38.5733° N, 109.5498° W
While both of us grew up in the mountains of Colorado, over the years we have come to realize that we are, deep down, desert rats. The red rocks, dry climate, open vistas and the unique and wild plant and animal life, always draw us back to this "harsh" landscape time and time again. And one of our favorite desert destinations is Moab, a hopping town in east-central Utah. This mid-size urban oasis has a lot going for it - besides, of course, its fantastic location.
The town was first established in the mid-1800s due to it being a popular spot to cross the Colorado River along the Old Spanish Trail. Eventually, in 1855 the Latter-day Saint settlers attempted to establish a trading fort at the river crossing, but within a couple of months and after numerous attacks, the fort was abandoned. It would take another 23 years before the area would be settled again, this time by Randolph Hockaday Stewart, who was under the direction of Brigham Young. Finally, Moab was incorporated as a town in 1902. Note: there was actually some intense controversy over the name Moab, so much so that a petition went out to change it to either Vina or Uvadalia.
We have visited Moab a multitude of times, often in order to partake in one of our favorite outdoor adventures: canyoneering. And while most of our time has been spent getting ~slightly lost in various canyons, we still have spent a good amount of time exploring the town and surrounding area.
Below is what we believe is the perfect adventure-focused 3-day itinerary for Moab, Utah.
You can’t go to Moab and not explore at least one of the national parks that surround the town (there are two within a short drive). And while we think Arches National Park is a bit too busy for our taste (1.5+ million people visit a year), nevertheless it is still worth exploring, if only for a couple of hours.
One thing to know about the park is that it is more of a “driving” park - meaning you often spend a lot of time in your vehicle traveling to various viewpoints, nature trails and unsurprisingly, arches. A couple of our favorite stops are Sand Arch, Delicate Arch, and Double Arch.
But if you are looking to get out of your vehicle and stretch your legs there are two options we recommend: hiking around Fiery Furnace or canyoneering U-Turn.
| Fiery Furnace
This wild maze-like area in Arches National Park is a great precursor for other - more daring - desert adventures. The Fiery Furnace can be done either with a park ranger or on your own (with a permit) - either way, there is a high demand so make sure to get a reservation early.
This hike, which is roughly 2 miles in length, is rather physically demanding - be prepared to stem between sandstone walls, jump across crevasses, lift yourself up ledges and hike through thick sand. But if you are feeling like an exciting desert adventure in an otherwise pretty low-key park, then this is a great option.
Learn more about the area and hike here. Note: due to Covid, there are no ranger-led hikes at this time.
| U-Turn Canyon
Now if you are looking for an even more exciting desert adventure, and especially if you are hoping to get away from the crowds that flock to Arches NP, then consider taking on U-Turn Canyon.
This is a great entry-level canyon. Meaning even if you haven’t done much rappelling before or are nervous about canyoneering at all, you can still do U-Turn. While the beta does say there are 4 rappels, in truth many of them can be either downclimbed, jumped or hand roped. But what makes this canyon so great are the vistas of the surrounding desert monuments, including some unique views of Park Avenue below. Once you are up in the heart of the canyon, which is more like a big red amphitheater, you feel as if you have the entire park to yourself. It is a magical place, and definitely an adventure worth taking.
Learn more about U-Turn here.
Both options will give you a unique view of the park, as well as help you get away from the crowds and onto more off-the-beaten-path adventures. Fiery Furnace and U-Turn do require some physical fitness, as well as the usual adventure gear: water, sun protection, sturdy shoes, etc. If you are thinking of doing U-Turn, and haven’t canyoneered before, we recommend either doing your due diligence with research or going with a certified guide (don’t worry there are plenty in Moab).
Once you have gotten your fill of exploring Arches NP head back to town for some lunch. One great area to get some delicious food is the Moab Food Truck Park, which is an open area with five or six (or more) various food trucks offering a number of different cuisines. Including, Italian, Mexican, and American. There is also a coffee truck and a shaved ice stand.
Post-lunch is a great time to explore the city of Moab, including walking down the main street and popping into some of the shops, grabbing a coffee or sweet treat at the various bakeries and cafes, and just taking in the sites and sounds of one of Utah’s most adventurous towns.
Later on in the day, especially around sunset, head a bit north of town towards the Colorado River. A great spot to explore the river is Lions Park (located at the intersection of Highway 191 and Route 128), a decently sized park with picnic tables, bathrooms (with potable water), and access to the Moab Canyon Pathway, a paved bike trail that takes you around the area. Lions Park is a great spot to walk along the river, go for a swim (at the boat ramp across the metal bridge) and just relax and take in all the sounds from the river.
On the second day you should definitely try to wake up nice and early (desert sunrise anyone?). To get you going head to one of the many coffee shops that dot downtown Moab; including, our favorite Moab Garage Co., a laidback coffee shop with tasty baked goods and breakfast sandwiches.
Once fueled, make your way out of town towards I-70 (~30 minutes away). Once at the intersection turn left (west) towards Green River. You are now making your way to one of the most unique and out of this world landscapes in the US: Goblin Valley State Park.
While the drive is relatively substantial (1.5 hours one-way) once you arrive and start exploring the park you will not question whether it was worth it.
| Goblin Valley State Park
The main draw of this desert park are the thousands of hoodoos that dot its dry landscape. Hoodoos, or as the locals call them, “goblins” are formations of mushroom-shaped rock pinnacles, some of which are several yards (meters) tall. This park, along with Bryce Canyon National Park (also located in Utah) contain some of the largest occurrences of hoodoos in the entire world.
The best way to explore Goblin Valley State Park is by heading out into the hoodoos for a casual hike, much of which is done without a set trail (aka choose your own adventure). Many people compare Goblin Valley to the surface of Mars, which is kind of hilarious seeing as the 1999 movie Galaxy Quest used the park as their filming location for an alien planet.
Once you are done hiking around the goblins, head back to the main parking area for some food and a quick break. Then pack up the car and head back out on the road you came in on, though this time turn left onto Road 1013 aka Wild Horse Road. Go 6 miles up the dirt road (relatively smooth) until you reach the Little Wild Horse Canyon/Bell Canyon Trailhead.
| Little Wild Horse Canyon
When we first explored this area we weren’t planning on doing this hike. But after finishing Goblins Lair, an amazing canyoneering adventure in Goblin Valley State Park (curious?) and still having too much sunlight to deem setting up camp necessary, we decided to go on a little hike to explore the desert scenery some more. Turns out, this hike ended up being one of our favorite adventures during our long trip through southern Utah.
There are two options when looking to explore the area. The first is to just do Little Wild Horse Canyon, which is beautiful and full of awesome slot canyons. Here you simply head out for as long as you would like and then turn around when you start to get tired. The second option is to do the full Little Wild Horse Canyon, including the same slot canyons, and then keep going out until you get to Bell Canyon which will eventually bring you back to the parking area. The second option, a loop, is roughly 8 miles total - though it is never incredibly strenuous. We did the full loop and it took us about 3.5-4 hours.
Both options will give you an amazing insight into the San Rafael Swell landscape, as well as give you another opportunity to adventure in some fun slot canyons and desert canyons.
Note: while this trailhead is the most popular trail in the entire San Rafael Swell, that doesn’t mean it will ever be extremely busy. So be prepared to have much of the trail to yourself (especially if you decide to do the loop).
By now you are probably getting pretty tired, luckily it is only an hour and half back to Moab (don't worry there is coffee available in Green River just in case you need a caffeine pick-me-up). Once back in town grab some tasty food at Thai Bella Moab, a casual Thai spot serving hearty curries, stir fries and other Thai classics.
After yesterdays full-on adventure you are probably looking for a bit more laid back third day in Moab. Luckily, while Moab is full of heart pounding adventures, it also has a pretty low-key side. One great option is to head down the scenic byway along the Colorado River.
Just as you headed towards Lions Park on day one, now just turn right onto Route 128 and keep heading along the river. From here you will start to notice the red rock canyon walls get taller and the valley gets narrower. While there are some beautiful roads in Utah, this one always comes out near the top of our list for not only being stunning, but also having so many adventures off of it.
| Grandstaff Canyon
Measuring just under 6 miles in length, this scenic trail meanders along a clear river, through thickets of cottonwood trees and eventually, to Morning Glory Natural Bridge, one of the largest natural bridges in the world. The natural bridge, though maybe not as impressive as other arches in the area, is definitely still worth seeking out - if only for the opportunity to watch people rappel down it.
The Grandstaff Canyon hike is relatively easy and can be done year round. Like any desert adventure, make sure to bring plenty of water, sun protection, sturdy shoes and some snacks. Note: there is poison ivy along the trail so long sleeves and long pants are not a bad idea.
| Fisher Towers
Further down the road (around when the canyon starts to open up) are some pretty majestic looking sandstone towers. Known as the Fisher Towers (in honor of a miner who used to live in the area in the 1880s) these red towers are popular for hiking and climbing.
There is the established Fisher Towers Trail, which measures 4.2 miles and takes you along the main towers (The Titan, The Cottontail Tower, Ancient Art). You can also start out on the main trail and then take one of the many side trails that spit off and head deeper into some of the smaller canyons (just remember to follow Leave No Trace Principles).
| Dewey Bridge
The last stop on the river road (before it heads out to the open desert plains) is the historic Dewey Bridge. This area was once home to the town of Dewey, which you can still hike to today (though there isn’t much left to see sadly). The old Dewey Bridge, once the longest suspension bridge in the state, unfortunately caught fire in 2008. Today only the metal ends and a couple metal cables remain.
This area is a popular spot for jeeping (on a route called Top of the World Safari), mountain biking (it is part of the long distance Kokopelli Trail), and camping (it is all BLM land, meaning free camping). We have camped here many times and loved the feeling of really being out in nature and the stunning sunsets over the nearby red rock walls.
Once you reach Dewey Bridge there isn’t much more to see. That is unless you feel like exploring Cisco, a present day ghost town that was once a hopping railroad stopping point. In fact, during its heyday (around the turn of the 20th century) around 100,000 sheep were sheared in the town before being shipped to market. It’s population also rose when oil and gas were found nearby. But, like many towns in the West, once the mining jobs went elsewhere or dried up all together the town slowly started to decline. Today, while various buildings and objects remain, it has been heavily looted.
Fun fact: Johnny Cash wrote the song "Cisco Clifton's Fillin Station" about H. Ballard Harris, a man who lived in Cisco with his wife, and who ran the local gas station.
From Cisco it is about 47 miles back to Moab (or ~1 hour of driving).
Once you make it back to Moab, and if you aren’t sick of driving just yet, consider exploring the other side of the Colorado River. Route 279 - much like Route 128 - follows the Colorado River and gives you plenty of opportunities to get out and explore the landscape around Moab. One great option is to do the short, but fun, hike to Corona Arch.