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Escape to the Remarkable, Exotic Landscape of Southeastern Utah

In southeastern Utah, four hours drive from Salt Lake City International Airport, visitors can experience a landscape unique in the United States. 

The vast, flat expanse of the Colorado Plateau is disrupted by massive rock formations that look like the play toys of a giant's child. The story of that formation is a magical tale of earth forces in collision with one another.

The National Parks and Moab in Southeastern Utah
To reach Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park--recently made more famous because the movie 127 Hours detailed the harrowing adventure of Aron Ralston--drive south on Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City and continue south-east on Highway 6 at Spanish Fork.

The highway passes through a flat and seemingly barren landscape, dotted with sagebrush and cheet grass. Nearby, there are plenty of majestic mountains in the area like 10,443 feet tall Monument Peak and its twin Mount Bartles, but they are too far away from the highway to make an impact. 

A travelers tip: because radio reception is spotty, bring your iPod so you can listen to favorite albums and catch up on podcasts. Or play games like "Would you rather be?" or "Stump the Chump."

Just north of Helper, U.S. Route 191 joins up with Highway 6. At the half-way point near Price you'll drive through the small town of Wellington, a good place to refuel and pick up snacks. A word of caution, Wellington is well-known to travelers as a town that loves to issue traffic tickets, so observe the speed limit.

Remember when traveling in the western United States, landscape that appears uninteresting might be worth a second look. For instance, from the highway between Price and Woodside, the valley floor appears barren, but locals know that the Price River to the west is a beautiful, navigable waterway, ideal for kayaking as the river fills with snow melt. This is landscape that needs to be explored off the beaten path.

At Crescent Junction, continue on U.S. Route 191 south. Now the vast expanse of the desert plateau is overtaken by a jumble of odd and massive natural formations that have made the area famous for generations. Giant sandstone "fins," hundreds of feet tall and sometimes miles in length, press close to the road, threatening in places to overwhelm the highway itself with crumbling shards.

Early explorers who traveled the area found the landscape frightening and awe inspiring.  Here in the desert expanse, massive outcroppings, battleship-sized rock formations seem to have been thrust up out of the ground and left stranded for no apparent reason.
In an area of such stark, natural beauty, it is difficult to say what is more awesome. The fins, spires, bridges, domes, red rock mesas and plateaus stretching for miles, or the rock towers, standing tall against the blue Utah sky, looking as if sculpted by a master stone mason.

Certainly the most popular of all the rock formations are the over 2,000 arches found in Arches National Park. Some are no larger than a few feet across. Others, like Landscape Arch have a 290 foot span.

To create arches, strong winds picked away at weak sandstone rock. The erosion process continues today.  Look carefully to see new arches being formed by fierce winds that batter the fragile sandstone. Small concave indentations appear in the stone, the winds searching out vulnerable parts until, in time, they punch through to the other side, leaving behind the beginning of an arch.

All landscapes tell the story of violent clashes between earth, water, wind and fire. In more verdant areas, plant life hides these relentless processes. But, here, in these mostly barren expanses, the earth's ruthless vitality is in full view.

While some rock formations are close to the highway, many of the best are off the beaten path.

One of the great pleasures of the area is hiking.  To see the world-famous Delicate Arch up close requires an hour and a half hike on a carins-marked trail traversing from the desert floor up into the foothills. Steep in some sections, overall the trail is only moderately difficult. Come early in the morning before the tour buses, crowded with tourists, arrive so you can have the Arch all to yourself. 

Remember that you are walking at 4,000 feet. Make sure to bring a hat, lip balm, sunscreen and lots of bottled water, because it is easy to become dehydrated. Dress in layers, so you can react to the heat of the day.

To the south of the Visitor's Center at Arches National Park, Route 279 leads west to Dead Horse Point State Park. Behind the picturesque name is a sad story. A herd of horses were corralled on a promontory overlooking a deep valley created by the Colorado River. For reasons unknown, the horses' owners never returned. With no water or food, the forgotten horses did not survive except in the name they gave this magnificent vantage point.

When you are hiking, be on the lookout for petroglyphs and pictographs, drawings on rocks left by the ancient inhabitants. There are many sites where the rock art can be enjoyed, but two locations of note are Newspaper Rock off Highway 211 on the road to The Needles and on the trail to Delicate Arch just above the visitors' parking lot.

Route 128, called the "river road" by locals and known officially as the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway, follows the Colorado River to the north and passes Fisher Towers, a favorite of rock climbers.

A few miles south of Route 128 is the only town of any size in the area, Moab (population 2000).

In town, at the corner of Main and Center Street, the Moab Information Center has dozens of helpful, free brochures, including the excellent "Moab: Where Adventure Begins."  There is also a wealth of information about hiking trails, recreational opportunities, accommodations, restaurants and a calendar of events on the Discover Moab web site.

The area around Moab satisfies in many ways. Visitors looking for extreme adventure sports will find them, while others, who prefer their recreation enjoyed more leisurely, will also be happy. 

Because summer can be very hot and in winter the cold winds are inhospitable, the optimum time to visit the area is in April, May, September, and October, although most businesses are open ten months out of the year, closing only for the holiday months of December and January.

During the uranium boom in the mid-20th century, Moab was one of the richest cities in the world with more millionaires per capita than anywhere else.  No longer a mining center, the town has found other, more eco-friendly pursuits.

An unintended benefit of the mining boom, hundreds of miles of paved roads make Moab perfect as a jumping off spot to explore the area. There are a great many companies like Moab Adventure Center where visitors can be outfitted for river rafting, ATV rides,  jet boating, Hummer safaris, hot air balloon rides, mountain biking, horseback riding, or jeep rentals.

Guides can be hired to lead group and individual tours. 

Mike Tucker, who led a fun, two hour Hummer safari, took us on a drive that traversed dirt trails, dried up stream beds, and across massive boulders, a path we shared with ATVs, mountain bikes, and jeeps. We passed by Slick Rock Mountain Bicycle Trail, a world-famous, high technical ability trail, where, we were told, a "lot of broken bones" happen.

In some parts of the Hummer safari, the angle of incline was as much as 37 degrees, steep enough to turn our safari into an adventure ride.

The turn-around spot for the trip was a cliff high above the Colorado River. The perfect opportunity for a photograph.

Our tour wasn't just for entertainment, it was educational as well. We learned about cryptobiotic crust, the different types of sandstone, the history of uranium mining around Moab, and the unique local flora, like the scruffy Utah juniper that survives severe droughts by shedding limbs.

To experience the Green and Colorado Rivers, that have shaped so much of the landscape, there are rides on larger boats and white water rafting tours. Before you settle on white water rafting, check to see that the water level of the river is high enough. Sometimes rafting has to be cancelled because the river is too low.

Even at its lowest level, the Colorado can always be experienced in a flat bottom,  jet boat available from companies like Canyonlands By Night & Day.

As it roars downstream, the jet boat kicks up a roostertail of spray, passing beneath monolithic, sheer cliffs. The tallest at 580 feet, Wall Street is not as high as the Grand Canyon, nonetheless, the shattered, creviced rock formation is impressive.  Passing the rock, invariably someone will yell out, "Oh my god, look!"

You won't see anything at first until you shade your eyes from the sun and then you see them, the climbers dangling from ropes. From your vantage point on the river, they appear to be mere specs on the rock face. The climbers work hard for every inch, hands holding on to crevices and toes searching for foot holds as you sit comfortably in the jet boat, munching on cookies, thick Mexican blankets draped over your legs to keep out the cold.

With affordable accommodations, staying in Moab has advantages. There are many motels, bed and breakfast inns, guest houses, and, for longer stays, apartments and condos. Catering to tourists, dozens of restaurants offer casual dining fare, hamburgers, pizza, and Mexican food.

Locals have their favorites and happily recommend the intimate, Jailhouse Cafeopen only for breakfast, Eklectica Cafe with homemade soups, sandwiches, pastries, and second hand collectables, Singha Authentic Thai Cuisine serving spicy chicken larb and fat noodles with broccoli, funky Wicked Brew, the "Espresso Drive Thru" for excellent coffee, the Love Muffin Cafe with a large selection of breakfast burritos, muffins and sandwiches and, my personal favorite, Milt's Stop & Eat.

Tucked away on a side street in a residential neighborhood, Milt's, opened in 1954, serves classic burgers, cheeseburgers, and chili cheeseburgers, with French fries, onion rings, milk shakes, and malts. Reflecting current tastes, burgers are also available with bacon, green chili, jalapenos, mushrooms, grilled onions or grilled pineapple, and there are veggie burgers as well as grilled cheese and BLT's.

The grill station takes up a third of the cramped interior, with customers jammed together along the counter and perched on the few high tables against the window. The delicious burgers are fat and juicy, topped with a mix of mustard and catsup with pickle slices on a sesame seed bun. The fries are a bit limp, but the onion rings strike a balance between the crispy outside and the sweetly caramelized onion inside.  The strawberry milk shake was perfection.

Shopping in Moab is limited. Most stores support the tourists who come to visit. Besides art galleries, jewelry stores, and half a dozen t-shirt stores, Moab is also home to the Hogan Trading Company which carries a wide variety of hand-crafted work by Southwestern craftspeople and Native American artists from the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi tribes.

Just outside the entrance to the trading company are stairs leading down to Mill Creek Parkway, a hiking and bicycling pathway that cuts through town. Virtually hidden from view, the parkway is Moab's little secret, providing an opportunity for a quiet walk in a sylvan setting.

Locals also frequent MiVida (69 E. Center Street), a resale shop with a good selection of affordable western collectables. A few blocks away at the corner of North Main Street and E. 100 North are Back of Beyond BooksArches Book Company and half a dozen coffee shops within walking distance for those who have tired of active recreation and sight seeing and want some quiet time to read a good book. Moab BARKery (82 Main Street) caters to four-legged tourists in search of doggy treats.

A few miles outside of Moab, Hole n' the Rock, a local oddity, is worth a quick stop to investigate the peculiar obsession of Albert Christensen who decided that burrowing deep into a massive stone hillside, using pick axe and dynamite, was the best way to build a 5,000 square foot house for his family. Guided tours of the home are available for a modest entry fee, as is the petting zoo, but the picnic areas and kid pleasing sculpture garden with dozens of eccentric homemade sculptures are free to all.

On Highway 128, also outside of town, Red Cliffs Lodge sits on a bend of the Colorado River. Like its more luxurious cousin a few miles away, Sorrel Creek Ranch Hotel & Spa Resort, visitors find themselves up close and personal with the landscape.

A dirt road leads down from the highway to Red Cliffs Lodge and the Cowboy Grill restaurant with a deck overlooking the Colorado River. The Lodge has meeting rooms and a film museum, documenting the area's use as a location for dozens of Hollywood movies as varied as John Ford's Rio Grande, Mission Impossible II, and the comedy classic, Galaxy Quest.

Fanning out from the lodge, the guest rooms, solidly built cabins with kitchens and private decks, are located along the river so guests can enjoy a morning coffee with the water only a few feet away. The large property is a working ranch with an enclosed pasture for cattle and horses alongside the cabins. The effect is idyllic--western style--with contented farm animals basking in the sun as they roam the green field at the base of a majestic red rock mesa.

In addition to the lodge and restaurant, Red Cliffs Lodge is home to the Castle Creek Winery. Whether because of the Mormon Church's disapproval of alcoholic beverages or price-point issues, Utah has very few vineyards. Popular with tourists, Castle Creek is one of only a handful of wineries in the state.

Besides hiking, river rafting, and mountain biking, horseback riding is also available. Guided rides begin at the stables, with a dozen riders watched over by two wranglers. The trail climbs up into the foothills overlooking the lodge. The leisurely ride gives ample opportunity to take photographs and enjoy the landscape, with views off the Colorado below.

At the nearby Sorrel Creek Ranch, the attractions are similar but decidedly more sybaritic and expensive. Spa treatments and yoga classes are available, as is a fine dining experience in the River Grill Restaurant which travelers have given mixed reviews because of the inexperienced service staff and high prices. The Ranch sits across the highway from three of the most iconic rock formations just outside of Moab: the Castleton Tower, Rectory, and Priest and Nuns.  Taking advantage of the location, guests can sit in comfortable lawn chairs and contemplate these natural wonders, a glass of Merlot in hand.

All in all, the area around Moab offers memorable experiences for many different tastes.


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