I know, that’s a bold statement to make. Especially this time of year as the Easter Jeep Safari is just getting underway. But the more that I explore the desert, the more I believe it. Let me clarify.
Let me start off by saying that Moab is a great place to kick off any exploration of the desert, especially if you’re arriving from the east. They’ve got loads of stuff in town, from grocery stores to microbreweries; you can rent mountain bikes or jeeps; there are two mind blowing National Parks nearby, Arches and Canyonlands; and the place probably has more carabiners and GORE-TEX per capita than any place this side of Everest base camp.
You could spend a lifetime exploring the extensive network of trails nearby. The sheer red cliffs, sandstone arches, and petrified sand dunes juxtaposed against the nearby snow capped La Sal Mountains makes for a surreal landscape.
I’ve always loved driving to Moab at night – there’s something heart twanging about that first look outside my tent (or hotel room window) early the next morning. As the haze of sleep wears off, it slowly dawns on me just where I am, far away from the city at the doorstep of adventure. Moab has been an annual pilgrimage for me for well over a decade, and each time I’ve left, I looked forward to my next trip back. And yet, despite all this, I’ve decided that from this moment on, Moab sucks.
The reason for this epiphany is simple – over the past couple of years, I’ve started venturing further and further from the well worn tracks surrounding Moab, away from the trails frequented by Easter Jeep Safari and into the more remote stretches of the Colorado Plateau. As great as you think some of the trails and scenery are near Moab, they’re repugnant compared to some of the areas nearby. The San Rafael Swell, which lies about a quarter tank of fuel northwest of Moab is one of the most awe-inspiring demonstrations of plate tectonics around. The sudden uplift of rock caused by the collision of the Pacific and the North American plates is breathtaking from a distance, yet hides a treasure trove of slot canyons, ancient pictographs and fossils.
The more that I explore the desert, the more that I discovered it’s nothing like what I imagined as a kid. Growing up, my vision of the desert was brought to me by the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote, courtesy of Warner Brothers. The desert was a flat, barren, sandy wasteland with the occasional cactus or cow skull to break up the scenery. Going out onto the Colorado Plateau, I’ve discovered that the scenery is quite the opposite. It’s simply incredible. The landscape teems with life if you know where to look and it is anything but flat.
We recently returned from the Grand Circle: Footsteps of the Anasazi
pre-scout trip. Even though I’ve already been through almost all of the trails and areas we went through, they become even more amazing the second and third time through. It’s easy to see why Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang settled on this area as the place to hide out after big robberies. Without a modern day GPS and USGS 7.5′ base maps, it would be easy to get lost in the complex network of canyons. The gang’s legacy remains to this day – part of the region near the aptly named Maze District still bears the moniker “Robbers Roost.”
If you know where to look, every turn brings new surprises: rock walls bear the ancient markings of the Anasazi, some of their rock paintings, or pictographs predate even the pyramids of Egypt; valley floors remain littered with petrified wood; perhaps the most impressive is camping alongside Marble Canyon and the Grand Canyon. There, in a remote corner of the Navajo Nation, almost 2 billion years of geological history is laid bare. All of this wonderment doesn’t even count the Martian landscape surrounding Lake Powell, the thousands of hoodoos and fins, arches, fossilized dinosaur tracks and pueblo cliff dwellings that seem to be hidden in plain sight.
Moab is a bit like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Everyone knows that it’s significant and that they should go check it out at least once in their life but it is surrounded by an entire collection of works that are just as, if not more incredible. While people swarm 20 deep to see the Mona Lisa, the masterpieces like the Raft of the Medusa and the Code of Hammurabi sit alone, able to be enjoyed in relative solitude. The Colorado Plateau is the same way. People swarm to Moab, especially around Easter Jeep Safari, turning the trails into traffic jams reminiscent of rush hour while all of these other amazing places sit, waiting patiently to be discovered.
Despite my epiphany, almost every one of my trips out into the desert will include stopping in Moab. I’ll keep going to the City Market for “that thing” I forgot to pack. I’ll have dinner at the Moab Brewing Company and drink a Dead Horse Ale while studying topo maps. And of course, I’ll top off my fuel at Maverick’s. The only difference is that now, I’ll venture a little further out. I’ll explore more areas, and I’ll head down a few more unknown roads, just to see where they lead. And I would encourage you to do that, too.
Find an area and explore it. Just make sure that you’re prepared: pack your 4×4, bring enough water (at least one gallon per person per day), a jerry can of extra fuel and vehicle spares “just in case.” Moab is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg that is the Colorado Plateau. I can almost guarantee that wherever you go, you won’t be disappointed. Get out there and explore the desert, just remember to stay on trail and stay off the cryptobiotic soil.