Last year I had the great opportunity to visit Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. All were amazing and the week is one that I know I’ll never forget. One spot along the drive was a little more important than the others though, thanks to the access it provides to two of the national parks on this list. Moab, Utah was my home base while exploring both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as it is for millions of others every year. While the national parks are indeed amazing, so are the many other experiences offered in and around Moab so today I want to share more about how to visit the two national parks near Moab, as well as what else you can experience while visiting this unlikely touristy hotspot in the middle of nowhere. The trip was part of an ongoing project with Marriott International, The Americas, to highlight some incredible places around the country, including our national parks.
Moab has always been a small community, whether it was in its early frontier days, when it was a uranium mining boom town or today, when tourism is the chief draw to this rocky landscape. Don’t let its small population fool you though, there’s a lot to see in do in and around Moab, one of the best spots I’ve ever visited for outdoor recreation. Sure, like me, most people visit to explore the two nearby National Parks – Arches and Canyonlands. But there’s plenty more to do outside of the parks, from rafting, to mountain biking and especially four-wheeling experiences. Given this interest in outdoor recreation, any number of outfitters, restaurants and hotels have popped up, with plans for even more in the future. Moab is easy enough to navigate, one road in and out provides everything you’ll need during your time in what is honestly one of the most beautiful places in the country. I’ll detail the two national parks in a few paragraphs, but if you’re looking for a place to stay here are two properties that I recommend whole-heartedly from personal experience.
SpringHill Suites Moab: This was one of my favorite hotels of the trip, thanks in large part to how expertly they’ve brought the natural elements into the hotel experience. Set among the region’s famous red rocks, every room enjoys stunning views at this new 99-suite hotel. It’s that suite experience that always makes SpringHill a great option for me; I love having the extra space to spread out and just relax after a long day of exploration. Add in complimentary breakfast and one of the closest locations to both Arches and Canyonlands and you have a hotel experience that is hard to beat.
Fairfield Inn & Suites Moab: Located next door to the SpringHill Suites, the Fairfield enjoys the same stunning location and access to the parks, as well as shared amenities like the large and inviting pool. Also like their sister hotel, the Fairfield has thankfully fully embraced its location, making the experience feel unique and bespoke. Add in amazing views of the red rocks and the Colorado River below and you have another incredible hotel to call home for a few days.
Arches National Park
Arches was first designated a National Monument in 1929 and then a Park in 1971; the massive 76,000 acre site recognized for the more than 2,000 sandstone arches that grace its lands. The most famous, Delicate Arch, even adorns the Utah license plate and driving to the park itself it’s hard not to be enthralled by the natural beauty of the region. Arches National Park though is about so much more than its namesake geology, there also exists around the park enormous formations that look like the handiwork of the gods. Spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and eroded monoliths are all strewn about the landscape, creating a red rock diorama that looks more like Mars than anywhere on Earth.
According to the rangers at Arches, if you have three hours your can complete the entire driving loop, spending ten minutes at each viewpoint. And, to be honest, if you’ve made the trek to Arches in the first place I can’t imagine spending less time than that. One thing to keep in mind is that Arches is a very popular park, much more so than nearby Canyonlands so you will have traffic to deal with in the park itself and you’ll also need to be patient when it comes time to park your car at each viewpoint. My advice is to arrive early and enjoy as much of the park as you can before the heat of the day and thousands of other intrepid souls join you. There’s a lot to love about exploring Arches National Park, but some of my favorite spots include:
Park Avenue and Courthouse Towers: This is the first section of the park that all visitors see when driving in and, for me at least, it’s one of the most remarkable. Visitors can walk among the massive monoliths and towering walls to see views of the nearby La Sal Mountains. The sheer walls of this canyon reminded early visitors of buildings lining a city street, hence its name. It’s also, I think, the perfect first introduction to the wonders of the park.
The Windows Section: Considered by many to be the heart of the park, here you’ll find a large concentration of arches and it is one of the most scenic locations in the park. There are also a number of short hikes to help visitors better appreciate the beauty of the landscape.
Delicate Arch: The park’s most famous formation, it’s what all visitors want to see. Getting there though can be more of a challenge. There are two viewpoints for the arch, one requires no hiking and the other is a moderate hike. If you want to reach the arch itself though, you have to be prepared. It’s 3-miles round-trip and takes between 2-3 hours to do. Starting at Wolfe Ranch, the trail climbs 460 feet up a steep slope and has no shade, so be prepared.
Landscape Arch: Although the park calls this 1.6-mile round-trip hike easy, I’d honestly place it in the moderate category for the average person. It’s well worth the effort though as you hike along a fairly flat trail to reach the massive Landscape Arch, admiring the scenery along the way.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is massive; almost on a scale that is hard to comprehend. The Park comprises 337,598 acres of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires in the heart of southeast Utah’s high desert. Canyonlands is split up into four sections and each one definitely has its unique personality. Thanks to its proximity to Moab and for the peculiar features found there, the most popular to visit (and the one I’m highlighting today) is Island in the Sky district.
What I love about Canyonlands is how primitive and raw it feels. This is unadulterated backcountry in its purest form and to experience it, if only briefly, is a true joy. The Island in the Sky Mesa rests on sandstone cliffs more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding desert terrain. That means the scenes from the various overlooks provide views that are constantly changing and totally unique. If you only have a few hours, Island in the Sky is the easiest section to visit and there are many great spots and even short hikes to enjoy. Just keep in mind that the entrance to the park is about 25 minutes from the main road and there’s a fantastic state park along the way (Dead Horse Point), so give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the area. There’s a lot to love about exploring Canyonlands National Park, but some of my favorite spots include:
Scenic drive: I toured the entire mesa top on the 34-mile round-trip scenic drive, stopping all the time at overlooks and even to tackle short hikes. From my own experience, the drive is easy to follow, wasn’t too busy and of course features some incredible spots.
Mesa Arch: One of the Park’s most recognizable sights, it’s also a very easy 0.5-mile hike to reach. This cliff-edge arch has stunning views towards the La Sal Mountains and is perfect at sunrise.
Grand View Point: This is one of those “mandatory” stops that all visitors to Canyonlands include, and with good reason. It’s usually one of the last stops for people driving the scenic route and from here you can see the White Rim, mountains and features in both the Maze and Needles sections of the park. Throughout the day rangers give geology talks and there’s even a moderate hike that takes you an additional mile to another viewpoint. It’s a great capstone to a wonderful day spent exploring the Park.
White Rim Overlook & Hike: This is an easy hike as long as you have enough time. It’s almost 2 miles round-trip, and the rangers at the park suggest you give it between 1 ½ – 2 hours to hike. Walking to an east-facing overlook you’ll see views of the Colorado River, Monument Basin and La Sal Mountains and you’ll get the best light in the late afternoon.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are just two of the country’s great natural treasures and they should be places everyone has on their travel bucket list. No matter how you choose to experience Moab though, just make sure you take the time to experience the grandeur which surrounds it for a trip you’ll never forget.
4 thoughts on “Exploring Moab, Utah: National Parks and More”
The whole enchilada as well as slick rock are amazing to experience as well on a mountain bike or more
Super article Matt….thanks for sharing your experiences. We are travelling to Moab in May 2020 taking in all of the sites mentioned in your article. I am printing your article and bringing it with me on our trip. THANK YOU.
Great article Matt! The Utah Byway State Route 128 is one of the best kept secrets of the Moab area. It’s an incredibly scenic drive with amazing glimpses of the desert landscape. If visiting the Moab and Arches National Park, one shouldn’t miss this 46 miles long stretch.
Outside of Arches, Canyon-lands parks mounatin biking and four wheeling
as well as a challenging experience like Delicate Arch are really amazing to experience.
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