To a mountain biker, the name Moab is akin to Mecca for Muslims. For the rest of us, it’s likely you’ve never heard the name of this little Utah town before, as I hadn’t, until my then-boyfriend-now-husband Henk told me he was planning to go there with his mountain biking club for a 24-hour relay. And even though I’m not a mountain biker (understatement of the year), and this wasn’t a ‘holy pilgrimage’ for me, what I discovered in Moab came pretty close to a religious experience.
Moab’s appeal: it starts and ends with the geography.
The Southwest US boasts some of the most other-worldly landscapes that you can find on the planet – often looking more like a sci-fi image of the Red Planet than our blue one. And Moab, about 4 hours drive south of Salt Lake City, Utah, is right smack dab in the middle of it.
The town of Moab itself is tiny, with just over 5,000 residents, but what draws people to this place are the spectacular landscapes of three parks that are within easy reach for hikers: Arches, Canyonlands (both of which are National Parks), and Dead Horse Point State Park. Then there are the mountain bike paths scattered throughout the area, including the world-famous Slickrock Trail.
Although the name implies otherwise, the actual terrain on this 13-mile trail is not slippery when dry, having a texture much more like sandpaper, making it the perfect grippy surface for bike tires – and the worst for road rash. Get slickrock wet, however, and it lives up to its name, meaning you should probably leave the biking for another day. Even on a good (dry) day, though, this trail is not for beginners as it is a continuous series of short, steep climbs and descents. But the views and the bragging rights are worth it.
TIP: One thing to keep in mind is that Moab is at altitude, so if you’re going to be doing a lot of biking and are sensitive to altitude, give yourself time to adjust or you may just find yourself in ‘granny gear’ most of the time!
Hiking vs Biking in Moab: both are awesome!
Being more of a hiker than a biker, I waited for Henk to complete his exhausting relay, and then we both set out to explore Arches National Park, giving his legs a rest by doing the majority of our discovery by car on the 36-mile long driving loop. Every turn provided photo opportunities that couldn’t be missed, and we did end up doing a fair bit of hiking onto the nearby trails to capture yet another photo of an incredible rock formation. It was easy to see why Arches got its name, with the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches of all types: double arches, single arches, window arches, and some like Landscape Arch so long it was hard to believe it doesn’t collapse under its own weight.
But it was a tip from a fellow hiker that led us to the most memorable arch of them all, the one that has become an icon for the entire state of Utah, and the one that left the greatest impression of all: Delicate Arch.
The Hiking Jewel of Utah: Delicate Arch
I will never forget my first view of Delicate Arch: after an hour long hike and a gradual climb of 500 or so feet, the wide trail narrowed until it was a much smaller and smoother rock ledge about 200 yards long that looked like it had been carved into the side of the rock face.
Rounding the last cliff edge, the vista opened up to our right and we saw why this place takes your breath away… standing like a sentinel on the far rim of a wide, smooth ‘bowl’ of red slickrock stood Delicate Arch. The low rays of a setting sun were beginning to light up this stone giant in brilliant reds and golds, giving its massive arch the appearance of a portal to another world. There was something magical, even spiritual, about this incredible sculpture carved by the forces of wind and rain – and we knew we had to stand under its mass just to feel like we were (literally) under its spell.
After feeling the immensity of the arch up close, we walked back to the distant rim for a wider perspective, pulled out the bottle of wine we had carried with us the entire way, and, wineglass in hand, toasted the changing colours of the landscape as the sun sank below the horizon. Even though there were a few dozen other people scattered around the site, the mood was quiet and respectful, as if everyone recognized the power of this place, and chose to just sit, admiring the colours and enjoying the moment.
When it comes to ‘communing with nature’, it doesn’t get much better than this.
TIP #1: If you are climbing to Delicate Arch for sunset, your return hike will be in the dark, so remember to bring a flashlight to help illuminate the path. Although it isn’t particularly steep, it’s a good idea to see where you’re walking on the way down.