Tucked away in a remote region of southeastern Utah, the tiny town of Moab has drawn millions of visitors from around the world ― and for good reason. This desert town is nestled in a valley on the banks of the Colorado River between dramatic red sandstone cliffs. Wide, empty deserts stretch across the horizon, dotted with towering mesas and sharp rock formations that seem to reach for the sky. With awesome scenery like this, it’s no wonder that dozens of filmmakers have used the rugged region as a backdrop in films like City Slickers and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Visitors come to Moab to play. This small community, home to 4,000 people, is the gateway to two popular National Parks, as well as several Utah State Parks. It’s an excellent place for those who love Mother Nature and the adventure she offers.
Moab’s culture is an eclectic mix of New Age thinkers, nature lovers and those drawn to its quiet, small-town environment. There are no glitzy resorts or big developments here. Rather, Main Street is lined with little shops and family-owned outfitters.
Like many Utah towns, Moab was founded in 1855 by Mormon settlers. Yet the city was soon abandoned due to the settlers’ fear of their Native American neighbors. The town was re-settled in 1876, and then boomed in the 1950s when uranium was discovered in the area. Those mining days waned, however.
These days, tourism is the region’s main draw. Moab is wildly popular with international visitors from Europe, Japan and elsewhere (almost half of all visitors are international).
Getting to Moab is not easy, though. Although the town has a tiny airport, most people fly into Grand Junction, Colorado (1.5 hours away by car) or Salt Lake City, Utah (a three-hour drive). Others simply stumble across the town while driving through this part of the country.
Moab is one hour south of I-70, a main highway running east to west across the midwestern states. If you’re driving from I-70, take Exit 214 south through the miniscule town of Cisco. The road becomes Colorado River Scenic Byway 128, and winds through dramatic red-walled gorges and past finger-like rock spires, which are visible for miles.
Where do you stay while in Moab? If you’re willing to plop down a few bucks and want a ranch-like experience, try Sorrel River Ranch Resort (Mile 17 Hwy. 128; 435-259-4642; www.sorrelriver.com), or Red Cliffs Lodge (Mile 14 Hwy. 128; 435-259-2002; www.redcliffslodge.com), an adventure lodge which offers horseback riding, mountain biking and river rafting.
If you’re on a budget, your best bet is to stay downtown. Families will find roomy, yet affordable accommodations at the River Canyon Lodge just one block off Main Street (71 W 200 North; 866-486-6738; www.rivercanyonlodge.com). The lodge has 18 large Junior Suites for US$ 79 – $89, and two-bedroom suites with full kitchens for US$ 99/night. (The two-bedroom suites are very popular, so book ahead.)
Now that you’re situated, it’s time to play. Arches National Park (www.nps.gov/arch; US$ 10 entrance fee) is perhaps the best-known attraction in this region, so you might want to head there first. The National Park is home to the red stone formations that have become a Utah icon. Arches National Park is a photographer’s dream (think rich red color against a blue Utah sky), so be sure to pack your camera.
Trails to suit hikers of every ability level crisscross the massive park. The park guide lists out the most popular hikes— along with their length and difficulty level — so you can plan your day. Be sure to bring in lunch and plenty of water. The dry Utah sun can dehydrate you quickly!
You’ll also note that signs throughout the park warn of stepping off of the trail. Why? The desert landscape is very fragile. Much of the dry red earth is covered with cryptobiotic soil. This “crust” is actually millions of tiny organisms which take decades to grow. They are the desert’s way of preventing erosion, and one careless footstep can destroy that life in an instant. Stay on rock or on marked trails.
Ancient rock art and other cultural artifacts of the past can be found throughout the Moab region, from pioneer ghost towns to ancient stone weapons. These artifacts are protected, and in many areas, visitors are asked to follow certain rules to preserve their nature.
Located in “The Windows” section of the park, the trail to Double Arch is only .8 miles (1.2 km) long, and leads to one of the park’s largest formations — two double arches. The rock can be slippery during your trek; make sure you wear shoes with good tread.
Another hike especially good for children is the short trail that leads to Sand Dune Arch (kids will like playing in the soft sand here, and the rock walls provide cool shade).
The park’s most popular attraction, however, is Delicate Arch, a stunning rock formation which also graces the Utah license plate. To reach the arch, drive to the Wolf Ranch parking area and hike the three-mile (4.8 km) trail in. Be sure to bring at least one quart (about one liter) of water per person. There is no shade along the hike, and there is a slight rise in elevation (480 feet/146 meters). Delicate Arch is most beautiful at sunset, and it’s one of the park’s most photographed spots.
You’ll be hungry after your day of exploring. For dinner, head to La Hacienda (574 North Main Street, 435-259-6319), where Jeff and Lauren Davis have been serving home-style Mexican food for the past 25 years. The cozy establishment is popular with locals, so come before six to avoid a wait. The portions here are generous and the price affordable. Try their signature lobster enchiladas or carnitas, a seasoned pork dish served with grilled veggies and flour tortillas.
Utah has, to put it mildly, some very “unusual” liquor laws. The state’s original Mormon settlers did not approve of alcohol. And even though times have changed and Utah is a modern and diverse state, the state’s liquor laws still reflect that history.
For one, alcohol can only be purchased at Utah State Liquor Stores. In Moab, that store is located at 55 West 200 South. It is not open on Sundays.
Wine can also be purchased at one of Moab’s three wineries ― Castle Creek Winery on Hwy. 128, Round Mountain Vineyards (call 435-259-1927 for directions) and Spanish Valley Vineyards at the corner of Stocks Drive and Zimmermann Lane.
Ordering a glass of wine in a Utah restaurant can sometimes be a bit confusing. Some restaurants may only have a license to serve mixed drinks; others may serve different drinks in different parts of the restaurant. (Don’t worry. Even the locals don’t understand these laws!) The liquor laws are no big deal, however. In Utah, you simply live with it and enjoy your stay.
Start off your day with a yummy breakfast at Knave of Heart Bakery (84 W. 200 North, 435-259-4116), and then gather your courage for an adventurous trip with Highpoint Hummer, a well-respected local outfitter, which offers ATV or Hummer tours (281 North Main; 877-HUMMVEE; www.highpointhummer.com).
While a “Hummer tour” may sound tame, it is anything but! A skilled, professional driver and the Hummer’s off-road capabilities allow you to forge through canyons, across slickrock (the term use for the local stone) and up and over boulders in a way you never thought possible.
The two-hour Hell’s Revenge Trail is like a natural roller coaster in the desert. The tour starts on a narrow trail across slickrock (Note the emphasis on narrow. Don’t look down!), and then winds up and over rocks, boulder, hills and sand pits, often at angles of up to 65 degrees. It’s hard to believe this until you’re actually doing it yourself.
The Sand Flats Recreation Area has different trails for bikers, ATV riders, motorbikes and four-wheel drives. The trails in Moab are rated from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult. Hell’s Revenge is a 4 and 4+ trail. From the top of the trail, there are panoramic views of Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains of Colorado.
The two-hour Hummer tour costs US$ 59 for adults, US$ 39 for children ages 3-17, and those under three are free. In this writer’s view, the ride was worth every penny.
After a good breakfast at the Red Rock Bakery (74 S Main St., 435-259-5941), head to Dead Horse Point, located in Dead Horse Point State Park. This spectacular viewpoint towers 2,000 feet (610 m) above the Colorado River, offering a stunning panoramic view of Canyonlands National Park.
Legend has it that years ago, a group of cowboys herded their horses into the canyon for safekeeping. However, there were no water sources and the cowboys returned to find that their horses had perished. Today, the park has a much lighter note. Romantics enjoy the view at sunset, which locals say is better than any view of the Grand Canyon. To reach this state park, take the 23-mile (37 km) drive on Hwy U-313, which begins just north of Moab.
If you’re up for something new, consider taking a white-water rafting trip with Adrift Adventures (378 North Main Street, 800-874-4483; www.adrift.com). Rafting offers a refreshing break from the dry heat that fills Moab in late spring through fall.
Half-day rafting trips on the Colorado River run US$ 32 for adults and US$ 25 for children 5-17). If you prefer speed to paddling, you can take a half-day jet boat trip on the Colorado River (adults, US$ 58; children 17 and under, US$ 35).
Landlubbers may prefer to explore Canyonlands National Park. For thousands of years, the Colorado and the Green Rivers have sculpted the canyons of Southern Utah, resulting in a series of strange, yet beautiful geological features. Canyonlands National Park shows off that diversity well.
The region is set off in three distinct geological districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze. Pack a lunch and head out on one of the park’s many hiking trails. Keep in mind that some of the backcountry regions require permits. And during high season, permit reservations are recommended. Call the Park Service for more information (2282 SW Resource Blvd; 435-719-2313; www.nps.gov/cany).
During your hike, be sure to look for native wildlife. Lizards, snakes and other tiny animals call the Moab desert home. Even the potholes — basins that have been carved by nature in the sandstone — may be home for desert life. Tiny organisms thrive in these basins, for although the desert is hot and dry for long periods of time, the basins collect enough rainwater for these organisms to survive.
As the sun sets on your last day in Moab, hike up to one of the lookouts in Canyonlands National Park. From your perch, you can sit and watch nature’s best show spread across the sky and canyon below. This stunning panoramic view is a fitting way to end your time in Moab.
If You Go
Moab Area Travel