Getting Off-the-Beaten-Path in Moab, Utah
Yes, Arches National Park is amazing. We will never argue on that point. But you want to know a secret? The national park is not the only place to find natural arches, bridges, and weird desert structures. In fact, if you head a bit to the west you will also find some pretty crazy geologic formations — and no people.
We absolutely LOVE the Moab area. It is one of the few places we could actually see ourselves living (and thriving) in The States. With its mix of culture, community, and outdoor adventures, it seems like one of the best places to settle down and still have incredible access to all the things we love (mountain biking, hiking, canyoneering, etc.).
But the town’s stellar location has not gone unnoticed — Moab is very much a tourist town, something you realize after one drive down the main street. Guiding services after guiding services, with a couple of T-shirt shops thrown in for good measure. And for two people who grew up in and around Estes Park, Colorado, we can spot a tourist town a mile away.
Not that we can blame people for wanting to explore Moab. But just because there are two national parks and one awesome state park right next door to town, does not mean you can’t escape the crowds. In fact, it is relatively easy to find a quiet corner of the desert — as long as you are willing to get a bit off the beaten path.
Enter canyoneering. The underground, very niche desert sport that is at its absolute best near Moab.
What is Canyoneering?
Somehow this adventurous sport has managed to stay under the radar. Very few people know about it, and those that have heard about it still have some very specific questions. And we get it. At first we had no idea what canyoneering was all about. But after 5 years of doing it, and about 50+ canyons later we are happy to answer some of the most asked questions.
| How do you get back out of the canyon? Usually a canyon ends with one last rappel and then you simply hike out (sometimes with a bit of scrambling). The hikes can measure anywhere from a couple of hundred yards to the car, to a couple of miles (one canyon required an 8 mile hike out).
| Do you have to climb up the canyon first? No you never have to do any technical climbing (like with ropes or anything). Usually it is either a hike up to the top of a mountain or a pretty easy (gradual) hike to the mouth of the canyon.
| Is it really dangerous? You could say all sports have some risk involved. But canyoneering — if you know what you are doing — is not any more dangerous than a lot of other outdoor sports. The main things to remember have to do with wearing a proper harness, never going alone and making sure all anchors look secure.
| Aren’t you afraid of heights? The first couple of rappels are a bit nerve-wracking, no one feels comfortable walking off a 90-foot cliff at first. But you get used to it.
We understand that canyoneering isn’t for everyone. In fact, there are many people in our lives who we would never consider taking out into a canyon (we enjoy it too much to want to spoil it with fear-tears). But if you can get past the thought of rappelling down a cliff with just a harness and a rope between you and falling to your death, then canyoneering might just be the best adventure-sport around — especially in a place like Moab (sorry mountain biking).
And while Moab is close to two national parks, in truth, some of the best places to go canyoneering near Moab are actually on the west side of town, close to the Behind the Rocks and Potash Road areas.
Disclaimer: this article is not going to give you full beta on specific canyons — for that information we suggest heading over to trusty Road Trip Ryan, our website of choice when it comes to planning canyoneering trips. What it is going to do is discuss some of the best canyons to check out if you are looking to get off the beaten path, have a grand adventure, and have some slice of the Moab desert landscape all to yourself. So without further ado, here are four canyons we absolutely love near Moab.
Canyon #1: Bow and Arrow
This is one of those canyons that you go into with pretty low expectations, only to be blown away not just by the rappels and the canyon itself — but the overall beauty of the area. Bow and Arrow Canyon is a great way to explore the Potash Road area, check out a big natural arch (that was completely quiet when we were there), and do some desert exploring. Not to mention the views from the top of the Behind the Rocks area, and the La Sal mountains behind that, are absolutely world-class (and worth the short hike in alone).
Plus, it is short — meaning it is a good one to do either in the morning and evening and still have time for another activity (or another canyon). But don’t think that what it lacks in length it also lacks in technicality. In fact, this canyon has one of the longest rappels in the area (plus it is almost completely free-hanging). Bow and Arrow Canyon also gives you the chance to explore some unique desert terrain, including heading out on some somewhat “sketchy” narrow canyon rims (like Angel’s Landing minus the chains), hike around on some bluffs, and look for petroglyphs. The canyon has 3–4 rappels, depending on how confident you are on steep rocky downclimbs, and how you want to descend into the actual narrow canyon.
Canyon #2: Pool Arch
According to Road Trip Ryan, many consider this more of a “technical” hike. While there are two rappels, both 30 meters (99 feet), there is an option for a third 40-meter or 132 feet. But what makes this canyon special, besides the rather tall rappels, is the hike up to the raps themselves.
Pool Arch Canyon has a long approach, BUT along the way you get to see not one but two natural arches and do some serious butte and fin exploring. And because it is located in the Behind the Rocks area (a quiet, less-visited spot right outside of town), you will likely have the place to yourself.
This was actually the first canyon we ever did, way back 5 years ago when we just started dating (crazy!). And nothing makes you question the reliability and trustworthiness of your partner than going off your first rappel — and at 30-meters no less. But everything worked out and it is still one of our favorite canyons today — honestly, the last rappel is amazing.
Canyon #3: Granary Canyon
Possibly the longest canyon on this list, Granary Canyon is actually a combination of Upper and Lower Granary, which when put together, can make for a pretty epic day in the desert. Plus, the drive to the trailhead itself is pretty amazing: rough dirt roads through the desert backcountry ending with awesome views of the La Sal Mountains and Arches National Park.
One thing to note about Granary is that you can kind of create your own adventure. In Upper Granary there are lots of bail points (meaning you can hike out whenever you want), including towards the end an actual marked (with a cairn) trail back towards your car. Similarly, many of the rappels can actually be skirted along the edge (though often rather sketchy). Or, if you are comfortable on your feet and confident in your body’s ability to land jumps, you can downclimb and jump.
Once you get through Upper Granary you can decide to keep going and explore Lower Granary, the darker, more technical brother. When we did it, we were making good enough time to think it was worth the extra couple of rappels. And in the end, Lower Granary was probably our favorite section of the whole day: striped tall canyon walls, deep potholes and a few natural arches. Once you do decide to head out of the canyon (you have the option to keep going and do a big rappel and car shuttle — more on that in a second), the hike back to the car is pretty easy — a nice walk along a 4x4 track. We ended up doing it in the dark, but thanks to a bright full moon we didn’t even need headlamps.
Now if you are feeling really good and are confident in your rappelling skills, then we highly suggest doing the big last rappel. While it is a long one (60 meters or 197 feet) it isn’t just straight down. It is actually two levels, with the first level being pretty gradual. What really sells doing the last rappel though, are the views from the top of the canyon rim: you can see for miles in every direction, and the Colorado River below is just magical. Once done with the last rappel it is an easy 5–10 minute hike back to the car.
Note: there seems to be some argument on whether it is good practice to leave webbing behind in this canyon. So be prepared to build a good number of anchors throughout the day (aka bring A LOT of extra webbing) or go in knowing proper canyon ghosting techniques.
Canyon #4: U-Turn
Surprise! There are actually some stellar canyons inside Arches National Park, many of which give you those same incredible views as the popular hikes and drives, without all the people. U-Turn is one of those canyons.
What makes this short canyon so special is the location and views. In fact, this canyon is hidden right next to one of the more popular short hikes in the park: Park Avenue Trailhead. But you wouldn’t know that due to the absolute quietness that you experience up above in U-Turn Canyon*. We have done the canyon a couple of times, and though it is one of the more popular canyons in the area (due to its lengths and views), we have rarely been held up by another group.
We recommend hitting up U-Turn at the end of the day, right around sunset. Why? Because the views of the surrounding desert landscape and structures — including the Three Gossips, The Organ, and The Courthouse, are stellar once the light becomes less harsh. Plus, because it isn’t very technical (and what is is done in the hike up to the canyon rim) you could hike out around dusk and probably be totally safe.
*U-Turn isn’t actually much of a canyon, instead it is more of a hike along a rim with a couple of downclimbs and one big rappel at the end.
Exploring the less-popular areas around Moab, especially its canyons, is a great way to appreciate the natural scenery. While Arches National Park is stunning — no question about that — there are some equally beautiful areas with half the visitors or no visitors at all. And in the end, isn’t that how you want your experience to be? No one likes being shuffled around a natural area like cattle, no one likes having to jockey for the best views and photo spots, no one likes having to wait in traffic for a parking spot. And now more than ever, having the desert all to yourself is not only better but safer.
So the next time you are in the Moab area consider forgoing a visit to Arches — or at least don’t make that the only activity you do (we love our national parks just as much as the next person). Instead, choose to get off the beaten path and explore some back dirt roads and some stunning canyons through canyoneering.
Find more off-the-beaten-path travel inspiration at www.backroadpackers.com