Growing up, my family spent almost every Spring Break camping in and around Arches National Park near Moab Utah. We had a truck bed camper and we would go with several neighborhood families – all with kids our age. I fondly remember camping in Devil’s Garden and spending entire days with my brothers and neighbor friends exploring the spectacular red rock formations. Back then, it felt like we had Arches entirely to ourselves.
But for 30 years, I didn’t return to the Moab Utah area. It always seemed just a little too far away for a weekend trip, and if I had time for a longer vacation, I’d leave Utah and explore the rest of the world.
Two things changed my thinking this past year. First of all – obviously, the pandemic. Local road trips became our safest form of travel in 2020. And second – Social Media. As I started writing this blog, I also started using social media to interact with other travel bloggers – bloggers from all over the world. On Twitter especially, we travel bloggers exchange lots of travel pictures. And I was stunned by the volume of pictures from….. My Home State! Lots and lots of pictures from…. My Home State! Pictures from places I’d never been in….My Home State! So, I decided 2020 was the year for me to see my unvisited Utah National Parks and to finally make my return to Moab Utah.
After first taking trips to Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef – I’d never been to either – we found time to spend a long weekend in and around Moab. Let me show you how we fit visits to 2 National Parks, plus Utah’s best State Park, over 2 days and 3 nights in Moab Utah.
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A Trifecta of Parks
Moab is located in southeast Utah – a 3.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City (or 5.5 hours from Denver). In the area immediately surrounding Moab, you’ll find a Trifecta of Parks – Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park. Plus, Moab Utah is also a world-class mountain biking and jeeping destination. The town itself is the largest in southeast Utah with a population of around 5000.
Our Lodging in Moab Utah
Because of its popularity and wide range of activities, Moab Utah offers lots of lodging and dining options. But also, because of this popularity, Moab is expensive. I was a little shocked as I started tripping a place to stay – especially after having just visited Capitol Reef and Bryce where prices were reasonable. Plenty of condo vacation rentals have popped up in Moab over the years, along with various chain hotels and motels, but it was difficult to find anything for less than $200 a night. This seemed crazy to me for southeast Utah in October. As a rule, I generally choose vacation rentals, but I could not bring myself to spend $300 nightly for a condo in Moab.
But, I also discovered that RV rental is a very popular option in Moab, and at a price I could accept. And because I had only ever camped in Moab anyway, it seemed fitting that we should stay in an RV during my triumphant return. And I wouldn’t have to share the top bunk with a bunch of stinky brothers this time, so it would seem like a castle anyway.
We stayed at FunStays Redrock Park for $180 per night. It’s a small RV Park located about 10 minutes south of Moab with a great view across to the nearby red cliffs. The RVs are permanently parked and ours was perfect for me and Mrs. Thorough Tripper. And given that we stayed during the pandemic, we especially appreciated the extra isolation.
You can check out a multitude of other lodging options in the Moab area below with Booking.com.
First Day in Moab – Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands
Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park are located adjacent to each other, 33 miles and 37 miles from Moab respectively. It therefore made perfect sense to squeeze both in on the same day. Dead Horse Point offers what I consider the best view in the entire Moab Utah area, so don’t make the mistake of skipping it in favor of Canyonlands. In fact, during our annual springtime trips to the area, the Jepson clan was guilty of the opposite. We always visited Dead Horse Point and never visited Canyonlands (I’ve asked my parents about this, and they can’t really explain why). Consequently, one more unvisited Mighty 5 for me to tick off the list.
Morning – Dead Horse Point State Park
You may recognize the view at Dead Horse Point. It is a favorite of the movie industry and has been featured in many films and TV. Dead Horse Point sits high on peninsula-shaped mesa, surrounded on both sides by a spectacular wide expanse of canyon carved by the Colorado River, 2000 feet (!!!) below. At the north end of the park, the mesa is wider, and here you’ll find several campgrounds and mountain bike trails
At the southern tip of the mesa sits the Dead Horse Point Overlook. A paved road takes you there. As you approach the Overlook, the mesa narrows to a “neck” that’s only 30 feet across, before widening again to several hundred feet.
At this southern edge, you’ll find the “money shot” out over a gooseneck in the Colorado River below, and across Canyonlands to the south and west.
What about the Name?
It’s not a very nice story, but legend has it that in the 1800s, cowboys would round up wild mustangs roaming the area. They would herd them across the neck to the southern tip, and place a barrier across. After choosing their desired horses, they left the remainder to die of thirst on the Point.
Hiking Dead Horse Point
Dead Horse Point is more than just the famous overlook. There are several hiking trails in the area that offer some pretty spectacular alternative viewpoints, including a trail that circumnavigates the Point’s rim. After entering the Park around 10 am,, we spent the next 1.5 hours on this trail and at the Overlook.
For a more detailed accounting of the Rim Hike and additional tips on visiting Dead Horse Point State Park, check out my Dead Horse Point blog post.
Afternoon – Canyonlands National Park
We next headed over to The Island In The Sky area of Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is a vast park with two different entrances and visitor centers. Island in the Sky is a broad mesa that is wedged high above the Green River to the west and the Colorado River to the east. At the southern tip of the mesa, the two rivers meet and become one. Below Island in the Sky, both rivers have carved deep canyons over the millenia. From Island in the Sky, you will find multiple viewpoints out across these canyons, along with hiking trails and other interesting geologic features. The White Rim Trail, 1200 feet below Island of the Sky, follows one of the mesa’s sandstone benches, and is a legendary off-road vehicle and mountain biking route.
The Needles District of Canyonlands is accessed 74 miles south of Moab. It is at a lower elevation, and is located on the east side of the Colorado River-carved canyons. It is named for its red and white banded rock pinnacles that dominate the area. We didn’t have time on this trip to visit The Needles
Canyonlands does have a third section called The Maze, located on the western side of the Green River. This area is very remote and can only be accessed via high-clearance 4×4 vehicles.
Island in the Sky
The entrance to this section of Canylonds is located only about 5 miles from the turn off to Dead Horse Point. As we left Dead Horse Point, I noted 5 cars lined up at its entrance. 10 minutes later we approached what turned out to be a very long line of cars waiting to enter Canyonlands. I thought perhaps the Park was limiting entry due to the pandemic, but ultimately found out that it was just the regular line to get in. We ended up inching our way to the entrance over about 30 minutes, and chose to eat our picnic lunch while inching along.
Turns out the Park was much more crowded than I expected. Every parking lot was packed and required some circling to find a spot. It’s the least visited of Utah’s Mighty 5 Parks, but there were plenty of visitors on this October Sunday during a pandemic. It was interesting to note how much quieter Dead Horse Point was. And the view at Dead Horse Point honestly beats anything from Island in the Sky.
Island in the Sky features a paved main road that extends 12 miles to the southern tip of the mesa. Along the way, there are multiple overlooks and hikes. We spent the next 4 hours exploring some of these. Note: it was already a windy day, but as we entered Canyonlands, a cold front passed through with a little bit of rain, extra wind, and a temperature drop. Consequently, there is quite a bit of haze in the photos. The wind kicks up the dust in the canyon valleys below.
Easily the most photographed site in Canyonlands is Mesa Arch. The small Arch sits right on the edge of the mesa, in a spot with a fantastic view out to the surrounding canyons and plateaus. Since the view faces east, the “money shot” here is at sunrise. Big crowds can gather for this sunrise photo, but since it would have also required a 5 am awakening, I do not have the money shot. Instead, I have an early afternoon version. Still a spectacular spot to take a photo, no matter the time of day.
The hike to the Arch is 0.7 miles round trip and it was very crowded even at midday, with everyone lined up to get their own version of the money shot.
Grand View Point Overlook
The Grand View Point Overlook is at the end of the paved road at the southern tip of the mesa. There is also a 1.8 mile hike here that follows the edge of the mesa to it’s very southern tip. We ended up not taking the hike. The views from the Overlook were fantastic and we decided to sit on the edge for a while and just take it all in. From here, it’s easy to recognize the White Rim far below.
Buck Canyon Overlook
Another spot worth pulling over and looking down for an alternative look at the canyons and white rim below
Our last hike of the day was at Upheaval Dome. A 5-mile paved road branches off the Island’s main road and ends at a parking lot for Upheaval Dome. This is a 1500 foot crater on the Island’s western side that geologists speculate was created by a meteor strike. In its center, you’ll see eroded white sandstone – the same sandstone layer for which the White Rim Trail is named.
The hike starts at the parking lot and ascends 300 feet to the rim of the crater and the first overlook. From here we continue hiking along the crater rim for another half mile to the second overlook. Many hikers stop at the first overlook and return. I think continuing on to the second overlook is worth it. The trail over and through the sandstone formations is interesting, you enjoy panoramic views out over the western side of Canyonlands along the way, and the view into the dome is better at the second overlook.
Second Day in Moab – Arches National Park
We spent our second full day focused on Arches National Park. The Park entrance is located only 5 miles from Moab. As the name would imply, it’s famous for its high concentration of natural stone arches. But you’ll find much more than just arches in Arches. It’s full of unusual rock formations and great hiking too. We only had this 1 day to spend exploring my childhood springtime playground, but we were able to see the majority of its major sites. Here’s how we did it.
First Up – Delicate Arch
This is certainly Arches’ most iconic site and in fact is one of the most famous sites in Utah. This free-standing arch is a popular symbol for the state. It’s even on my license plate. It’s also the Park’s most popular site, which means that your experience here will likely be shared with many others
We entered the Park early and drove straight to the Delicate Arch parking lot and trailhead, hoping to beat the crowds. No such luck. Even at 8:15 am on an October Monday, the parking lot was full and we were turned away by a Park Ranger. We drove in circles nearby for about 20 minutes, and ultimately the gate opened to allow in a few more cars.
The hike to the Arch is 1.5 miles long and moderately steep at times with a total gain of 480 feet. A significant part of the trail involves hiking up a steep smooth sandstone slope.
Towards the end of the hike, the trail follows a ledge along the side of a higher cliff wall.
Suddenly, as you come to the end of this ledge, Delicate Arch appears to the right, on the edge of a natural stone amphitheater. It is a breath-taking moment.
You can walk across the amphitheater to the Arch itself and stand underneath it. Or perhaps, more accurately, wait in line to stand underneath it. I counted nearly 100 people at the Arch with us. Still, I was able to patiently bide my time and get a few people-free photos.
We spent approximately two hours in this part of the Park
The Fiery Furnace Viewpoint
The Fiery Furnace is a concentrated collection of narrow sandstone canyons. It gets its name from the reddish glow that emanates from its sandstone walls at the end of the day as the sun sets. It’s located north of Delicate Arch and we headed there next for a quick look.
Hiking in the Fiery Furnace is allowed with a permit or a ranger guide, but access has been closed during the pandemic. It was still worth stopping to take a look from the Fiery Furnace Overlook.
The Windows Section
We then headed to The Window Section of the Park to check out its famous Arches and do some more hiking.
First, we visited Double Arch. This is probably the Park’s second most photographed Arch. It’s easily reached via a flat quarter mile trail from the lower tier of the Windows parking lot. Once at the Arch, you can climb up and explore directly underneath this massive stone structure.
It’s also hard not to notice the elephant standing right next to Double Arch
After eating our packed lunch, we next explored the Windows Arches. The trailheads to these Arches start at the upper tier of the Window parking area. There is a 0.5 mile trail that takes you up flights of steps directly to the three arches in this section – North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch
We decided to explore these arches via the Primitive Trail instead. This trail starts at the north end of the parking lot and takes you on a 1.5 mile loop hike around the back of the Windows.
This was a much less crowded way to appreciate these Arches. We only encountered two other people until we arrived back around at the front of the Arches.
We spend 1.5 hours in this area of the park, including our quick lunch.
After leaving the Windows area, we made a quick stop at Balanced Rock – another of Arches National Park’s iconic and oft-photographed features. It’s easily spotted while driving the main road through the park. There is a small parking area and short hike around the base of this impressive natural structure. It stands 128 feet tall and the rock on top weighs 3600 tons!
Park Avenue and the Courthouse Towers
Park Avenue is the first viewpoint and hike after entering the Park. We had driven past it on our way to Delicate Arch first thing in the morning, saving it instead for our last hike of the day. Park Avenue is lined on both sides by giant sandstone fins and towers called the Courthouse Towers.
A 2-mile round trip hike takes you down through the sheer sandstone walls, and past named features including Queen Nefertiti and The Three Gossips.
After an initial steep descent from the parking lot, down a series of rock staircases, the trail is fairly flat, though there is a 300 foot gain over the length of the hike.
We were pretty tired by the time we hit this trail, after our early start and several hikes already. I will admit that we did not walk the full length of the trail, but we did follow it into the heart of Park Avenue to appreciate the full majesty of these high sandstone towers.
We left the Park at around 2:30 after having spent a little over 6 hours exploring as much of Arches as we had the energy for.
Devil’s Garden is the only major area in the Park that we didn’t get a chance to visit.
The full hike to see all 6 arches in Devil’s Garden is over 5 miles round trip and is rated difficult. Many Devil’s Garden visitors will only hike the easier first two miles to visit the 306 foot long Landscape Arch, taking slight detours to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch along the way. We didn’t have the needed amount of energy in our single day, but certainly would have made all of Devil’s Garden the focus of a second day if we’d had that luxury.
For additional Tips on visiting Arches, check out my Arches Highlights Post.
Dining in Moab Utah
Moab Utah offers a good selection of dining choices. Regular readers know that I try to scope out the best before we even arrive, often depending on TripAdvisor to guide me. Here’s where we ended up eating in Moab – all in TripAdvisor’s top 5.
A South African restaurant in Moab Utah! I’d never eaten South African cuisine before and so a visit here was an absolute must. Hidden Cuisine is popular in the area for it’s great American-style breakfasts, but at night the menu skews more towards the South African roots of its chef/owner. I ordered Bobotie. Honestly, there were other things on the menu which I would have more typically gravitated to, but Bobotie is considered the national dish of South Africa, so of course I had to try it. Bobotie is spiced ground beef stew topped with egg custard and baked. It’s then served with yellow rice on the side. It was OK. Mrs. Thorough Tripper’s shrimp curry served along with a lightly battered fried fish over yellow rice was excellent.
It seems like “genuine” Neapolitan pizza places are everywhere now and I have eaten at many. Antica Forma in Moab is genuinely one of the best I’ve eaten at. We ordered a pizza with prosciutto, arugula, and pecorino – this is one of Mrs. TT’s favorite ingredient combos and so we order it often. This was the most flavorful version we’ve ever had.
This quesadilla-only food truck is ranked #1 for Moab dining on TripAdvisor. It’s very popular and there was always a line whenever we drove past. Quesadilla Mobilla is located on a street corner in downtown Moab and has several tables set up for outdoor dining. They offer several different kinds of quesadillas. Each is huge and filled with a generous amount of fresh ingredients. Beware – they are only open until 5pm and are known to close before then if they run out of food. We found this out the hard way when we arrived just a bit too late on our first attempt.
Final Thoughts and Tips
It was fun to return to Moab after 30 years. Much was exactly as I remembered it. After all, it requires a few million more years to change the landscape. But in the 30 years since I last visited, Moab has become one of the United State’s most popular tourist destinations, and so it’s crowded and expensive. Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting this natural wonderland. Just be prepared.
Here’s a few additional tips:
Weather – we visited in early October. This is a great time of year in Moab. It does get a little chilly at night and early mornings, but daytime temps reached the high 70s. Perfect for hiking. Like many destinations with four seasons, late spring and early fall are the best times to visit Moab Utah.
Admission Fees – It costs $30 to enter each National Park with a 7 day pass. We saved a little money by purchasing the Southeast Utah Parks Pass. This pass costs $55, allows entry into Canyonlands too, and is good for 1 year. Had I anticipated 4 National Park visits in 2020, I would have purchased the National Park Annual Pass for $80 when we entered Bryce Canyon in June. Dead Horse Point State Park has a separate entry fee of $20.
Early Entry – These Parks are busy and popular. Especially Arches. Enter early to ensure your best experience – and, at some times of year, to actually ensure admission. (April 2022 update. Arches NP is piloting a time entry system this season. Here is the website for more info)
Lunch – There is no food for purchase inside the Parks. Moab is close, but not close enough to return for lunch, if spending a full day in the park. Delicate Arch, for example, is 40 minutes from Moab. Plan ahead and take lunch with you.
Other Outdoor Activities – Our Moab adventures were limited to the Trifecta of Parks. But Moab Utah is world-famous for much more. Organized jeep and biking tours, river rafting, and gear rental opportunities abound. Moab Adventure Center is a popular local tour company. Viator is another great place to look for Moab area adventures: