Moab: Home to Arches, Canyonlands, and Westworld

When I chose Moab, Utah as our weekend destination after a work trip to Las Vegas, I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I knew that Moab was home to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, that it was a larger town than Springdale, Utah (the gateway to last year’s destination, Zion), and that January was definitely Moab’s off season.

It wasn’t until after I settled on Moab that I realized I could run a race while I was there AND that the valleys, canyons, and vistas surrounding Moab were where HBO’s Westworld was filmed.  Running races and Westworld are two of my favorite things, so I was pretty sure that I was going to LOVE Moab!

Here’s our Moab trip in map form. Click here to view a larger map and click on a waypoint to view a photo.

After I finished the Arches Ultra 9K on Saturday morning, Matt and I began exploring Moab. We drove along the Colorado River on Route 128, admiring the steep cliffs and bright blue water. For Westworld fans, this road is the “track” that the train takes to enter the park. There are no actual train tracks here, so they built a train car on the back of a flatbed truck and drove up and down Route 128 during filming. Matt and I listened to Westworld’s theme song on repeat during this section of the drive.

We soon came upon Castle Valley and Fisher Towers, two more show locations. We spent the afternoon hiking around Fisher Towers, then drove through Castle Valley before retracing our route back towards Moab and then north towards Canyonlands. We watched the sun set as we drove towards Canyonlands’ “Island in the Sky” mesa, then turned around and headed back to town for the night.

On Sunday morning we woke up early and drove for 45 minutes in the dark back up to the Island in the Sky. We paid $15 at an unmanned kiosk to enter Dead Horse Point State Park, then made our way to the Dead Horse Point viewpoint to watch the sun rise.  It was cold (25°F), quiet and beautiful. We looked out over rugged red cliffs and canyons that stretched as far as we could see and watched the January sun beams slowly illuminate the scene, turning each rock face they reached an intense, fiery red.

We shared this experience with one other couple and three professional photographers who had set up their tripods on a cliff below us.  It was so quiet we could hear the shutters on their cameras clicking as they snapped shot after shot of the amazing view. Once the pros were done we walked down to the same spot and took a few of our own photos. Views don’t get much better than this.

For Westworld fans, Dead Horse Point is a show location that’s featured in Episode 1. Look familiar?

Next we entered Canyonlands National Park and took a quick hike to Mesa Arch… our first arch of the trip! It did not disappoint.  We had Mesa Arch to ourselves and the underside of the arch was glowing in the early morning sun.

We returned to Moab for a quick breakfast (and much needed coffee… I was really dragging after our pre-dawn wake up call!) and then set our sights on Arches National Park. Arches is a fairly small park with a single main road that allows you to get close to many of the major highlights with minimal hiking required.  We hit several of these spots on Sunday, with visits to Balanced Rock, North Window Arch, South Window Arch, Turret Arch, and Double Arch.

Next we embarked on a longer hike to see Utah’s famous Delicate Arch. I was a little worried that this arch might not live up to its hype… how could it possibly compare to our transcendent sunrise from 8 hours earlier??! Matt and I hiked up smooth red rock for a mile and a half and carefully picked our way along an icy trail that was little more than a ledge on the shaded side of a red cliff face. This was the most crowded hike we’d been on so far and I was just starting to get tired of watching people in inappropriate footwear try to navigate the ice when we turned a corner and there it was: DELICATE ARCH.

Delicate Arch was breathtaking. The scale of it is hard to describe. It looks small at first, but then it dawns on you that the little speck at its base is a person and you realize how big it is, and how stately and alone it is, just standing there, rising up out of the red stone and framing a gorgeous range of snow-capped mountains off in the distance. All of the other hikers around us were clearly hit with the same emotion, and we all just sat down with our backs against a warm rock wall, murmuring quietly amongst ourselves and staring at Delicate Arch in the afternoon sun.

Matt and I stayed at Delicate Arch for close to an hour before heading back down the mountain. Delicate Arch totally rivaled Dead Horse Point’s sunrise views and I would strongly recommend both spots to any future Moab visitor.

Monday was our last day in Moab and we had a long list of arches that we still wanted to see. Matt and I got on the road in the dark once again, this time heading to the Devil’s Garden section of Arches NP. Devil’s Garden is home to a staggering number of arches and other crazy rock formations, including Landscape Arch, the longest natural arch in the world.

We hiked on the snow-covered trail in the dark and arrived at Landscape Arch just before sunrise. There were no other people in sight, just us and the long, unbelievably thin arch. We watched the sun hit the arch, turning it a bright golden yellow, and took tons of photos. Then we left Landscape Arch behind and set out on the “primitive trail” to see more of Devil’s Garden.

The primitive trail was barely a trail in most places. It was good that the sun was up by this point, because we had to climb and scramble up, over and across rock fins and ridges to get to the next few arches on our list. In one area we had to walk along an exposed rock spine with drop offs on either side and a steady, strong cross wind… so powerful that when I took my glove off to take a photo and I had trouble putting it back on because it was blowing straight sideways.  Luckily my earwarmer headband was holding my precious Arches Ultra cap securely on my head!!

While in Devil’s Garden Matt and I saw Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, and Double O Arch, then returned back by Landscape Arch to visit Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. There was one other couple out on the primitive trail but we otherwise had this sunrise hike to ourselves.

Next we took a few short hikes to Skyline Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch (all “private” viewing again… January is definitely the time to visit Arches!!) and then we wrapped up our long morning of hiking with a trek down “Park Avenue,” a canyon lined with towering rock monoliths that reminded early visitors of a skyscraper-lined street in Manhattan.

We returned to Moab for lunch at the Moab Brewery. By this point Matt and I estimated that we had hiked close to 10 miles but we weren’t done yet. After lunch we made a quick stop at the nearby Matheson Wetlands Preserve, a natural wetlands area on the Colorado River. The preserve was underwhelming, with little wildlife out on a chilly January day, but it was a quiet place to digest our beer and burgers before our final hike of the trip.

To get to our last hiking destination we had to drive along Route 279 (aka Potash Road), a scenic road sandwiched between the Colorado River and sheer red cliffs. The cliffs are home to “Wall Street,” a popular rock climbing area, as well as several great examples of historic Indian rock art. We stopped to see the petroglyphs before continuing on to the Corona Arch trailhead.

The Corona Arch parking lot was almost empty, and we passed the afternoon’s only other hikers on their way back to their car less than a mile into our hike. Excited to have one more arch all to ourselves, Matt and I pressed on, climbing up and up into a wide bowl-like formation with steep drop offs to our right. We scaled a ladder bolted to the rock and trekked up stone steps carved into the rock.

Finally the massive Corona Arch came into view. Once again, we had a private viewing of the breathtaking arch, and we spent a while soaking in the view and utter silence around us. Just as we were about to head back to the car the nearly full moon (the super blue blood moon) rose up and over the arch. Perfect.

And just like that, our whirlwind weekend in Moab was over. We were on the road by 4:14AM the next morning and back in Philadelphia nine hours later.

In three days we hiked to sixteen arches, visited two National Parks, saw magnificent views of the Colorado River, and were outside (or in the car) for every sunrise and sunset. Best of all, we experienced all of this with no crowds and, in most cases, with these iconic landmarks all to ourselves. Moab in January definitely did not disappoint!

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I ran an Ultra! OK, not really, but it WAS a Trail Race in Utah.

Every January Matt and I have a work trip in Las Vegas. After work ends on Friday, we take a long weekend adventure to somewhere within driving distance, like Zion, Sedona, or Temecula. This year’s destination? Moab, Utah. I’ll describe Moab in more detail in my next post, but suffice to say that there are some pretty awesome things to do in Moab for anyone who enjoys being outside, being active, and being rewarded with breathtaking landscapes.

I had already decided we were going to Moab and was doing some online research when I came across mention of the “Arches Ultra” trail race that would be taking place the Saturday we’d arrive in town. That’s cool, I thought, there will be lots of runners around. Then I clicked through to the race site and discovered that in addition to the “ultra” race distances of 50 mile, 50K and 13.1 miles, this event would also feature a shorter 9K trail race. That’s only 5.6 miles… I can do that!!

I immediately scrutinized our itinerary to figure out if it was even possible to get to Moab in time for the race’s 10AM start. If we retrieved our rental car in advance, left Las Vegas immediately when work ended at 5PM (pacific time), got dinner on the road, and drove until 11PM (mountain time) Friday night, we could spend the night in Richfield, UT. Then we’d just need to drive 2 1/2 hours on Saturday morning to get to Moab. Totally doable!

Thankfully our long journey northeast went according to plan and Matt and I arrived at the race at 9:20AM. The ultra runners had started their longer races hours earlier (those 50 milers had to finish before dark!) so the start area was quiet and I had time to take in the sights. A huge cliff rose up out of the desert just to the north. The sky was deep blue and the ground was a beautiful red that reminded me of Sedona. The weather was perfect – low-30s and sunny. What a great day to run a trail race in Utah!

I lined up with 96 other runners at 10AM. I felt a little out of my league as I listened to people around me chatting about how they had come from Colorado and Arizona for this race. I was positive that their western heritage automatically made them much better equipped to run an off-road race at 4600′ elevation, but that was OK. I positioned myself towards the back of the pack and prepared to have a blast running in Utah.

It quickly become clear that I had started way too far back. As soon as I carefully crossed over the cattle guard near the start (that could be a major ankle buster!) I began working my way around the crowd. Finally the field thinned out and I found myself cruising along with another woman. We chatted as we ran and I learned that her name was Kristen and that she was from Arizona. (This is one of the great things about trail races; everyone talks to one another and is so friendly!!)

Shortly after mile 2 the course veered off onto an actual trail (we had been on a paved bike path up until this point) and I let Kristen (the Experienced Westerner!) take the lead. I tucked in behind her as we weaved our way up, down and around hills and rocks. At one point I felt like a slalom skier as the trail switchbacked around the desert. Fun!

After a few twisty miles we were back on the paved trail, making a beeline to the finish. With less than a mile to go, I realized that I had the energy to pick up the pace and I focused on Kristen, who was still within reach ahead of me. Kristen must have had the same thought, because together we BOTH picked up our paces and zoomed towards the finish. It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to catch her, but I kept up my speed, pausing only slightly to one-step over the cattle guard (Matt said I ‘took it well’ compared to some!) before sprinting through the finish chute. Utah trail race complete!

I collected my medal (I had forgotten there were medals!) and awaited the results. Because I had started so far back I had no idea how many runners were ahead of me. Imagine my surprise when the results were posted and I was 10th OVERALL!!! By my count, I was also the 4th woman to cross the line, but later I discovered that the official results show that I was actually 3rd female overall. Cool!!!

Kicking the weekend off with a trail race was a great introduction to Moab. The race was well organized, the other runners (especially Kristen from Arizona!) were super friendly, and there was great race swag. I LOVE my new Arches Ultra trucker hat and I wore it constantly for the remainder of our time in Moab. Apparently many of the other runners felt the same way… I kept bumping into other ‘tourists’ wearing The Hat for the rest of the weekend and it was fun to compare race stories. Granted, everyone I met had raced at least twice as far as I did, but, no worries, I ran an “ultra,” too!

More on our weekend in Moab coming up next!

2018 miles: 176.3