How to find adventure (without the crowds) in Utah
Avoid the masses—but not the epic adventures—at these breathtaking under-the-radar desert landscapes around Moab, Utah.
From Jurassic-era dunes and prehistoric petroglyphs to amber-tinted cliffs and spires, Moab is an adventure traveler’s dream. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this small city in southeast Utah is one of North America’s greatest outdoor recreation hubs and a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Millions of years of erosion by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown sand dunes shaped this region’s 2,400 square miles of sandstone arches, picturesque mountain peaks, Martian-like rock formations, and colorful mesas and canyons.
Mountain bikers, hikers, campers, climbers, paddlers, and off-road drivers arrive in droves to explore this red rock playground in jaw-dropping numbers—more than 3 million visitors annually, a figure that has spiked since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Visits to Arches grew 8.8 percent between 2019 and 2021; visits to Canyonlands—the larger and more remote of the two national parks—increased a whopping 24.2 percent, according to the National Park Service (NPS).
With increased use comes big problems. Overcrowding and overuse of trails, campgrounds, and recreation facilities led Arches to institute a timed entry reservation system between April and October. Other popular national parks have implemented similar measures, encouraging people to come during off-peak times or explore other nearby recreation areas.
“The pandemic has helped Americans rediscover America,” says Katie Stevens, an outdoor recreation planner with the Moab’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office. “People who would normally take a vacation to a European city are now coming to Moab.”
But here’s the good news: NPS manages several other parks, monuments, and historic areas within a day’s drive from Moab, including Aztec Ruins National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. About 94 percent of the land surrounding Moab is public, meaning there are also plenty of lesser-visited state parks and federal recreation areas extending into the Greater Moab region to discover.
For adventurers and nature lovers who want to see more of the great outdoors—and less of each other—here are five expert tips to beat the crowds and explore the elements in Moab this spring.
Get crafty about campsites
Many of the commercial, BLM, and state and federally owned campgrounds demand ample planning time. Campgrounds closer to U.S. Route 191 and Utah Routes 128 and 279 along the Colorado River (“The Riverway”) usually fill up by mid-morning.
Getting one of the 51 campsites at Devils Garden Campground—the only developed campsite in Arches—can be challenging without some pre-trip planning. During the high season (March 1-October 31), sites are reservable up to six months in advance. But from November 1 to February 28, when temperatures are cooler, the campground is first-come, first-served.
(Going camping this summer? Here’s what you need to know.)
For fewer crowds, venture to Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an hour drive south of Moab on Route 191. It has two campgrounds to stage your hiking, biking, and driving adventures—Hatch Point in the north and Windwhistle in the south—which rarely fill up and don’t require reservations. Be sure to stop at one of the park’s visitor centers and ranger stations to get the scoop on current park conditions and for other trail and campground suggestions.
Explore public lands south of Moab
Parks closer to downtown Moab (just five miles from Arches National Park) are usually slammed with eager outdoor enthusiasts, especially during summer months. While spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) still have crowds, they are some of the best times to score prime campsites and experience uncrowded trails, climbing routes, and iconic arches around the city.
“During the busy seasons, visiting Moab can be kind of overwhelming, [but] the public lands around Moab offer remarkable remote experiences,” Steven says.
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With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point State Park, a 40-minute drive south of Moab, is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country. The park, named for an era when cowboys corralled wild mustang herds on the high mesa, is also a terrific first outing for bikers new to the area. The 16-mile Intrepid Trail System offers a variety of single-track loops and slickrock (Moab’s weathered sandstone) sections that allow all ages and abilities to experience incomparable cliff-top and canyon vistas.
Drive further south to Canyon Rims, a 100,000-acre BLM-maintained land between Moab and Monticello, to peer over one of three spectacular overlooks—Anticline, Minor, and Needles. Each offers unique views of Canyonlands’ Islands in the Sky and Needles Districts and Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin sections. These sites are comparable to those seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon but without the shoulder-to-shoulder visitor experience.
Bike away from the crowds
With its seven new non-motorized trails, updated signage, and fresh markings on existing trails, plus stunning views of the Salt Valley and Arches National Park, Klondike Bluffs should be on every biker’s list. Just a 30-minute drive north of Moab, this 58-mile single-track trail on dirt and slickrock includes 26 named paths, from beginner to advanced, which can be combined into loops of any length. It’s the first trail that visitors pass on the way to Moab from I-70 in the north, making it the most accessible for cyclists coming from Denver or Salt Lake City.
Further into the park is the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds hiking trail which features several dinosaur trackways and individual dinosaur prints. Paleontologists believe Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia, where a wide range of dinosaur species roamed more than 75 million years ago.
Plan a desert road trip
Recreation areas south of Moab, such as Canyon Rims and Bear Ears National Monument, are usually less crowded due to fewer developed trail systems. Take a scenic drive through Utah’s vibrant vermillion canyons, over plateaus of mesas and buttes, and around the region’s open plains of grass and shrubland. In Canyon Rims, travelers may spot pronghorn antelope near Hatch Point and can cruise to remote overlooks with breathtaking views of Canyonlands and the Colorado River.
(Road trip through Utah’s otherworldly landscapes.)
Rather than endure the hours-long wait to see Delicate Arch in Arches, drive an hour south of Moab to reach Bear Ears’ Indian Creek Scenic Byway. This 40-mile-long route takes travelers through flat-top buttes and colossal sandstone towers. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world.
Hike in solitude
A hike around Moab’s natural spaces reveals deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Summer brings high temperatures and midday crowds around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. To get around that, experienced adventurers plan their hikes and bike rides in the morning and evening, which also brings the best sunlight for photography. To help photographers, the National Park Service has created a table of the park’s notable landscape features and the best time to photograph them.
For a quieter trek outside the national parks, head three miles from the Hatch Point campground in Canyon Rims to Trough Springs Canyon trail a relatively easy five-mile roundtrip hike. It starts at the top of the plateau and descends 2.5 miles into the canyon, where a creek flows year-round. The path continues through the waterway’s riparian zone, riddled with tamarisk, cottonwoods, and willow. Follow the stream into the larger Kane Creek Canyon, where a popular but difficult 4x4 off-road trail of the same name invites adventurers to explore.
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Downstream, where Kane Creek approaches the Colorado River, travelers find several ancient rock art sites, including Moonflower Canyon Panel, Elephant Panel, and False Kiva. The drawings resembling bighorn sheep and hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes tell the story of the nomadic Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi), who briefly farmed and built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—around the region. Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near surviving granaries, but visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.