The One Thing You Can't Miss: Moab, UT

Winter getting you down? Escape to the lush desert oasis of Moab, the "Emerald in the Sand"
January 14, 2016Words by Amanda Ciesielczyk

Moab is a mecca for anyone looking to get outside the box. A Western frontier hub for artists, athletes, and outdoor enthusiasts alike, Utah’s red rock canyons are the perfect place to get lost as temperatures drop and winter nears. And Moab, an oasis in a beautiful, vast, and mighty desert, truly has something for everyone.

Located near the confluence of the Colorado and Green River just west of the La Sal Mountains in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, the name Moab was given to the region by Mormon settlers in the late 1800s, because of the area’s similarities to Biblical Moab — a lush valley in the middle of a serious desert. 

With an economy first established on farming and ranching, Moab’s population boomed in the 1950s as uranium mining (a key element in nuclear power production) swept the canyons. Today, the allure of Moab seems to be spreading as mountain town climbers, mountain bikers, and campers spend their shoulder season in the “Emerald in the Sand.”

Eager to see it all for yourself? As a Four Corners local, here are my top choices (and some best practices) for getting away to the desert. 

Wake up at Kokopelli 100 West, modern, pet-friendly cabins right downtown, and walk to the Love Muffin Cafe for one of the best lattes in town (the Dulce de Leche) and a breakfast burrito (they have several delicious filling options). Then head on over to the Back of Beyond Books and grab a copy of Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of John Wesley Powell, the distinguished ethnologist, geologist, and explorer who was one of the first Americans to navigate the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.

Grab your camera and hit the trail to the renowned Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Make sure to pack some water and snacks (Moonflower Co-op has some great ready-to-go salads and sandwiches) and linger at the arch to savor the sunset. Head back into town and grab a pint (and a growler to go) at Moab Brewery, and head back to the Kokopelli cabins to enjoy a night under the desert sky, grilling out then chilling out in the hot tub. 

Walk through the jungle-like garden leading to the Eklecticafe and sit down to the “Wake Me Up Wakame,” scrambled eggs or tofu and organic brown rice topped with steamed seaweed, toasted sesame seeds, and soy sesame ginger dressing. Spend the morning strolling through town and hop into shops like Triassic for handcrafted tools, jewelry, and wooden masterpieces, handmade from locally, responsibly-harvested trees and sustainably-collected gems. Next head to the Peace Tree Cafe to get your juice on and hydration up as you explore the desert. Scope out ancient rock art along the area’s endless routes of hiking trails and dirt roads — be sure to put Newspaper Rock, along Indian Creek just outside the entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, on the list.

Visiting the area in spring or fall? Head on over to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park for a ranger-led stargazing experience and breathtaking views of the Milky Way.  

Moab has some amazing BLM land — AKA, free camping. So get out there and enjoy the endlessly-carved canyons and offroading dirt roads to explore — Gemini Bridges, Lavender Canyon, and Beef Basin Road have incredible scenery. If you’re looking to stay a bit closer to town, check out the BLM campgrounds along the beautiful Colorado River on Highway 279, Kane Creek Road, and Highway 128. There are first-rate hiking trails, petroglyphs, and geological features along these routes, like the 1500 foot Fisher Towers and trail to Corona Arch.

Sailing through town between campsites and wanders? Refuel at Quesadilla Mobilla for a sublime quesadilla lunch experience with the New Mexico Identity Crisis (green chile, chicken, cheddar-jack cheese, sauteed artichoke hearts, fresh spinach, and black olives). If you have a bit more time, enjoy the La Sal Mountains Scenic Loop and rainbow trout fishing while camping at Warner Lake. After putting in the trail miles, head to Milt’s Stop & Eat for an epic milkshake and some hand-cut fries.  

An athlete’s paradise, Moab has something for everyone. Learn rock climbing on the famed Wall Street along Highway 279 (AKA Potash Road) and Ice Cream Parlor on Kane Creek Road. More advanced climbers flock to Indian Creek, south of Moab, near the Needles in Canyonlands. Bouldering opportunities can be found on River Road while the options for slot canyon canyoneering in the area are endless.

A true mountain biking destination, Moab’s Sand Flats Recreation Area is home to the famous, expert-level Slickrock Bike Trail, but with hundreds of miles of trails, there’s Slickrock fun to be had for every skill level. Find the right trails and climbs for you and your group at Mountain Bike Project and Mountain Project

After visiting Moab’s two must-see national parks (that is, Arches and Canyonlands), get everyone’s adrenaline levels up on a multi-day whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River with Moab Adventure Center. Or really get hearts racing and check out the eminent landscape from a different point of view with Skydive Moab.

For a more relaxing day, rent stand-up paddleboards (SUP) or inflatable kayaks from Canyon Voyages Adventure Co. and pack a picnic to stop and take in the vast canyon walls encompassing the river. Spend the afternoon cooling off at Mill Creek, a refreshing swimming hole with shallow pools and rock “water slides,” beloved by the locals. End a thrilling day with tapas and drinks at the Twisted Sistas Cafe’s rooftop patio before retiring to the clubhouse and your cabins at the minimalist and environmentally-friendly ACT Campground

This one's simple: take the backroads. And if you don’t have an off-roading vehicle, rent one from Canyonlands Jeep. Then get up early and enjoy your java in the solitude of Moab’s quiet canyons — just you, your honey, and the spectacular sunrise. (Or visit Mesa Arch for another heart-stirring sunrise. You’re bound to share the moment with a handful of photographers, but it's nonetheless outstanding.)

Later, discover the most peaceful spots in Arches National Park with a Ranger-led tour through the Fiery Furnace. After a morning on foot, follow John Wayne’s tracks and horseback ride through the red rock valleys of western classics. Stop for a sip of Outlaw Red at the award-winning Castle Creek Winery, then fall for the silence of the desert as you wander the rim trails, watching the sun slowly set into the canyon, before heading inside to your Deadhorse State Park yurt and cozy fireplace. [H]

Amanda Ciesielczyk is a writer and co-founder at BoldBrew. Based in Colorado's San Juans, she is fond of camping at high country lakes, Wolf Creek powder days, and her heeler pup, Reins.

Images ©: 1, 3, 6, 7; Amanda Ciesielczyk. 2, 4, 5, 8, 9; Ali Vagnini

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