If Arches, Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point are ever to be one of your destinations, you need look no farther than the town of for your staging area. Located a few short miles south of the roads that lead to these parks, Moab has grown in popularity as more and more visitors flock to the area. Several years ago we found it to be a small, sleepy town having not much to offer, but in the intervening years it must have caught on and learned that catering to tourists was money in the town’s coffers. Up went the motels and more eateries, spiff up the main commercial area and pull out the red carpet—Moab was open for business. With an outdoor adventure store seemingly on every street corner, today you won’t have to look far to find a way to explore the beauty of Moab’s backyard.
What Banff is to the Canadian Rockies, Moab is to canyon country. This is the capital city of Utah’s sandstone wilderness, a focal point for desert and river adventure, the destination for slickrock tourism The area is teeming with exotic red rock canyons, towering natural stone arches and spires, snowcapped mountains, ancient rock art and exhilarating hikes. People come to Moab from all over the world to hike, bike, raft, and drive the rough roads that penetrate the fantastic desert landscape. They come to take in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and for the view from Dead Horse Point.
Paved roads or dirt . . . even river waterways . . . all will give breathtaking scenery and memorable experiences.
Mormon pioneers arrived in the area around 1855, where they established the Elk Mountain Mission, but then were quickly driven out by the native Indians. It wasn’t until the end of the 1870s that the Mormons sunk permanent roots here. They named their new settlement for a remote desert land referred to in the Bible as “the land beyond Jordan”. A ferry operated here from 1885 until 1912, when the first bridge to span the Colorado River was built. For most of the 1900s, Moab was a quiet ranching center until a uranium boom in the 1950s caused the population to soar—there were more residents in 1960 than the 5,100 who live here today.
As in other Western mining boom towns that ran dry, tourism came in to fill the economic void, and catering to visitors is the primary source of livelihood for Moab today. Over the past 30 years Moab has established itself as one of the most important centers for river running and the explosively popular sport of mountain biking. One interesting legacy of the region’s mining activity is the number of rough roads “leading off to nowhere,” which is exactly where cyclists and 4WD people want to go.
The good news is you don’t need a mountain bike or some ATV vehicle to explore the area—there are decent paved roads taking you into awesome redrock scenery. Of course, you can do the rougher stuff too . . . if you’re inclined to step up your adventures a degree or more. We tasted a little of both.
Four great official state scenic byways lead out from Moab—diverse in their offerings, but all equally spectacular. You could easily spend an entire vacation just taking in all this area has to offer; as it was, we found time to “do” two and part of the third of those drives. Plenty of activities along the way, the drives weren’t just about sitting in our vehicle all day—although that could have been a personal choice (just not our way of doing a drive).
Two of these roads lead out from Moab paralleling the Colorado River, but in opposite directions. We began with the drive headed east, actually State Road 128, which eventually joins up with I-70. Known as the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway, there’s a lot more to it than just being a picturesque route. For the first half of its 44-mile length the road passes through a Recreation Area where a dedicated paved bike trail runs adjacent to the road. With great scenery and an overall level grade, the most difficult aspect of biking this trail would be keeping your attention on where you’re going.
Interspersed along the route you’ll find a dozen BLM campgrounds. Located between the road and the river, most of the sites are adjacent to the riverbank and have great views. Although all are primitive camping, at least 6 of them would accommodate RVs, some up to 40’ long. Although we were set up in an RV park in town, we liked the looks of these—our kind of camping—as did many others, as all campgrounds appeared mostly full.
But it’s the road itself that has to be the main attraction, cutting through a narrow, steep gorge that follows the south bank of the Colorado River. Sheer sandstone walls rise up along both sides of the river, leaving little room for the road to be included. Moreover, as the course of the river goes, so goes the pavement. Expect constant curves and no shoulders on this road, just glorious views around every bend. A great touring road!
Before the drive gets really going, there’s a trailhead you shouldn’t miss. Negro Bill Canyon Trail is well-known to the locals, as was indicated by the nearly filled parking area, even at this early morning weekday hour. Of course, we pulled in (thanking our lucky star that there was still an empty spot) and prepared for a hike that entailed more than a few stream crossings (10, if you’re counting). Best to take the hiking sticks!
Named after William Grandstaff, a black prospector and rancher who grazed his cattle here during the late 1800s, the trail goes through a lovely canyon, cut into the Navajo sandstone by a small, perennial stream that has its origins high up on a riverside cliff and flows into the river here at the trailhead. The hike follows this stream through a lush riparian environment of cottonwood and willow trees, belying the fact that you’re in the midst of a high desert environment. With a water source along most of the route that requires crossing—barefoot or rock-hopping, your choice—and more shade than you’d expect to find, this would make for the perfect hike when days turn hot. As for us, it was merely a warm sunny day, so using stepping stones for stream crossings was my preferred mode of stream fording.
If a very pleasant and interesting hike is not enough for you, how about finding a reward waiting at trail’s end? The big pay-off is a dramatic natural bridge (actually, an alcove arch), one of the longest stone spans in the world (fifth or ninth longest, depending on the source). Morning Glory Natural Bridge vaults 243 feet across the canyon’s head and is extremely difficult to photograph. Separated from the sandstone cliff behind it, there’s only 15 feet across the gap.
It’s something you’ve just gotta see in person to really appreciate.
Once back on that road again, we turn east and continue on. After a quick lunch stop, we realize the day is slipping away. Yet there’s miles to go and more to do . . . and the scenery is___ just___ getting___ better!
The canyon widens and the views open up. When Parriott Mesa comes into view you’ll know that you’ve crossed over . . . the invisible barrier . . . a threshold into another place and time. Skylines and profiles of soaring towers and squat mesas define this iconic landscape. I couldn’t help but feel we had driven into our own personal Western drama—it’s that picturesque. What lies before us can readily evoke memories of long ago classic Western movies—in point of fact, several of those movies were filmed here . . . The Comancheros, Wagon Master, Ten Who Dared, Against a Crooked Sky, and Rio Grande, to name a few.
Rising over Castle Valley, Parriott Mesa makes for one arduous hike, or better yet, one iconic photo of Utah’s acclaimed redrock country. But, perhaps most significant of all, it’s a base jumper’s premier destination. Not by any means our cup of tea, nevertheless we find it fascinating to watch—in person or video. Check out this stimulating youtube here for a 3-minute true-life experience.
Parriott Mesa also marks the junction with the La Sal Mountain Loop Scenic Drive—the route we only began to drive. Time being a factor—I did say there was too much to take in around Moab in our short week here—we took the turn-off and began the drive, hoping to capture a small taste of the drive’s offerings.
In its entirety it is about a 60-mile route, starting south of Moab and winding through the Manti-La Sal National Forest before tying into SR-128, taking the Upper Colorado Scenic Road back into Moab from the east. Along the way it is a magnificent (so I read) drive through a variety of landscapes from alpine mountains to rugged canyons. It is truly a great escape when the summer heat sweeps through Moab—the peaks of these mountains reach to nearly 13,000 feet, the second highest range in Utah. There are numerous hikes and mountain bike trails to take along with forest service campsites nestled in forests of fragrant pines and quaking aspens. There’s even some great trout fishing to be done in the several beautiful lakes and streams. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be experiencing that—but there’s always our next visit.
The ultimately best way to experience the drive is to come down from those mountains into the valley below—the view looking out over Castle Valley will entice you to pull over, taking time to soak in a scene that is pure Old West. If you happen to be there when the late afternoon light is striking those mesas and spires, then you’ll have a simply spectacular view.
Coming from Highway 128, we were backtracking the route and the afternoon light hadn’t dropped far enough to the horizon to light up the scene and add good contrast. Still, we had a glimpse of the landscape’s potential . . . it was enough to give us pause.
During my research, I came across a passage that read “Castleton Tower has been featured in more commercials than Joe DiMaggio.” Whether that’s true or not, I came across one Chevy commercial where Castleton Rock had a prominent role. Take time to watch the youtube—it’ll take you back a few decades—and keep in mind it was filmed in those long-gone days before drone photography.
Standing 400 feet above the 1,000 foot cone, Castleton Tower is as famous for being a classic photo op as it is for being a world-famous climbing destination. It has been reported that over 40,000 ascents have been made since it was first climbed in 1961.
Just when we were thinking this scenery won’t be surpassed, we headed further down Highway 128 on the last leg of our sight-seeing adventure. With the day nearly done, we had one last act of this show waiting ahead—and let me say, this final act sold the whole show.
Slightly more than 20 miles from the start of this drive, the Fisher Towers are a commanding presence. A 2-mile dirt road will take you to the parking area, information board, primitive campground and trailhead for a hike around the rock formations. Named for a miner who lived near this location in the 1880s, they are a group of unusual vertical cliffs and pinnacles, eroded into jagged shapes on the top and grooved down their sides. Actually, they are composed of three major fins of rock rising between 1,000-2,000 feet above the valley floor. Each fin contains multiple towers, a number of which have been named—Titan, Kingfisher, Ancient Arts, Cottontail Tower, Echo Tower, Oracle and Lizard Rock. Needless to say, both individually and collectively, they have become famous for being a superb photo subject as well as a world-renowned climbing destination.
The big regret of our memorable day was not having the time to take the Fisher Towers Trail. Rated as a mere moderate hike of 5 miles round trip, the route takes you through the maze of soaring sandstone towers ending at a scenic overlook on a high ridge above Onion Creek. Requiring more hours to hike than we had left in the day, we could only take the trail leading to a scenic overlook of those monster spires. And with a sigh and a moment of regret, I knew this too would wait for another trip.
Another more recent TV commercial filmed on one of these towers, features the corkscrew summit known as Ancient Arts. A short, 30-seconds long, it was able to capture something of the thrill that climbing these towers can produce. Maybe you wondered where it was shot. Well, now you know.
Back on that paved road for once final short drive, I knew there was a last photo op I just had to bag from this day. Once more following the course of the Colorado River, there’s a stretch where the Towers are reflected in its waters. With the sun dropping fast and the lay of the land unexplored, we found a suitable spot to take the shot. Sometimes, having a photographer’s assistant can pay off in multiple ways.
A fitting end to a rewarding drive—a drive I would highly recommend as the epitome of what the Moab area has to offer.
The Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway, aka—Potash Road/Shafer Trail Road, had a hard act to follow. In the end, I would discover there was no point of comparison (except maybe for the scenery)—two completely different roads, it was like comparing apples to oranges. Equally good, yet equally different by nature.
And, in this instance, nature required a slightly different mode of travel . . . this drive was considerably less civilized. The wilder side of outdoor adventures is something Moab is more than capable of providing. In no time at all, Chris had taken the lead and procured us a suitable ride. Packing up some provisions after a hearty breakfast, we headed into the backcountry of the Moab area.
The Potash Road is definitely the route to outdoor adventures. Running alongside the Colorado through another deepening, sheer-walled sandstone canyon, it has a paved surface for the first 15 miles. Along the way you’ll pass a couple BLM campgrounds—small, but oh-so-scenic—as well as some great hiking trails.
Flowing as red as the cliffs that rise above it, the Colorado River once helped to carve the landscape we now enjoy. You can see the road we took squeezed tightly between water and rock.
The fall season is one of the most popular times for rock climbing around Moab, and the cliffs of Potash Road are one of the prime places for the sport. Known as Wall Street for a very good reason, the sandstone cliffs rise up to an immense 500 feet. With such easy access for the climbers, you can belay right beside your vehicle. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll see some of this kind of action as you begin your drive down Potash Road.
For us, the real adventure was the drive. A few miles past Wall Street the road turns to gravel and begins a gradual climb. Still following the course of the river, we round a bend and the scenery opens up to wider views. Now that’s a sight worth saving—a microcosm of Moab scenery in a single shot!
Soon after, the road roughens and we’re glad to be driving “just a rental” rather than our new Ram truck. With sharp turns and more obstacles encountered, Chris shifts to 4WD and we take off. Splendiferous redrock scenery is all around us . . . ya-hoo! Wild West, we are here!
The road passes by its namesake area—the evaporating ponds of Intrepid Mine. A vast potash extraction site, the process involves pumping river water into underground galleries where it dissolves potash salts. From there, the solution is aspirated back to the surface and into large evaporation basins. The process is complete when the water evaporates, leaving only the potash salt behind. From a distance, the ponds resemble an iced-over frozen lake.
To break up the drive and give us a leg-stretcher, the trail to Corona Arch is a great option. A moderate hike of less than 3 miles round trip, it wouldn’t cut out too much time in our day’s adventure. With a 500-foot elevation gain, it would compensate for all the sitting we’re doing. Lead on—the arch at the end would be worth it!
Mostly traversing over slickrock terrain, the uphill grade is gentle, but constant. Near the end, there’s a rather steep rock slope to surmount, but safety cables firmly anchored and a 10-foot steel ladder make the climb a piece of cake (and add interest to your normal trail hiking).
From the top of the ledge you’ve just attained, you’ll see the prize of this trail before you—and quite a sight it is.
Corona Arch is one of the prettiest arches in the Moab area, and can certainly hold its own when stacked up against those in the nearby national park. Having an opening of 140 feet by 105 feet, its graceful span gives an unobstructed view from both sides. More to the point, on this very warm fall day, it offers the only shade you’ll find on this trail when standing in its immense shadow.
Since the arch is located outside of Arches National Park, it hasn’t received the same protections as with federal lands. Although banned since 2013, an airplane has flown through it and it was also known as a popular spot for “the world’s largest rope swing”. To illustrate what fool-hardy people sometimes do for thrills, take a quick look at this youtube. And yes, someone has died while attempting this—that’s what prompted the ban now in existence.
Back on the road again, we headed out on the last leg of our adventure-filled drive. Enjoying the day and the picturesque scenery, there were a couple of sights to take in before we would reach the climatic end to our day. And speaking of climatic ends . . . have you ever watched the 1991 classic movie Thelma and Louise? If so, you will undoubtedly remember its ending. Although in the movie it was the Grand Canyon where the ending took place, in reality it was here in Utah at this very spot we passed by. The jeep rental company had indicated its location and gave some background stories. Two cars were sent over the cliff during the filming (to shoot different angles), both later recovered and helicoptered out. Dummies were used instead of real people, but no one informed the diver going down to attach hooks to the cars. He about had a heart attack under water when thinking the dummies were real people. Putting movie endings and stories aside, it is a breath-taking location in its own right.
Overlooking this view but from 2,000 feet up, the butte of Dead Horse Point overshadows its surroundings. Where far-reaching views and the river’s horseshoe bend can be seen from up there, it’s an entirely different view from below. Just another iconic shot of this incredible redrock country.
A couple posts back in my Canyonlands’ blog, I mentioned there being a second route beside the highway to access the park’s entrance. Call it the scenic way (some might say foolhardy), the road leading up Shafer Canyon will also take travelers to Canyonlands’ borders. And on this bright and beautiful day, that was exactly the route we were taking.
For sure, it’s steep and somewhat risky—there are signs giving warnings and such. But the Shafer Trail is well-known and well-used and offers plenty of outstanding birds’ eye views. You just can’t get such an experience on any old pavement road.
I had prepared Chris well for this little endeavor . . . he had some “warm-up roads” under his belt already. When it came right down to it and we’re on the way up, we were committed to “no turning back”. So why did I hear something uttered under his breath, something that sounded a lot like “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!”?
Looking forward to what was to come . . . looking back from whence we had come.
A thrilling experience all the way!
The Shafer switchbacks zigzag from the canyon floor to the plateau above, rising 1,500 feet. This route was previously used by cattlemen and sheep herders back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After grazing their livestock up on the grassland plateau, they’d move them down to the canyons when winter was approaching. Although this went on for several years, it wasn’t exactly a fail safe route—a few unlucky animals would slide off the steep canyon walls.
Of course, we made it up! Never did I have any doubts. Chris might have lost some enamel off his teeth, but what a small price to pay for the experience. High mountain passes in Colorado have nothing over this Shafer Trail—and I’m glad to know we still have the heart to take them! It’s a classic trail that is probably known far and wide, but just how many can say THEY TOOK IT!!!
Taking our leave of great redrock country,
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris