Utah's Western Adventure Town
By Robert P. Johnstone
Moab, a community of about 5,000 people located squarely between the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, in southeastern Utah’s high desert region, serves as a jumping off place for some of the Southwest’s most spectacular scenery and outdoor activities. It’s where my wife and I stayed last spring, during our visit to the region. We learned that the very name, “Moab,” evokes an aura of fable because it recalls a legendary Biblical figure (Moab, one of Jesus’ ancestors), his descendants (the Moabites), and his people’s “beautiful land” (Moab, in today’s Jordan). To the consternation of some locals, the name “Moab” also recalls a much more recent and far less romantic notion, namely the “massive ordinance air burst,” or “MOAB,” a huge bomb American armed forces used early in the early stages of the war in Iraq.
Arches National Park
When my wife and I visited the region in the spring, we headed first for the 114-square-mile Arches National Park, just north of Moab. We discovered a fairyland of sandstone formations that range from graceful arches to massive monoliths and towers with names like “Courthouse Towers” and “Park Avenue.” There are huge rock fins (narrow sandstone walls), pinnacles, and a balanced rock that appears ready to topple.
A fine and only moderately difficult hike starts in the northwest corner of the park, at Devils Garden. It begins with an improved trail, which leads you through massive rocks and spires to Landscape Arch, one of the park’s signature formations. There the trail changes, becoming much more difficult. My wife and I chose to continue, a decision that paid off in terms of incredible views of rock fins stretching across a valley. Eventually, however, we came to a sign with an arrow pointing straight up. It bore the warning that the “Trail Goes Across Rock Fin.” It appeared to me to be a death sentence since I’m afraid of heights. But, I nevertheless forced myself to cross the fin, looking straight ahead at my laughing wife as she told me about the magnificent views far below us. At the end of the fin, we descended to the stunning Double-O Arch. After a calming glass of wine back in Moab that evening, I could admit that the hike had been worth the risk.
Two other hikes in the Arches National Park are equally stunning. One, only moderately difficult, is to the famous Delicate Arch, which is perched in a slickrock bowl. It is located on the eastern edge of the park. My wife and I covered the trail in less than an hour. In the natural amphitheater below the arch, we gathered with other hikers to watch the blaze of color on the rocks as the sun set. Another, more difficult route, is the hike to Fiery Furnace, in the east central part of the park. This is a huge labyrinth of narrow slot canyons that form a confusing maze. You must be fit for this two-hour trek. Your physical size can become a factor because you will have to squeeze between very tight canyon walls. Since the trails are indiscernible and rare and delicate high desert vegetation is highly vulnerable, park rangers lead the hikes. We were shown pictures of the Fiery Furnace so we would know what we were getting into before signing up at the Visitor’s Center for the hike. Nobody forces you to go, of course. But, if you can, it’s great fun. Older kids love it.
Canyonlands National Park
After exploring Arches National Park, we turned next to the 527-square-mile Canyonlands National Park and its Island in the Sky, an easily accessible sandstone mesa that towers more than 1,000 feet over vast chiseled canyons. It is about an hour’s drive southwest from Moab. At Arches, we looked up and marveled. Here, in the canyonlands, we looked down and marveled, gazing out over miles of deep fissures. We also took a series of short hikes to other landmark features. We found that a good place to start is Grand View Trail, which overlooks huge vistas. We enjoyed the visit to Upheaval Dome, a huge upside-down dome, that is a mystery to geologists. Some think that the crater may have been created by impact of a meteor. Our favorite was a short but tough hike to the top of Aztec Butte, where Native American granaries are still preserved under the cliffs.
Other Hikes Near Moab
There are also great hikes outside the national parks. One morning we hiked two miles, crisscrossing a mountain stream through Negro Bill Canyon, to reach Morning Glory Natural Bridge. We ran into a group of young kids having a great time, skittering through the stream and jumping the streambed. Every time that we had asked locals for their favorite hikes, they recommended this one. A natural bridge spans the canyon walls at the end of the trail and covers a series of pools.
Even though we had already put a lot of miles on our hiking shoes, we followed the recommendation of our younger daughter, a rock climber, who had told us that we had to hike to Fisher Towers. The 20-mile drive to the trailhead was in itself stunning because the road followed the Colorado River through a valley surrounded by red cliffs, buttes and bluffs. This must have served as a set for Westerns that I watched as a kid, and now must be the set for SUV ads. The hike to Fisher Towers is a strenuous eight-mile trek though sandstone towers to a bluff overlooking a wide desert valley. At one point, we saw a group of hikers looking up at the top of one of the towers. We stopped and finally spotted three rock climbers, making the final ascent to the top of the spire that crowned the tower. It was fun to watch, but it’s scarcely one of my goals. The climb over the fin in Devils Garden in Arches National Park had satisfied my appetites for heights for awhile.
Bicycles and Slick Rocks
In addition to the spectacular scenery and world-class hikes within a short distance from Moab, mountain biking over the area’s highly polished rock formations, “slickrock,” holds an irresistible lure for some people. Including me. I decided that I had to try it. (My wife, with eminent good sense, demurred. She spent the morning finding and photographing prehistoric rock art.)
I called Poison Spider, a local bike shop. I scheduled a lesson for the next morning on how to ride a mountain bike over slickrock. I felt a bit apprehensive since I expected the instructor to be 21 years old with multiple piercings. To my relief, my teacher, John, had turned 59 years old just that week. He had no piercings. Sharing my goal of avoiding major injury – minor injuries are part of the game – John explained how to jump the rocks without calling down certain death. In three hours in a slickrock training area, he taught me how to control a full suspension bike doing things that bikes probably should not do. Two days later, he took me to Bartlett Wash, where we spent the morning riding canyon walls and doing the dips and jumps on what he called the slickrock playground. It was challenging and downright scary at times, but I discovered how exhilarating the sport can be. Someday, I may tackle the famous Moab Slickrock Trail. I must mention that the community of Moab has a term, “Gonzo,” for the most challenging slickrock trails. Gonzos, they say, are not for beginners. I believe them.
Moab is also a jumping off place for whitewater rafting and kayaking trips down the Colorado River, and jeep tours and horseback riding through awesome sandstone formations. It may be the only town in the Southwest where bike shops outnumber tshirt shops. It has a variety of restaurants, motels and camping areas. You won't find a lot of "chic"; it seems Moab doesn’t “do” high fashion. We visited during the spring, when desert temperatures are moderate. Fall is also ideal. Activities are in full swing during the summer, but the heat can be oppressive – up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit – unless thunderstorms moderate the temperatures.
My wife and I stayed at the Red Cliffs Lodge, which is located about eight miles from town, along the Colorado River. We had a large comfortable room with a kitchenette. Cattle grazed a few feet from our deck. The restaurant, overlooking the river, is decorated with photos from western movies shot in the area—a testament to the visual feast that awaits the visitor.
There are hotels and motels in Moab with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list.
Click Here. (Rates, availability and reservation online)
- Arches National Park: The Devils Garden Campground, located l8 miles from the park entrance, has 50 tent and trailer sites, plus two walk-in group sites limited to tenting for ten or more persons. Facilities include flush toilets and water until frost. You must pre-register for individual campsites at the Arches Visitor Center between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m., or at the entrance station after 8:00 a.m. Group campsite reservations are available for the two group sites; call (435) 259-4351 for information. The Arches campground fills daily mid-March through October, often by early to mid-morning.
- Canyonlands National Park: There are 2 front country campgrounds and numerous backcountry campgrounds.
- Click Here - Map of the Bike Trails
For more information, check our Moab page.
You can contact the Chamber of Commerce at:
Moab Area Chamber of Commerce
217 E Center St # 250,
Moab, UT 84532
Share this page on Facebook:
DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)