Editor’s note: I have been to Moab once, to spend a single day in each of the two local national parks. Sam, however, has spent more time, and has some wonderful recommendations for the area that make sense given his status as a Utah resident. For more of Sam’s amazing writing, click here.
I am so lucky to have lived in the places where I have lived throughout my life. Twenty states in our country do not have any national parks, another seventeen states have only one national park, and that leaves the remaining thirteen states that have multiple national parks. I was born and raised in the state of Washington, which has three incredible national parks: Mount Rainier, where I would go every summer, Olympic National Park, and North Cascades National Park. I then lived for a decade in California, which has the most national parks with a whopping nine, and now I live in Utah, which has the mighty five national parks, trailing only California and Alaska, ranking third in the nation. Each of these three states that I have called home has multiple other parks and places that should be considered for this prestigious designation as well. Often, national parks are fairly spread out and it can be hard to get to them. However, of the many parks that I could write about that I have visited in our country, I am going to pick two that are located in one small town.
The town of Moab, Utah has only about 5,366 residents according to the 2020 census, yet, every year attracts over 1.5 million tourists. Its beautiful red rock mountains surround this tiny town, and there are great souvenir shops and restaurants as well. Also in Moab are many outdoor activities such as bicycling, jeep safaris, and rafting on the nearby Colorado River, which runs past the town. There are also hikes in the area where you can see first hand ancient petroglyphs from local indigenous tribes and even dinosaur fossils. Moab is located less than four hours southeast of Salt Lake City and Dinosaur National Monument, and less than three hours northwest of Mesa Verde National Park. However, why most people visit Moab is to visit the two national parks less than thirty minutes from the town center: Canyonlands and Arches, which are two of my favorite places.
To get to Canyonlands National Park, there are two different ways you can go. One is by driving south from Moab and going into the actual canyon itself. While there are not the spectacular views down here, there is still quite a bit to see. There are wonderful trails with trees that provide shade and you can look up at the walls of the canyons above you. Down in this area, just outside the park is Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument. On Newspaper Rock, a group of rocks with a natural desert dark varnish, there are 650 of the best preserved and most accessible petroglyphs that you can find anywhere in the United States. These petroglyphs are over 2,000 years old and were left by people from the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures. The Navajo called these rocks “Tse’ Hone” which means “a rock that tells a story.” On these rocks there are depictions of animals like buffalo, deer, and antelope, human figures, and other symbols like medicine wheels. Interestingly, some the rocks depict hand or footprints featuring an extra finger or toe, which is a genetic condition that was not uncommon among the Pueblo people. It is a fascinating stop along the way to the park and you will be in awe looking at these petroglyphs.
Further along the road, you will enter the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone which you can find throughout this part of the park. In hiking this area, you will see many arches and also go through trails between canyons that are only a few feet in width. Though these are maybe not for the most claustrophobic person, it is an exciting feeling to have the walls of these deep canyons hugging so tightly around you, and it provides good shade for the hot summers. However, the part of the park that is most popular is the part just north of Moab known as the Island in the Sky District. As you drive to this part of the park, you will pass another state park called Dead Horse Point. Here, there is a beautiful and famous photo opportunity of a horseshoe bend canyon with the Colorado River below. With the Island in the Sky District, there is not as much hiking; rather, you are situated atop a mesa (flat mountaintop). Up here, I saw spectacular buck deer with large antlers. There are two main places to go: Grand View Point and the Green River Overlook (it has amazing sunsets). From these vantage points, you will look out on the miles of canyons thousands of feet beneath you, carved over millions of years by the Green and Colorado Rivers. The view is similar to what you would see at the Grand Canyon, except instead of looking into one mighty canyon, you are looking at many canyons, each spectacular.
The other main national park in the area is actually my favorite of Utah’s five national parks: Arches National Park. Located only ten minutes from downtown Moab, Arches National Park is a truly unique place. You can either park your car and hike deep into the park, or for the not as strenuous hikers among us, you can drive up to a number of incredible sites. Many of the main attractions of Arches National Park are not arches at all. Through millions of years of harsh winds, there are mountains with smoothed sides. You can walk between massive flat rocks, like the Courthouse Towers, and you can admire rock formations that look like people or animals like the Three Gossips or the Parade of Elephants. You can also go on a guided ranger hike through the Fiery Furnace, a section of bright red rocks that have narrow canyons in them that you can access only through a ranger. However, as the name implies, what the park is known most for are its over two thousand wind-carved arches, which are wonders as to how they are standing. While I obviously cannot write about all of them, I will tell you about my three favorite arches that you should see.
The first one that I will mention is Landscape Arch. Landscape Arch is the longest arch in the entire park. While you can no longer hike underneath the arch due to stability concerns, you can do a two mile out and back hike with excellent views of it. At 306-feet across, 18-feet wide, and 77.5 feet high, Landscape Arch is not only the longest arch in the park, it is the longest natural arch in the world. Another arch that is a must for families – as well as anyone else – is Sand Dune Arch, which is right off the road, so no hiking required. This arch is located among sand dunes and feels like you are at a beach (but without water). Everywhere, kids and parents are playing in the sand and even building sand castles. You are also surrounded by bright red rock and can walk in between tall narrow canyons.
However, the most famous arch in the park is Delicate Arch, which is a symbol for the State of Utah and is depicted in the “Welcome to Utah” signs and the state license plate. Delicate Arch is a 52-foot freestanding arch, which looks like a natural wonder and is from the Jurassic Period, dating back between 140 and 180 million years. The Delicate Arch hike is a 3 mile round trip hike that leads you past other arches, petroglyphs from indigenous people, and a pioneer cabin. The hike can be a little challenging at times as you have to incline nearly 500 feet up a unique rock formation that is fairly flat, but looks as though you are on Mars. Finally, you will make it to a pan-hole flat rock lookout that looks like you are in a bowl, and within it, all on its own, is Delicate Arch. There will be many people there and a single file line of people waiting to have their turn for a picture under the arch. Much like a fine work of art, like Michelangelo’s David, a visit to Delicate Arch should include sitting and just taking in the beauty of nature’s masterpiece. I like to visit the arch at sunset and watch the shadows the arch casts and the changing of the red rock color. When walking back down at night, watch your step, but with the clear desert sky above you, you will truly appreciate walking under the millions of stars that sparkle above you.
A four-day trip to the small town of Moab should be on every American traveler’s bucket list. Not only will you get to experience our country’s small town Americana culture, but you will get to see not one, but two, of the most spectacular pieces of nature anywhere in the world.
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