency as snow, they began bringing their trucks here, which allows them to work on their tans while they optimize the pickup’s ability to push the white stuff around.

St. George is an outdoor paradise about an hour and a half northeast of Las Vegas. Of course you’ll find all sorts of resort sports; golf, tennis, and drinking. But it’s also just a stone’s throw from some of the most glorious state and national parkland in the country. The desert landscapes here are so iconic I half expected to see a coyote chasing a road runner as I drove out of the city towards our first destination.

My truck for the morning was a 2018 GMC Canyon Denali short wheelbase crew cab with the 2.8L V6 Duramax diesel engine. Loaded with all the bells and whistles including a locking rear differential, three-speed transfer case, 20-inch machined aluminum wheels with beefy all-season tires, diesel exhaust braking, standard two-tier loading, all on rugged body-on-frame construction, the sticker price came to just a 55” OLED 4K TV under $50,000. Not an insignificant sum for a mid-size pickup. But this is a mid-size pickup that feels like a Cadillac when you get inside. Climb up into the cab and you’ll find heated and ventilated leather seats, soft touch surfaces, Bose premium audio, OnStar, WiFi and legroom for days both front and rear. The ride is surprisingly quiet and supple for a truck and handling is more than adequate for cruising on interstates or negotiating winding canyon roads.

One of the real pleasures of this truck is that 2.8 liter diesel. It wasn’t so long ago that if you bought an oil burner you expected it to be all clatter and smoke. You knew you’d get a solid dose of torque, but acceleration so slow, it would have Yugos challenging you for stoplight supremacy. Oh how times have changed. This engine is quiet, smooth, powerful, and (thanks to a comprehensive emissions system without a cheat code) doesn’t smell like your average city bus. It makes a very usable 186 horsepower. But of course, torque is the number you’re really interested in. On that scale, it delivers 369 lb.-ft. at 2,000 RPM and from a towing standpoint is good for 7,600 pounds. So as a pickup the mid-size Canyon is really designed for light work, or heavy recreation, which was where we were headed.

The trip from St. George to our first stop, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park was a combination of urban streets, interstate, state two lane highways and winding dirt roads where I yielded to temptation turning off the traction control so I could let the Canyon dance a bit through the washboard corners. There’s something primal about driving a truck fast on a dirt road, the light rear end threatening to pass you as you take corners at imprudent speeds leaving a rooster tail of dust choking those following in your wake. The GMC Canyon lets you humor your inner hooligan without threatening your teeth or kidneys. Even with the bed empty, the suspension did an excellent job of softening the imperfections of the rutted dirt roads. When I arrived at the destination after 70 miles later, my indicated fuel economy was a very respectable 29 miles per gallon.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park looks as you would expect. Vast tracts of wind blown orange-pink sand create an otherworldly landscape. It’s such an unusual color, especially for someone like me who grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan where sand looks like sand, not Himalayan Rock Salt. The first activity at the park was to move some of that sand with a GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD equipped with a a 6.2L Duramax diesel and a Western MVP V-Plow. The operation was fairly simple and just to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, GMC wisely put an engineer in the copilot seat to set the plow and offer advice which amounted to, “keep the wheel straight and your foot on the accelerator.” The massive truck growled, leaping forward toward the pile of pink crystals and with 910 lb.-ft. of torque threatening to speed the earth’s rotation, easily threw the sand to the roadside. It was a little anticlimactic, but fun nonetheless.

Working the plow was nice warm up for our next activity, an ATV ride into the dunes where we’d be taught how to sandboard by U.S. Olympic snowboardcross team member, Jake Vedder. Snowboardcross is a relatively new sport in which competitors race four at a time on side by side at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour around corners, over jumps in hopes of reaching the finish line all in one piece. Here’s Jake taking gold at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

In order to get to a dune tall enough, each member of my group climbed into 4-wheelers and headed into the sand. Led by an experienced guide from Coral Pink ATV Tours, the trip to the dune was a thrilling ride through trails, down into swales and up over windswept ridges. It became especially exciting for me when I hit the throttle hard anticipating the need for momentum up a particularly steep section. Unfortunately the driver in front of me slowed dramatically just before the blind crest. I had a decision to make, either hit the rear of the vehicle in front of me, or veer to the right and carve my own path over the top. It was a little nerve-wracking not knowing exactly what was on the other side, but fortune was smiling on me and after a brief flight through the desert air, I landed safely and rejoined the tail end of our train of Polaris RZR side by sides.

Sandboarding is not much different from snowboarding, just warmer and slower since the sand provides a little more friction than sand. I’m a skier. Though I’ve had opportunities, I’ve never ridden a snowboard – mostly because I’ve heard the learning curve is steep and I don’t really like falling on my ass in front of crowds. On that day, however, I swallowed my pride, strapped on a board, and heeding Jake’s advice to keep my weight over my back foot, I scooted toward the slope. For about three seconds I felt comfortable as the board started to glide over the pink sand, and then in a flash my weight went past my back foot and, boom, there I was on the ground with sand in my pockets and yet somehow a smile on my face as the video evidence shows. I tried another run with not much more success, but satisfied that I’d finally been on a board, and can get back on my skis this winter without any desire to switch winter sports.

After the lesson it was back to basecamp, a quick lunch, and then back in the Canyon for a drive through Zion National Park. Even if you just drive through the park as I did, it’s worth the trip. Every corner you round bring yet another jaw-dropping vista. It’s now on my list of places I need to return to for at least a couple of days of hiking and camping. Given its combination of comfort, capability, and manageable size, the GMC Canyon Denali would be a perfectly appropriate vehicle for that trip, especially with this small Airstream hitched to the rear.

2018 GMC Canyon 4-Wheel Drive Denali Crew Cab
4-door, 5-passenger pickup truck
Base Price: $43,070
Price as tested: $48,290
Options: Diesel engine package ($3,730), Red Quartz Tintcoat paint ($495), destination charge ($995)
Engine: 2.8 liter inline 4-cylinder turbo-diesel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Driveline: 4-wheel drive
Power: 186 HP @ 3,400 RPM
Torque: 369 lb.-ft. @ 2,000 RPM
Curb weight: 4,706 lbs
EPA MPG: 20 city, 28 highway

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Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, Pursuitist.com. His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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