Road Trip: Lost in Southern Utah: Day 1
From Grand Junction Colorado to Moab, Utah and a mountain bike ride up the famous Utah slickrock of Klondike Bluffs into Arches National Park to jawdropping views over Canyonlands National Park
Mountain biking the slickrock of the Klondike Bluffs between Moab and Arches National Park in Utah.
We had landed in Grand Junction, Colorado, an airport so small that, before I even got near the counter of the rental agency through which I’d booked a car, the smiling staffer was waving me over.
“You must be Reid!”
Less than 90 minutes later, we had crossed the state line and our red rental Impala was being chased by feral flocks of tumbleweed into Moab, Utah.
Mountain Biking in Moab, Utah's Outdoors Mecca
This laid-back little city wedged between two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands) thrives on the hotels, outfitters, and guide services that cater to throngs of park visitors, hard-core mountains bikers, Colorado River rafters, and others bent on exploring the great outdoors of Southern Utah.
We checked into Center Street Hotel, an unassuming little inn favored by trail jockeys who don’t mind communal bathrooms or staying in fantastically oddball thematic rooms named Safari, Ancient Roman, and Victorian. Ours was the Miner’s Shack, complete with tin ceiling, weathered clapboard wall, and a fake rock face. *
* Sadly, the Center Street Hotel has finally closed. Its original owners left years ago, and it was managed for a while by the nearby Kokopelli Lodge—one of the better inexpensive choices in downtown Moab. However, in 2006 the Kokopelli itself changed owners and the Center Street didn't come with it.
On my last visit to Maob with some friends, I rented a four-bedroom house for just $120 from the folks at the Lazy Lizard Hostel (www.lazylizardhostel.com/) at the south end of town.
Inspired by the whole macho mountain-biking concept, we booked a ride that would take us over the Klondike Bluffs just north of Moab for a mesa-top panorama of the near-virgin desert that covers the north end of Arches National Park, miles away from the tourist roads of the park’s southern reaches.
Our guide from Rim Tours (www.rimtours.com) was Goose, a lean dude nearing 30 who’d left behind a journalism degree and a full name (Mike Gostlin) nine years ago when he headed West from Ohio to guide rafting trips.
Goose tackled the bluffs on an old steel bike with no shocks and only one gear. Stew and I were saddled atop state-of-the-art mountain bikes with rapid-fire shifting and full suspension.
Not that it helped.
About five minutes into the ride, after the excitement wore off, I suddenly remembered that most of my days are spent sitting at a computer screen 30 feet above sea level. In Utah, somewhere above 4,000 feet, I was gasping for air and pushing jelly legs to haul a bike up what is essentially a 5-1/2 mile-long boulder. All I could think was, Thank God for dinosaur footprints.
These impressions appeared every few yards—the American Southwest is rich in dinosaur fossils—each three-toed imprint surrounded by a circle of stones to keep off bikers and hikers. I dutifully stopped to examine every single one. After the eight or ninth footprint, though, Goose—farther up the slickrock, riding circles around Stew, and cheerfully calling out encouragement—figured out that my sudden keen interest in paleontology was just a ruse for me to double over, suck oxygen, and reign in the wild pounding of my heart.
McDonald's don't have a thing on these American Arches
The ride down was much easier. Having seen the wild side of Arches National Park (www.nps.gov/arch) the hard way, Stew and I then drove through the far more popular southern end of the park, past dozens of signposted parking lots where families piled out of minivans and trotted down short trails to view geological formations with names like Balanced Rock and Double Arch (the one featured in the flashback opening sequence of Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade).
At the Windows—a pair of holes punched through a thin sandstone ridge—we joined a pack of fearless teenagers with gangly arms and laceless sneakers in a scramble up the talus slope of rocks and boulders to scale the sheer, crumbling rock walls up into the lower lip of one of the windows.
By late afternoon, we had sufficiently forgotten the pain of the morning’s bike ride, and began a 3/4-mile trek up another bald face of slickrock.
Our subconsciouses decided to thrown in an additional challenge by having us idiotically leave our bottles of water in the car. (First rule of desert survival: always carry plenty of water.)
This trek became the often cliff-hugging trail to Delicate Arch, Utah’s poster-child natural wonder, a 45-foot-tall horseshoe of orange and red sandstone at the edge of a steep cliff set against a backdrop of desert valley and the distant, snow-capped La Sal Mountains.
Racing a setting sun and gathering clouds, we left Arches and looped up a side road onto Rte. 313 into Dead Horse Point State Park (www.stateparks.utah.gov), which is surrounded on three sides by Canyonlands National Park. We got to Dead Horse Point Overlook in time to catch the last bit of daylight and a jaw-dropping panorama over Canyonlands.
The Green River wound in from our right to join the Colorado River, which snaked in from the left in lazy gooseneck loops, both of them having carved deep, wide canyon walls striped with colorful layers of rock strata.
“You know,” said Stew finally, breaking the silence of our minutes gazing in awe. “This is every bit as massive, and impressive, and cool as the Grand Canyon.”
Before I could agree, the wind whipped up out of nowhere and started driving snow horizontally at us, so we hightailed it back to Moab, where we discovered our hotel’s best feature was its location: the heart of town, right behind Eddie McStiff’s (www.eddiemcstiffs.com), Moab’s oldest microbrewery.
We sauntered into the bar at 10pm—too late for dinner, but since under Utah’s Byzantine liquor laws McStiff’s is classified as a restaurant, we couldn’t get a beer without ordering food. So the barkeep plunked down a basket of multicolored tortilla chips and some salsa—just 49¢ for the crispest and tastiest nachos I have ever had. We soothed our aching bodies with pint after pint of Sky Island Scottish Ale, Cisco Bend Stout, and Rock Amber Ale.
Day 1 details
• Rim Tours (800-626-7335 or 435-259-5223, www.rimtours.com), 1233 South Hwy. 191, Moab. Half-day ride: $85 per person for 2-3, $70 per person for 4-8.
• Eddie McStiff’s (435-259-2337, www.eddiemcstiffs.com), 57 South Main St., Moab.
• Kokopelli Lodge (888-530-3134, www.kokopellilodge.com), 72 South 100 East St., Moab, doubles $60–$72.
• From Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab: I-70 (west) to Exit 202: Rte. 128 (south), known as the “Colorado River Road.” At end, left (south) onto Rte. 191 into Moab.