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Interest In Utah's Paragliding Scene Soars As People Look For Alternative Activities

Photo of a person standing at the edge of a grassy hill.
Jon Reed
Paragliding instructor Ben White says his sport is seeing a surge of interest since the beginning of the pandemic. Utah is uniquely suited for pilots thanks to the terrain at the south-end of the Salt Lake valley and unusually reliable wind conditions.

It’s perhaps a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives the I-15 corridor past Point of the Mountain at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. Brightly-colored, U-shaped wings float peacefully above the foothills, two thousand feet above the highway. 

But over the last couple months, there have been a few more than usual. 

“Without a doubt, all of the instructors, all of the schools here have seen a big increase in business,” said Ben White, a paragliding instructor who began teaching in 2017 and now runs the guiding outfit White Cloud Adventures.

He said since working from home and social distancing have become the norm, more people have become interested in the sport. 

As the sun began to set on a late-July evening, the flight park — a sprawling, grass-covered plateau — was filling up with both flyers and onlookers. White counted 77 gliders in the sky, which he said was just about the most he’d ever seen up at one time.

Photo of paragliders on a grassy hill.
Credit Jon Reed / KUER
Paragliding pilots prepare their wings for takeoff and float above the Salt Lake valley at the Point of the Mountain Flight Park in Draper.

By many accounts, Point of the Mountain is one of the best spots in the country to paraglide. The sport is ridiculously weather-dependent, White said, but given the unique conditions of the hill, it’s almost perfect for attracting wind and shooting it upwards. 

“‘Best’ is a very subjective term,” he said. “But [it’s] based on ease of access, [a] beautiful launch. And of all the flying sites in America, this is probably the most consistent one.” 

Sixteen-year-old Aidan Knotts is one of White’s recent students. Knotts said paragliding hadn’t been on his radar, but once his parents started taking lessons in May, he gave it a shot. He said his first flight only lasted about 30 seconds, but that was enough to get him hooked. 

“It wasn’t really even a decision to make, it was just like yeah I’m doing lessons now,” he said, adding that he now wakes up almost every day at 5 a.m. to check the weather.

Photo of a paragliding pilot in gear.
Credit Jon Reed / KUER
Sixteen-year-old Aidan Knotts began paragliding during the pandemic.

His mom Nicole said she and her husband Brandon had been wanting to learn how to paraglide since they first tried it almost 20 years ago. Life got in the way, but after her husband began working from home as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, they had the push they both needed to finally go for it. 

As a nurse at the VA hospital in Salt Lake, she can’t fly as often as her son and husband. But she said the sport has been a welcome escape from the stresses of the job, which now mostly involves testing people for COVID-19.

“Flying in a paraglider is the most serene feeling ever,” she said. “It's like you're a bird and you're flying, but you're in control.”

But with only about 4,800 registered pilots nationwide, it’s still a relatively small sport. It also requires a hefty deposit — White said with new equipment and lessons, it can cost around $8,000 to get started. 

So while it may not be seeing a massive influx, it does seem to be part of a wider trend of people getting outdoors to escape the pandemic, according to Pitt Grewe, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation. 

“When people lost the ability to go to sporting events and movie theaters and restaurants, they needed to find a way to keep themselves sane,” he said. “And outdoor recreation has kind of become the easiest way to do that.”

Grewe said it’s happening across the board, from hiking to biking to camping. 

Graph depicting the increase in bike trips.
Credit Courtesy of Strava.
Data from the exercise and activity tracking app Strava shows bike trips in Utah have almost doubled April through June this year compared to last. There were 136,710 in May 2019 and 263,480 in May 2020.

The evidence that more people are getting out shows up in a few different ways. One is sales data from outdoor retailers, which he said can’t keep equipment on the shelves because there is so much demand. 

Another measure comes from digital trail counters along the Wasatch Front, which Grewe said are seeing anywhere from 2 to 3 times the usual number of people. The Corner Canyon mountain biking area in Draper, for example, saw about 30,000 people from March to May 2019. During that same period this year, the number jumped to over 70,000. 

It’s also happening nationwide. Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colorado, has been researching how the pandemic is changing the way people recreate outdoors. 

“What's been most interesting to me is just the sheer volume of people now spending time outdoors,” he said. “Whether that's walking in the neighborhood or hiking on local trails, backpacking, rafting — you name it. So many more people are flocking to the outdoors because it's one of the few things people can do during COVID.”

It’s mostly a good thing, Lawhon said, because more people outdoors can translate to more revenue for state parks and outdoor infrastructure. He hopes it might also inspire more people to care about the environment. 

“When people spend time outside, oftentimes they do begin to appreciate the outdoors for what it offers them,” he said, which includes all kinds of physical and mental health benefits. “The challenge that we have is that so many of these people are either under informed or unskilled, and in some cases are causing lasting impacts to our parks and protected areas.”

Grewe said there have been some efforts to get the word out about responsible recreation and best practices, but it doesn’t always get out to the people who need it most. He said part of it will have to come down to more experienced outdoor enthusiasts helping those who may just be getting into it, whatever the activity may be. 

“I think the hard part is that we don't turn our back to these new people and say, ‘oh, they're new, go away,’” he said. “We [need to] welcome them with open arms and take opportunities to educate and share knowledge, not trying to put anybody down or anything like that.” 

But even if the pandemic doesn’t lead to a whole new generation of environmentalists, getting outdoors is still helping people get through the pandemic. 

Flight instructor Ben White said the most important thing is to have fun. 

“Whatever you just experienced,” he said over the walkie-talkie to his student Aidan after a particularly nice turn. “Just file it away in the good experiences bank.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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