I recently attended GMC’s “Tow Like a Pro” event in Southern Utah, where I got to spend some time behind the wheel of a 2018 GMC Sierra Denali 1500, testing out its towing capabilities and exploring Southwestern Utah — home to some of the country’s most compelling state and national parks.
Before this event, my towing experience had consisted of backing a truck-and-boat trailer combo down a boat ramp, letting the owner of said trailer pull his boat onto the trailer, and then driving back up the ramp before promptly handing him the keys. Needless to say I didn’t know a whole lot about towing, and I still don’t, as towing was only part of the focus of this daylong jaunt through Utah’s red rock country.
As Autotrader’s resident Utah expert, allow me to give a quick explanation of the southwestern quadrant of this state. St. George — four hours from Salt Lake and two from Las Vegas — is the de facto “urban hub,” if you can call it that, given its population of just over 150,000 and an airport with exactly one gate. In the surrounding area are national parks and state parks, the capstone of which is the majestic Zion National Park.
The rocks in southwestern Utah are hues of deep sepia, burnt sienna and chestnut; a shade richer than what you’d normally expect in the desert, and all tied together by evergreen vegetation. This all makes for a stark contrast, not quite as lifeless as the barren landscapes of Moab to the east.
Our hotel was at the base of the excellent Snow Canyon State Park, which draws its geography from the convergence of the Mojave Desert, Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, with everything from sand dunes to lava flows ranging in color from red to white.
Given that this was a towing event, the day started out with a presentation from the GMC team about the towing capabilities of each model in their lineup, and then a deeper dive into the specific towing prowess of the Sierra.
The first part of our journey took us from the hotel to another state park, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, in the southeast. It was on this leg that we did the towing, pulling behind us trailers loaded with two Polaris RZR side-by-sides each. I learned a few things on the 2-hour jaunt to the dunes. The first was how to use a trailer brake, and what a difference it makes. When we started off, the trailer brake on my 6.2L V8-equipped Sierra Denali was completely turned off, which became clear when coming to a complete stop felt like trying to stop a freight train by digging my heels into the ground, Flintstones-style. With the brake on, everything felt more balanced and restrained. Adjustment of the braking force of the trailer brake is achieved via ‘+’ and ‘-‘ buttons on the dashboard, while testing the brake’s “grabbiness” was as simple as squeezing together two slider knobs above the button, which also enables you to steady the trailer without having to apply the brakes of the vehicle. I’d seen these controls on trucks all my life, but had never used one. Who knew it was this simple?
Not all trucks come with a trailer brake, though; not even all of the Sierras in our fleet were equipped with it, but I’d call it a necessity for anyone towing more than once a year. Beyond that, things were pretty smooth sailing, and I quickly re-calibrated my driving style to account for the 24-foot trailer behind me, turning the wheel later when making a left or right turn in an intersection, and allowing for considerably more room behind me when merging onto the highway.
Another towing-related takeaway from the day was that you don’t want to be consistently towing within 25 percent of your vehicle’s rated tow limit. This means that if you regularly tow a 7,500-pound trailer, you want your tow vehicle to have a towing capacity of at least 10,000 pounds. The roughly 5,000 pound ATV-and-trailer combos rang in well below the Sierra Denali’s 9,300 pound limit.
Just like the rest of this state, Southern Utah has its share of quirks, and our route to the sand dunes happened to take us through the towns of Colorado City and Hildale; collectively known as “Short Creek.” Just … Google it.
After 70 miles of trailering, we made it to the dunes. Named for their distinct orange-ish pink hues, the Coral Pink Sand dunes were formed due to the geography of the surrounding area and the erosive nature of the red Navajo Sandstone that borders it. Thanks to a narrow opening in the mountains to the south, a constant wind cuts through the valley, tearing bits from the mountains and bringing them along for a short ride before depositing them as sand to form the dunes.
It was here that we got to test out the side-by-sides. I’ve ridden these things before, but never on sand, which makes for a whole different experience. On dry, solid ground, the magic tends to wear off after a few miles behind the wheel — but on sand, the side-by-side ATV becomes a drift machine, sliding around and leaving a rooster tail of pink sand in its wake. Based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, the front axle can be engaged via a button on the dash, while 4-low is entered via a gear on the transmission lever. They can be finicky, too — on a recent trip to Moab, my friends managed to destroy the belt on a rental unit and had to drag it off the trail and tow it 20 miles into town behind a 4Runner.
As it would occur, the same thing happened on the dunes, with one of the RZRs shredding its belt in the middle of the action, rendering it dead in the water. They’re actually remarkably simple machines, though, and our guide was able to retrieve a spare belt from his truck (needless to say, it doesn’t sound like this was the first time this had happened) and do the repair on the spot.
For the return trip, we left behind the trailers and piloted the Sierras home via a different route — this time leading us through the always-epic Zion National Park. I’ve been through Zion a few times before, but you tend to see something new every time you visit a national park. This time it was a family of bighorn sheep that poked through the bushes just a few feet from where my ride partners and I had stopped.
Altogether, the event made for an excellent tour of southwestern Utah — made even better by the fact that our tour vehicles came with supple heated and cooled leather seats and GM’s excellent magnetic ride control system. The trucks handled their loads well, and I discovered towing doesn’t have to be as difficult — or as stressful — as I thought.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.