Cross-Country Road Trip: Magical Moab and Canyonlands National Park

Previously: Cross-Country Road Trip: Arches National Park, Done Three Ways

Perfectly positioned between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks lies the quaint and quiet town of Moab, Utah. While its name doesn’t conjure the same metaphysical tones of a Sedona, Arizona, or a Ringing Rocks, Pennsylvania, it is a magical place nonetheless. Hiking, climbing, and photography pilgrims flock to its campsites for a taste of small-town civilization before, between, and after deep excursions into the wild backcountry that literally surrounds the town on all sides.


We arrived in Moab just as the evening sun was lighting up the red cliff face that lined the road and ushered us home like an honor guard. Eschewing some of the more expensive camping options, we chose to stay at the Moab KOA and couldn’t have been more pleased with our decision. With ample pull-through sites, plentiful amenities, and a fabulous view from every vantage point, the KOA was the perfect place to establish our home base for exploring Arches and Canyonlands.


The beautiful approach to Moab, passing between red cliff faces

But Moab isn’t just scenic vistas and quiet campsites. We found some excellent dining options, most notably including the town’s only microbrew joint, the Moab Brewery. The food was excellent, the decor was adorably Western kitsch, and the IPA on tap was the perfect complement to wash down the Utah dust.

I’ve already shared our transcendental experience while visiting Arches National Park in a previous post, but would like to reiterate here that the adventure is even better when it involves a night hike under the desert stars. Since we were staying in Moab and only 30 minutes away from our campsite, we were able to linger late into the evening without the dread of a long, sleepy journey back to the camper.

After our numerous explorations in Arches, we were ready to tackle the much bigger and more obscure Canyonlands National Park. Honestly, we hadn’t even heard about this park until we started trip planning, so we had few preconceptions about what we would encounter and went into the journey with open eyes and minds.

The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is a short and scenic forty-minute drive from the center of Moab, passing by the Dead Horse Point State Park, a beautiful destination in its own right. As the name implies, Canyonlands consists of high mesa desert bisected and carved into dramatic canyons by both the Green and the Colorado Rivers, including a confluence of the two in a river valley meeting that whistles with the ghosts of the old West.

On most of the hiking trails throughout the park, you will find solid rock underfoot, making it difficult to determine exactly where you can and can’t hike. Most trails have, therefore, been periodically marked with stone cairns. To find your way, simply set out in the desired direction and scan the distance for the telltale mounds of stones, moving from one to the next in your frame of view.

In the far backcountry (and there’s an awful lot of that here), the cairns are either hard to find or altogether nonexistent, so it’s advisable to take a topographic map with you for any serious hiking. That and plenty of water, as it’s incredibly easy to get lost in this open wilderness.


Zack and Ben exploring the high trails of Canyonlands National Park


Beauty as far as the eye can see in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park


The Loop (photo: National Geographic)

So, armed with a map, ample water, and a loose understanding that they shouldn’t venture too far out of sight, we let the boys set out ahead of us to navigate this wonderland. It was one of their first tastes of independent exploration, and we feel that it set the tone for how we would trust them to find their own way, both in travel and in life.


A couple of brothers taking in the desert sun (while slathered with sunscreen, thanks to Angela)

Canyonlands became a defining moment for us as a family. The boys learned that independence doesn’t necessarily mean rebellion. Angela and I learned that the boys were already more grown than we had suspected. And we all learned that the best adventures are often unexpected and unscripted.

Next up: Cross-Country Road Trip: Drive-Through Tour of Capitol Reef National Park