Magnetic Moab

May 2, 2000
Filed under Travel

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Moab does keep pulling you back with its beauty and adventure. Once you’ve seen sunlight play on the red rocks, watched shrinking shadows reveal canyons, tried to read Newspaper Rock or ridden the tram to the top of Moab Rim, you’ll be back. I first visited Moab in the spring of 1968, returned during the summer of ’78, and then returned again last spring. I’m already planning my next trip. With each trip I see a bit more of the sights, I experience more activities, and I explore more of its topography. Maybe if I outlive Methuselah, I’ll see everything–but I doubt it–because it’s still changing. What you saw last year may not be there next year, but that’s part of the charm of Moab. And it’s different with each season.

It’s everchanging and it’s everlasting at the same time. It’s a paradox. It’s Moab. Moab is not a vertically challenged hamlet, but it is in an area that does vertically challenge visitors. Located on the Colorado River, just a few miles south of Interstate 70 at the foot of the La Sal Mountains, Moab is surrounded by national parks and national
forests. There are also several national monuments and national recreation areas within short driving distances. At 4,000 feet elevation, Moab is just under being a mile-high city; however, the cliffs and mesas overlooking the town tower up to 2,000 feet above the city center.

You might begin your exploration by taking the Moab Rim Tramway, which was just completed last year. Strap yourself into a ski lift-type seat–actually the operator straps you in–and soar a half-mile above the town in just minutes. Then walk around the Rim and try to spot your campsite far below. Take a map of the area with you and you’ll be able to chart your explorations for the next few days. When you visit this quaint village, because of its altitude, be sure to become acclimated before trying any strenuous exercise.

Don’t become so mesmerized with the surrounding territory that you cause yourself an injury. What to do first? There is just so much to do here, the list can be overwhelming, but let’s try to name a few activities: hiking, fishing, boating, biking, rafting, off-roading, horseback riding, sight-seeing. Almost anything that has anything to do with an outdoor activity can be rented in Moab: Jeeps, mountain bikes, fishing gear, boats, etc.–except hiking boots–those you can buy at any number of outfitters in town. And there are several tour companies that will either lead, drive or float you through as many adventures as you want or have time for. Off-Roading Although bike and boat rentals abound, let’s take a spin around Moab the easy way first.

Short of taking one of the many sight-seeing flights available at the airport, a rental Jeep (with or without a professionally guided tour)–if you don’t have a four-wheeler of your own–will give the best and quickest overview. Two agencies are available year-round; Farabee 4×4 Rentals and Slickrock Jeep Rentals. Jeep trails in the area were originally pioneered by modern-day prospectors in World War II-surplus Jeeps and 4WD trucks searching for the radioactive gold of the ’50s–uranium.

They wandered the hills, canyons and swells following their clicking geiger counters and their dreams. Some died rich, most died poor, but they left a rich legacy of four-wheel drive trails throughout the high desert and rock formations surrounding Moab. These same trails today are followed by Explorers, Wagoneers, Cherokees, Pathfinders, 4Runners and Wranglers, and many more folks on Schwinns, Diamondbacks and Huskys. Almost any direction out of town will take you to sights not seen anywhere else in the world–just ask one of the many tour operators in town.

But my first recommendation is visiting the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park–one of three districts in the park (Maze and Island in the Sky are the other two)–with its confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. Head south on U.S. 191 toward Monticello. Fifteen miles out of Moab–on the east side of the road–is a must-see museum with plenty of room for RV parking. Hole ‘N the Rock is an excellent example of making lemonade out of life’s lemons. It is a 5,000-square-foot private museum excavated from solid rock by a barber.

Albert and Gladys Christensen, whose legacy was just one huge red boulder, began expanding a small natural cave in the early 1940s and continued for 20 years until they had their home–including a fireplace and bathtub–carved from solid rock. It is said to have required one stick of dynamite for each cubic foot of rock removed, Albert’s legacy is a monument to determination and grit. Continue south on U.S. 191 for 22 miles and turn west on Utah 211. U-211 dead ends at the entrance to Canyonlands National Park, where it becomes a park road. If you’re in your RV, drop it off at a campsite in the Needles Outpost with fullhookups–some of the sites are shaded, all are delightful and the kids will revel in the multitude of rocky slopes to explore.

However, before dropping your sewer line at the Outpost, you’ll want to heave to for a while at Newspaper Rock, about 13 miles from the U.S. 191 turnoff. You may even consider spending the night at the state park’s primitive campground located across the two-lane road from the Rock–but watch out for the spirits that may still be hanging around this millennium-old signpost from the past. For more than a 1,000 years, through three distinctive periods, Native Americans have been pecking petroglyphic messages into the desert varnish on this rock wall for those who follow. About 6 feet high, you’ll see the first horses–which came ashore with the Spanish conquistadors–being mentioned. Regardless of what they tell you at the Canyonlands National Park information kiosk in town, dogs are not allowed in the Canyonlands National Park. If you stay at the Outpost, you can leave your dogs there; otherwise you’d best find a kennel in town.

With a four wheeler (or a mountain bike) you can explore Canyonlands to your heart’s content. The trails are fairly easy and well maintained by park staff–Canyonlands is the only national park in which four-wheel-drive exploring is permitted (although you must remain on the existing roads and trails)–and follow either the dry sand washes, traverse slick rock or become dirt roads between obstacles. At the end for the Confluence Overlook Trail, you’ll enjoy the half-mile walk to the walled overlook, 2,000 feet above the joining of two mighty rivers–the brown one is the Green and the more clear river (eastern fork) is the Colorado.

The confluence isn’t the only thing you’ll want to see during your tour of Canyonlands; there are any number of arches to see and photograph. Paul Bunyan’s Potty (a horizontal arch) and Druid are the two most noted. Arches National Park Speaking of arches, just 5 miles north of Moab on U.S. 191, Arches National Park, open year-round, watches over the Colorado River. Featuring the greatest concentration of natural stone arches in the world, the park can boast of more than 2,000 arches with park roads and trails leading to many of them–including a 21-mile paved road to major points of interest, such as Balanced Rock, Park Avenue, Windows and Wolfe Ranch.

A graded dirt road takes visitors to Klondike Bluffs. Just off the main road, many short footpaths lead to spectacular arches, including a 3-mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch, which is the arch shown on Utah license plates. A 52-site campground is located in the park and campfire programs are offered nightly. Along with the arches, you’ll be delighted to discover many red rock canyons, spires, fins and balancing rocks in the park. Erosion of Entrada Sandstone, a 300-foot-thick layer of rock that was deposited as sand 150 million years ago, created these extensive, exciting formations. In Town Moab began life as an agricultural outpost founded by Mormon pioneers.

In its infancy, the town was familiar to Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch and a number of other outlaw gangs. Known as the locale in several Zane Grey novels, Moab has also been used frequently as a setting for movies–many restaurants display signed photographs of movie stars from several eras. In fact, the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame is located in Moab. Other Attractions Consider taking an evening dinner cruise on the Colorado River–complete with candles and spot-lit canyons–aboard a well-equipped pontoon boat. Canyonlands by Night (April through October) brings the canyon walls to life nightly with 40,000 watts of controlled illumination. Dancing shadows literally perform to the rhythm of background music. It’s a thrilling and uplifting experience.

Mountain biking is tremendously popular in the Moab area, just a leasurely drive down the town’s main drag will attest to this as you try to count the number of rental offices. Unless you’re an experienced slick-rock rider, however, I’d highly suggest a few days riding behind a guide or tour operator. Trails radiate from Moab like spokes in a bike’s wheel. They climb to the horizon at any point on a 360-degree compass and then split off in ever-multiplying numbers, ever-increasing difficulty, and ever-decreasing size. In other words, you could not only get lost, you could also become injured if you venture into Moab’s magnificent maze without an experienced guide. If you wish to quit bouncing on a bike or in a Jeep for a while, try bouncing a line in either the Green or the Colorado. Boats may be rented in town, along with fishing gear, and short-duration fishing licenses may be purchased.

Drifting along the canyon walls with a bobber gently sliding up and down wavelets can be a relaxing respite from the more active outdoor pursuits in the Moab area. How do you categorize a tour company that seemingly does it all? Adrift Adventures offers horseback riding, canoeing, rafting, jet boat and 4WD tours. In business since ’78, Adrift is anything but adrift, the company’s focus is to give you the best time you can have in the time you have available. The company even offers several combination tours, wherein you Jeep in one direction and float back. Or canoe out and ride horses back. Almost any combination you can think of, including father-and-son, mother-and-daughter, singles-only and women-only trips. Campgrounds & RV Parks RV parks abound, from plush to plain.

There are nine private parks listed in the Trailer Life Directory–and at least that many more not listed. There are also many campgrounds within the boundaries of the national and state parks sprinkled around Moab’s outskirts. In addition, the town’s service stations appear to have been designed with RVs in mind. They’re tall, wide and open with easy entrance and egress. Source List Adrift Adventures, (800) 874-4483. Arches National Park, (435) 259-8161. Canyonlands by Night, (435) 259-5261. Canyonlands National Park, (435) 259-3911. Farabee 4×4 Rentals, (435) 259-7494. Slickrock Jeep Rentals, (435) 259-5678.

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