By far the largest town in southeastern Utah, Moab (population 5,150, elevation 4,025 feet) makes an excellent base for exploring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and the surrounding canyon country. Moab is near the Colorado River in a green valley enclosed by high red sandstone cliffs. The biblical Moab was a kingdom at the edge of Zion, and early settlers must have felt themselves at the edge of their world too, being so isolated from Salt Lake City—the Mormon version of Zion. Moab’s existence on the fringe of Mormon culture and the sizable young non-Mormon population give the town a unique character.

Downtown Moab, Utah. Photo © W.C. McRae.

Downtown Moab, Utah. Photo © W.C. McRae.

Moab’s first boom came during the 1950s, when vast deposits of uranium, important fuel for the atomic age, were discovered. By the 1970s the uranium mines were largely abandoned, but all the rough roads that had been built to access the mines set the stage for exploration with jeeps, ATVs, and mountain bikes. Another legacy of the uranium boom can be seen along the highway at the north end of town, where the area around the Colorado River bridge is the site of a massive environmental cleanup, slated to take years to complete.

In recent years Moab has become nearly synonymous with mountain biking. The slickrock canyon country seems made for exploration by bike, and people come from all over the world to pedal the backcountry. River trips on the Colorado River are nearly as popular, and a host of other outdoor recreational diversions—from horseback riding to 4WD jeep exploring to hot-air ballooning—combine to make Moab one of the most popular destinations in Utah.

As Moab’s popularity has grown, so have concerns that the town and the surrounding countryside are simply getting loved to death. On a busy day, hundreds of mountain bikers form queues to negotiate the trickier sections of the famed Slickrock Trail, and more than 20,000 people crowd into town on busy weekends to bike, hike, float, and party. As noted in an article in Details magazine, “Moab is pretty much the Fort Lauderdale of the intermountain West.” Whether this old Mormon town and the delicate desert environment can endure such an onslaught of popularity is a question of increasing concern.

The Slickrock Bike Trail east of Moab. Photo © W.C. McRae.

The Slickrock Bike Trail east of Moab. Photo © W.C. McRae.

Planning Your Time

While many people come to Moab because of what it’s near, there’s certainly enough to do in the town to justify adding an extra day to a park-focused itinerary just for exploring Moab and environs. It’s easy to spend a few hours lounging by the hotel pool or shopping for books, crafts, and gifts, and the quality of the food and locally brewed beer has its own appeal, particularly after several days of hiking or driving the Utah outback.

Moab is also central for expeditions into the less regulated red-rock canyon country not included in the national parks. Take a break from exploring the parks themselves and devote a day to nonpark adventures, such as jet-boat tours on the Colorado River, horseback rides in Castle Valley, ATV tours into the backcountry, hikes with your dog, or even tasting local vintages.

Moab is the most hospitable town in this part of Utah, so don’t blow right through. Take time to stop and enjoy its quirky charms. However, be forewarned that the adrenaline (or is it testosterone?) level reaches a fever pitch here during spring break, so don’t plan a quiet weekend in Moab anytime around Easter.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.