Story and Photos by Hilary Oliver
Driving down Moab’s main drag, the signs and advertisements would have you believe you can’t really experience or enjoy the surrounding desert unless you rent a Jeep, buy a skydiving session or pay for a guided raft trip. All those extreme sports are certainly fun, but they come with a hefty price tag and are completely unnecessary for—and, some would argue, are a distraction from—getting to know the true transforming beauty of Moab’s red rock country. With just your own two feet, you can get up close and personal with some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the Lower 48. Here are my favorite hikes, from quick to more interactive backcountry.
The Classic: Delicate Arch
Count on having lots of company on this one—I’ve heard multiple languages every time I’ve hiked this. But the view is absolutely worth sharing with others. There’s a reason Utah puts the image of Delicate Arch on their license plates. The backdrop of the La Sal mountains beyond the arch adds to the depth of the experience, but the scale of the arch itself is enough to impress. The relatively short hike out to the arch gains almost 500 vertical feet, so it’s still not just a casual stroll. And the tiny detour to view a Ute hunting scene petroglyph and a historic ranch along the way is completely worth the extra few minutes.
Formation Fascination: Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop
Want to see more arches? This trail is for you. Scramble up and over slickrock ledges and run your hand along graceful sandstone fins as you circle around eight different arches, each one completely unique. The farther you get away from the trailhead, the fewer people you’ll see, and pushing through to the towering monolith Dark Angel and Private Arch at the very back end of the loop will find you at the farthest point from a trailhead you can reach via a marked trail in Arches National Park.
Tower Tour: Fisher Towers
The sandstone and mudstone pinnacles along the Fisher Towers Trail offer a different type of topographical relief than the views in Arches National Park, and attract a steady stream of climbers and BASE jumpers. But the out-and-back trail offers stunning views around each turn, even to the casual day hiker. It winds around The Titan, and passes underneath its namesake Fisher Towers. If you pay attention, you’ll likely see climbers on the legendary corkscrew-shaped formation Ancient Art.
The Vista Lover: Rim Loop and Big Horn Overlook
To see the Colorado River carving a giant horseshoe through desert sandstone and get a bird’s eye glimpse of Island In The Sky mesa, head to Dead Horse Point State Park. By linking together the East Rim, West Rim and Big Horn Overlook trails, you can traipse along stunning cliff overlooks and peer down onto 8,000 feet of geological strata. The trail doesn’t ever ramble far from the visitor center, but the views are unbeatable. Legend has it cowboys would use the mesa to corral wild mustangs, since they’d be trapped by the sheer cliffs. Schedule your visit near sunset to watch the colors of the desert strata come to life in the golden light.
A Faraway Feel: Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail
If you’ve got the time and are craving to go deeper into the backcountry, head to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. A one-day trip on the Chesler Park Loop will have you wandering in awe between narrow canyon walls and through desert meadows with views of sculptural sandstone domes and spires. The overall vibe? Remote but far from desolate. In spring, a surprising multitude of wildflowers line the trail, and year-round the land is alive with lizards and chipmunks. Get a backpacking permit for one of the five backcountry sites—and pack plenty of water—if you want to stay out and experience sunset, the remote starry sky and a private desert sunrise.