Moab is known as the adventure capital of Utah thanks to its “slickrock” mountain biking trails and white-water rafting along the Colorado River. It’s also the gateway for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. When it comes to the scenery, there’s nothing quite like this place. Its otherworldly red-rock landscape has doubled as alien planets in Star Trek and John Carter, and also provided the backdrop for movies ranging from classic John Wayne films to Thelma & Louise.
However, there’s more than scenery to this laid-back town that attracts adventurers from all over the world. Visitors can go off-roading in remote canyons, rock climbing, jet-boating, and zip-lining. But if you’re looking to take a break, there are also hot-air balloon rides, museums, and wineries to enjoy. Fall is one of the best times to visit Moab, as the crowds have thinned out and the weather is pleasantly warm, no longer reaching triple digits. Here’s how to spend a perfect long weekend in this corner of Utah.
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If you’re approaching Moab from the north, drive along scenic route 128, which winds along the Colorado River. Take in the canyons and red rocks and be sure to look down as you approach town, as you might see rafting expeditions. Some of the most luxurious places to stay, Red Cliffs Lodge and Sorrel River Ranch, are on the outskirts of town, but if you’re looking for more space and the chance to wash your clothes, which will inevitably get covered in red dust, then rent an apartment from HomeAway, such as this new townhome. Even if you’re not a guest at Red Cliffs Lodge, it’s worth a brief stop to visit the on-site Castle Creek Winery, which produces reds and whites (a bottle of Petroglyph white makes an ideal gift). The hotel is also home to the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, which highlights the films shot locally, such as Rio Grande starring John Wayne, as well as cowboy culture.
Have an early dinner at the Moab Brewery, which serves up hearty fare like pork carnitas and fish and chips. The names of the microbrews on tap pay homage to the area, such as Squeaky Bike Nut Brown Ale or Dead Horse Amber Ale, the latter in honor of the state park. If you still have room, finish off with a gelato from the counter near the front door.
Wake up early for the short drive to Arches National Park, home to more than 2,000 sandstone formations. The most famous is Delicate Arch, but if you want to beat the crowds, go at sunset or sunrise. No matter what time you set out, bring plenty of water for the three-mile hike, which offers little shade. To explore the park in a leisurely way, take the eighteen-mile scenic drive, and stop at Windows, which is home to the park’s largest arches, as well as Balanced Rock. Bring your own lunch, as there is no place to purchase food in the park.
On your way back into town, stop in at the madcap Lin Ottinger’s Moab Rock Shop, which looks like a junkyard crossed with a museum. Its founder was an amateur (but successful) paleontologist whose dinosaur discoveries have been donated to museums; and the Iguandon Ottingeri, which he discovered just north of Moab, was named after him. The shop is filled with rare fossils, gems, and bins of crystals that kids will love digging through.
Stop to refuel at the Peace Tree Juice Café, a casual spot serving up smoothies, quinoa salads, and burgers before browsing the shops along Main Street. Pick up an authentic Stetson hat at Western Image (39 North Main St.; 435/259-3006). Triassic sells locally sourced, handmade, wooden housewares and accessories such as cutting boards, swings, and end tables. The Tom Till gallery showcases the local artist’s photographs of Moab and the southwest.
Leave your fear of heights in the parking lot of the Moab Adventure Center and climb inside a customized vehicle for a sunset Hummer safari tour. Your guide will take you to Hell’s Revenge, a slickrock trail; expect a white-knuckle ride up and over the rocks—the steepest hill the Hummer can climb is at roughly a 39.5-degree angle. Guests are rewarded with sweeping views of the La Sal Mountains and Arches, and can also see dinosaur tracks embedded in the rocks.
Time to squeeze in one last adventure: Take your pick from mountain biking, white-water rafting, or a guided hike through Fiery Furnace, an unmarked trail through towering sandstone walls. Or rent a 4×4 Jeep Wrangler from Canyonlands Jeep and Auto. The Moab area is home to hundreds of miles of off-roading trails with names like Steel Bender, Wipe Out Hill, or Metal Masher. The rental office will give you a booklet with detailed trail maps and directions, and every car is outfitted with a GPS tracker in case you get lost. Expect to spend five to six hours off-roading Be sure to try Gemini Bridges off Highway 191: After a steep climb up a hill with plenty of switchbacks, the trail opens up to a desert scrub landscape. (Look out for a towering rock formation called Gooney Bird.) The Bridges themselves are two adjacent arches over 100 feet high, located deep in a canyon—they can be seen by standing at the canyon’s edge and looking down. It’s a steep drop-off, so watch your step.
Drive back to Moab and relax at Eklecticafe, a small café set in a garden. The look is ramshackle but welcoming, and the menu serves up fresh fare such as quiche with roasted potatoes, and an avocado BLT. Make sure you save room for pie.