Last month I had the chance to make a “once in a lifetime” trip rafting down the Utah’s Cataract River for 3 amazing days. Before we headed out however, I had one lone day to spend in Moab which I had planned merely as wiggle room in case of travel delays and to get any last supplies, what a short sighted decision that was! You see while Moab may evoke thoughts of a small town surrounded by terrifyingly hot, desert landscape, it is actually the jump off point to a world of adventures (in a terrifyingly hot, desert landscape). There are many adventures that start in Moab so whether you have weeks to explore around before and after or just one day, it’s a place you must experience.
Getting to Moab and what you’ll find around
Originally a mining town gone bust, Moab has morphed into a primarily tourism driven economy. The town remains relatively small with just 5,000 residents but incoming visitors swell that number far higher in peak seasons giving the feeling, and services, of a far bigger community (fun fact: there are enough hotel rooms for half the population of Moab to “staycation” at once).
Historically visitors have reached the city by first flying into Salt Lake City then renting a car and making the nearly four hour, desolate drive south. Those willing to spend a little more would fly into the smaller Grand Junction airport which cuts the ride down by about half but is still a long haul out. These days however, it’s possible to fly right into the Moab outskirts thanks to the recently expanded Botique Air who offers daily flights from SLC and DEN; rental cars are available at Moab airport.
Riding into Moab around dusk is like something out Disney’s “Cars” as you transition from the shadows of giant rock mountains in the desert into neon signs along the one long street that makes up most of the town. With tourism booming, new hotels are popping up right and left as you enter the city and you’ll find everything from late night Mexican joints to BBQ, high class steaks and diners in between (for your first evening, consider stopping at Sunset Grill on the north end of town which, true to its name, has a magnificent view to the west).
Beyond food, the city has a mix of big brand gas stations and small town markets, souvenir shops and boutiques. You won’t find a designer mall but you have your choice of stops for Moab tshirts and travel snacks, drinks or ice cream as you pass by big name and local hotels, motels and RV parks in the few miles that make up the city.
Early morning ride to Dead Horse State Park
After getting a late evening bite to eat at Fiesta Mexicana (3.5 / 5 stars) and settling in to our motel, Moab Red Stone Inn (2.5 out of 5 though totally passable if other options are full), I called it a night with dreams of exploring the shadowy mountains I had seen on the ride into town.
In the desert, mornings and evenings are your friend, even in Spring when cool air temps become plenty warm just under the blazing sun. Waking up around 6, I quietly made my way out of the motel and into my rental Jeep to start 24 hours of adventuring… Heading North towards the stunning parks the surround Moab, you’ll first pass Arches National Park on your right and a few miles later, the turn off for Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point. Since Canyonlands is the furthest point, I elected to start to that side, enjoying the scenic viewpoints that line the one-lane road along the way towards the park’s east entrance.
After about 30 minutes of driving, the road junctions out to Dead Horse Point State Park, a place I’d certainly never heard of but what the heck, it sounded interesting and away I went. Arriving long before the rangers, I paid the $10 day fee and made my way towards the heavily marked vista point all the while passing by incredible desert and canyon landscapes. The park is only a few miles long with a visitor center and cafe near the entrance but with almost no other signs of humans, I headed right to the end… and what an end it is. The origin of the park’s name has many rumors, most notorious is the idea that cowboys would corral horses at the end of the point, fence them in and take just the best with them leaving the others to suffer a cruel fate though who knows. In any event, the park ends majestically , after parking in a small lot and passing by a few restrooms, it’s just a short walk out to the vista point that looks down to the view in the photo below. Canyon rim trails let you further explore around the point for other views down and around to the stunning area — it’s worth every cent of that entrance fee.
After a quick visit to the visitor’s center for shotglass collection addition, my watch read just after 8am and it was time to get on to the next stop!
Next up: A whirlwind tour of Canyonlands National Park with a hike or two.
After returning to Moab briefly to meet up with my family (yes it was the wrong way but it just goes to show how much you can do in a day when everything is so close), it was time for my first ever visit to Canyonlands (Utah has 5 National Parks in total and many more National Monuments as well)!
Canyonlands is divided up into three major areas: Island In the City to the North, The Needles to the Southeast and The Maze which is on the East side and only accessible by Jeep trails and river hikes (see the official park map). Because the sections don’t really connect up (by major roads), our visit was limited to the Island in the Sky region though it offered plenty to see and is only about an hour from the Moab area to reach as well.
It should be pretty obvious what Canyonlands is all about and with miles of roads and dozens of viewpoints, there’s a nearly unlimited perspective of the canyons and river far below the park’s upper points. Among the most famous stops is Mesa Arch, a rock arch formation which reveals a canyon below it — this iconic spot is flooded with sunset photographers but even in the middle of the day, it’s a sight to see and just a short hike over.
Though views down are a major draw of the park, that’s not the only adventure as towering rocks also rise up, many of which are prime for short or long hikes and after several stops, we navigated up to the Northeast to ascend Aztec Butte and Upheaval Dome, a nice 1 hour adventure with a few hundred feet of sandstone scrambling and a couple miles of hiking. Aztec also holds a few of Canyonlands’ ancient Puebloan granaries, an impressive historical sight which you find all over the area.
Following our hike and the view to the Northern canyons, we cut down south towards the tip of Island in the Sky at Grand View Point Overlook. This final viewpoint and the corresponding 2 mile trail that snakes out from it peers down into a deep canyon below, a sort of steeper and more dramatic version of the Grand Canyon and a solid end to the short tour of the park.
Ending the day with Arches
Making a quick stop at the small Canyonlands’ visitor center (why there’s no cafe or snackshop is beyond me, such an easy income source NPS!), we departed the park to return towards Moab making a brief stop again at Dead Horse Point (for those in my group who had not been) before cutting over into Arches National Park!
Like with Canyonlands, Arches is full of endless sights and yet is small enough to drive through in a day, though I’ve got a list worthy of a month of activities to come back and do there (see the official park map). The southern entrance winds up and out of the valley quickly delivering you to a stunning viewpoint in just a few minutes at Courthouse Towers. These giant rock faces seem paperthin compared to the surrounding mountains and make for a great, easy to moderate hike all on their own as you walk down “Park Avenue.”
Driving further into the park, the road is quite literally one long viewpoint with scenes like Balanced Rock (one giant rock sitting atop a smaller one), the Pinnacles, the Windows, Fiery Furnace and so much more. Trying to see it all was of course impossible with just an afternoon of sunlight left so we went full tourist mode and drove out to the park’s Northeastern edge to make the 3 mile, 480′ hike to the iconic Delicate Arch. After a day of driving, the hike was a perfect stretch — steep at points but tame for those use to elevation gain and a little altitude (the point is nearly 5,000′ high). Along the way there’s desert flowers, rockside views, exposed cliff faces and finally the arch its self which requires a little fondness of heights to actual navigate over too! On a busy day, the arch can have a line of dozens of people waiting for a photo but we were lucky to catch things right and only had to contend with a few others spread around the viewing area.
Making the most of the remaining hours of sunlight, we quickly backtracked down from the arch and cut over to the Northern part of the park and up to Fiery Furnace’s viewpoint. I didn’t get a great photo in the now direct sunlight but it’s a spectacular area and there are many other intriguing arches stops listed on the map further north that I would have loved to get in but just didn’t have time for (you can easily finish the road in a day trip however).
Before the sun set below the horizon, we made a last turn over to the park’s “windows” section where arches live inside even larger rocks forming viewpoints through the walls. I also made the short walk over to Double Arch, two giant stems of rock that put all the arches I’ve seen at other parks to shame as a fitting end to the day.
Returning to Moab for dinner and thinking about a return
All said, our day covered three of Utah’s most iconic parks, included dozens of view stops, two main hikes and several short trails, even a hearty meal back in town. One day was enough to swing by everything but not nearly enough to take it all in or certainly to participate in more of Moab’s offerings which include Canyoneering tours, ATV & Jeep roads, ropes courses, sky diving, white water rafting (that I got in off course), and plenty more. One day is certainly not enough but if that’s what you have while on your way to wherever, you’re in for an amazing time just the same!