Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
With two national parks just 30 minutes from each other, Moab is Utah’s basecamp for adventure. One of the Southwest’s greatest landscapes, many of the desert playground’s most sought-after views are accessible to the casual traveler, but for intrepid adventurers looking to challenge themselves and get off the grid, there’s plenty of backcountries to get wonderfully lost in as well.
An easy five-and-a-half-hour drive due west, the route from Denver takes you past scenic mountain towns like Breckenridge, Vail, and Glenwood Springs on I-70. You’ll continue through Grand Junction until you reach the Utah border where you’ve basically made it.
INSIDER TIPStop in Palisade, Colorado’s secret wine region to pick up provisions en route.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
If you leave early enough, you should arrive by mid-afternoon and can stop at Moab Brewery to fuel up. The town’s largest restaurant and only microbrewery and distillery, it’s basic pub fare (i.e. burgers and wings) and a good spot to try some of the local spirits. Their signature pour, Dead Horse Ale, takes its name from the popular viewpoint and should get you amped up and ready to explore.
If you’re not too tired of being in the car, the Canyonlands Loop at sunset is simply stunning. Canyonlands National Park is much bigger than Arches (almost five times the size), and yet sees about half the number of tourists. It’s more spread out, which makes touring a challenge, but does have an easy 34-mile drive loop to some of the highlights such as Island in the Sky. Snap some photos, do a short hike or two, and stretch your legs before heading to your hotel to freshen up.
When you’re ready, head back out to the main drag for dinner. Antica Forma is the town’s beloved Italian joint and just the carb-fest you need to prep for tomorrow’s activities. Known for their wood-fired pizzas made in and flown all the way from Naples, they have traditional red pies and more unique toppings like pistachio. Hit the hay early because you’ll need to rest up for tomorrow’s festivities.
Grab a coffee and breakfast burrito from Love Muffin Café, plus a panini or some snacks for the road. Since you’ll be out most of the day, you’ll want to pack sustenance and enough water for a day in the desert.
Home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, Arches National Park is the gem of the national park system. Your first stop is one you’ll recognize from the Utah license plate. Delicate Arch is the park’s most iconic hike and a must-see, which you can view from afar at the .5 miles Upper Viewpoint or up close on the 3-mile trail.
For a more challenging trek, Devils Garden Loop will take you to a handful of the park’s most prominent arches in 1.9-7.9 miles. They each have varying degrees of difficulty and altitude gain, so plan accordingly and know your endurance level. It can take most of the day if you’re keen on covering a lot of ground.
If you plan well enough in advance, Fiery Furnace is another coveted adventure in Arches National Park. Reservations and permits are required to hike this naturally formed rock labyrinth. You’ll either have to go with a guide or watch a video at the ranger station to learn how to maneuver your way out of the twists and turns of this intriguing canyon maze that has no trails or markers.
You can spend the full day at Arches, but if you’d rather beat the heat, river trips are also extremely popular. Full-day or half-day whitewater excursions down the Colorado and Westwater Canyon range in difficulty from class II-V. Whether you’re looking for a lazy day on the water or roaring rapids, whitewater rafting in Moab is another summer must.
After a long day of exploring, head to Moab Garage for a sweet treat. Their liquid nitrogen ice cream, ice cream sandwiches, and donuts are the perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Looking as much like a science experiment as a snack, the cold feels great after a long day in the blazing sun.
Once you’ve showered and cleaned up, stake out a seat at Blu Pig patio, which boasts barbecue and blues. With live music seven nights a week, it’s undoubtedly the town gathering place. Cooked slow and low, tender ribs and tri-tip taste even better to a soundtrack of reckless abandon before you tuck in for the evening.
You have time for one more half-day excursion, so make it count. Mountain biking, rock climbing, canyoneering, and ATV tours are all wildly popular ways to explore the insane scenery, which makes it a bit of a choose your own adventure.
Give canyoneering a try, as it’s a sport so uniquely attuned to the landscape you just can’t do it anywhere else. Essentially the opposite of rock climbing, by the laws of physics, what goes up, must come down. Rappelling, scrambling, and wading through the slot canyons over waterfalls, it’s an amazing, surprisingly less technical adventure suitable for just about any fitness level.
Once you’ve dried off and packed up, mingle over one last meal before you head back. Open since the ’60s, Moab Diner is the quintessential roadside cafe that can satisfy any carb craving. From big juicy burgers to runny eggs, splurge on a malt, brown butter sundae, or banana split before hitting the road in time to make it back for dinner.
WHERE TO STAY
Most of the area hotels are basic, no-frills crash pads, so many people choose to save their money and camp. If that’s not your thing, the Sorrel River Ranch is the ultimate splurge. As the only luxury resort in Moab, expect the custom-built ranch cabins, signature spa services, and privately guided excursions.
For a more accessible place to rest your head, the Castle Valley Inn Bed and Breakfast is a delightful little hideaway with homemade pastries, beautiful grounds, and a garden hot tub to soak in the views.
WHEN TO GO
Spring and fall are peak seasons in Moab as the weather is more attuned to outdoor activities. Summertime can see temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes desert explorations difficult. Winter can be an intriguing time to visit as the crowds have subsided, albeit many of the hikes do get icy.