Moab, Utah, offers a variety of outdoor recreation sure to get your heart pumping
“Must he always set his tripod at the very edge of the cliff?” I wondered, peering over my boots into the deep, purple chasm below. Winds gusted. The sun dropped. In the changing light, colors flowed over the canyon like an artist’s brush making final touches on a canvas. All my worries about my photography-loving husband’s cliff-hanging photo setup vanished. Sunset had arrived in Canyonlands National Park.
With Arches and Canyonlands national parks on its doorstep, Moab, Utah, is the gateway to adventure. It caters to outdoor enthusiasts craving to indulge their passions. The activity menu abounds with four-wheeling, mountain biking, river rafting, hiking, zip-lines and more. Plus, with peak season stretching from April through October, Moab is a perfect destination to extend summer travels.
Fall temperatures in the high 80s welcomed my husband, Greg, and I to the fiery-red rock desert. We strolled Moab’s Main Street past shops touting bicycle, kayak and Jeep rentals, and a smorgasbord of guided tours. Like kids on a playground, we wanted to do it all! The best advice we can offer is to follow your passions and dial up the adrenaline meter for some added excitement.
Hiking Arches National Park
Entering Arches felt like a theme-park ride. Towering rock walls splashed in sunset colors stretch skyward as the road serpentines above the visitor center. Monstrous boulders balance precariously on pedestals. Huge holes gape through massive rocks. Just 5 miles north of Moab, the park delights visitors with more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches and a menagerie of unusual rock sculptures. With names like Balanced Rock, Three Gossips and Park Avenue, I couldn’t help but smile.
People clad in sandals and hiking boots with cameras slung around their necks streamed up and down a steep rock face. “It looks like a pilgrimage of sorts,” I mused, as we joined the masses trekking up to Delicate Arch. The 3-mile round-trip trail traverses slick rock, sand and a 200-yard rock ledge with dizzying views. What a treat it was to turn the last corner and see the iconic arch! A partylike mood filled the air. People cheerfully handed their cameras to strangers and lined up to pose for photos under the arch, a perfect frame for handstands and happy faces! If hiking is not your passion, you can view Delicate Arch from a distance, at two lower viewpoints accessible from the parking lot 1 mile past the Wolfe Ranch trailhead. Pack a lunch, snacks and plenty of water, as there is no food service in the park.
“How far does the path drop?” the woman asked, fear filling her eyes. We looked back. The rock fin curved and disappeared into blue skies. Despite our reassurances, she froze, explaining that her husband was up ahead. Our friend offered to lead her across. She grabbed his hand, found her courage and the two vanished from sight. Several minutes later, our friend reappeared and we continued our descent on the primitive trail from Double O Arch to Devil’s Garden trailhead. This challenging, 4-mile round-trip rock-scrambling hike over sandstone slabs and steep fins rewarded us with views worth the effort, and a high score on the adrenaline meter.
One of the most popular hikes in Arches is Fiery Furnace, a maze of narrow canyons and fins. Access is permitted only by a ranger-guided hike or a special permit. Tours sell out quickly, and the park recommends booking the 2½- to 3-hour morning tour online at least four days prior to the date of the hike. Reservations are also accepted up to six months in advance. Afternoon tour tickets can be purchased at the visitor center seven days prior to the hike date. Next time, we’ll get our reservations in early.
Four-wheeling in Canyonlands
Canyonlands National Park occupies 527 square miles of rocky wilderness replete with mesas, canyons, arches and the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. These merging rivers thunder through Cataract Canyon creating one of the most treacherous whitewater runs in the nation. I wouldn’t even think of dipping a toe in that!
Dirt roads wind into the canyon, taking adventure-seekers to places inaccessible from park paved roads. “Now, that’s where I want to go!” I exclaimed, hanging over a viewpoint railing on our first visit a few years ago. Four-wheeling in Canyonlands became a must-do this time around. We took the backroad in from Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah-279) for 16 miles to the end of the pavement. From there, a dirt road rated for high-clearance vehicles begged us to continue another 32 miles to the park’s boundary. All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and side-by-sides are not allowed in national parks, but our dinghy vehicle – an all-wheel-drive Honda CR-V – negotiated the terrain admirably with a few strategic teeter-totters over rocky patches and deep ruts.
For miles, ours was the lone vehicle on the road. Just the whisper of a slight breeze broke the silence as we stood on the overlook admiring the Colorado River ribbon around the gooseneck bend. If four-wheeling isn’t on your adventure list, you can still enjoy this not-to-be-missed view from the cliffs above in Dead Horse Point State Park.
A weathered wooden sign announced our entry into Canyonlands. Not ready to abandon the dirt roads yet, we headed to Musselman Arch and found ourselves walking across the arch top, as if on a bridge, over a gaping canyon. Saving the best (or scariest) for last, we zigzagged out of the canyon up Shafer Trail’s infamous switchbacks with sheer drop-offs. My hope of reaching the top without encountering another vehicle faded when a bumper peered around the curve. Thankfully, the Jeep backed into the curve pocket and we cautiously motored past. Glancing over the edge, I concluded that driving up the mountainside was a lot less heart-racing than heading down!
Rock Crawling and Off-roading
Like a modern-day wagon train they rolled into the RV park, hauling side-by-sides and box trailers filled with big toys. Diesel engines rumbled as they claimed the sites next to our motorhome. Our family and friends arrived ready to explore the high desert trails! Passionate off-roaders, they chose Archview RV Resort & Campground because of its easy trail access to an off-roader’s paradise. Just steps from your motorhome, hop into your off-road vehicle and your adventure begins. Located 11 miles north of Moab, the resort’s premium pull-through sites feature plenty of space plus horizon views of nearby Arches National Park.
As I sipped my coffee and watched the sunrise from our motorhome window, I wondered what the day’s adventures held. My answer came quickly. Hat-clad, bandana-faced folks began congregating near their side-by-sides. Motors started and seats filled, but one remained empty. Grinning like a kid, my adventure-seeking husband quickly accepted our friend’s invitation to join the expedition to Gemini Bridges, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site. A popular route for off-roaders and mountain bikers, the dirt road climbs the mountainside delivering panoramic views. After several miles, a sign and parking area mark the general location of the twin arches. From there, a short walk leads to the arches. Rated as an easy-to-moderate off-road route, our team still managed to dial up the adrenaline meter with some rock crawling over a portion of the adjoining Gold Bar Rim Trail before heading back. Exploring the area’s miles of dirt and rock trails is great fun. Just be sure to stay within your skill level, keep your maps handy and pay close attention to signs that read: “Caution. Very difficult. Great place to change your plan!”
Slickrock and Hell’s Revenge
Gravity-defying rock domes, bowls and fins lure mountain bikers to Moab’s world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail. In a wheels-versus-rock duel, it challenges riders on a 9½-mile course marked by a dashed white line painted on bare, slick rock. Rated as an expert trail and not recommended for novices, we didn’t consider pedaling it. The trail is closed to ATVs and 4x4s but is open to hikers and motorcycles.
We couldn’t resist hoofing a portion of it to get a firsthand look. It turned out to be a great spectator sport, plus a respectable hike. A 1.7-mile practice loop, not any less difficult than the actual trail, allows cyclists to muster courage and test out skills and equipment. The trail appears and disappears over the terrain. On steep domes, we heard tires crunch behind us before we saw bikes crest the hill. Silently, we cheered on the challengers, especially those who lost momentum on steep inclines and ultimately walked their bikes to the top. At certain points, Slickrock Bike Trail intersects Hell’s Revenge 4×4 Trail, an added plus for us spectators as we watched Jeeps and side-by-sides scale narrow fins and crawl over rocks. These trails are just two of many offered in the Sand Flats Recreation Area located 3 miles from Moab’s city center. Nominal day-use fees apply, and dry campsites are offered. Three campgrounds (A, E and Juniper) have dry-camping sites suitable for RVs.
The Moab area offers miles of dirt, paved and road cycling routes to satisfy any pedaling persuasion, from comfy rides to heart-pumping hill climbs. A relaxing 2½-mile paved bike path follows the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah-128) and is easily accessible from town. The paved, 9-mile Moab Canyon Bike Trail along U.S. Highway 191 connects cyclists to Arches National Park, in addition to a network of routes including access to Canyonlands.
An eclectic flotilla of paddleboards, canoes, kayaks and rafts drifted downriver heading toward the rapids. Crews paddled in rambunctious disorder. Dogs stood comfortably on bows like sea captains. Laughter danced across the water. Described as a fun, splashy float by tour companies, the Colorado River’s Fisher Towers section is a popular half- to full-day float. Bobbing through moderate rapids along Utah’s Scenic Byway 128, the river-carved canyon delivers a refreshing break from the desert heat. Launch your own watercraft, rent a vessel or leave the navigating to a professional tour company.
If you prefer a more thrilling river journey, the Colorado River’s Westwater Canyon kicks up the adrenaline meter with Class III and IV rapids mixed with calm-water sections. Permits are required, so booking with a tour company is most convenient. Plan on a full day, as the canyon is a two-hour drive from Moab.
Moab bid us farewell with a sign that reads: “Discover Moab again and again. The adventure never ends.” This resort town knows the secret to adventure. It simply lies in the heart of the traveler. From enjoying glorious sunsets to white-knuckling down steep rock faces, Moab’s abounding activities keep visitors coming back for more!
For More Information
Arches National Park | 435-719-2299 | www.nps.gov/arch
Canyonlands National Park | 435-719-2313 | www.nps.gov/cany
Sand Flats Recreation Area | 435-259-2444 | www.sandflats.org
Campgrounds in the Area
ACT Campground and Environmental Learning Center
Archview RV Resort & Campground
Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground
Moab Valley RV Resort & Campground
Portal RV Resort
Spanish Trail RV Park