Last Updated on December 17, 2020 by Janet Frost
Moab, Utah is rapidly becoming the “extreme sports” capitol of the Southwest. Mountain biking, off-roading, whitewater rafting, canyoneering and hiking are all out your front door in Moab, Utah.
Let’s Go! Find Adventure in Moab, Utah.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION…You know the mantra. Well Moab certainly has location on its side. Located in southeastern Utah, it is nestled in the Spanish Valley between the La Sal Mountains and two of the Utah Mighty 5 National Parks, Arches NP and Canyonlands NP. Moab’s year-round access to thousands of square miles of amazing red rock landscapes, along with the cool waters of the Colorado River, has made it one of the most sought-after outdoor recreation destinations in the American Southwest.
This valley, with its natural Colorado River crossing, started as an important trading town along the Old Spanish Trail. The Old Spanish Trail ran from the bustling Santa Fe trading center west to the young Los Angeles. Manageable river crossings along the Colorado River were scarce, so that gave this region a boost.
Like so many trail/trade route boom towns, Moab’s fortunes turned quickly when railroads and highways bypassed them. For decades the area languished in quiet agriculture. However, any region with such a vast array of geological formations, is destined to be a hub of mineral discoveries. In the 1920s uranium was discovered. Later potash, magnesium, oil and natural gas all added to the economy.
Arches National Park was established in 1929 and Canyonlands National Park in 1964. Sandwiched by two epic National Parks, Moab was perfectly positioned to enter the 21st century as a thriving tourist destination.
State and National Parks Around Moab
Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks. The climate in Moab is incredibly dry. Average annual rainfall in Moab is 10″ compared to the national average of 38″. Ironically, the unique formations in Arches NP are created by the forces of precipitation. Sleet and snow freeze and fracture the rocks, rain further erodes it and cascading falls leave behind desert varnish. All of these forces slowly wear down the existing archways and start the creation of new ones.
- Park entrance is 5 miles north of downtown Moab
- Entrance fee is $30 per carload. The Annual and Senior NPS passes can be used
- Park is open 24/7 but the Visitor Center hours are 8-5. ( The Visitor Center is open with Covid precautions in place)
- 36 miles of paved roads allow you amazing views of most of the prominent sights of the park.
- There are pullouts for quick photos and parking lots at all trailheads. The trails to up close views vary in length and difficulty from 0.3 of a mile to 7 miles.
- There is no off-roading allowed in the park.
- Plan on 2-4 hours to drive and hike to several of the landmarks.
- The park gets very busy midday and the parking lots do fill up. I recommend visiting before 8 AM or after 4 PM.
Canyonlands is over 330,000 acres of more amazing geologic formations. The Colorado River and Green River wind through deep canyons creating three distinct segments of the park. Island in the Sky is the closest to Moab in the northern segment of the park. The southeast unit is The Needles and the far, remote Maze is out west.
Canyonlands NP is the largest of the national parks in Utah. In contrast to Arches, it is vastly spread out and has more examples of ancient indigenous cultures. As its name suggests, Canyonlands is all about deep canyons and vast views of the landscape.
We only allotted one day to explore Canyonlands so we limited our exploring to the Island in the Sky segment of this vast national park. The name, Island in the Sky is a variation on the Sky Islands of Arizona and the Sonoran Desert. In the Southwest, these regions are known as towering islands of rich biodiversity in a sea of desert. In Canyonlands, the mesas stand 2,000 feet above the desert floor and river valleys below.
- Park entrance is 30 miles northwest of downtown Moab.
- Entrance fees are the same as Arches NP, $30 per carload with the use of Annual Pass available.
- Park is open 24/7 but the Visitor Centers vary seasonally so check before you go. ( The Visitor Centers are open with Covid precautions in place)
- The 34-mile scenic drive provides many overlooks, 1000 feet down into the Colorado and Green River valleys.
- This park is the choice for a more rugged experience. There are hundreds of miles of 4X4 roads, opportunities for flat water and whitewater adventures and more strenuous backcountry hiking.
Dead Horse Point SP
Dead Horse Point State Park is a 10-mile detour off of the road to Canyonlands, Island in the Sky. This Utah State Park boasts some of the most amazing views of the Canyonlands region, with almost 360 degree views of the Shafer Canyon and gooseneck of the Colorado River below.
Legend has it that the name comes from the practice of 19th century cowboys using the extreme spit of land to corral wild mustangs. As you can see on the map below, there is a very narrow neck of land that is the only way on or off of the Point Overlook.
There are easy trails around the Point and the rest of the rim overlooks. The breathtaking vistas and numerous photo ops of this natural phenomenon make it a highly recommended attraction in Moab.
- Entrance fee: $20 per carload
- This is a Utah State Park so the Utah annual park pass is accepted
- Park is open daily, 6:00am to 10:00pm
- Visitor Center is open 9:00am-5:00pm
The opportunities for adventure never stop in Moab. As you can see, this is a beautiful area to visit from your car. However, off-the-beaten path is the way to truly enjoy Moab.
In recent years, off-roading has swept the nation. Off-roading can include ATVs, UTVs, and 4X4 vehicles. Moab is home to multiple annual 4×4 events including the Rally on the Rocks UTV/SXS Rally. Some of the most popular trails include Hell’s Revenge, Poison Spider Mesa, Golden Spike, The Rim, Hidden Valley, Chicken Corners, Kane Creek, Hurrah Pass, and Pritchett Canyon.
The Sand Flats Recreation Area is a grown up “Disneyland” for off-roaders, mountain bikers, and motocross riders. There are steep inclines and death defying declines, amazing vistas and miles of excitement. You can rent any of these daredevil vehicles or take a tour. There are numerous companies that will set you up. We used T-Rex 4X4 Tours and they took us on Hell’s Revenge Trail at sunset. Wooheee that was an adventure!
Arches NP has trails to almost all of the arches, windows and monuments in the park. These trails range from a short paved path to overnight backcountry trails. Canyonlands NP has a few short trails, but much of this park is rugged backcountry trails.
Of course the national parks surrounding Moab have extraordinary hiking . But the hiking opportunities in Moab don’t stop there. Check out this map created by Discover Moab with plenty of variety in hike choices.
Towering to the east of Moab is the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The La Sal Mountains. Attaining heights of nearly 13,000 feet, these alpine mountains are the second highest mountain range in Utah. These mountains straddle the Colorado/Utah border and offer numerous hiking and mountain bike trails, along with picturesque campsites. We will look at this range closer under Scenic Drives below.
REMEMBER! Moab is a high desert! The desert is no joke and people get in over their heads very easily when hiking. You must start early, bring LOTS of water and do not overestimate your hiking ability in this brutal environment.
The Moab board of tourism boldly proclaims to be “the home of the greatest mountain biking on the planet.” The canyons, rock spires, mountain peaks, and vast ridges spread along the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. It is a mecca for mountain bikers. Early uranium miners created a vast network of 700 miles of trails. Many call the Porcupine Rim, a 34-mile shuttle ride from the La Sal Mountains to Moab with nearly 8,000 feet of descent, the most epic ride ever! With over 200 trails in just Moab you are sure to find something at your riding and adrenaline level.
On the Water
Remember we said before that the desert town of Moab only gets 10 inches of rain a year? Well you might not consider it a hotspot for water sports. Utah is a land of surprises. The Wasatch Range in the north and the La Sal Mountains in the south receive some awesome snow. That snow runoff feeds rivers that have carved through incredible sandstone canyons. With five national parks and many monuments to protect them, Utah is one of the best states in the country for multi-day rafting trips through the wilderness. You will experience; big whitewater, unique scenery, great side hikes, and interesting cultural artifacts.
Moab also offers family friendly rafting with Class I to Class III rapids and plenty of floating in between. Rentals and tours are available for whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing and SUP. There are plenty of put-ins along the Colorado River, within minutes of downtown Moab.
Scenic Drives around Moab
I understand that there are days when you want a less strenuous adventure. Those days are perfect for a scenic drive. The Moab region has plenty of those. If you are coming to Moab from the south, the drive along 191 from the Mormon village of Monticello, UT on into Moab is packed with peaks, buttes and arches. You can catch glimpses of the Abajo Mountain range, the distant San Juans in Colorado and the La Sal Mountians as you near Moab.
Upper Colorado Scenic Byway
The U-128, Upper Colorado Scenic Byway, is one of my favorite scenic drives. It starts just north of town at the Colorado River Bridge and winds 45 miles along the Upper Colorado River to the Cisco ghost town. Take your time on this curvy road, enjoy the sheer red cliffs and the zen kayakers plying the river.
Potash-Lower Colorado Scenic Byway
In contrast, the U-279, Potash-Lower Colorado Scenic Byway, follows the Lower Colorado River. This 17 mile drive starts at the junction of U-279 and 191, 4 miles north of Moab. You will still follow the river and discover an astonishing wall of petroglyphs, some dinosaur tracks and eventually the otherworldly potash fields. Potash is a potassium rich salt deposit left from dehydrating climate.
La Sal Mountain Loop
The La Sal Mountain Loop is a scenic drive that introduces you to a wide variety of canyon country formations. This is a 60-mile loop which you can start south of Moab off of 191 or north of town on the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway that we mentioned above. If you start at the Colorado River, you will pass through Castle Valley, which is a small agricultural community ringed by dramatic cliffs and monuments. As you ascend into the the Manti-La Sal National Forest, be sure to look back north towards the river and you can see Arches and the red rock canyons far below. You will encounter very little traffic along this route and enjoy refreshing mountain climate as you climb towards the 12,000 foot peaks.
Thus far, all the recommended adventures are during the day, but in Moab, the cosmos come out to play at night. The city of Moab, Grand County, NPS and Friends of the Milky Way association have worked together to protect the natural resource of their Dark Skies. In recent years both Arches NP and Canyonlands NP have been designated at International Dark Sky parks. Layers upon layers of stars fill the southern Utah skies.
Go! Learn More about International Dark Sky Parks…
Find Your Adventure in Moab
Whatever level of adventure you are looking for, Moab can fulfill your dreams. The region is chockful of outdoor opportunities and outfitters to meet your needs. Start planning your adventure now!