Set amid a spectacular desert terrain so far from anywhere that Butch Cassidy found it a perfect place to hide out, Moab has become the hot spot for international mountain bikers. Add to that river runners, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, hikers, rock climbers, and adrenaline junkies in general and you’ve explained Moab’s sudden great-outdoors popularity.
Settled by Mormons in 1855 (and named for the biblical town on the Jordan River), Moab became a uranium boomtown when that kind of thing was in vogue, but had gone bust by the 1980s, when ex-miners and the community had the bright idea of affixing big knobby tires to a sturdy bike and taking off into the vast and ruggedly beautiful terrain of nearby Canyonlands and Arches National Parks (think Thelma and Louise and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
Canyonlands, the largest national park in Utah, with entrances 35 miles southwest and 30 miles northwest of Moab, contains hundreds of miles of dirt prospectors’ roads cutting through a surreal, colorful landscape of buttes, mesas, spires, balanced rocks, soaring arches, and deep gorges. Arches National Park, 5 miles northeast of Moab, is a photographer’s paradise, home to more than 2,000 natural arches formed by the elements. Each park contains approximately 20 miles of paved scenic road.
Just outside Moab, the 10-mile Slickrock Trail offers a sadistically challenging rollercoaster ride through a moonscape of eroded sandstone, with rewarding views over the Colorado River below.
Local outfitters organize multiple-day camping trips or arrange for off-road vehicles to follow your biking party for the day, guaranteeing food, relief, unlimited water (particularly important in the brutal desert heat), Band-Aids, and portable showers. Scenic rafting and kayaking are wonderful along Moab’s calm stretch of the Colorado River, and class II and IV rapids are only a day trip away.
Whatever your choice of adventure, book in advance: Moab’s secret has been out since the 1990s, and even the slew of new hotels and B & Bs keep up with the demand for rooms. Return bikers in the know always settle in just off Main Street at the new Gonzo Inn, with its retro 1970s decor.