It’s difficult for backpackers to escape the package-deal tourism industry. Philipp Laage takes a trip to Vietnam – and comes face to face with his own shortcomings.
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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Delicate Arch is probably the most photographed rock arch in the world, the superstar among the many natural wonders in Utah. It’s displayed on the most popular license plate of the state and in every tourist brochure. One could not have placed this landmark at a more spectacular spot: 60 feet tall, free-standing, on the edge of a natural rock basin. No wonder many visitors to Arches National Park are crawling across the slick rock in one line like ants to have their picture taken directly underneath, after an hour of hiking. If you’re looking for little fewer crowds, try Canyonlands National Park with only half as many visitors per year as Arches. But that’s still roughly 750.000.
«I picked this particular tour because there’s a fair amount of downhill, which means not a lot of pedaling. And that was very, very attractive!» Bob Matheson makes no secret, that he would like to keep the physical challenge limited in order to be able to enjoy the sensational views better. We are six this morning, four mountain bike novices and two guides. One will steer the support vehicle, the other will guide us on the bike. A final brief look, first on the map then on the scenery. Amazing! Wish I was a poet, potentially finding a few more elaborate words to describe it in a more eloquent way. One of the most spectacular and dangerous roads winds through the canyon directly in front of our eyes: The Shafer Trail.
Just a few days ago it almost became the fate of a trucker trusting his GPS more than his common sense. In one of the many switchbacks he maneuvered his eighteen-wheeler nearly into abyss. Hence, we start extremely cautious downhill, trying to control the speed on the rough trail by breaking intermittently. Glenn, who like Bob hails from Canada, does this in such a vigorous way, that his disc brakes run hot shortly after and guide Brian needs to extinguish it with water from his drinking bottle.
«I love deserts so I landed in Moab», Brian confesses, a gangling, always cheerful tall man, during the short break. «It’s clean and orderly and so quiet, too.»
«It’s like an open textbook of geology», his colleague Dave adds. «Different layers present themselves quite nicely. We’re looking at 250 million years of deposits here.» And they don’t always shine red. Some shimmer in a dark blue or greenish way and belong to the so-called Chinle-layer bearing uranium, that was exploited on a very large scale primarily in the 1940s and 50s. «That’s where we find the dinosaur fossils, as well», Brian reveals when we resume riding. We briefly stop at a petrified femur along the road and then roll down on a straight that leads directly into the horizon. After a 1200 feet drop we now need to get out of the saddle for the first time. Our first ascent follows the Colorado River meandering through the canyon 400 feet below us. On the left the mesa-plateau of Deadhorse Point State Park thrones, offering the best view of the180-oxbow which the river is conducting here.
In 1990 Ridley Scott was shooting the last scene of one of the most successful road movies of all time right there. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis played the best friends Thelma and Louise, who were chased by the police and steered their Ford Thunderbird over the cliffs.
We are having lunch where the two were racing into death at the end of the movie.
«It’s gonna be what we call a Rim-Tours-Deli-Sandwich!», Dave explains. After unfolding chairs to relax he is preparing a little feast and arranges a small buffet on a camping table. «We have some really good tater chips, fruit, cookies, all that good stuff.» Dave came to the area in the 80s for mountain biking. When he was offered a job in a local bike shop, he didn’t hesitate and left his home, Anchorage, Alaska, to move to Moab. «I can ride my bike for a much longer period of time on world-class trails, that’s why I stick around.» Bob and Glenn arrive, visibly exhausted from the last ascent to ‘Thelma & Louise Point’.
The list of movies filmed in and around Moab is long, going back all the way to the 50s, when John Ford was shooting his legendary westerns here starring John Wayne. Later TV productions followed, like the series ‘Westworld’ and blockbusters like ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Star Trek’, but also flops like ‘After Earth’ with Will Smith and ‘The Lone Ranger’ featuring Johnny Depp. Brian spotted both of them during the filming from a distance. «Michael Schumacher used to come to town to ride the Slick Rock Trail back twice a day before his accident. He was easy to spot, he had the Colnago-Ferrari mountain bike back when carbon was ooh-lala», he remembers.
After lunch our two guides switch roles. Brian hops in the vehicle, Dave joins us on his bike. The trail now changes its profile, no more long descents; it goes up and down, not in an exhausting way but noticeably. Bob and Glenn fall back while Dave and I ride next to each other talking about life in Moab. It is ‚superfantastic’, Dave claims, but it also has its challenges. «Seems like everybody I know has two or three jobs. Housing and stuff can be challenging, but almost every night you get a killer sunset!»
Moab shares the fate of many natural paradises. Everybody wants to live where it’s beautiful, including the superrich, and even if it’s only for a weekend or a short vacation. They can afford a luxurious home, that remains empty most of the year, and boost the property prices. Seasonal workers with their income from salary and tips can’t keep up. But that deters nobody.
« I get to ride my bike every day, it’s a healthy lifestyle, out in the sun. Awesome!»
«We’re heading towards the potash mine area», Dave points out. «You should be able to see their evaporation ponds right over the hill here.» The mine is one of two remaining in the US exploiting potash to produce fertilizer. «It was established in 1965 and employs about 200 folks, definitely making its mark on the economy.» Before tourism started to boom in the 90s, mining was the most important industry in the region. We follow the tall mesh wire fence separating the mine area from the trail, climb a few hundred feet for the last time and then gently roll over rough gravel down to the Colorado River. There our little mountain bike-adventure ends, after about 20 miles total. «I am a little bit tired but very happy»! Bob rejoices upon arrival, right after putting his feet in the cool Colorado River water. And Dave adds:
«Another great day at the office, can’t wait to do it again! I love my job!»
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Porcupine Rim, Captain Ahab, Dino-Flow or The Whole Enchilada are names of legendary trails in and around Moab. There are more than 100 total and growing because the trail system is constantly being expanded. At the end of October, the mountain bike scene gathers here for the annual Ho-Down, a bike and film-festival with various races, jump contests, movie nights and costume parties. «Now we started focusing on having it be a fundraiser for our local bike park.», says Tracy Bentley, who created the festival in 2006.
Tracy originally came to Moab from Missouri in the late 90s and runs the Chile Pepper Bike Shop, one of the largest in town. «The park has beginner to expert-level jump lines, there’s a skills area and a pump track», she explains, the revenue from the Festival is used for maintenance and to finally build a bathroom facility. «We’ve also given some of the money we’ve raised to the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management, to do some trail survey and for new trail development.»
A community ride across town kicks off the festival, with several dozens of riders, many of them disguised and already tipsy. «Moab has become a pretty artsy community», Matt Hebberds thinks, one of the riders. Matt is an icon, a member of the Mountainbike Hall of Fame, who moved to Moab from California in 1990 and owns a company offering tours.
«When I moved here, there was like four bikers. And since that time it has just expanded with bicyclists, activists, artists. It has definitely become a really cool community.» And most everybody in the industry doesn’t look at the others as competitors but as part of the community connected through the love for biking and the outdoors. That is especially true for the participants of the races over the weekend.
I borrowed a bike from Tracy, the race track is only accessible by foot or bike. It is Saturday morning, perfect conditions, pleasantly cool, the sun shining proudly from the familiar steel-blue sky. And I fail right away.
The trail is too challenging, my skills as a mountain bike novice too botched.
To prevent a fatal crash I dismount and proceed by foot pushing the bike. After a steep half-hour uphill I reach the finish area for the first stage of the race. Almost every minute a rider crosses the blue ribbon on the trail, that marks the time measurement. «It’s my first race ever!», confesses Dustin from Denver, who has just arrived. «It was fun. It’s a fast technical, so as long as you keep your weight back, you’re usually pretty good.»
I already get dizzy just watching. Around 60 riders have joined the race this year, Andrew and Brody being most likely the youngest. They are twelve and eleven years old, both from Aspen, in Colorado as well. «It was an awesome course. I crashed and hurt myself on the chin. And I bent my bars down a little. But I like the exhilaration!», Andrew beams. «I kinda got lost and couldn’t find the trail. But it was good», Brody adds. They started mountain biking at the early age of three and want to become pros, of course.
«Mountain biking brings me closer to God. Being able to ride is a good way to communicate with him. And spending time in God’s creation is just amazing!»
Joshua Barnes, 26, from Grand Junction, Colorado, wants to become a pilot. The races provide a good excuse to run as fast as he can, he says. Now Kristin crosses the finish line, completely out of breath. Years ago, she came as a tourist from Florida to town but now lives in Moab and works for one of the outfitters and in a restaurant. «It was the people, the beauty, the endless recreation. I’ve been to a lot of places and keep looking for the next place to move. But there is no better place than this one. Don’t be telling too many people!» she jokes, adding, everybody is happy here, because they’re getting to do what they want all the time.
In fact, over the past days I actually have only met people appearing extremely relaxed and content. Maybe that’s the magic of Moab, irresistible like the beauty of nature and the urge to constantly wanting to be outside to not miss anything. What the heck! I just need to come back to Moab for more of the numerous possible adventures here.
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Getting there: You could start the journey in Salt Lake City or Denver, catch a small plane to Moab or take a rental car.
Reiseveranstalter: CRD in Germany offers bike trips to Moab and the area.
Best travel time: spring, fall and winter.
Tip: The National Parks in Utah are open in winter as well. During that season there’s only a few visitors and you can have the spectacular landscapes almost all to yourself.
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Canyoneering- / Hiking- / Climbing-Tours:
Moab Cliffs and Canyons
253 North Main Street
Moab, Utah 84532
Mountain Bikes / Road Bikes / Premium Bikes / Hybrid Bikes for rent:
Chile Pepper Bikes
702 S Main St #2
Moab, UT 84532, USA
Guided Mountain Bike Tours:
702 South Main Street
Moab, Utah 84532