Mud season in Moab |

Mud season in Moab

Reporter, friends head to Utah to visit parks, explore with wonderment

Austin Colbert

— The battle began as soon as I parked the small SUV. As we attempted to pitch our tents behind the few barriers we could find, the relentless assailant that was the wind continued to beat down on us, refusing to make our first memories of camping in Moab, Utah, nice ones.

The brisk breeze was bad enough on its own. However, the desert dirt it carried with it made camping much worse, the fine grains getting into every nook and cranny they could find.

Our reprieve from the miniaturized projectiles came in the form of rain later that night. Though, rain would be an understatement — hurricane is more what it felt like.

The wind did eventually let up the following morning, but the cold, dreary water continued to fall through the afternoon, not at all what I was expecting from my first day in eastern Utah's remote desert.

We — myself, co-worker Katie Berning and roommate Devin Lightheart — were spending three nights in late March exploring Moab and its spectacular neighbors, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. None of us had experienced either of the two national parks on foot, and outside of peeking into the entrance of southwest Utah's Zion National Park a few years before, the parks in Utah were uncharted territory for me.

The purpose of our short trip was personal discovery but also to inspire those back in Steamboat Springs to travel that way during mud season — which officially starts Monday with the closing of Steamboat Ski Area — not that Steamboat locals have ever needed more than a small nudge to get them to Utah's playground in the spring.

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The three of us were certainly lacking some of the Moab essentials. We didn't have the time or the permits to explore the backcountry like we wanted. Our mountain bikes — a Moab must — were still stored away for the winter. My Jeep and other motorized toys remained in the hands of the dealerships that first want payment.

While we couldn't explore Moab like seasoned pros, we all had two good feet for hiking and a toddler's sense of wonderment for the alien landscape, and I had my camera, which is by far my favorite piece of adventure equipment.

The trip was divided into two parts — Arches and Canyonlands — with the little town of Moab (population 5,130) nothing more than a lunch break in between. I'm not one for itineraries, so we basically made up each move as we went along. We'll take up the journey after the rains had finally ended on our first full day, somewhere within Arches National Park.

In search of arches

Located five miles north of downtown Moab, Arches National Park visitors center is it in terms of creature comforts. One you climb the ridge onto the park's plateau, you are on your own.

The landscape is otherworldly, which is what originally drew Loren "Bish" Taylor and his frequent companion, John "Doc" Williams, to the area. Taylor, who took over Moab's local newspaper in 1911 at age 18, and Williams, Moab's first doctor, are widely considered to be the park's founders.

Yellowstone, located mostly in northwest Wyoming, was the country's first national park, established in 1872 by then-President Ulysses S. Grant. It wasn't until 1929 that Arches National Monument was created by President Herbert Hoover, with 4,520 acres set aside.

Arches National Park was established in 1971 and now includes more than 76,000 acres (by comparison, Yellowstone has 2.2 million acres).

The area has been inhabited since at least 10,000 B.C., and most likely longer. Signs of some of its most recent inhabitants, namely the Ute Indians, can be found throughout the park in the form of petroglyphs.

My greatest disappointment when I crested the first rise into the park was its apparent lack of its namesake features: arches. I fully expected to be inundated by the geologic wonders, but that wasn't the case. It would take a bit of driving — and in some cases, a bit of hiking — before we found them.

Similar to any family-friendly national park, most of Marches' main features are easily accessible. Balanced Rock — no, it's not an arch, but it's pretty cool — as well as Double Arch and the Windows barely require one to get out of the car to enjoy. But, these weren't the arches I came to see. Of all the park's features, Delicate Arch is the one people recognize and is among the most iconic scenes in the entire national park system.

There is a road that takes you to a spectacular view of the arch — which is roughly 60 feet tall — from across a nearby canyon. However, that's a view we weren't able to see, as the road was flooded at the time (I wasn't joking about the rain). To see the wonder of the arch front and center, a moderately easy 3-mile round trip hike was all it took. This feature is a can't-miss at sunset.

Unless you are planning to explore the backcountry, Arches National Park is easy to see in one day. Located about five hours from Steamboat (about 300 miles), it's not out of the question to make it down there for a quick weekend trip. If you go this week, you can expect highs in the low- to mid-70s with little chance of rain. Wait much longer into the summer, and you'll be flirting with triple-digit heat.

Canyonlands takes cake

There is no better time for taking photos than sunrise. That being said, I think 5 a.m. is a ridiculous hour for any human to be out and about, even if those first few rays of light are the prizes for getting out of your warm sleeping bag.

My first views of Canyonlands National Park — located about 30 miles southwest of Arches — came in this fashion. We were driving to the park's own iconic arch — Mesa Arch — in the wee hours of the morning. It was too dark to see much, the picturesque drop-offs around us nothing more than a black abyss waiting to swallow the absentminded.

Canyonlands, while lesser known than Arches, became a national park in 1964, seven years before its more popular neighbor. With more than 330,000 acres, Canyonlands is significantly larger than Arches and feels significantly more remote. Its main features are its vast canyons, which both the Green and Colorado rivers flow through and eventually merge before continuing on to Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park to the southwest.

If you want views, go to Canyonlands. Sometimes, it was similar to standing at the edge of the Earth — an ocean of rock and crevasses stretching endlessly to the horizon. I can't speak for Canyonland's sunsets — I'm sure they are amazing, but we had a date with the Moab Brewery to get to that night — but I will vouch for its sunrises.

We made the 45-minute jaunt from our campsite near Moab to Mesa Arch, which is a short hike from the nearby parking lot, a good half hour before the sun made its daily appearance. Mesa Arch, smaller and broader than Delicate Arch, is located picturesquely on the side of a massive canyon, where you can view the sunrise through its opening.

I wasn't alone in my photo endeavors that morning — my tripod was one of at least a dozen set up in a space roughly the size of an average kitchen. Still rubbing sleep out of my eyes and fighting for elbow room, the sun finally emerged, lighting the area in a reddish glow that would make any landscape photographer die happy.

When we first set out for this trip, I was sure Arches National Park would be my favorite of the two. After all, it has arches. And, as much as I did enjoy the park, the awe-inspiring vastness of Canyonlands took the cake. It's a desolate, barren wilderness that may be devoid of much life, but it's a landscape that fills the mind and heart with the incredible wonders only nature can provide.

Are two full days and three nights enough to experience Moab, Arches and Canyonlands? Yes, but barely. However, given the reasonably short drive from Steamboat, it's a mud season oasis that can't be missed, even if you only have a weekend to enjoy it.

Steamboat locals talk Moab

Finding a Steamboat Springs resident who visits Moab each year is like finding a cowboy in Texas — they are everywhere. Utah's desert is one of the most versatile playgrounds, perfect for whatever outdoor activity you are in to. Some go for its hiking and camping, and others for the endless mountain bike and ATV trails.

It can take years to learn the go-to spots. Luckily, three Steamboat locals were nice enough to give their take on Moab's wonderland of fun.

Ross Kirby, biker

Kirby, who works at Orange Peel bike shop, has made the trip to Moab a minimum of two times per year — and often many more — since moving to Steamboat eight years ago.

"Moab is really nice because it offers terrain that isn't around here," Kirby said. "The ability to have super sticky rock on your tires is what Moab has really driven people down there for. It's amazing some of the stuff you can ride out there."

Kirby goes to Moab for its incredible mountain biking. His favorite trail is the "The Whole Enchilada," 33.8 miles that takes you from Burro Pass in the nearby La Sal Mountains back to Moab. Starting from more than 11,000 feet of elevation, the trail descends nearly 8,000 feet before you are done.

"If I had to rate my favorite trails, it's No. 1. It's been No. 1 since I've done it," Kirby said.

Kirby also said to check out Bartlett Wash. A short drive from Moab, the dirtless oasis is nothing but wavy slickrock, and caters to all skill levels.

John Centner, Jeepster

An Arizona native who is currently the general manager at Steamboat Motors, Centner has been going to Moab for more than three decades. More than anything, it's the unique landscape and cowboy history that fascinates him.

"It's a pretty special place," Centner said. "There is something about the rocks and the river that runs through the rocks, the way the sun pounds on those rocks — there is a draw that often times is hard to explain."

Moab is a haven for Jeepsters. The annual Moab Jeep Safari, which Centner said is the Sturgis of the Jeep world, is held each March and brings in thousands of true fanatics. Centner has be among those traveling to Moab for the off-road experience the past five or six years.

"The cool thing about Moab is there are trails for all levels of Jeeping-type vehicles," Centner said. "There are just so many Jeeping trails. It's one of the few places you can actually drive on rocks."

His can't-miss suggestion is the "Metal Masher" trail, located near the Gemini Bridges area a few miles west of town. At the entrance is the fabled "Gooney Bird" rock formation, which Jeepsters say provides you good luck if your tires touch its feet as you get onto the trail.

Cara Marrs, runner

Marrs, a well-known Steamboat runner who organizes the Steamboat Springs Running Series, first traveled to Moab as a college student 25 years ago. Since then, she hasn't missed a trip out west, often making it to Moab multiple times per year.

"I love looking at those mountains and being in those hot canyons after a long winter," Marrs said. "Moab is pretty other-worldly. To me, it's part of my soul being in those canyons. I love it."

Marrs first went for the camping, and then, for years, went for the mountain biking, an activity she still enjoys. However, it's been the development of Moab's trail running scene that holds her interest today.

"I wouldn't say it was really known much for trail running until the last couple of years," Marrs said. "But it's huge for trail running now."

Marrs particularly enjoys the area off Kane Creek Road, which follows the Colorado River for a short distance southwest of downtown Moab. She recommends the Hunter Canyon Rim area and the Amasa Back trails, also popular spots for mountain bikers.

For the competitive types, Moab is home to numerous races throughout the year.

To reach Austin Colbert, call 970-871-4204, email or follow him on Twitter @Austin_Colbert

5 tips for Shooting Moab: photographer’s prospective

Taking great landscape pictures can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. The following are tips that could help readers take their photos to another level.

  1. Shoot early, or shoot late. Light is everything in photography, and the best light for shooting outside is at sunrise or sunset. Avoid the midday shadows. As an avid landscape photographer, I use the afternoon for napping, a necessity to make up for the early mornings.
  2. Bring a tripod. In some ways, you are wasting your time without one. Tripods will make your photos sharper and allow for longer exposures, a must when shooting the twilight hours. A remote shutter trigger is cheap and can also be incredibly helpful.
  3. Watch the horizon. Too many people like to divide the photo evenly between the sky and the ground. Instead, pick one or the other and make it fill two-thirds of the frame. This is a good way to crop out a dull sky.
  4. Go for different angles. Climb a rock and shoot down. Get on your stomach and shoot low. Find a subject to anchor your photo, like a tree, rock or animal, if you’re lucky. Don’t be afraid to get creative.
  5. Stay away from crowds. Most visitors take the same paths to the same places and take basically the same photos. Still follow park rules and don’t trample over sensitive vegetation, but also don’t be afraid to get off the path for that one-of-a-kind shot.

Forming great arches

According to the National Park Service, which turned 100 this year, there are more than 2,000 documented arches within the relatively small confines of Arches National Park, making it the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world.

These arches have developed over hundreds of millions of years, a product of erosion and the region’s unique geologic makeup. Arches is primarily Entrada Sandstone, a soft, porous rock overlying a thick layer of salt set down by receding seas millions of years ago.

The pressure of the sandstone, combined with a solid base layer below, forced the salt upward, creating dome-like features below the surface. The bending of the sandstone caused it to crack, the end result a series of parallel, fin-shaped formations near the surface.

Erosion, driven by the 8 to 10 inches of rain the park receives each year, began eating the sandstone from the inside. Combined with the impressive force of gravity, the softer, weaker rock eventually gives away to create the arches we see today.

As time goes on, more arches will continue to form while others will dissolve. As beautiful as Delicate Arch is, it is just that — delicate. Eventually, gravity will do its thing and bring an end to the park’s iconic symbol.

Water and gravity also contributed to the creation of Canyonlands National Park. The park’s sedimentary rocks, carried to the area from other parts of the country, were uplifted and possibly reached as high as 10,000 feet above sea level, where they were originally deposited.

Over millions of years, the Green River and Colorado River — the same forces that combined to create Arizona’s Grand Canyon — carved out the features we see in the park today. Much like Arches, Canyonlands will slowly erode into nothing over millions of years.