Moab, “a city where no city should be” and Arches National Park

Moab is an interesting place. Some call it the mountain bike capital of the world. For others, off-roading is the name of the game. Climbers and canyoneers, too, love to explore the red rock landforms. Many events take place in Moab: Easter weekend hosts Jeep Safari. The fascinating hippy/slacklining/base jumping festival (GGBY “Gobble, Gobble, Bitches, Yea”) takes place Thanksgiving weekend. And let’s not forget that Arches National Park, which draws over 1.5 million visitors each year, is located just north of Moab. The diverse groups that Moab draws result in a culture-rich town which is always teeming with people.

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“Delicate Arch” – Arches National Park

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“Navajo Arch” – Arches National Park

I wonder what author Edward Abbey would think of Moab today. Abbey was a park ranger at Arches National Park in 1956-57. He later wrote a book about his experience called “Desert Solitaire”. Abbey appreciated the solitude that the desert had to offer, which he attributes to the perfect amount of water.

“There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” -Edward Abbey

True, Moab remains a relatively small town (just over 5,000), but it doesn’t stop hordes of people from visiting this fascinating place. Of course, Abbey predicted the arrival of the masses after, in 1957, the planning of a paved road through the park commenced. If not for said road, Abbey likely would have remained a seasonal ranger at Arches for years to come. As it was, he got out before the masses arrived. So what remains of the desolate Arches that Abbey knew? It took us awhile, but we did eventually find our own solitude.

A few days before arriving in Moab, I learned that my cousin, who is a pilot, was stationed there for work. On our night of arrival, we met up with him and chatted for a while. He offered to take us on a flight above the land of red dirt (which he deemed an unsatisfactory pigment: “dirt should be brown!”). After parting ways, we found a free place to camp at the top of a road leading through the Sand Flats Recreation Area and into the national forest. In the morning, while driving back down the long road, we saw lines of off-roaders waiting to proceed along the jeep trails. We then headed into Arches National Park. After a quick stop in the visitor center, we began driving up the paved road to bring us to a trailhead. We should have known better not to attempt to visit the park on a Saturday. The amount of people and cars crowding the road in just the first mile convinced us that today was not a day to hike. Perhaps today was a day to fly.

To our delight, my cousin’s afternoon schedule was free. Before long, we were zooming along the runway! He flew toward Canyonlands. It was amazing to view the meandering path of the Colorado from above. We also took in views of the Rocky Mountains, and on the way back to Moab, we flew over Arches.  I was so thankful to be viewing Arches from an alternative route on this busy day.

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Airplane view of Colorado River – Utah

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Airplane view of Arches National Park – Utah

The next day, not wanting to attempt Arches on yet another weekend day, we headed to the Brand Trails to try our luck at mountain biking. We started out on a pleasant easy route, but soon headed to an intermediate slickrock trail called Circle-O. Never have I biked on anything more terrifying than slickrock. Our bikes jarred and jolted against dips and grooves in the slickrock, its coarse surface constantly intimidating me as I imagined falling upon it tremendously, my face sliding painfully against it. In the end, neither of us fell.  We didn’t take that many risks, often coming to dead stops and walking certain sections.

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Circle-O (photo credit S. FunBus)

Still, we attempted some challenges, and by the end, my adrenaline had me excited for more. The next intermediate trail we tried was Sidewinder. This trail was red dirt, not slickrock. I felt a little more brave on this trail, but when the trail suddenly descended quickly down a steep hill, I skidded slightly and ended up scraping my arm against a rock. At least it wasn’t my face. When we decided we were done biking for the day, we cooked dinner in the parking lot, then headed to Moab Brewery. In our world, it is an unspoken rule that mountain biking is always followed by beer.

On Monday, we finally entered Arches National Park, proceeding to the end of the road to hike along the northernmost trail and see a number of arches. Despite being a Monday, the trailhead was crowded. This trail has the option of hiking a loop, but half of the loop is “primitive”. Being primitive gals, we gladly took this less beaten path. We only saw a couple other hikers along this section, and we enjoyed scrambling up slickrock between gorgeous rock fins.

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“Private Arch” Along the Primitive Trail – Arches National Park

The second half of the hike was crowded, but it was well worth seeing Double O Arch, Navajo Arch, and Landscape Arch. After viewing Double O Arch, we accidently took the wrong trail to continue on. A happy accident; we ended up finding a neat rock wall with many Oobee-sized pockets.

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Oobee in a pocket – Arches National Park

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“Landscape Arch” – Arches National Park

That night, we, along with a crowd of others, watched the sun set behind the enormous Delicate Arch.

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Sun setting behind “Delicate Arch” – Arches National Park

On Tuesday we began our journey into the backcountry. To minimize impact, Arches allows backpacking only in a few designated areas of the park. At the time we were there, the regular campground was closed. This meant that from dusk until dawn, it would just be us and the inhabitants (sheep, ravens, beavers, bears, coyotes, snakes, lizards, scorpions, centipedes, and maybe a few rangers).  We decided to backpack in Lower Courthouse Wash. The only real challenge of our hike in was a point at which we had to cross the wash in a place that appeared be 6 inches deep but ended up almost reaching my waste at some points. I would try to walk on the higher sand bars, but my legs would sink right in. Was this quick sand?

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Lower Courthouse Wash – Arches National Park

After this crossing, we continued along the wash for about a mile when it suddenly dried up. We backtracked to a spot nearby water and set up camp in a beautiful canyon of red rock surrounded by small cacti and cottonwood and juniper trees. The canyon was silent except for the occasional flap of wings, the deep caw of a raven, or my own voice echoing back at me as I shouted my exaltation at finally finding solitude.  I couldn’t help myself: I’ve never heard such an echo!

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Our camp at Courthouse Wash – Arches National Park

We stayed at this site for three nights, and each day we hiked deeper into the dry wash. The first day we went looking for some arches marked on our map, but found only an impressively huge cove in the rock.

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Rock Cove – Lower Courthouse Wash

The dried mud on the floor of the wash made us hungry: thin pieces had curled into shapes reminiscent of the shaved chocolate that tops a French silk pie.

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French Silk Pie – Lower Courthouse Wash

The next day we hiked almost to the end of the wash. In the end, we never saw any arches, except for the small one near our campsite which may have just been a window (an arch is not an arch unless its opening is at least 3 feet wide. Anything smaller is a window). We did, however, see some beautifully marked canyon walls.

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Lower Courthouse Wash – Arches National Park

We stopped close to the end of the wash because of a difficult creek crossing. At this point, having been at the bottom of a canyon for three days, we were feeling the desire to get a nice view. There just so happened to be a canyon wall that was sloped enough to scale. We scrambled up for a view of the park, complete with the road running through the arches.

After our last night in the spectacular canyon, we hiked out and dropped our packs in the FunBus. We then proceeded back to the trail and took a side trail up to the Courthouse Wash pictographs. Unfortunately, the pictographs were grafittied in recent history and, though restored, are now very faint.

There are reasons Moab has become “a city where no city should be”. Mankind has a tendency to want to make every place (particularly every beautiful place) accessible to man. The Moab area has a lot to offer for a wide variety of people.  The desert is not meant to be an oasis for mankind, but for better or for worse, mankind will always find a way to penetrate the unknown.

3 thoughts on “Moab, “a city where no city should be” and Arches National Park

  1. We have that exact tent for light travel. We plan on going there very soon but I think we are trucking the bikes there and venturing on day rides. I know, I know. But we want to take more gear with us than a bike comfortably holds, like WATER!! These are beautiful pics! Thank you for sharing.

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    • Sounds awesome! You do you! Everyone travels in their own way. We actually met a guy outside of arches who has been walking to every national park! (“walk the parks”) His adventure made me feel a little guilty that we’re trucking around in an SUV, but for me, living on the road requires more things than I can carry on my back! Water is heavy! Enjoy your travels and thanks for reading!

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