With its mountain biking, rock climbing, river rafting, and hiking, Moab stakes a claim
I was head over heels for Moab even after I went head over heels in Moab. This bit of desert slapstick took place when I carried too much speed into a descent on the Slickrock Bike Trail, a mountain biking trail on tire-gripping sandstone about 3.5 miles from downtown Moab. As will soon become clear, this southeastern Utah town is a launching pad for a dizzying array of outdoor activities, none so renowned as the trail I was about to taste. Arriving abruptly at the bottom of a gully, I clung to my handlebars even as my torso and lower body hurtled over them. I broke the fall with my right arm and helmeted head, suffering no more than a few abrasions. I was happy for those inexpensive souvenirs, truth be told. "Are you OK?" asked my guide, the infinitely patient Jane Keyes, who incurred nothing more on this day than a crick in her neck, so often was she forced to glance over her shoulder to make sure I had not ridden off a cliff. "I'm fine," I said, beating the red dust of Moab out of my clothes and muttering excuses about the unfamiliarity of my rented bike. Jane had the good manners not to laugh. Both of us knew this trail would kick my butt regardless of the machine I was pedaling. "This will be the longest 12.7 miles of your life," she had promised at the trailhead. So it was, an anaerobic, extraterrestrial loop of sudden dips, sheer rises, and sidehill laterals for which no amount of training on the fire roads and single-tracks of my native Marin County, Calif., could prepare me.
If I hadn't been up to the technical challenge, there were numerous other options. Moab offers a wide range of mountain biking trails, from moderate to gonzo. But I found the difficulty of the Slickrock trail a blessing in disguise. Every stop along the way yielded another jaw-dropping vista: to the south, the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains; to the north, much closer, the surreal minarets and towers of Arches National Park.
Though it is best known for its mountain biking, Moab is unrivaled for the diversity of its world-class outdoor activities. Rafters, kayakers, rock climbers, hikers, trail runners, and backpackers of all skill levels have also discovered this town of 4,500 once peopled by uranium miners. As the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and with the La Sal Mountains, the Colorado River, and Dead Horse Point State Park also nearby, it's no wonder why.
The area's sandstone spires attract sinewy rock climbers from all over the globe. "Climbing one of these wild formations, standing on a plateau the size of a desktop, and looking out over the desert—it borders on being a religious experience," says climbing guide and self-described Moab addict Rebecca Rusch. "And I'm not that religious." Castle Valley, 30 minutes northeast of Moab, offers internationally known climbing, and, closer to town, cliff junkies flock to the towers in Arches National Park—the Three Gossips and Owl Rock. For novice climbers, guides are advised.
Come spring, when snowmelt engorges the Colorado River, Main Street in Moab suddenly teems with the vans and trailers of rafting outfits eager to scare you witless. The 30 miles of the Colorado north of Moab offer dramatic white-water rafting. For those uninterested in experiencing a Maytag rinse cycle simulation, mellower, scenic float trips are also available.
Spring and fall are optimal times to visit—summertime temperatures frequently top 100 degrees and light snowfalls are likely in winter—but for Pete's sake, phone ahead. The week before Easter, the town hosts its annual Jeep Safari and is overrun with four-wheelers.
Summer is also peak season for Arches National Park, when the crowds border on insufferable. I had prepped for my day in Arches by reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, an account of one of his seasons as a ranger in Arches. Amid matchless descriptions of the natural preserve over which he presided are Abbey's dread-filled prognostications of a day when Arches would be choked with automobiles. Just because Abbey's worst fears have come to pass doesn't mean Arches isn't worth exploring. If you have only one day in Moab, hike this park. The Slickrock Bike Trail can wait.
Not wishing to irk Abbey's ghost—he died a dozen years ago—I got out of the car as often as possible, putting in about 14 miles on foot. Hiking past the geomorphic wonders, I spent more time thinking about geology than I probably ever have before. Erosion over time has created the world's largest collection of natural sandstone arches that give this park its name.
The Devils Garden Trail is the gateway to eight arches, none more awe-inspiring than the 306-foot Landscape Arch, a rainbow of rock. Leaving Devils Garden just as a lone coyote trotted through the parking lot, I drove to the trailhead for the Delicate Arch, a 1.5-mile uphill hike from the parking lot. I timed my arrival for sunset, as had three other tourists, two of them tripod-carrying photographers. We sat in stunned silence as the setting sun bathed that arch, perched on a cliff's edge, in lambent light.
The town of Moab, much of its housing slapped together for uranium miners more than four decades ago, will always seem slightly underwhelming after a day in the surrounding canyonlands. But so what? You're here to be outdoors. Still, not everything about the place is spartan. I logged some serious time in the hot tub at the Gonzo Inn, found high-end eats at the Center Cafe, and hung out at the Moab Brewery, which offers six handcrafted ales on tap.
On my last night in town, I treated myself to a fancy steak dinner at the Sunset Grill, built on a cliff overlooking the valley. If the Grill's wine list doesn't make it explicitly clear that its Arches Merlot is a local vintage, one's first sip certainly does. (I'm hoping that funky finish wasn't uranium.) Oh, well, I figured, pouring myself a second glass. It's probably like riding slickrock. You get used to it.
You Say Moab, I Say Marin
If you want to spark a lively debate with daredevil mountain bikers, insist that Moab has the best trails in the world and that the sport was invented in Crested Butte, Colo. Those statements will cause tires to skid and gears to grind.
Naturally, Moabites are justifiably proud of their slickrock and surreal desertscapes, but biking enthusiasts sing praises of other hotspots, too. "There's no place on earth like Moab," agrees Ned Overend, six-time National Off Road Bike Association champion and former world champion. "But for variety, it's tough to top Durango." Overend is one of dozens of pros who make their home in this old mining town in the southwest corner of Colorado. To the west, the shale-intensive hills make for delightfully smooth single-track. To the south, there is high desert; to the north, the rugged steeps of the San Juan Mountains.
Overend is also partial to Crested Butte, home of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Museum, into which he has been inducted. The alpine trails smack-dab in the middle of the Gunnison National Forest are "special and spectacular," he says, "although they do have a short season."
Mountain biking in Crested Butte began in the mid-1970s, when velo-nuts on clunky Schwinns labored over 12,705-foot Pearl Pass, then dropped into Aspen. Some in Crested Butte say it is the sport's birthplace, a claim hotly contested in California's Marin County. It was in Marin in the early '70s that pioneers like Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, and Tom Ritchey rode 40- to 50-pound "ballooner" bikes down a trail called Repack, so named because the grease in their rear hubs needed to be repacked after each hair-raising ride.
Today, hikers and equestrians have succeeded in outlawing mountain bikes on most of Marin's narrow trails. But even with this dearth of single-track, Marin still offers miles and miles of epic riding on fire roads. "Where else on earth," asks Overend, "can you ride amid such gorgeous scenery so close to a major metropolitan area [San Francisco]?"
Moab, Durango, Crested Butte, Marin: You can't go wrong in any of these places—as long as you stay on your bike.
This article was first published in September 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.