Off-Season in Moab

By Sam Tarr

I stood there at 6,080 feet and listened to the wind whirl through the chasms of Canyonlands National park. I stared off from the Grand View Point and wondered how any canyon could be any grander than this. Completely alone, I basked in the solitude.

I was just one of more than two million people to visit Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in Moab, Utah, that year. Only about 20,000 of those came in January, the off-month of the off-season. I heard the tires of another vehicle rolling up the long, paved road. A couple got out and snapped a picture, spoiling the mood for a moment, but quickly moved on.

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I focused once again on the canyon. Tomorrow it would be off across the desert to Los Angeles, and San Diego, places where there is no off-season, but all I wanted to do was stay in Moab.

The word is out on this beautiful area. Visits to Arches alone have increased by 56 percent in the last ten years. I first heard of Moab from the Conor Oberst song. I then found out dozens of movies including “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” were filmed here. But you really need to see it for yourself.

Utah’s five National Parks offer more than any one vacation’s worth of exploration. After flying into Salt Lake City International Airport, I got to the Quality Suites after dark. I rode the brake on my rental car through the mountainous first-half before the four-hour ride gave way to open valleys at dusk.

The hotel, embedded in the red-rocked mountains and excellent for my purposes at the offseason price of $70 per night, was located ten-minutes from Arches National Park, and 20-minutes from Canyonlands, right on U.S. 191, a main stretch with plenty of restaurants and hotels and shopping. The Blue Pig, a BBQ and Blues bar was basically on-site. 

There is a misconception that Utah is a dry state. While your booze is poured with calibrated 1.5-ounce pourers fitted to the top of every bottle, per Utah law, there are many options for libations including the Moab Brewery just up the road. That night, I grabbed something at a drive-through and went to rest up for a big day at Arches.

I entered Arches National Park just after turning out of the hotel parking lot. With average temperatures in the low 40’s, you need to bundle up, even in the daytime. Snow blanketed the shaded sections of the park while the areas exposed to the sun glared with the majesty of the sand-stoned South West.

Each turnoff featured awe-inspiring views of geological wonders, like the more than 2,000 namesake natural sandstone arches. The most famous in the whole 119-square-mile park is the Delicate Arch which can be reached on a three-mile round trip hike.

As I climb up steeper inclines I see petroglyphs carved into the rocks along the trail. Though by no means crowded, the popularity of this trail is obvious as I encounter the most visitors of the trip. An iced-over final trek prevented me from the close-up of the arch, but I retreated to an accessible viewpoint later on.

I meandered through the park all day. I hiked modest trails, stopped at every viewpoint, worked through into little hideaways, marveling at the arches carved out by the eroding South West winds. I wondered if it would be as easy to get caught up in the wonder of it all in the spring and summer months when hundreds of thousands of visitors pass the entrance gates.

That night I drank Unita beer at the Blue Pig, feasting on BBQ before returning to the hotel before the dinner rush, happily exhausted. 

The next morning, I cruised around Canyonlands, which traded off sandstone arches for the kind of views that lead you to ponder the big questions of life. But if you keep looking out there, listening to the wind blowing through the desolation, for a while anyway, it seems like you’ve found the answers.

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