If riding out last year’s late October heatwave from the beach cottage in Coronado was the pinnacle of our beach experience so far, then our week in Moab was the desert version thereof.
Moab is an adventurer’s paradise, and absolutely worth the long trek for anyone who is even remotely interested in what it has to offer. I had been there once before, many years previous, but not stayed long. The town’s growth and the influx of tourism dollars was immediately evident, but being geographically constrained and isolated by any reasonable standard, it’s neither sprawling nor pretentious in that I’m The Next Big Thing way.
A quick geographical orientation, as well as a cursory history, as I learned quite a bit from one of the park rangers in the area and found it fascinating. Here’s the overview.
On first glance your impression might be that it’s in the absolute middle of nowhere. And that would be correct in a sense. As the crow flies it’s about equally distant from Denver and Salt Lake City, but several hours from both by car (about 4 and 5, respectively). The only town in the area with a reasonable sized airport is Grand Junction, CO, about two hours to the northeast.
Look closer, however, and you find that it’s surrounded by National Parks – Arches just north of town and Canyonlands to the southwest. Though Moab sits in arid high desert at just over 4000’, the relatively tiny La Sal range of mountains sits just to the east and climbs to over 12,000’, providing a green and often snowy backdrop. The Colorado River forms Moab’s northern border, and flows through a gap between two deep canyons, leading to a flat semi-wetland extending to the south. This turns out to be important, as not only does it allow the area to be farmed (which you see exceedingly little of in the Utah desert), but back in the early 1800s it provided for one of the only easy crossings of the river in the region – head downstream and your view to either side for hundreds of miles would be steep canyon walls, culminating in the Grand Canyon. Hence the original settlement in Moab. It’s a bit unclear why the name (the Moabites weren’t considered to be especially decent folk back in Old Testament times), but ok.
Fast forward a century or so, and it becomes all about mining, with the real boom being in uranium. Our ranger told a darkly amusing story about a local miner finding large amounts of uranium in a pile of mining waste that had accumulated on his property (“his front yard” was how he put it, but I can’t imagine there were many yards at the time) and that his children were playing in. Oops. Or maybe just semi-oops, because he parlayed that into a multi-million dollar mining fortune by discovering massive deposits in the area right when we as a country happened to be looking for the stuff in order to build up a nuclear arsenal in order to deter the Soviets.
We’re now in the early 1950s, and miners descend upon the area and make a fortune extracting uranium and selling it to the government. In the process, they also cut thousands of trails and roads throughout the area, and likely bring back stories of spectacular scenery. After the boom turned to a bust late in the Cold War, the population declined drastically, and attention turned to Moab’s potential as a tourist destination / outdoorsy wonderland. Hundreds of thousands of mountain bikers, off-road enthusiasts, and adventure seekers are now thankful for this. The place is booming again.
There are downsides for the residents, to be sure, but as well as the National Parks at its doorstep, Moab has a trail network that simply has to be seen to be believed. Hiking trails, “jeeping” trails, and best of all, mountain biking trails. Much of the riding is done on the coarse, grippy sandstone, which they ironically call “slickrock,” and several of the trails are both iconic and world class.
We arrived a day earlier than planned due to our less-than-ideal Lake Powell visit, and settled into the Portal RV park, which is an entirely decent place, but unfortunately the pool was being remodeled. As you might imagine, it was hot. We had been looking forward to jumping into that pool. The folks at the check-in desk assured us that we could use the “swimming hole” on property and that “the kids just love it!” Swimming hole though? A small pond of what I assumed to be stagnant water sweltering in the desert sun didn’t strike me as especially swimmable, for several reasons. So we opted to forgo that amenity, or at least not swim in it. What I later discovered (and should have guessed, after looking at it and feeling the water) was that it was a spring-fed pond, continually replenished by the combination of evaporation and new, clean water. The kids may have loved it after all.
The heat was the only aspect of our visit that was less than ideal, as mid-90s in the desert is tricky when there’s very little escape. Yes, we have an air conditioner in Davista, but when relative humidity hovers in single digits, the a/c doesn’t have much to work with, and we found that we couldn’t get the inside cooled below 90 during the day. Here’s our thermometer. Disregard that outside temp – the sensor doesn’t do well in direct sunlight – but it does give an idea of what it felt like.
That’s what being warm-blooded is all about though, right? We adapt.
Being surrounded by National Parks, there were clearly going to be plenty of hikes, so we started with Arches, and the Landscape Arch trail. Having made the mistake of not starting early in the day (and catching a half-hour line just to get into the park) we opted to take one of the shorter walks, and hoped that there would be plenty of high rock walls casting shade. There weren’t, other than the one below, which didn’t quite work for us, shade-wise.
The kids did well, though (after the standard pre-hike grumbling), and we were able to snap a few excellent family shots, courtesy of fellow hikers.
There were a few more arches reachable via a longer stroll along the trail, but the combination of mid-day heat and soft sand to walk through led us to cry uncle for the day. We didn’t want to sap the kids’ hiking mojo on our first area hike.
The following day we got up early, or at least reasonably so, in order to get to Delicate Arch by mid-morning. Upon our arrival at the trailhead we were surprised to see a few folks coming back to their cars, post walk. They had evidently caught the sunrise there, which made me a little envious.
You can hike a short distance to an overlook across a valley from the arch, but a longer trail takes you up a hill and right to its base. There was quite a bit of exposed slickrock that we needed to traverse, and I’m glad we came early.
The kiddos did extremely well, though Woodsprite threw out a soon-to-be-classic quote about three-fourths of the way up the hill when she stopped abruptly, whirled around to face me in a six-year-old huff, and blurted “DAD… can we please get OUT of these, these… Rocky Mountains and STOP IT WITH THESE HIKES!!!?” Her outrage was real, and made for one of those parenting moments when you know that bursting out laughing is textbook what-not-to-do, and so manage with great effort to muster a response that’s gently encouraging. Fortunately she recovered quickly, as she tends to do. Scenery like this helped.
Firebolt, on the other hand, really seemed to come into her own on these hikes. Her gait was strong, and she brimmed with curiosity and positive comments. She pinged from rock outcropping to overlook to climbing opportunity, remarking all the while how the scenery was so pretty that it looked like it couldn’t be real. Interestingly, her choice of terms was that it looked like a computer-generated 3D map rather than actual landscape. I commented to her that only very recently have computers become powerful enough to generate images that looked more stunning or “real” than actual life, and that throughout my life that sort of comment would’ve been flipped on its head (something like “that computer image looks almost real!”). I’m not sure she found that as fascinating as I did. But Firebolt being Firebolt, she played along — “Cool, dad!”
There were quite a few people at the arch itself, which made for the spontaneous development of a family photo-taking system. You didn’t want an arch photo with a bunch of random people in it, so everyone formed into sort of a line, awaiting their turn to be photographed. While you’re in the line, you need to find a stranger who looks trustworthy enough to give your phone/camera(s) and to take this once in a lifetime picture without messing it up (we’ve been shocked/amused at how thoroughly some strangers are able to hose up a simple “hey, could you snap a picture of us?”). Then when your turn comes up, you hand off your device, run out to the base of the arch, and smile, even though the only way to capture the whole arch and the photo subjects is to zoom out so far that you can’t see faces anyway. Funny process. I’m glad we went through the queue and got the pic though, even though we could’ve probably taken a picture of another family and said it was us.
Overall, it was absolutely one of our best hikes.
One of the other marquee Arches NP hikes is the Fiery Furnace, which is guided and takes you through a maze of slickrock that is so convoluted that people tend to get lost there without the guide. Having not made it to the Visitor’s Center early enough to sign up for a morning tour during our stay, we called our Arches visit complete after Delicate Arch. The girls had their Junior Ranger Badges and we had two incredible hikes and about two hundred pictures under our belts — no need for any fiery furnaces.
Speaking of not needing furnaces, Tacco and I came up with a plan to cool off after a couple days there. Our cousins wouldn’t be arriving with their river rafting gear until later in the week, and the Colorado isn’t particularly swimming-friendly. And with our RV park pool non-existent, the Marriott’s pool with the waterfalls that we drove by every time we headed into or out of Arches began to look more than a little enticing. As we’re Marriott “frequent fliers” via credit card, we had amassed quite a few points, and found that there was a vacancy. So we took a little mini-vacation and snagged a hotel room for the night. Those waterfalls were even cooler than they looked from the road, and we spent much of our afternoon and the next morning between in the pool, under the waterfalls, drying off poolside, and the heavily air-conditioned hotel room. The private shower and bathroom was nice too – you tend to appreciate those once you’ve been using shared bathrooms / showers for a few months…
Here’s something else we discovered about Moab: the food. I did not expect this. Everywhere we ate was outstanding and unique. Our first noteworthy meal was at a food truck called YummyTown. Seriously. Their website shows them in Santa Fe, but I assure you that they were in Moab, and it was possibly the best Mediterranean food I’ve ever had. So many fresh ingredients, and so tasty. And washed down with these fresh fruity / herby shrubs. This would’ve been excellent on its own, but then they upped the ante again with their dessert special, which I almost didn’t try because dude… dessert for lunch? Oh man though… it was a home-made baklava ice cream sandwich, and it was absolutely, positively the best ice cream sandwich I’ve ever had, bordering on one of the best desserts period. Seriously, it wasn’t the heat, it really was that good – every element perfectly done, and the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The next pleasant culinary surprise was the Atomic Grill & Lounge, right next to our RV park. I had read some positive reviews online, but really was just expecting some burgers. There definitely were burgers, and they appeared to be well made and tasty, but what we didn’t expect was the lamb belly quesadilla, wild boar taquitos, homemade mole, elk stew, duck bacon, whaaat?! And we were seated on their whimsically decorated outside deck and served by the owner’s confident and charming 12 year old (maybe?) daughter. Where ARE we?
One of the mornings we had, and lingered over, breakfast at a shady, new-agey café. Those places tend to make the best breakfasts, I’ve found, and this one had it nailed. And then just before we left we had pizza at a relatively new place that serves authentic Neapolitan pies, which I’ve found to be quite rare. All this, and there were probably a dozen more places we would’ve like to try out. Again, who knew?
The rest of our Moab stay deserves its own post, probably two, as river rafting with family was its own thing, as was Canyonlands and the biking. So much goodness.