Guest writer Shaina Maytum sends us another Mountain Dispatch from her recent trip to Moab
All over the high mountain west, outdoor minded people make the semi-annual migration back and forth to the deserts of the American Southwest multiple times every year. In the late winter & early spring months, it’s a way to get a sneak peek at upcoming summer’s warmth, and in the “mud season” of September & October, it’s a way to ease into the transition of the cold winter months just ahead.
When you say you’re “going to the desert,” everyone knows exactly what you mean. It doesn’t matter if you are going to hike or bike or climb or boat, or simply sit in a chair and drink coffee all day with your feet on the sand, “going to the desert” means…
By Shaina Maytum
My friend Liz and I escaped to Moab for three days last weekend, a much-needed diversion from the day-to-day stresses of our teaching lives. This would be Liz’s first time visiting Utah’s red rock canyon country and I was excited to share the experience with her.
Camping, Part 1
Fall had finally arrived to Colorado’s high country and I had Moab, Utah on the mind. In my anxious haste to get west, I neglected to consider that the second weekend in October was the second most popular weekend to visit Moab outside of April’s Easter Jeep Safari.
I’d originally thought to leave mid-day on Saturday, but by the time Liz finally arrived, then having lunch, and then grocery shopping… we were on course to arrive in Moab at 7:00PM. Our delayed start paid us back with a heartbreakingly beautiful sunset cast against the bright red sandstone of the monolithic Fisher Towers and the evergreen crusted La Sal Mountains as we rounded the corner on Scenic Byway 128 (the “River Road”). But our late start also meant that there was, quite literally, not a single place left to camp in all the canyon. We tried all the usual spots and every site along the River Road had a “campground full” sign posted, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) road up past the Onion Creek campsite was closed and every last spot along Potash road was filled with climbers.
I dug around through my college dirtbag memories of emergency Moab campsites until I remembered Moab’s infamous Lazy Lizard Hostel. The LLH is an institution in Moab, and plays host to numerous wandering adventurers all year long. Located at the south end of town behind a sketchy bank of self storage units, I once spent a long and creepy night there. I knew, however, that they had camping. The owner told us over the phone that it was crowded, but that he could certainly make room for us.
By “make room for us” he meant that we could a) pitch our tent on some patchy grass in front of the bathhouse, b) pitch our tent in a fenced-in corner already housing five tents too many, or c) occupy the last parking space in whatever way we wished. We paid our $17 and proceeded to spend Liz’s first night in Moab sleeping in the back of my Acura, beneath the hazy fluorescent light of the storage units next door.
Arches National Park
We were up and out of the LLH by 6:00AM the next morning, stopping at the lovely Love Muffin Cafe for a coffee and breakfast burrito on the way into Arches National Park. I wanted to try to get Liz and I on the ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike, which meant being first in line when the visitor center opened at 8:00. Pro-tip: If you enter the park before 8:00 you don’t have to pay. We cruised through the entrance gate, accidentally passing the visitors center along the way. However, we topped out on the Arches road as the sun first hit the La Sal’s and the far reaches of the National Park in a perfect pinky-purple echo of the sunset the night before. We sat, silent, sipping coffee as the morning light set the desert on fire before our eyes.
I began to get antsy, in a “we must get to the visitors center now!” kind of way, and we went back the way we came, rolling into the parking lot at 7:58. There was already a large crowd of hyper-prepared 50-somethings waiting outside, kitted out with their gaiters, sun hats and trekking poles. When the center opened, I heard them making Fiery Furnace reservations for the next available date, which was the coming Wednesday. Shoot. The permitting system works as follows: Between May 17 and October 1, the hike is offered twice daily, and reservations can be made online up to six months in advance. Between October 1 and October 31, when the seasonal staff has gone and only one hike is offered per day, reservations can be made in person up to seven days in advance. .
We were out of luck for the Fiery Furnace hike, but undaunted, we headed towards the Devils’ Garden Primitive Loop. The Arches website describes the trail as the “longest of the maintained trails in the park, leading to eight awe-inspiring arches. Expect narrow ledges with rocky surface hiking and scrambling on slickrock. Not recommended when rock is wet or snowy.” It is a 7.2 mile loop and “includes all points of interest” and is estimated to take 3 to 5 hours. You can see a map of the Arches trails by clicking here. We headed counterclockwise and by the time we reached the first mile of the trail we were far from the crowds that typically swarm National Parks within the first half mile.
We found the description of Garden Primitive trail to be faithfully accurate. About halfway through the loop, we came upon one of the narrow ledges mentioned online. I climbed up a short ways and came down. Liz looked anxious. For a person who had never climbed around on slickrock and who is notoriously clumsy, this up-and-over proved to be too much.
We turned around, visited as many “points of interest” as we could in the first half of the loop, and felt secure in our decision when a search and rescue team rushed by.
We left the now-crowded park with the singular goal of not “camping” behind the Lazy Lizard for another night.
Camping, Part 2
Many of the standard sites were still full, so we committed to the first open site we found. It was at the Middle Drinks campground on Highway 128, about 10 minutes from Moab. Although there are truly no bad sites on the river road, Middle Drinks 8 is still probably the worst. It is completely exposed and close to the road, there is no river access, and has no vegetation buffer from the sites on either side. Regardless, we were glad to have a place to pitch our tent that night.
What you need to know if you go
Hitting the Town
Eddie McStiff’s brewery is a go-to staple of Moab. They have plenty of beers on tap (although, as is typical for Utah they are all 3.2 ABV) and a standard brewery menu. If you go, you must order the Mexican flourless chocolate cake. This is, unequivocally, one of the most delicious desserts I have ever had: dense fudgy cake topped with caramel and candied cayenne walnuts, served with whipped cream and ice cream. Order one to go so you can eat it again the next day.
The other must-visit is the Back of Beyond bookstore, an infinitely charming and quirky place packed with classic desert reading, old Americana, antique bottle labels and postcards.
The Petroglyphs of Moab
There are two spectacular petroglyph panels a short way up Potash Road on the right-hand side, clearly marked with weathered signs reading “Indian Writing.” The first is better than the second, as it has not yet been covered with graffiti.
Hiking Negro Bill Canyon
Located on Highway 128 three miles east of Highway 191, this canyon hike features a rare spring-fed stream that runs year-round, complemented by hot, but short, stretches of sandstone hiking. It’s an easy two miles, and a great hike for kids. Come prepared to cross the stream several times and be careful to avoid the poison ivy forests along the water. The hike ends at Morning Glory Natural Bridge and the source of the creek.
If you are looking for a slightly shorter drive and back to Colorado, take Highway 191 north out of Moab instead of the more scenic 128 to get back to 1-70. If you have time, I would recommend a short stop at the Sego Canyon petroglyph/pictograph panel outside the mostly abandoned Uranium boom town of Thompson Springs. The panels are right off the road and require little walking. A longer exploration up the road reveals an old cemetery, cabin ruins, and the remains of a general store and a burned out old hotel.