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The balancing boulders, natural stone bridges, and red-rock mazes of Moab look like a cowboy movie set. But they once hid real-life outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Today, Moab is still a backdrop for Wild West hijinks. But now, outdoor enthusiasts, not scoundrels, are the ones romping through its hide-and-seek scenery.
Mountain bikers discovered this remote outpost (a good four hours from Salt Lake City), when Moab's uranium industry went bust in the 1980s. Now, it's considered a slickrock riding mecca. But adventure seekers flock here too, for top-notch hiking, four-wheel driving, and river rafting. Even the athletically challenged come to ogle the scenery at not one, but two national parks.
The world's largest concentration of stone arches is located in this spectacular park, just five miles north of town. An 18-mile paved road offers a good intro to Arches' natural attractions, which were created by the slow erosion of red sandstone. But a better way to see this unique landscape is on foot. Here are some of our hands-down hiking favorites:
Did you know Utah's largest national park has appeared in more than 100 feature films? Its most memorable role was in Thelma and Louise, during which actresses Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon did an Evel Kneivel impression over the park's 2,000-foot deep gorge. (You'd swear it was the Grand Canyon -- they're both shaped by the Colorado River).
Hollywood aside, Canyonlands is really three parks in one. The Green and Colorado Rivers divide it into sections so far apart, that they're almost separate parks. Reserve a day to explore each one.
If you're short on time, visit Islands in the Sky, 29 miles north of Moab and the closest section to town. Some of the best mountain-biking terrain is located here, and because of its elevation gain, it's best for kids 10 and up who are proficient bikers.
Those planning a longer stay in the Moab area should check out Needles, named after the massive sandstone spires that stand in a tangled formation, 60 miles south of town. If you're traveling with older kids, try the long but rewarding hike to Chesler Park, which snakes through tight slot canyons near its end point.
For the less adventurous, there's the equally spectacular canyon view from Dead Horse Point State Park. Once again, sunset is the best time to go.
Break out the Lycra bike shorts and snap on a sturdy helmet. A trip to Moab would not be complete without a taste of its first-class mountain biking terrain.
Most trails are intermediate to advanced (heck, this is the mountain biking capital of the world). But there's something for everyone here. Beginners will like Kane Creek Trail, which is scenic and delightfully flat for the first five miles. For intermediate riders, Gemini Bridges and Klondike Bluff Trails (a family favorite) provide enough thrills without the chills, and a few dinosaur fossils along the way.
But the creme de la creme is world-renowned Slickrock Bike Trail which, by the way, isn't slick at all to fat mountain bike tires. In fact, the gritty, sandpaper-like surface of this smooth, canyon stone trail allows you to pedal safely up and down its 12 miles.
But expect a challenge, regardless of your mountain biking skills. The rolling rock terrain atop a mesa overlooking Moab has some steep spots, as well as brutal, hairpin switchbacks that rookies will want to walk.
Canyonlands and Arches are a four-wheeler's paradise. There are plenty of partial-day excursions close to Moab on primitive roads left over from the area's mining days. The treks range from easy to teeth clacking.
You can try one of the many local jeep tour operators. Or drive it yourself by following the wooden posts, rock piles, and painted symbols on the rocks. But make sure your vehicle has high enough clearance.
One of the most popular trails is Chicken Corners, a 54-mile route that bounces along the Colorado River, just below Moab. The trek begins on Kane Creek Blvd. off Main St. The easiest section runs from the picturesque Kane Creek Canyon to the Hurrah Pass. You can turn around here, or go on to rougher terrain that earned this trail its name.
The most memorable part of the journey is a narrow portion of trail that climbs the side of a 500-foot canyon wall with harrowing switchbacks. At this point, less-confident passengers -- at the risk of being called chickens -- may want to hop out and hoof it (as many visitors do) until the trail widens.
Whether you're searching for roiling white water or sleepy stretches of current, you'll find it in the Moab/Green River area.
At Cataract Canyon, Colorado's most famous stretch, you can take a one to seven-day trip along 112 miles of river linking Moab to Lake Powell in the south. When you're not maneuvering one of the 26 rapids, check out the cliff dwellings or head to dry land for a hike.
For quieter floats, try the Green River. There are 120 miles of calm water, perfect for a relaxed family cruise. For a one-to-two day trek, consider the 23-mile stretch from the town of Green River, about 70 miles northwest of Moab, to Ruby Ranch.
Type of trip: Outdoor, educational
Best ages: 8 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance: Salt Lake City (298 miles), Denver (358 miles)
Best time to go: May and October
Weather: 82/48 degrees in May, 73/39 in October. At higher elevations, temperatures are more extreme. Summer brings thunderstorms. Light snowfall in winter can make trails impassible.
Lodging: Prices drop from November to mid-March. Rooms often sell out in late October, during the Annual Canyonlands Fat Tire Festival.
Squirm factor: None, if your youngsters enjoy outdoor sports
Moab Information Center Corner of Main and Center Sts. in Moab Phone: 800-635-6622 Note: Information about the parks, hotels, tour operators, special events, and road and weather conditions.
Arches National Park Visitor's Center North Hwy 191, Moab Phone: 435-719-2299 Note: Pre-register for these first-come, first served campsites at the entrance station or visitor's center (Tip: Get there at 7:30 a.m., sites often fill by 9 a.m.)
Canyonlands National Park Visitor's Center 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab Phone: 435-719-2313 Note: First-come, first-served. Availability is tightest from late March to June and September to mid-October. Book at least two weeks in advance for high season.
Private campground information Phone: 800-635-MOABFor More Information
Utah Travel Council Phone: 1-800-UTAH-FUN
Squeeze through narrow cracks, walk along ledges, and scramble over boulders in the Fiery Furnace. This hugely popular ranger-led hike in Arches National Park will take you and your explorers through the High Rock fins -- a natural maze of tall sandstone walls, through which there is no real trail.
Budget about three hours for the moderately strenuous hike. Kids love the Fiery Furnace's twists and turns. But it's not recommended for children under 7 years.
Hikes are scheduled twice a day from mid-March through October. You must sign up in person (as early as seven days in advance) at the Arches Visitor Center. Walks are limited to 25 people and fill up quickly.
Favorite local spots: YaGottaWanna, 60 West Cedar Ave., Moab, 435-259-8007. Features an 18-hole miniature golf course, go-carts, bumper boats, and a video arcade.Annual Events
Bike rentals. If you don't bring your own bikes, there are plenty of places to rent. Most popular are Rim Cyclery, 435-259-5333; Poison Spider Bicycles, 800-635-1792 and Kaibab, 800-451-1133.
Traffic alert: Scenic Loop Road in La Sal Mountains closes during the offseason.
Reviewed April 2004.