Moab, Arches and Canyonlands: Travel through Movie Set Scenery

Utah's adventure epicenter in 4 days

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You may know Moab for its national parks and world-renowned mountain biking. But along with hiking shoes, sun screen and water bottle, it helps to take along a vivid imagination and a real sense of adventure when heading for Moab, Utah. Moab is, after all, not your typical retreat. To that end, this is not your typical itinerary.

Set the stage: imagine being on a movie set with John Wayne or in a boat drifting along with John Wesley Powell or riding alongside Butch Cassidy or following the footprints of a dinosaur. Biking, hiking, paddling, touring or star gazing are among the options. Also, climbing near-vertical cliffs in a Hummer, riding the backroads in a Polaris ATV, pedaling a bike over huge beds of solid rock, paddling a surfboard down the mighty Colorado or trying as you may to read what stories ancient artists tried to tell on rock walls.

Day 1 Highlights
It takes about four hours to drive from Salt Lake City to Moab. Depending on your start time, you may plan on a full afternoon or evening in Arches National Park or grab a quick hike on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land alongside state Route 128 or Kane Creek.

Scenic Route: Upper Colorado River

Miles: 70

Day 2 Highlights
Nine holes, a quick auto tour of Arches National Park, stand-up paddle boarding on the Colorado, Hummer sunset

Scenic Route: Arches National Park

Miles: 10–30, mostly around town or to nearby Arches

Day 3 Highlights
Mountain biking, awe-inspiring panoramas, an introduction to Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, and lessons in geology and astronomy.

Scenic Route: Dead Horse Mesa

Miles: 120

Day 4 Highlights
Horseback riding, scenic drives, jet boat tours, melons aplenty and the return drive home.

Scenic Route: Miles: Upper Colorado, Manti-La Sal Scenic Loop

Miles: 60+

Day 1

Start out about 10 a.m. — The I-15 south from Salt Lake City is a comfortable drive. It’s roughly 45 minutes to
the Manti/Price exit onto US-6 East through Spanish Fork Canyon. It’s a pretty canyon route to the summit, then into Price, followed by Green River, a sleepy little town well known for its melons, Ray’s Tavern (the burgers are well worth a stop), connection with the Green River and the River History Museum. Utah has a rich history in river running, dating back to John Wesley Powell’s historic trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. The museum features a river-runner’s Hall of Fame and replicas of early boats, including the boat Powell sat atop on his first voyage.

2:00 p.m. — Consider a late afternoon hike on Bureau of Land Management terrain off Kane Creek Road or state Route 128, or a dip into Arches National Park for a stroll down Park Avenue. If your camp site is established or reservations made, you might choose to linger in Arches for a sunset hike to see the stunning red rock of Arches during magic hour. Pack water and a headlamp. This is also a good time to hit Delicate Arch. It’s a rather strenuous 3-mile hike, but an effort that does not go unrewarded. Save some extra time and pack in a picnic. A walk around Balancing Rock is less than half a mile and a walk up Devils Garden Trailhead leads to several arches, including the spectacular Landscape Arch, by some accounts the longest in the world.
6:30 p.m. or later — There is no shortage of rooms or restaurants in Moab. Reservations, however, are recommended. Consider the Red Cliff Lodge, 14 miles East of Moab along the road paralleling the Colorado River on state Route 128. The lodge is comfortable, has a real western flavor and overlooks the easy flowing Colorado River. More than that, however, it is home of the Moab Movie Museum and the actual site of many of John Wayne’s movies. In all, more than 50 movies have been filmed in the Moab area since 1949 and countless additional commercials. There’s a special sense of history trying to match movie scenes with the actual landscape.

8 p.m. — Dinner at the Red Cliff Lodge includes a salad, vegetables, delicious roll and wild Alaskan salmon, grilled ranch steak and outlaw red chicken and prime rib prepared to the liking. The spread is served on the deck overlooking the quietly moving Colorado River. This, too, is home to the first and largest winery in Utah, specializing in eight wines, among them Chardonnay, Merlot and the Lily Rose White and Outlaw Red blends.

Day 2 

7:30 a.m. — Well known for its biking and rugged dirt roads, Moab is less recognized for its golf, yet the Moab Golf Club layout is one of the most spectacular anywhere with the rich green grass accented by the backdrop of rugged red cliffs. The best part is because it gets less attention, good tee times are always open.

10:00 a.m. — Time for a scenic drive through Arches National Park. The Windows area is the most popular section because it is accessible and offers views of several of the park’s 2,000-plus natural arches. It’s possible to drive the entire Windows loop or stop and take several short hikes on relatively flat ground.

11:30 a.m. — Time for a burger at Milt’s Stop and Eat, the oldest restaurant in Moab, dating back to 1954.

Noon — There are half-day raft trips and sport boat tours on the Colorado, but the newest craze is stand up paddle boards and sit-on-top kayaks available through Adrift Adventure near the center of Moab. Two sections of calm water, each taking about four hours to navigate are perfect for the boards and the kayaks are designed to run the 12-mile section that hold six Class II rapids. There’s also the popular “ducky,” a 12-foot long inflatable made for one or two persons that is perfect for the river run. Shuttle service is available at the rental shop.

6 p.m. — The perfect choice for an energy-enhanced meal is Zax Restaurant, which offers all-you-can-eat pizza, soup and salad. There is always a selection of a half-dozen or more pizzas sitting on the warming shelf with every imaginable combination of toppings, along with two different soups and a well stocked salad bar. There’s also individual selections of sandwiches, burgers and pastas.

7 p.m. — Consensus is the summer sunsets viewed from atop Hell’s Revenge are breathtaking and getting there in an open-air Hummer adds to the experience. There are several Hummer operators in town.

9:30 p.m. — The drive back along the River Road to Red Cliff may be interrupted occasionally by roadside campers and rivers travelers packing up for the day, which speaks to the popularity. There are several camping areas both inside the parks and outside to those wanting to rough it.

Day 3

8 a.m. — Moab is probably best known for its biking, so a visit wouldn’t be complete without a two-wheel trip. There are a limitless number of riding options at every skill level, but for many the choice is simple — downhill. One of the newer rides is the 13.5-mile Gemini Bridge Trail that begins off S.R. 313 en route to Dead Horse Point State Park. It is a dirt road that’s all downhill to US-191/163. At this point there are two options: take the shuttle or vehicle back to town, or continue on an easy ride another 10 miles on a paved path back into town. There are a number of rental shops and shuttle services in town to facilitate this ride.

11:30 a.m. — Visit the Museum of Moab on Center Street. The Moab area has a rich history founded in geology, archeology and people, beginning, of course, with dinosaurs, including the skeleton of the locally discovered Gastonia burgei. There are also stories and artifacts of early residents, the Anasazi, Fremont and Ute Native Americans. Mining also played a major role in getting Moab its early recognition. An alternative option is the new Moab Giants Paleosafari dinosaur museum.

12:30 p.m. — Dine at the Peace Tree on Main Street, which uses all natural and local ingredients when possible.

1:30 p.m. — Visit Dead Horse Point State Park, where horses corralled on a point 2,000 feet above the Colorado River were forgotten and eventually died. An early newspaper report, however, suggested some horses broke their legs on the point and were shot, thus the name. The park is 22 miles from Moab. The visitors center is impressive, but the 2,000 foot overlook on the furthermost tip is spectacular, especially the view of the Goose Neck, a point where the Colorado River loops around and nearly reconnects with itself.

2:30 p.m. — A few miles down the road is the Island in the Sky entrance to Canyonlands National Park. It’s one of three sections to the park, the other two being the Needles District and the Maze. A short drive into the park is an overlook to the Shafer Trail. If you have time, drive the 18.2-mile loop from the park down to the base of Dead Horse Point and Potash, which takes around two hours. The well-maintained dirt road leads to well marked Indian petroglyphs, natural stone arches, steep switchbacks and a different look at the land. The scenic drive through Canyonlands accesses multiple trailheads to sweeping overlooks of Utah’s Canyon Country, including the Green River Overlook, a panoramic view of the confluence of the Colorado and Green, a showcase in geology and a quick lesson in the erosive power of water.

3:30 p.m. — Get a quick sense of the park’s dramatic geology by hiking Gooseberry, which drops down switchbacks 1,400 feet off the mesa to a wash that leads up the White Rim Trail. Be warned, the hike back up is plenty strenuous, but this 5.4 mile hike is a spectacular one.

6:30 p.m. — The Broken Oar Restaurant in Moab offers a tantalizing smokehouse menu for a fine meal. Alternatively, the elk tataki at Shabu Sushi is a great regional starter to a fine sushi menu.

8 p.m. — Time for stargazing class. Ludwig, owner of Red Rock Astronomy, explores the galaxies, but not in traditional fashion. That is, looking through a telescope at Venus, Mars and Jupiter. Instead his on-site class discovers the Wild Duck Cluster (3,000 light years away), the Hercules Cluster (36,000 light years away) with roughly four million stars, the Andromeda Galaxy (2.5 million light years away) and a cluster so far away it’s impossible to even imagine. His narrative includes time, dates and history few would even know — but him. Call (435) 210-0066 for reservations.

Day 4 (Optional)

8 a.m. — The country you see from the back of a horse is, with few exceptions, exactly as seen by John Wayne when he arrived to make the first of many movies on land that is now the Red Cliff Lodge. He walk the land, rode the trails and relaxed alongside the ever-flowing Colorado River. He’s one of a long list of movie giants to stand before cameras here, so there’s a certain sense of history that was captured on film. Horses, of course, played a major role in many movies, so a ride out of Red Cliff was warranted. The Moab Movie Museum catalogs many of the movies. The lodge offers gentle horses, tackle and guides.

11 a.m. — If staying up S.R. 128, take your time on the return trip to Moab by hitting the La Sal Mountain Loop. Few roads can compete with this loop when it comes to variety. It starts with the sculptured red rock country in Castle Valley, climbs into the pines, aspens and high mountain lakes, then drops back into Moab’s red rock. The paved loop covers 60 miles and, depending on scenic stops (and there are many), it can take anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. The La Sal Range is the second highest in Utah, with some peaks reaching 13,000 feet elevation.

1 p.m. — Join a jet boat tour (these range from an hour to a full day) that takes passengers to sites along the Colorado River, including a look at Dead Horse Point from ground level and the Goose Neck. The shorter one-hour trip includes an opportunity to view wildlife — eagles, deer, beaver and desert bighorn sheep.

3 p.m. — On the trip back to Salt Lake City, roughly 235 miles, stop in Green River for the delicious canary and Israeli melons and in Price for dinner and a careful drive down Spanish Fork Canyon to I-15 North.

This itinerary is compliments of the Utah Office of Tourism.

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