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Canyons & Arches & Rivers, Oh, My!

Exploring Utah’s National Parks

A couple of weeks ago, we noted a car commercial that promoted the idea of ‘reclaiming the road trip’. Load up the family into a vehicle that looks nothing like the old family station wagon and set off on an adventure that looks nothing like the escapades made famous by National Lampoon.

My family never took one of those trips; neither did Jeff’s. But we have made a habit of road trips with our own family. Zach was only a few months old when we drove from Miami to upstate New York for the first time to visit my family – a 26-hour drive, one way. An 8- or 10-hour car ride isn’t much of a challenge for us, and at least one of our summer trips tends to involve hours in a car on our way to one adventure or another.

Last summer found us racking up the miles from Denver to Moab to Jackson Hole to Denver again, exploring the beauty that is the western United States.

Although we flew into Denver at the start of our trip, we still racked up over 2,000 road miles through flat landscapes and mountain passes, through small towns and around bustling cities. We drove scenic byways that took our breath away, and watched cattle roaming freely on hundreds of acres that made up sprawling ranches.

Over the course of 10 days, we covered four national parks – Arches & Canyonlands in Utah, Grand Tetons & Yellowstone in Wyoming – plus Dead Horse State Park just outside of Moab, Utah.

We packed a lot into our trip, so this post will only cover the Utah portion of the trip. Check back later in the week for part II!


Getting There

We flew into Denver International Airport. Having driven from Ohio to Denver previously, and knowing the driving we had in front of us, we had absolutely no desire to add 44 more hours to our road time.

Denver was perfect for us, as we planned to hit the Fort Collins area on our way back, something we had not been able to fit in on our previous trip.

For those of you who know us, it should not be a surprise that it began raining shortly after we picked up our rental car. Moab is roughly a 6-hour drive slightly southwest along I-70. Colorado’s mountains are rugged, spotted with patches of green trees and pockets of snow no matter what time of year you visit. These mountains give way to the desert beauty of Utah’s mountain ranges, and the transition is breathtaking.

Corona Arch

After four hours in a plane, followed by nearly seven in a car, we needed to stretch our legs a bit. Corona Arch fit the bill, and was a perfect first hike to kick off our exploration of the area.

The 3-mile out-and-back trail is not difficult at all. There are a couple of short ladders and an area where footholds are cut into the rock, but we saw smaller children scoot right up. The few older adults we saw also seemed to have no trouble.

The view was breathtaking.

Where to Stay

There are dozens of lodging options in and around Moab, ranging from hotels to campgrounds. We chose to stay at an Airbnb just outside of Moab, as we were looking to control overall costs and wanted access to a kitchen for the same reason. Hotels in Moab can be expensive during the summer, and there are a lot of families traveling with small children. For approximately $150/night, we had a lovely room with a private bath, and full access to the kitchen – including coffee.

One of the benefits of staying at an Airbnb is access to local hosts with great advice on where to go and what to do. Our host “Moab Sam”, was a-mazing! We answered a few basic questions when we booked, and he supplied us with a full 5-day suggested itinerary, including everything from must-visit sites to little-known hikes, restaurant recommendations and ice cream shops! We were also treated to fresh, homemade bread each day. Sam gave us the lowdown on the best hikes, as well as the best time of day to hit each of them.

And given some of the hikes we planned on tackling, it was good to have someone looking out for our return.


Sunrise at Dead Horse State Park

If not for Sam, we would never have thought to get up for sunrise. And honestly? That would have been a tragedy. In a trip filled with amazing moments, this one is right up there. Sunrise was at 5:55 on our first morning, and Dead Horse was a 40-minute drive away.

We made coffee, grabbed the overnight oats I had brought with us and prepped in the ‘fridge the night before, and we were off.

Driving through the desert in the early morning hours is incredibly peaceful. We made it to Dead Horse Point just as the sun touched the horizon and sat on rocks as we sipped our coffee and watched it rise over the desert.

Special Note: If you need it, bring it with you. Especially gas and water. There is no gas anywhere inside the parks and, in many cases, not for several miles around the entrance. Both Canyonlands and Dead Horse State Park are approximately 25 miles from Moab and from each other. There is no cell service.

Rangers at The Visitor Center can help you with 2 gallons of gas in an emergency and only as you are leaving the park if you do not have enough gas to see you safely to the closest station, which is 23 miles away. Don’t ask us how we know this, but trust us – you don’t want to be in that position.

Bring a hat, sunscreen, and bug spray. And for the love of all things, wear sensible, close-toed shoes. We saw sunburned tourists wearing sandals (not even the hiking kind) and flip flops everywhere. Many were limping and had visible blisters. And given the sharp rocks, boulders that shift when you step on them and stinging insects, flip flops are just ridiculous. Help is a long way out!


Canyonlands – Upheaval Dome

The 1.7 mile hike to Upheaval Dome was one of the more interesting trails we took, just in terms of the variety. The paths were well-marked, but varied from traditional wide trails to rock ledges that acted as steps from one level to the next.

The path to the overlook had a drop off that was a bit of a surprise, as you can see from the picture on the left. On the right is a shot of the path we took on the way back. Marked with cairns (piles of rocks placed by park staff – NOT tourists), the path was rocky and a little steep. We were glad we had our hiking poles!

There are two theories as to how this geological formation occurred, both of which you can learn in the park, so we’re not going to ruin it for you. Regardless of how it came to be, however, Upheaval Dome is not to be missed.


You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On – Canyoneering

So, I am afraid of heights. Put me on a ladder and I literally shake. I also shake while holding the ladder for Jeff as he climbs on the roof or whatever. How I ever got into rock climbing is beyond me, but I love it.

Heading into one of the most popular climbing destinations in the U.S., there was no question that we had to give canyoneering a try. While hiking and rock climbing generally take you up a path, canyoneering involves descending one – rappelling and waterfall jumping are just two examples.

This already sounds crazy, right? Jeff thought so, too.

As beginners, we wanted to create an experience that reflected our desire to learn and not have our first experience be determined by a small group situation where one or two guides were coaching 10 or so people in a variety of age groups.

We ended up with a 1/2 day private tour from NAVTEC Expeditions, paired with a 1/2 day rafting trip on the Colorado River.

If you’ve ever been on a guided wilderness trip, you may have heard guides refer to the ‘fun scale’. For me, this trip was a dream come true and I would do it all over again – but from a higher point with greater difficulty. For Jeff, I think he has settled into Type II fun, but ‘don’t die, don’t die’ was probably running through his head, along with ‘the things I do for my wife….’

Our day started with a hike to the top of the first canyon (see the top of the picture on the left). You already know how much we love to hike, so you can imagine how we felt at seeing this view.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable, pointing out the cryptobiotic crust – a dark living crust of microorganisms that helps retain water, as well as hold the soil in place against the dry, windy conditions. This crust takes hundreds of years to form, and can be destroyed in a second by a careless hiker or tourist in search of a photo op.

We also learned about resurrection moss, which looks like a dark, dead patch of lichen until you pour a little water on it. That little bit of water causes the moss to literally bloom to life in front of your eyes.

Guides who are also teachers are our favorites, as we love understanding what we’re looking at. And we believe it is crucial to preserve these natural wonders for future generations.

After some instruction on a slight decline, we were ready for our first rappel.

I clipped in first, as I had more experience through rock climbing at local gyms. My heart was pounding, though I can’t tell you whether it was fear, adrenaline or both!

Jeff followed. It took him a minute to find his footing and let himself sit back in the harness. But after a brief brush with the side of the canyon, he found his way down.

We had two more rappels after this one, including a 200′ drop that required a blind descent. There is nothing like sitting back in the harness and inching your way backward toward a drop you cannot see.

From the bottom, looking up at the three rappels we conquered, I still feel more than a little awed by the experience. Jeff would probably never do this again, but I am soooo in!


Fiery Furnace – the Highlight of the Trip

If not for Sam, our Airbnb host, we never would have known about this incredible hike in Arches National Park. This maze of a hike is difficult. No question. It is not for those who are claustrophobic or who are unable to climb over significant obstacles. Even though the hike is only roughly 2 miles, it can take hours to conquer, as there are virtually no trail markers, and the ones that do exist are so unobtrusive that you are unlikely to see them at all.

Keep in mind, too, that children under 5 are not allowed in Fiery Furnace at all – even in carriers, and children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Although really, some of the slots seem designed more for kids than for adults!

You absolutely must wear hiking shoes or boots, and carry a significant amount of water with you. We would also advise you to carry energy-boosting snacks such as homemade granola, granola bars, etc.. Keep in mind, though, once you begin this hike, there are no bathrooms and cell phone reception is limited to non-existent.

Investigate this hike fully before you sign up. There’s a great video of a ranger-led hike on the National Parks Service web site.

If you are not an experienced hiker, a ranger-led tour might be best for you. Those morning hike tickets can be reserved up to 6 months in advance at www.recreation.gov. Or, you can take a chance on an afternoon hike up to 7 days in advance by going in person to the Arches Visitor Center.

For the experienced hiker, 75 individual permits are issued daily. If you are lucky enough to score one, get out there early to avoid the potentially skyrocketing temperatures. We wore layers, as it was pretty cool the morning we hiked, but we stripped down pretty quickly.

You are also completely on your own, unless you are lucky enough to run into a ranger or someone who has a better sense of direction than you do.

Solo hikers can take anywhere from 2 hours up to 8 hours, as you have no idea where you’re going. Honestly, though? Getting lost is half the fun!

You will pull yourself over, under, around and through rock formations. You will climb steep mountains of rock only to turn right back around. You will pass ancient, huge juniper trees, and crawl out of a canyon to face stunning vistas.

We found our way through in just under 3 hours. And we would totally do this hike again.


Delicate Arch & Landscape Arch

As you can probably imagine, we were pretty well hiked out by our last day in Moab. We have hit just the highlights here, but we hiked several other trails in addition to our 1/2 day rafting excursion. We were pretty beat.

But our host, Sam, who also worked as a guide at Moab Adventure Center was not about to let us leave without checking out the arch that put Moab on the map.

“How can you leave without seeing Delicate Arch?” he demanded. Our idea to see it from the road was met with a frown that mixed disapproval with incredulity. “People come from all over the world to see that arch! And you’re already here!”

We couldn’t stand the guilt. So to Delicate Arch we went.

Sam was right. The world-famous arch is not to be missed.

The 3-mile round-trip hike climbs approximately 480ft. in altitude. We trudged along with a couple hundred of our closest friends, past clumps of wild Ephedra (also known as Mormon tea), following a path that wasn’t actually a path in most place – more a direction.

We stayed on the ridge up top, not wanting to compete with the myriad of tourists competing for up close photo ops, content just to take in the view.

We had just enough energy left for a very short hike to Landscape Arch, one of the largest spans in the world at 306 feet. The hike itself is pretty easy, clocking in at 1.6 miles out and back along a relatively flat, paved trail. If you continue beyond Landscape Arch to Double O, though, you’ll find the trail more challenging.

Landscape Arch was a perfect end to our last day in Moab.

Don’t Miss

You cannot leave Moab without a trip to Moab Garage, run by Erin & Ryan Bird. Avid hikers, motorcycle enthusiasts, and travelers, the couple runs the business nine months out of the year and travels for the other three.

Typically, the last weekend in November marks the end of season in Moab, as tourists head north for skiing or further south to warmer temperatures, so the couple closes and travels for the next 3 months.

The building was an actual working garage and car showroom from 1920’s
to the early 1950s. In fact, when Erin and Ryan began removing black paint from the walls in what is known as The Parlor, they discovered the paint
markings that indicated where tools should be hung. The Parlor, which has a hipster vibe, maintains some of the original equipment used in the garage,
including a workbench.

We have generally found most tourist towns have average food. Geared more for families with young children and picky appetites, even restaurants with good reviews on TripAdvisor may actually be less than stellar.

But the food at Moab Garage was excellent, and the ice cream was some of the best we have ever had anywhere. Top that off with outstanding service, and this local favorite is a winner. Erin was working all 3 times we stopped in (yes, 3 times in 5 days), and was never too busy to chat.

So, with weary feet, hundreds of pictures, and more memories than fit in a single post, we turned our car northward toward Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Look for the details of this second leg of our trip later this week!

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