The longer I’m back in Ohio (especially Ohio in the winter when it’s grey and cold and miserable most days), the more I miss the West, especially Utah. I’ve especially been thinking about Moab lately with it’s red rocks, (mostly) blue skies, clean air, dark nights, red rocks, spectacular scenery and unique geology. If you’ve never been to Moab, but you’re going to be in Utah, it’s definitely worth the stop. The relatively small town serves as a base camp for not one but two national parks, as well as plenty of BLM and Forest Service land. This provides access to countless outdoor opportunities, including hiking and sightseeing, as well as rafting on the Colorado River, rock climbing, mountain biking…the list goes on and on but you get my point. On top of that, the town is pretty great too. There are plenty of great restaurants and unique shops, most, if not all, locally owned.
I had the opportunity to visit Moab a couple times throughout my stay in Utah, each time was a little bit different as far as weather and my destinations. Here are a few tips and highlights from those trips.
When to Visit
Personally, I’m a big fan of visiting in late March, April and early May (and probably a similar time frame in the fall shoulder season, but I can’t speak from experience with the fall). The town isn’t nearly as crowded as it is in the summer months, nor is it nearly as hot. One thing to keep in mind is that Moab hosts “Jeep Week” each year, which usually takes place around Easter each year. For that week, the town is typically packed and if you didn’t know better you’d think it was summer with the amount of visitors.
While the cooler temperatures are great for daytime hiking (as opposed to the often 100+ degree days in the summer). It can be a bit chillier at night. I’m kind of cheap when it comes to lodging so I prefer to camp. In March, I camped at Arches National Park, while the temperature wasn’t too unbearably cold, it was a chilly enough to be uncomfortable, but the real struggle on that trip was the wind. During the day my tent blew over, despite being pinned down and having quite a few heavy things in it, and ended up tearing . That night, my friends tent blew over (with her in it)! But that’s the struggle anywhere I guess!
My second time camping was a little later in the spring and much warmer. This time I decided to camp in one of the BLM campgrounds along the Colorado River. This was probably one of my favorite campsites…ever! The campsite was in one of the many BLM campgrounds along the Colorado River Scenic Byway. With red rocks towering above on both sides of the canyon, and a campsite that basically bordered the Colorado River, I couldn’t have asked for a better view. On top of that, I found a camping spot that was sort of off by itself, so I felt tucked away from the rest of the world as I settled into my camp spot that night.
There are lots of other great camping spots as well, including a campground at Canyonlands National Park, the Manti-La Sal National Forest and some private campgrounds closer to town. Just keep in mind during busier times to either make reservations or get there early as many sites are first come first serve.
Places to Go
Arches National Park
I’ll probably write an entire post on Arches and another on Canyonlands, but I can’t talk about Moab without giving an overview of the two awesome parks nearby. Arches is probably one of my favorite parks (ok, every park is one of my favorite parks), but Arches tends to be popular with a lot of people. That being said, it can be BUSY. With lines just to get into the park and not enough parking at many of the major destinations in the park, its definitely a good idea to visit in the off season (September-April) or visit early in the morning. The way I prefer to spend my time in the area is to get a few miles of hiking in at Arches early in the morning, then peace out by the time the crowds start to role in, choosing instead to spend my afternoon in Canyonlands or hiking in the BLM land along the Colorado River.
There are over 2,000 natural stone arches in the park, but a few tend to win out as the most popular, including Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch, as well as several walls with rock art and other unusual formations such as the famous Balanced Rock. These areas are the most popular, but I definitely recommend getting on some of the lesser used trails and getting away from the crowd of a million tourists with selfie-sticks.
Canyonlands National Park
Despite being so close to Arches, Canyonlands looks like an entirely different world. There are 3 districts to Canyonlands: Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze, each have their own unique charm. Island in the Sky and Needles are both easily accessible, however the Maze district is remote and requires a lot more planning and preparation.
Island in the Sky is great for panoramic views. It’s here where you’ll find a multitude of scenic views overlooking the Colorado and Green Rivers and the canyons they’ve carved out over time. There are plenty of great hikes in ISKY ranging from the short hike to the famed Mesa Arch to a long and strenuous hike around Upheaval Dome.
While the Island in the Sky region is definitely the sight-seers paradise the Needles is much more of a hikers paradise. With hikes that lead to ruins, cowboy camps, chances to get down in the canyons and so much more. It’s a good idea to plan out at least a day for each of these two sections of the park (more if you’re planning on doing any backpacking or extensive backcountry trips). Keep in mind, it’s about a three hour drive between the entrances to these two regions of the park.
Don’t get me wrong, I love both Arches and Canyonlands, but if I simply want a scenic drive, my favorite is the road running along the stretch of the Colorado River through the Moab area. With it’s towering red rock on both sides it really is an awe-inspiring route. On top of that there are lots of great hikes, camping spots and archaeological sites to see.
Driving along 279 you’ll see lots of petroglyphs (rock carvings) along the side of the road if you keep your eyes open. Sadly, many of them have been vandalized over the years. You will also likely see climbers and if you do a bit of exploring in the right places, you might even come across some dinosaur tracks.
Driving along 128, you’ll find plenty of campsites and hiking areas, including Negro Bill Canyon, a roughly 4 mile round trip hike ending at a natural bridge (different than an arch). There’s also a natural spring along the roadway. Legend says that if you drink from this spring you’ll someday return to the area. The road follows the river for miles, or, if you take the right turns, you can end up driving up towards the La Sal Mountains.
Manti-La Sal National Forest
The Manti-La Sal National Forest is broken down into three regions, three mountain ranges. The region overlooking Moab is the La Sal Mountains. I didn’t get to explore the La Sal Mountains too much when I was in Moab, I wish I could have more. My first time visiting was in mid-March, and there was still plenty of snow in the mountains.
Downtown Moab is a great place to spend your evening. After adventuring all day, it’s nice to re-enter civilization, get some good food and maybe do some shopping or take in a bit of the night life. There are lots of great restaurants and cute little shops selling everything from t-shirts and cheap souvenirs to fine jewelry and products made by local artists.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
One of my favorite things about southeast Utah is how dark it is at night. With so little light pollution, this area is perfect for stargazing. You’ll be amazed at what you can see if you get about 10 miles or so from the town. If it isn’t too cloudy, you’re in for a treat! Not only can you see the Milky Way (something that many of us have never seen in person), but since you’ll be looking at some of the darkest skies in the country, you will see thousands of stars and other heavenly objects not visible to the majority of us living in less remote regions. Seriously, go star gazing!
Pay attention to the weather when planning a trip, summers are HOT, winters are snowy, late summer is monsoon season. Depending on when you go, be prepared for the elements. Always bring water (you’re in the desert, this should be a given), wear sunscreen and a hat or warm clothes and gloves (depending on when you visit). Pay attention to the weather forecast for the day before heading out. Summer thunderstorms can roll in quick and depending on where you’re at can leave you stranded in a flash flood or a lightning storm. Different weather conditions allow you to see this area in a different light (winter in Arches is pretty fantastic), but keep in mind, it can also be dangerous!
Overall, because of easy access to so many great camping spots, scenic drives and hiking trails for all levels Moab is a great stop for any adventure! There is so much to see and do in the area, this post isn’t even the tip of the iceburg. Despite the heavy summer crowds, there are so many places to explore that if you look hard enough, you’ll find solitude even on the busiest of days. Seriously, if you’re looking to get out and explore, there’s no better place than Moab!