Moab, a one-stop-shop for National Park excellence.

As an automotive enthusiast, when I hear Moab, UT, I typically think of Jeeps, Broncos, Toyota FJs, old Defenders, and all manner of home-built machines doing rock climbing things. Since we arrived at the tail end of the annual Easter Jeep Safari, I still think that’s a fair assessment. But the town known for proximity to some of the best off-roading and vehicular rock-climbing in the country is also one of the best places to serve as your home base when exploring spectacular national parks.

Zion was a bucket list park on this trip, but Arches National Park occupied the top spot. As an amateur photographer who loves landscapes, this place is a treasure trove of opportunities. I’ve mentioned that I will probably return to some of the parks we’ve visited in the future. With Arches, there is no doubt; I will be back for a photography-specific trip; and an off-roading trip, and maybe an overnight backpacking trip. But I digress.

I may not be a good photographer yet, but I know enough not to attempt too much of it on a trip with my wife; she doesn’t need that level of torture. If you’re into it and trying to master the craft and get a truly art-worthy shot, it’s great. If you aren’t, it’s just standing outside in the dark and freezing.

Pre-dawn at the Windows

We began our first full day in the area by driving to Arches National Park, about 15 minutes from downtown, early in the morning to beat the crowds. We didn’t go sunrise early, but close. The park is extremely popular, and if you try to enter between 9 am and 1 pm, you stand a good chance of being turned away as they close the park once it reaches capacity. The good thing is that there are no gates before the park is officially open, so if you get there early or late, you can drive right in. We hit the entrance around 7 am and joined the already healthy line of cars meandering our way toward all the trailheads and overlooks.

Delicate Arch is by far one of the most popular spots in the park and is worth trying to see either before the crowds arrive in the morning or late in the afternoon. It is a trendy sunset spot for photographers, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself at the end of the day. The hike to the arch itself isn’t that long, but it does get a little steep, so you have to work for it. The reward is worth it when you reach the arch. It is massive, impressive, and amazing all at once. If you squint real hard, you can see my wife and I standing underneath it in the photo below.

Delicate Arch and us

Once we had our fill of Delicate Arch, it was off to the trails at Devil’s Garden, where you have access to many arches, the most popular being Landscape Arch. After exploring some of the sideshow arches (Tunnel and Pinetree), we hit Landscape arch. It is an impressive sight, but you are kept at bay compared to other arches. Apparently, a near-miss several years ago when 60 tons of rock broke loose and collapsed under the arch convinced the park that visitors don’t need to get that close anymore. You can still get some good photos, and the viewpoint is close enough for you to really appreciate the rock span’s fragility. It would not be a good day if you were underneath it when anything fell.

Landscape Arch, which frankly looks more delicate than Delicate Arch…

You can hike several trails in this area, up to eight miles in all, that will deliver viewpoints of many arches. We had a long list of things we wanted to get done, so we only hiked a few miles. Next up was the Windows Section. This spot has no less than four formations to check out, including one (Double Arch) used as a location for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The North and South Window Arches and Turret Arch are all located in the same area and are very easy to get to. In fact, if you climb some rocks on the east side of the North Window, you can get a view of the Turret Arch through the North Window, which is pretty cool.

An arch viewed through an arch, very meta.

Next door to these arches is the famous Double Arch, the tallest and second longest arch in the park. It is massive and provides an opportunity to scramble up some rocks for a different vista; don’t fall; it’s a long way down.

With temperatures well into the 80s, a high for our trip, we set a goal to be done with our exploring before the mid-afternoon heat set in. We accomplished the goal with ease and made our way back into town for some food and a little rest. Our hotel was near a decadent donut shop called Doughbird. We saw the sign advertising donuts and fried chicken the night before, and I knew this was a place that needed exploring. Unfortunately, they were out of chicken when we arrived, but they were not out of salted caramel cronuts. Yes, you read that correctly, and it is as stupendously delicious as it sounds.

We decided the next day would be for Canyonlands National Park and the Dead Horse Point State Park. Dead Horse Point is well known as an excellent sunset location with views that rival the Grand Canyon (a little-known fact, it’s also where they filmed the end scene for Thelma and Louise). Since sunset at the state park was our main goal, we decided to explore the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands in the afternoon. This proved to be a slight tactical error as we had to wait in line for almost an hour to enter the park; at least they weren’t turning people away like at Arches.

This is just one section of this park; many are more remote and geared toward either overnight backpacking and camping, off-roading, or experienced rock climbing (like The Maze area, now infamous from the movie 127 Hours). Canyonlands is the largest park in Utah, and you could literally spend weeks exploring it; we settled for the “Cliff’s Notes” version.

The setup for Island in the Sky is a familiar one; drive the road to the end viewpoint and then work your way back, stopping at whatever spot piques your interest. It’s a formula that works for just about everyone; whether you’re strapped for time or have all day, you get to see the highlights. We started at the Grand View Point trail, which lives up to its name. A short, mile and a half hike rewards you with some spectacular canyon views and reminds you how much area the park covers and that you can’t possibly explore it all unless you quit your job and move here.

The Grand View goes on forever

From Grand View Point, we checked out one of the most curious formations in the park, Upheaval Dome. The trail is located at the end of a road, past the appropriately named Whale Rock trail. If you want to reach the excellent viewpoints, you don’t have to hike much, a little over one mile. There is also a trail that is more like eight miles that will take you around Upheaval Dome’s circumference. Geologists still debate what actually caused this giant depression, either a salt dome implosion or a meteor strike. There is apparently evidence for both, but the result is pretty spectacular regardless of what caused it. There are rocks and sediment that should be well beneath the Earth’s surface at the top of the “crater.”

Next up was one of the most well-known and highly photographed sunrise spots in the park, Mesa Arch. Our visit was late in the afternoon, so the lighting wasn’t exactly superb, but the view through the arch across the canyon is still magnificent. It’s a very short hike to get to the arch, and the only difficult thing about it when we were there was the wind. It was a blustery day, and the area around the arch is very sandy, which meant we also became very sandy.

Mesa Arch, not at sunrise

There are many, many trails and overlooks in this section of the park that are worth your time. While I was initially skeptical when I heard people say this rivals the Grand Canyon, I now understand; the views are spectacular. Pack a picnic lunch or dinner and find a nice spot to hang out amongst the wonders of nature.

As the sun accelerated toward the western horizon, we made our way to Dead Horse Point State Park. It’s only about 15 minutes from the Canyonlands entry, so the transit is pretty straightforward. Once we paid our fee, it was a short drive to the lookout point. There is a decent amount of parking, but if you want to be there for sunset, I suggest arriving at least an hour and a half early. The overlook areas are well laid out, and there is a meandering “trail” that runs along the canyon’s rim.

Unfortunately for us, the wind was really picking up, and it was almost impossible to see where you were going with so much dust and sand flying around. I wasn’t sure my tripod would even stand up for the sunset photos. Thankfully I found a spot between some massive boulders on the cliff edge and didn’t have any issues. It wasn’t a spectacular sunset as far as colors go, but it was one I won’t soon forget just because of the conditions. I felt sorry for the couple who decided to have their wedding at the edge of the canyon that night! I’m sure their photos will look good, and it will certainly be a ceremony to remember, but I think they would’ve preferred not to have 40 plus mile-per-hour winds assault them with grains of sand.

That’s the bride and groom on the right side of the photo.

The next day was for relaxing, and we took a leisurely cruise down Highway 128, which follows along the Colorado River and is a recognized scenic byway. It was pretty spectacular and well worth the short drive away from Moab and back. The road follows the river making for excellent twisty sections, but there are many camping areas and off-road trails along the road, so it was busy with traffic on our drive. Even without being able to test the Boxster’s cornering ability, it was a good time.

A scenic spot along the Colorado River.

It’s time to move on from Moab, but only because we have other things scheduled for this trip. Moab is a wonderful place, and I can’t wait to explore this area more at a later time. The roadshow must go on; next up, Durango, Colorado.

Author: Ryan Carignan

I am an automotive enthusiast, writer, and photographer; welcome to my blog!

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