A Van Lifers Guide to Moab, Utah
Throughout our childhoods, both Kalem and I went to Moab for summer vacation, fall break, and weekends in between. We still love running around on the red rock formations that stretch in every direction from the town and come in every shape and size, as much of a playground for adults as for kids. Planning a trip to Moab can be overwhelming as the options of notable places to visit and explore is a laundry list.
Because Moab sits right in the middle of so many amazing places, including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, I’d recommend planning to use Moab as a base camp for your adventures, coming back to the town at night before heading somewhere new the next day.
While this is not a completely comprehensive guide to everything one can do in Moab (there is just so much!), it is a roundup of our favorite places. We hope that it helps you in your personal explorations.
Kalem and I traveled to Moab three times in the summer right after we started dating, and coming back brings all the little butterflies of new romance as I fall in love with Kalem and southeastern Utah over and over again. We aren’t alone in our love of the region, and ever since we both began visiting Moab with our families fifteen years ago the town has dramatically grown. As much as I’m repeatedly surprised by the stark, beautiful red rock and larger than life snowy La Sal mountains, I’m surprised by the development of more hotels, restaurants, parking lots, and infrastructure to accommodate the growing outdoor tourism economy. Now more than ever, it is important to recreate responsibly, following Leave No Trace principles and respecting the plants, animals, and people that call Moab and the surrounding country home. It is important to note that for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers in the region in 1776, Moab was home to the nomadic Native American Pueblo, Navajo, and Ute tribes. The tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Navajo Nation, still live in the surrounding regions today, pushed out of Moab by settlers in the mid-nineteenth century.
Where To Stay (For Free!)
There are many reasons why Moab is a #vanlife dream destination. One of which is a well-developed network of campgrounds and places to stay. We usually stay off Willow Springs Road (BLM 378), which is dispersed-style BLM camping. This means that one must responsibly pack in and pack out everything, including waste and water. It is conveniently located 10 minutes from town and the entrance to Arches National Park. There are literally hundreds of places to park a rig of any size, and even on crowded weekends, you can find a decent spot to sleep. Choose to sleep near the turnoff from Highway 70 if you want cell service, or farther back on the road if you want a little more peace and quiet.
Head north out of town and turn right onto Highway 128. About a mile up you’ll see Matrimony Spring on your right. This is a natural spring, the water that flows here comes from the La Sal Mountains 20 miles away and gets purified as it trickles down through the Navajo sandstone. At some point, a little metal funnel was installed that makes it easy to fill up water bottles and jugs with water. The water is cool on a hot day and feels extremely soft and silky. Locals say that those who drink from the spring are then “married to Moab and destined to return.”
Moab has many places where you can catch a shower if you’ve gotten too dirty for a quick rinse off in the Colorado River. Check out a comprehensive list of businesses offering public showers by following this link:
One could spend a lifetime exploring the trails that surround Moab, from the far reaches of Canyonlands to the labyrinth of the Fiery Furnace in Arches and everything in between. Here are a couple of classics and our favorites. Remember that no matter how long the trail is to take plenty of water and follow any trail markers or cairns, as on the slick rock it is sometimes easy to get off track.
When you think of Utah, an image of Delicate Arch might be what pops into your head. The recognizable, iconic Utah landmark is the destination on an easy-to-moderate, 3-mile out-and-back trail in Arches National Park. Along the way, you’ll also pass some Ute petroglyphs and the historic Wolfe Ranch cabin. The climb of 480 feet is sustained along with a slanted, rock slab that can feel difficult in the desert heat if not properly prepared. This trail is crowded on any given day of the year, so I recommend going early to beat the heat and the crowds.
Corona and Bowtie Arch
Corona Arch has gotten a lot of notoriety in recent years due to influencers like DevinSuperTramp who have swung from its top. It is located down a 2.5 mile, easy out and back trail off Potash Road, which is great for any hiker, but especially those with kids or not much experience. Even with its recent fame, this trail was a lot less crowded than others if you’re looking to escape crowds, probably due to the fact that it is located outside of the National Parks, but it isn’t more than twenty minutes from town! The trail is well marked and has a relatively gradual climb to the arch, complete with some steps carved into the stone and a small ladder to scale up, which offer some excitement but are completely doable. If you’re looking to take pictures, I’d recommend coming late in the afternoon for some prime lighting!
Druid Arch Trail
This is a harder hike located in Canyonlands National Park, which is one of Utah’s more remote National Parks. Even amongst a landscape scattered with thousands of arches, Druid Arch is unique. Its shape lends your imagination to wonder what mystical forces created the elegant, elongated openings. Due to the length of the trail (10.4 miles) and the extreme weather of summer in the desert, with temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees, I’d recommend doing this hike only in the spring or fall. I’d also recommend you get an early start and you should be carrying plenty of water (I went through about 3 liters, conservatively drinking). The last 1.5-mile climb to the arch requires scrambling, which isn’t for everyone. However, as previously mentioned, the destination is almost magical and worth every step.
Located just a couple of miles past Matrimony Spring on Highway 128, Grandstaff Trail a great hike on a hot day. The trail follows a stream along the canyon flow the entire length, which provides some cool relief from the hot beating sun. Its terminus is Morning Glory Natural Bridge, which is the sixth-largest natural rock span in the United States. For experienced canyoners, look into rappelling off the bridge. To do so, you’ll access the bridge from Sand Flats Recreation Area instead of Grandstaff Trail. Information about the rappel can be found here: https://www.roadtripryan.com/go/t/utah/moab/medieval-chamber
Fisher Towers Trail
Also located off of Highway 128, this trail is farther from town than the others, but worth the drive and escape from the crowds closer to town. At the trailhead, you’ll find five, first come first serve tent sites if you’re looking for a place to crash. The trail is an easy, flat, out-and-back jaunt with sites all along the way. You’ll often see climbers scaling the towers along your way, and we’ve included an accessible and popular climb in Fisher Towers below (see Ancient Art). In the summer, the trail has little shade, so make sure to bring sun protection and plenty of water. About a mile and a half from the trailhead you’ll reach a viewpoint of a 900-foot soaring tower before continuing for a little less than a mile to an overlook.
Moab is a climbing mecca. We’ve listed some classic Moab climbs below, but please proceed at your own risk and take all safety precautions. I’d recommend at bare minimum looking up each climb on Mountain Project before attempting to read more about the protection needed to safely complete the route. Wall Street is a great place to begin, as it is usually busy with other climbers that can give you the “beta” on a climb.
Just ten minutes outside of town on Potash Road, Wall Street is a must! Mountain Project describes the crag as “Navajo sandstone with roadside (shoulder of the highway) belaying”, so be careful as cars might zip past. However, this is part of the fun, as you can sit and chill while others are on the wall. My favorite activity is to pull out the camp stove and make a meal or snack in the downtime around the climbing.
There are hundreds of climbs, ranging from 5.4 top ropes to 5.12 mixed sport and trad. The wall gets sun in the morning, so I’d recommend going in the morning on colder winter days, and in the afternoon when it's shady in the summer. Some of our favorite routes include Brown Banana and Banana Peel, 30 Seconds Over Potash, Skeletonic, Lacto Mangulation, and Top 40.
Located in Arches National Park this is one of the most accessible desert pillars you can climb. Please know that the pillar is located just off an overlook parking area and as you’ll climb you will definitely grow an audience. It’s a 5.8, fairly well-protected trad route off of the side that faces the road. As the route is in a national park, it is important to not use white chalk. We found the route doable without any chalk. Once to the anchors at the top, there is a short (5.4 grade?) scramble that could be protected by two pitons to the summit of the pillar.
Ancient Art is a complicated rock formation, with the Stolen Chimney being the most popular route, a spiry corkscrew summit that is more well protected than some of the others. While we have yet to do this route ourselves, it is on the top of our list and we plan to do it the next time we’re in the area.
Navajo Rocks Chaco Loop Trail
In reading about this trail I came across another biker who commented “a good amount of everything, not too technical but not easy.” I think that summed up the trail well. It’s great for a first day warm-up in Moab, where even experienced bikers have to reorient themselves to the sandstone, which despite the name of the Slickrock Trail below, is extremely grippy, make seemingly impossible climbs and descents doable. This whole trail system is very well marked, with each trail assigned a color on the maps posted along the trail, and dashed marks that match the color on the map painted on the rock of the trail as you ride. We rode the 10-mile loop that includes Rocky Tops and Ramblin’, connected by Middle Earth, but the 17.5-mile loop that also adds in Big Lonely and Big Mesa is great if you have the time. I loved the flowy sections of trail found on Ramblin’. Again, this was a great warm-up before hitting trails like Slickrock and the Whole Enchilada that kick it up a notch in terms of technicality and length.
The Slickrock Trail is one of the most popular mountain biking trails in the world. It takes us about 3 hours to do the loop, and we’ve found that it’s much less crowded later in the afternoon, so I’d recommend doing it in the last 3-hour window of sunlight of the day in order to feel like you have the trail to yourself. If this is your first time, do the 2-mile practice loop before heading off on the trail. While the practice loop is just as technical as the rest of the trail, it leaves you closer to the trailhead in case you decide the whole loop isn’t going to happen that day.
The trail is heavily trafficked and flows through a fragile and delicate ecosystem. To protect this environment (and not get lost), follow the white dashed lines along the slick rock. The trail is a never-ending series of climbs and descents, some of which are so steep they wouldn’t be rideable if they weren’t the incredibly tractional slick rock.
There are a couple of optional spurs off the trail to viewpoints. Each is only a short jaunt away from the trail and I’d recommend taking them to complete the experience and provide some opportunities for photos.
Whole Enchilada Trail
Depending on what time of year you’re visiting, you might not be able to ride the trail from Burro Pass at the top, which at over 11,000 feet, is cold even in the heat of the summer, so dress appropriately! Shuttles can be booked through any bike shop in town and will take you to the highest rideable point. For the best chance of riding the whole trail, aim for coming between July and September. The “Whole Enchilada” name refers to the fact that it gives you a glimpse, or a little more, into every type of riding that Moab has to offer, starting up above the tree line in the alpine and ending on the Navajo sandstone above the Colorado River. While the trail is almost all downhill there are some hard ascents and lots of technical descents. Do not consider this an easy ride. The top especially has some technical switchbacks and rocky portions that may have you walking. Make sure to start early, as from the shuttle drop off you have 35-miles back to town. For a shorter option, start at Upper Porcupine Rim, as Upper Porcupine Rim and Lower Porcupine Rim are the most enjoyable sections. If you have access to two vehicles and want to shuttle yourself, park a car across from Grandstaff Trail (mentioned above) at the Porcupine Rim Parking and drive to the top at Geyser Pass.
The name of the Jailhouse comes from the fact that the building was once used as the Moab jail. They are only open for breakfast but do it well! I’d recommend the ginger pancakes and soul food bacon. While crowded on weekends, the service has always been surprisingly fast. If you are looking for a hearty fill-up before a day of exploring, I’d stop here.
After you’ve gotten off the trail or the wall and are ready to collapse from exhaustion, use the last of your energy to come to Milt’s. Milt’s is Moab’s oldest restaurant and features grass-fed hormone-free beef burgers, homemade ice cream, and old-fashioned malts. They have a small counter that makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time forty years inside, and a larger patio area outside to enjoy your food. Because it is a casual burger shack, don’t feel guilty about showing up after you’ve run around and gotten dirty all day.
Doughbird is a relatively new arrival to the Moab food scene. It serves a unique combination of coffee and drinks, donuts, and chicken. We were looking for an indulgent treat one morning and tried a selection of their donuts, including their old fashioned, cronut, apple cider, classic, and filled. As I was writing this Kalem commented AGAIN about how good they were. I enjoyed their dense, even texture, completely unlike a Krispy Kreme! We’d love to go back and try the chicken!
Moab Kitchen is a 100% vegan food establishment, but the food is loved by all people regardless of dietary preference. The menu changes on a seasonal basis, but you can’t go wrong with options like bowls, tacos, sammies, and soups. I’d also highly recommend finishing your meal with a nice cream sandwich if they’re available. They are open for both lunch and dinner AND will put your food in your own container if you’re low waste or want to take your food to-go.