Double Arch, Arches National Park. Photo: Jim Trodel
ON A RECENT THREE-WEEK ROAD TRIP to Southern Utah, my partner and I based ourselves in Moab for a week to explore the area. At the end of the trip, I concluded that, between the parks in the area (Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park) and the plethora of activities they make possible (mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, canyoneering, river rafting, local road tripping), we could have spent the entire three weeks there.
This guide will help you get grounded in Moab and set off to explore all this corner of Utah has to offer.
Exploring Arches National Park
From Moab, the entrance to Arches is five miles to the north on Highway 191. Orient yourselves by stopping at the visitor center first. The main road leading into the park is around 25 miles long and terminates at Devil’s Garden. Along the way there are two turnoffs that lead to more viewpoints and hikes.
If you want to get away from the crowds, a good choice is the Primitive Trail in Devil’s Garden, which branches off from the main route. Make sure you bring plenty of water; for a good portion there’s little shade and you’re walking on sand, which can be tiresome. Primitive Trail loops back to the main trail but not before passing Private Arch. There’s a good reason for the name — there was one small group when we got there, and when they left we had it to ourselves for a solid 10 minutes.
Hiking Fiery Furnace, a strenuous three-hour unmarked maze-like trail that takes you through narrow passages, requires a permit — for first-time visitors it’s highly recommended to join a ranger-led tour. Tour companies in town, like Moab Adventure Center, also lead groups on this hike.
A much less explored area is the Klondike Bluffs in the northwest section of the park, accessible by a seven-mile unpaved road. Tower Arch is located here and there are trails for 4x4ing, mountain biking, and hiking. If you want to bike on slickrock but aren’t ready for the famed Slickrock Trail, this would be a good option.
Exploring Dead Horse Point State Park
Don’t let the fact that this isn’t a national park dissuade you from visiting. It’s 32 miles northwest of Moab, and from the visitor center (and from many other places as well) you get views off of sheer cliffs that drop 2,000 feet to the Colorado River.
If you have bikes with you, a great way to explore the area is on the Intrepid Trail system, which has routes for all different riding abilities. You can also hike on many of these trails.
Exploring Canyonlands National Park
This park actually consists of three distinct areas:
Island in the Sky — near Dead Horse Point State Park — is the most accessible district with 20 miles of paved roads within the park, allowing for easy access to viewpoints from atop the 1,500ft mesa. The White Rim Trail — a 100-mile unpaved road that loops around and below the “island” — is accessible to high-clearance 4x4s (2-3 days’ trip) and mountain bikes (3-4 days’ trip). There are 10 designated campgrounds along this route in which you must camp.
The Needles district is accessed by driving 40 miles south out of Moab on 191, then 35 miles west on 211 (which ends at the Needles). To properly explore this region, you need to hike or have a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle. Short hikes range from 1-2 miles long, whereas longer day hikes are more like 7-10 miles. If you’re going to do overnight backpacking trips in the Needles, you need to obtain a backcountry permit and camp in designated sites where they’re available (at-large camping when there are no designated sites is allowed).
The Maze (which features prominently in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire) is by far the least accessible and most time-consuming district of the park. From the Hans Flat Ranger Station (three hours northwest of Moab), it’s another 3-6 hours’ drive with a high-clearance 4×4 before you reach the canyons. There are no amenities; you need to be fully self-sufficient.
Exploring outside of the parks
Fisher Towers is 20 miles northeast of Moab, along the scenic Highway 128. There’s camping here, as well as hiking trails that skirt the bottom of massive cliffs and skinny towers of striated sandstone.
You may see some little dots moving upward on some of the spires; those are rock climbers. We climbed one of the formations known as Ancient Art.
Seeing the Utah desert landscape from the perspective of the water is a necessity to complete your trip. The “Moab Daily” is a 13-mile section of the Colorado River, accessible off Highway 128, and is where you’ll end up if you book a day trip with a tour company.
The rapids here range from Class I to Class III depending on the season / water level. If you’re more experienced and looking for a challenge, Westwater Canyon has Class IV rapids (permit required).
Bar-M / Gemini Bridges
A few miles north of Moab are some moderate areas for cross-country mountain biking. The Bar-M loop (on the east side of 191) is great for a quick ride on single-track.
Across the road you can head out to Gemini Bridges, a 16-mile up and down round-trip ride. This trail is also popular with the offroad crowd, so expect to share it.
Day-trip recommendations courtesy of Nate Sydnor, local guide and owner of Moab Desert Adventures
“Spanish Valley Drive is a great drive out into an area of Moab not many people see. You’ll see agriculture, modern architecture, long-time homesteads, etc, and it leads out to Ken’s Lake, which is a great place to swim and cool off in the summer.”
“The La Sal Loop Road is also an amazing drive. It goes from south of town, up into the La Sals, and drops out on the north side into Castle Valley. That is where Castleton as well as many other amazing towers reside, and you come back into town on the River Road. Quite a spectacular tour, covering nearly all of the geographic terrain types of the Moab area.”
Where to camp near Moab
By far the most convenient and “luxurious” tent camping to be had is Up The Creek Campground. It’s right in town so you can walk or bike to pretty much all the shops, restaurants, cafes, and supply stores. At $32 per night for two people it’s on the steep side, but you can’t beat the location, charging stations, and free showers. They even have gas grills for you to cook on.
Additionally, there’s BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping all around in some extremely scenic locations. These first-come, first-served campgrounds are pretty rudimentary — there are dedicated sites (some with firepits and/or picnic tables) and there will be an outhouse. Some backcountry locations may not have any toilet facilities so make sure to bring your own personal waste disposal system (visit the BLM website for a full list of campgrounds and available facilities).
After a few nights at Up The Creek, we stayed a few more nights at the Granstaff campground along Highway 128. Just north of Moab, this is a beautiful stretch of road that follows the Colorado River with giant red sandstone cliffs looming on either side. There are also lots of biking opportunities here (a paved trail that goes along the river) and some hiking in Negro Bill Canyon right across the road.
This is a superb location for accessing Arches, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse Point, as well as areas further down the highway like the Fisher Towers.
Where to shower
If you’re not staying at a hotel, RV park, or Up The Creek Campground, you may want to have a shower to wash all that red dust off. The cheapest we found in town was the Lazy Lizard Hostel: $3 each. Poison Spider Bicycles and the Moab Rec Center are options as well; check at the Moab Information Center for more.
Where to stock up on outdoor gear and clothing
With all the tour companies, outfitters, and outdoor shops in Moab, there’s no shortage of places to get whatever outdoor gear you’re after. But if you’re into reduce/reuse/recycle like I am, you’ll definitely want to head to Moab Gear Trader, an outdoor gear consignment shop. Additionally, WabiSabi is a local nonprofit thrift shop if you forgot some items of clothing or other gear. Besides scoring some good deals for yourself, you’re also giving back to Moab. WabiSabi not only takes in donated items but shares their profits back into the community.
Where to fill up your water jugs
In desert country you need lots of water, at least a gallon per day per person. GearHeads is a well-stocked outdoor store that also offers free water. They have a giant basin right in the store with a couple of taps — just bring in your empty containers and haul them out full. No purchase necessary (although the always 99-cent Clif bars are hard to resist).
Where to find fast, fresh food to go
The Moonflower Community Cooperative is a natural foods store just off of Main Street. Besides providing a place to buy socially responsible products, they also give free classes and workshops. Check out their schedule of events.
We frequented their cooler for freshly made sandwiches (including gluten free) and salads when we needed a quick and easy lunch for day trips out of Moab.
Where to find the best dining
You need to fuel up before and then replenish yourself after your adventurous days out and about. Luckily for you (and the locals, I think), there are lots of places in Moab to enjoy excellent food and drinks.
I’m a bit of a coffee snob — the result of living in Melbourne for two years — and it was hard to find a decent cuppa in Utah. I found it at Love Muffin Cafe, a breakfast and lunch joint where they clearly know how to work the espresso machine properly. Their Mexican-inspired breakfasts, like huevos rancheros, are top notch. Be prepared for a lineup that extends to the door at peak times.
A local’s recommendations, courtesy again of Nate Sydnor
For breakfast — “Eklectica is an awesome breakfast place, run by a woman named Julie who is a very sweet local. She’s been in Moab for 20-something years, and I would consider breakfast there to be quintessentially Moab.”
To refresh — “The Peace Tree is great for smoothies when it’s really hot out. They also have misters out front that you can cool off in.”
Japanese food — “Frankie and Alex run the sushi restaurant. They worked up in Park City before they came down here to open up Sabaku Sushi. I think it’s fantastic. Having lived in Seattle and San Francisco, I think it measures up.”
Fine dining — “If folks are looking for amazing cuisine, basically the nicest place in town, local hard-man Karl Kelley runs the Desert Bistro.”
Best BLT in town — Red Rock Bakery
Classic diner — Milt’s Stop & Eat. “They have grass-fed, hormone-free beef that is amazing, and shakes and all that. Definitely a must do for the carnivores.”
Pizza — “The Paradox Pizza lady is actually from New Jersey, and their pizza has been authenticated by several folks I know who are from there.”
Food truck — Quesadilla Mobilla. “It’s pretty much the only food truck in town, and [the owners] are really sweet.”
When to go
Summer temperatures in Southern Utah are extreme, peaking in July with an average of almost 100F. We were there in April, and talking to many locals discovered the peak visitor time starts around March and goes into the summer months. Spring is also a great time to see wildflowers, a colorful contrast to the red landscape.
Rain is not an issue. In three weeks we got rained on once (the average yearly precipitation is something like five inches).
Be warned (or excited about, depending on your viewpoint) that the annual Jeep Safari takes place in April. This is when literally hundreds of Jeeps and other high-clearance 4x4s pour into Moab over Easter, and for nine days they all hit different offroad trails.