(This is the second half of a two-part story by writer/photographer Rebecca Pisani on the many recreational opportunities in and near Moab, Utah.)
Moab is Utah’s—and quite possibly the country’s—adventure capital. Where else can you spend days, even weeks, mountain biking across slickrock trails, off-roading through seemingly inaccessible terrain, horseback riding among towering rock formations, rappelling down 120-foot red-rock cliffs, or rafting down the Colorado River?
Yes, Moab is a veritable outdoor playground. But despite its lure for adrenaline seekers, the reason I, like so many other visitors, came to Moab was to explore its three nearby parks: Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.
History Carved in Stone
Canyonlands, 30 miles southwest of downtown, is the largest of Utah’s five national parks. At 300,000 acres, it is so large, in fact, that it’s divided into distinct districts—Islands in the Sky to the north, The Maze to the southwest and The Needles to the southeast. The Green and the Colorado rivers separate the districts and each has its own entrance. A fourth detached area, Horseshoe Canyon, sits to the west, about a three-hour drive from Moab.
Islands in the Sky is the closest Canyonlands district to town and therefore the most popular with visitors, especially those with limited time. Set atop a 1,500-foot mesa, Islands in the Sky are quite literally that, and the area’s 20 miles of paved roads offer spectacular views.
A number of old mining trails can take you from the top to the bottom of the canyons. Perhaps the most challenging is the Shafer Trail. This narrow circuitous road, which is considered moderately difficult for high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles, can take upward of 24 hours to travel completely and is not recommended for those with a fear of heights as it is edged on one side by a sheer drop of several hundred feet.
The Shafer Trail “was one of the old wagon routes for miners who were out here looking for that pot of gold or trying to find another uranium vein,” says Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “It’s very bumpy, and it’s got these switchbacks that are absolutely incredible. There are four of them in there, so you are on an S-curve for a long time, and it’s all downhill.”
As I stand at the top of the cliff, looking down into the deep canyon below, I spot a black 4×4 slowly traversing the hairpin curves, a couple of mountain bikes attached to its tailgate. Perhaps it’s headed toward the 100-mile White Rim Road, a popular yet strenuous trail for both off-roading and mountain biking.
With dark storm clouds and rain bursts following, I make my way to Mesa Arch. The easy half-mile hike to the arch is filled with junipers and pinyon pines. My guide points out a patch of black, knobby crust, which to my untrained eye looks like some type of soil. But it’s not; it’s actually alive. Made of cyanobacteria, one of the earth’s oldest known life forms, as well as lichens, mosses, algae and bacteria, this cryptobiotic soil forms the foundation for desert plant life, storing water, nutrients and other organic matter necessary for plants to thrive. It’s also extremely fragile, and walking on it can disrupt the ecosystem.
Mesa Arch was deserted when we arrived. Perched on the rim of the plateau with the Colorado River hundreds of feet below, the 50-foot-long arch perfectly frames the canyon. I could see the famous Washer Woman Arch; Monster Tower, a popular climbing destination; and Airport Tower, as well as the La Sals more than 35 miles away. For a scene that will take your breath away, visit at sunrise when the golden-red glow of the morning sun bursts through the arch frame.
A Geological Fantasyland
A more strenuous hike is found at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, a short five miles north of downtown Moab. At three miles roundtrip, with an elevation increase of 500 feet (and a starting elevation of 4,000 feet above sea level), this hike will definitely get your heart pumping. But the end view is worth the effort.
As I huffed and puffed my way up sloping slickrock, across gravel trails, and—acrophobes take note—along a narrow sandstone ledge with a steep drop on one side for the final 200 yards, I’m sure more than a few mumbled curses passed my lips. But when I rounded the final corner, I gasped, and for probably the first time during the hike not from a lack of fitness.
Photographs simply don’t do justice to the massive sandstone arch teetering high on a ledge above the rocky valley below, the ever-present La Sals rising to the southeast. Despite the unusually strong winds, tourists in bright jackets wandered beneath the arch, like colorful beetles scampering through a horseshoe, posing for and taking photos.
For those unable or unwilling to take the long hike to the arch, it can be viewed from an official viewpoint across the valley. Or, simply spend your time driving along the park’s 36-mile-roundtrip scenic road, where you’ll see just some of the more than 2,000 natural arches found here, as well as other bizarre and avant-garde sandstone formations, such as Balanced Rock, a 55-foot boulder perched precariously atop a 128-foot mudstone pedestal. It was near this formation that Edward Abbey, while serving as a seasonal ranger in the late 1950s, wrote his 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire, considered one of his greatest works.
In it, he writes about the park: “The arches themselves, strange, impressive, grotesque, form but a small and essential part of the general beauty of this country. When we think of rock we usually think of stones, broken rock, buried under soil and plant life, but here all is exposed and naked, dominated by the monolithic formations of sandstone which stand above the surface of the ground and extend for miles, sometimes level, sometimes tilted or warped by pressures from below, carved by erosion and weathering into an intricate maze of glens, grottoes, fissures, passageways, and deep narrow canyons.”
Nature Within Reach
Equally as grand as the view from Delicate Arch but not as difficult to acquire is the one at Dead Horse Point State Park, situated midway between Arches and Canyonlands and 32 miles from downtown Moab. From an overlook 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the effects of 150 million years of erosion are on display. The sweeping panorama of red sandstone buttes, sheer cliffs, and deep gorges is interrupted only by the green serpentine Colorado, which winds its way around a narrow rock peninsula. According to the Moab Area Travel Council, this view is one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world.
Movie buffs will especially enjoy their visit to Dead Horse. Despite popular belief that Thelma and Louise drove their 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible into the Grand Canyon, they actually did so right here. A Y-shaped road to the left of the river’s bend marks that fateful final drive. Another famous scene—the opening shots of Mission: Impossible II in which Tom Cruise dangles from a vertigo-inducing cliff by his bare hands—was filmed just minutes from the overlook.
For something a little more, shall we say, down to earth, Dead Horse offers numerous hiking trails around the edge of the mesa. And the Intrepid Trail system features three hiking and mountain biking loops for all ability levels, from the easy one-mile Intrepid loop to the challenging nine-mile Big Chief. All provide breathtaking views.
“We have had many people come into our information center downtown and tell us that if they had known what was available right here in Moab between Canyonlands and Dead Horse, they would have never stayed at the Grand Canyon as long as they did,” says DeLay. “They say they feel as though they can become more a part of what this park [Dead Horse] and Canyonlands has to offer and that it really becomes an emotional experience for them.”
With a playground as dramatic as the region surrounding Moab, it’s no wonder that the town is a favorite for outdoor adventurers. But it’s also a great place to escape from the busy city life, a place to slow down and enjoy an off-the-beaten-path serenity, a place to reconnect with nature’s beauty.
Perhaps Abbey said it best: “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home. … For myself, I’ll take Moab, Utah.”
Rebecca Pisani is a writer and photographer who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.