Hiking, rafting, canyoneering and, of course, mountain biking. With what should I start with, having just five days? So many options. Moab is a paradise, whose beauty captures everybody as soon as you pull off Interstate 70 and turn south on Highway 191. Here, nature showcases the most spectacular desert landscapes ever sculpted by a creator. Bright red rock formations, thousands of massive, surreal sandstone arches, deep, cool canyons carved by the emerald green Colorado River in millions of years.
I just can’t let go of the camera in my hands!
This is not my first visit to the area. I’ve been here before, just passing through on my way from Colorado to Alaska. It was the end of May, the start of the tourist season, when thousands of visitors flock daily into the small town. Arches National Park itself, at the gates of Moab, draws more than 1,5 million people annually. Almost everybody comes by car or RV, trying to squeeze through the main street during the day. After only a short night camping along the Colorado I fled back then. Now the premises are much more promising. With peak season being over there is still a lot going on, but it feels a little slower paced. However, this week could become quite turbulent again. The annual Moab Ho-Down is set, a colorful festival all about mountain biking. The experts are testing their skills with various races and competitions and fans can try out the world-class trails and celebrate with movies, a community ride and campfires.
But first, I want to explore the canyons. Michelle is my guide. «Those walls over there, gleaming in the sunshine, are called Wall Street. One of the easiest and most accessible climbing areas around here.» She points across the Colorado, where the road worms its way between steep rock walls and the river. «We got some petroglyphs right here to our left.» I can’t really see the paintings passing by in the car but will check them out on my way back later. Shortly after, we are pulling into a small parking area. It only took us fifteen minutes to get here from downtown Moab.
Adventure is within reach everywhere.
Ours for now is called Hypatia Canyon, a four mile long hike through rocky canyons and over petrified sand dunes to three rappels. Michelle has been here many times. «Everytime it’s different. New wildflowers are blooming, something’s turning yellow, leaves are falling off. It has just rained, so everything’s greener. Where the sunlight hits the rock changes with the season. The temperatures change with the season. You notice different colors. Do you see that white stripe up on the rock there? That’s a layer of limestone. Normally this used to be a really dry area with those sand dunes everywhere. And then there might have been a couple hundred thousand years where it was much wetter, there’d actually be a lake here. And then all the animals living in the lake died, creating sandstone at the bottom. Every time I’m surprised by something.»
During high season Michelle guides up to ten groups per week into the canyons. «There are definitely days when you feel tired. The sand feels a little deeper, the pack feels a little heavier», she jokes. But the people often are super-psyched about being out here, and that is contagious.
After one and a half hours we are approaching our first rappel. The trail until there has been steep, rather climbing over rocks than walking on a trail. But now we have reached a high plateau, where the view takes my breath away, even without the physical exercise. The sun beams from the deep blue, cloudless sky onto the red rock fins, that are reaching all the way to the horizon in gentle verves. In all directions narrow canyons are trenching the rock. Colorado mountains are shimmering from a distance. We deeply breathe in the clear dry air, pausing for a moment. Speechless.
«This is a 130 feet drop down there», Michelle breaks the silence. A few wind-beaten junipers are lining the rock edge, where we want to rappel from in just a few minutes. Exactly across, the giant Teardrop Arch swings across the canyon. We can hardly see the shady bottom, where we intend to land on. While Michelle starts preparing the ropes, I take off my backpack she gave me, scratched from many tight canyon walls. I put on the helmet and climbing harness and slip into the working gloves from the hardware store. They will protect the hands from heat caused by friction of the lines while rappeling. Michelle anchors the lines at one of the junipers. «I would guess it’s a couple of hundred years old. Maybe you think it’s not that big, but the root structure is twice as big as what we see here. There are roots growing into all the little crevasses around us. This guy is not going anywhere», she tries to calm me down after the rope is connected to my harness and I slowly start to shift my weight backward, my heart pounding. In small steps I now start to walk towards the rock edge, noticing how all the muscles seem to harden. Weird feeling. And a plea of the basic instinct that I trustfully hand over to Michelle as she secures me while I tumble into the unknown.
I risk glancing down into the deep, unveiling like a scary black throat below me.
Now, I become even tighter and refocus on the rope in front of me. Keep it tight, release it, step by step. The closer I get to the bottom, the more my tightness vanishes. I finally reach the bottom. Made it! The adrenaline still pumping through my veins. I can feel the rush as I look around, watching the play between light and shade in the canyon, observing how the sunrays first graze the arch and then touch the fine, red sand next to me. Let’s do it again! Right away!
«I like the idea that it’s got all these twists and turns, obstacles up and down, you never know what’s around the corner», Michelle raves about canyoneering after rappelling down to me. Next, we slide across the rock into a small, waist-deep pool of ice cold, muddy water. Then the canyon widens, the leaves of cottonwood trees rattle in the breeze as the sun dries us while we continue hiking.
In the next hour we will crawl over a wedged trunk through a small gorge, plunge into another pool and rappel two more times, the last one being a stunning 100 feet drop, levitating. Then my first adventure in the outdoor paradise ends. And I already realize, that it doesn’t take much to hopelessly fall in love with this place.
«I like the community here, that always supports each other. There’s always somebody ready to climb. There are so many things to do here.» Michelle still sounds excited, even after many years living in Moab.
«And then looking at the scenery around you, the colors, red rocks, blue skies, green trees, the snow on the rock. Out here there’s plenty of open space, that’s part of why I moved here. And I like the fact that it’s a small town. It’s cool that people travel a long distance to see what we have to offer.»
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