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BY ALISSA MILLER
Moab 3-day itinerary — explore Utah’s epic parks.
The area surrounding Moab, Utah, is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. With more than 400,000 acres of state and national parks within an hour’s drive, you won’t find a better home base for your next getaway. The area’s world-renowned red rock formations are a sight not to be missed, and there are thousands of scenic arches, canyons, buttes, and mesas just waiting to be discovered.
Take advantage of the opportunity to stay as close to the action as possible at The Moab Resort, a WorldMark associate location that puts you right in the heart of it all. You’ll need three full days to properly explore the area’s three state and national parks, so lace up your hiking boots, fill your backpack with hiking essentials, and leave the comfort of The Moab Resort behind for the thrill of the trails. You’ll return each evening with the rewarding (albeit dusty) feeling of having explored an amazing national treasure.
Day 1: Arches National Park
Just a 10-minute drive from Moab, Arches National Park features more than 2,000 natural stone arches and many other unique geological formations. Advanced reservations are required from April through October so make sure to plan ahead.
Plan to arrive at the park early, especially during the summer months, as parking spots at popular sites can fill up fast. Early morning is prime time for hiking and first-time visitors won’t want to miss one of the park’s most iconic sights – Delicate Arch (you’ll know it if you’ve ever seen Utah’s license plate). The rising sun paints the rock formations in the most brilliant hues imaginable – a rainbow gradient ranging from vibrant reds and oranges to majestic browns and purples. Plan for at least two hours to experience the 3-mile roundtrip, moderate hike that’ll leave you with plenty of time to rest and enjoy the dramatic scenery before you hike back out. If you’ve hiked to Delicate Arch before, consider replacing this part of the itinerary with a hike to Balanced Rock or Landscape Arch instead.
You’ll be hungry after your morning spent hiking, but (naturally) you came prepared with a healthy picnic lunch. Head over the Arches Visitor Center and enjoy your lunch at one of the picnic tables before popping inside to see the informative exhibits and peruse the gift shop. Then hop back in your vehicle and hit the road to explore the park’s main scenic viewpoints by car. Although only 22 miles long, to properly experience the Arches Scenic Drive you’ll need at least half a day to make the drive and allow ample time to stop at each of the recommended viewpoints. Sunglasses and binoculars are a good idea, and you’ll want to download the map of the park ahead of time to avoid the dreaded GPS dead zone.
Unless you packed a picnic dinner too, you’ll need to pop back over to Moab for sustenance and then return to the park for the grand finale of the day – the starry night sky. The skies above Arches National Park have been named an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. The area offers a stunning stargazing opportunity, unobstructed by any man-made lights from nearby towns or cities. The Balanced Rock picnic area and the Garden of Eden viewpoint are two prime locations for stargazing, but anywhere will do – just keep in mind that the farther north you drive, away from Moab, the clearer the sky will be. It’s even possible to view the rings of Saturn with just your binoculars under the right conditions.
Day 2: Canyonlands National Park
Utah’s largest park, Canyonlands National Park, is a 35-minute drive from Moab. Canyonlands features more than 70 miles of hiking trails and a myriad of stunning geological formations, including pristine canyons, steep cliffs, and towering mesas.
Morning is the best time to check out the most famous landmark at Canyonlands National Park – Mesa Arch. Watching the sun rise over Mesa Arch is absolutely breathtaking and it’s something first timers won’t want to miss. This is an easy hike at less than a mile roundtrip and offers visitors stunning views of the La Sal Mountains in the distance. Once you’ve finished at Mesa Arch, you shouldn’t have any trouble squeezing in one more hike before lunch time. Upheaval Dome is another iconic site and is the complete antithesis of Mesa Arch. Scientists speculate that the Upheaval Dome crater was created from the impact of a meteorite which caused a massive upheaval in the geological characteristics of the area. The crater is massive, and the color scheme is surreal. This hike is classified as moderate with two separate overlooks, and at nearly 2 miles roundtrip, you’ll need about 1.5 hours, start to finish.
Afternoon Lunch on the water sounds mighty fine, doesn’t it? The Colorado River and the Green River both flow independently through Canyonlands, offering visitors a wonderful opportunity to float through many sections of the park on a kayak, canoe, or raft. You’ll need to plan ahead and book an afternoon package with one of the park’s commercial guide operators. Cataract Canyon is a great spot for white-water rafting, offering rapids from class III to V. The slow-moving current above the confluence of the two rivers is a perfect spot for kayaking or canoeing. The commercial guided excursions typically include a meal, so you won’t have to pack a picnic lunch for this day. Make sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet, and pack a dry outfit for later, just in case.
A ranger-led stargazing program at Canyonlands is a fabulous way to spend an evening at this national park. Bring a blanket, flashlight, and warm clothes to settle in for a cozy evening filled with informative talk, interesting history, and a chance to see some awesome solar sights with the help of the ranger’s telescope. Available on select evenings from spring through fall, you’ll want to visit the park’s Island in the Sky Visitor Center for the schedule and to reserve your spot. Ranger-led stargazing programs always start at sunset and operate in good and bad weather.
Day 3: Dead Horse Point State Park
A scenic 45-minute drive from Moab, Dead Horse Point State Park is named after the legendary wild mustangs who roamed the area in the 1800s, many of whom died after being trapped on the point. This high-desert woodland offers miles of hiking trails, gorgeous canyons, and dazzling landscapes.
Morning Spend your morning exploring the park’s hiking trails. Two of Dead Horse Point’s most interesting treks are the rim trails – the East Rim Trail and the West Rim Trail. The East Rim is shorter and easier, at only 3 miles roundtrip, and showcases the La Sal Mountains, sagebrush flats, and a juniper forest. The West Rim Trail is classified as moderate and is 5 miles roundtrip, featuring views of the Shafer Canyon and Colorado River, as well as sandstone cliffs and the Dark Horse Chimney. Stop by the Visitor Center and grab a map, and then pick one of the rim trails and start exploring. If you’re feeling really adventurous, get an early start and squeeze in both trails (you’ll have to hustle!) before lunch.
After your busy morning hiking, you’re probably ready to rest your legs, right? Wrong! It’s time for a lively afternoon exploring the park by mountain bike. Dead Horse Point’s Intrepid Trail System is more than 16 miles long and offers a variety of route options at all difficulty levels. The bike trails feature spectacular views, winding through juniper forests and colorful canyons and a wide variety of terrain. If you brought your own bike and gear – great! If not, Bighorn Mountain Biking offers bike and equipment rentals directly at the trailhead. With options for folks of all ages, from kids to grandparents and everything in between, biking through the park offers a great opportunity to see as many of the sights as possible in a short time.
Wrap up your final day by watching the sunset at Dead Horse Point Overlook. The overlook is perfectly positioned for watching the sun lazily dip over the horizon. Lucky for your tired legs, it’s one of the only points in the park accessible by car (plus a short, 200-foot walk). Plan ahead and pack your dinner and enjoy a leisurely meal with your travel companions, sitting on a blanket, overlooking the stunning landscape filled with buttes, mesas, and the mighty Colorado River. The main road through the park ends at the parking lot for this overlook, so it’s easy to access and doesn’t require a lot of walking. The lookout is huge and the view extends for miles – it’s the perfect way to end the perfect three-day adventure in Moab.