A metal monster roars, grabs a huge chunk of sandstone, nearly tips over and performs the seemingly impossible, climbing out of a massive crevasse and ascending a giant slab of rock.
It’s Jeep Week in Moab, Utah, and plumes of dust mark the horizon as hundreds of tough-as-steel four-wheelers and their drivers scramble over red rock.
To witness this marriage of man and machine is to enter a “Mad Max” apocalypse — without the insanity. Despite the high-octane, fearsome trappings, four-wheeling is a sport with family sensibilities.
Men, women and children — but mostly men — gather around custom-made rock crawlers that roam terrain that would scare a mule. But my wife and I aren’t in this outdoor mecca for motor sport. We are here to mountain bike, and my only regret is that I didn’t come years ago.
California is cool. But Utah? Well, Utah rocks.
Here’s the secret: In Utah, beauty and wonder are nothing unusual. Even the drive out is amazing. In California — and I love the Golden State — most of us don’t stop at “vista ahead” signs. In Utah, you stop.
Around Moab, mountain bikers have their own trails, with banked curves, roller-coaster hills and miles of something called slick rock. Not sure about slick rock? Think of an almost never-ending skatepark crafted by Mother Nature.
In California, hikers, four-wheelers and cyclists share dirt. But Utah specializes in sport-specific trails. Dirt roads are tailored for motor sports, single-track trails are carved for mountain bikers.
Still, there’s more to Moab than four-wheeling and mountain biking. Much more.
Hikers enjoy serene vistas on their own paths. Photographers delight in capturing the wonders of Canyonlands and Arches national parks.
Rock climbers scale sandstone cliffs and red rock chimneys. Rafters shoot rapids in the chilly Colorado River.
The variety of activities grows out of a rare combination of pristine and protected national park wilderness, Bureau of Land Management territory and a smart state that understands the balance between protecting the natural world and allowing humans to have serious outdoor fun.
The sweet thing is this part of Utah is only a 10-hour drive from Southern California that can be broken up with an overnight in Las Vegas.
Here’s a run-down of the most popular sports — and that includes dining and shopping, which in Moab are activities unto themselves.
Hiking and sightseeing
For me, the coolest national park near Moab is Arches. For my wife, it is Canyonlands. With hiking, photography and rock climbing in both parks, there is plenty to check out.
—Arches National Park
This area is home to some 2,000 arches, including the famous Delicate Arch, which looks like it’s about to topple any minute.
Because I broke my toe mountain biking my second day in Moab, I had to look at Delicate Arch from a distance. But for those who are healthy, the round-trip hike is only a few miles and is said to be well worth it.
Perhaps better, the approach alone offers reminders of long-gone eras.
Near the parking lot, there is a rock with ancient Native American petroglyphs. Nearby, there’s a rough-hewn cabin built by late 1800s settler John Wolfe. A little research shows that Wolfe was less rancher than simple hermit, and my take is that his daughter dragged him back to Ohio before he starved to death. Sorry, John.
For a shorter hikes, the Windows Section at Arches is a must-do and you can even scamper up and around the much-photographed Double Arch. As you approach, the enormous scale of the site starts to reveal itself and resembles something out of a science fiction movie.
Tip: Some 1.4 million visitors head for Arches every year and there is one road in and out. June and July are peak months and the crowds on Independence Day and Labor Day are the worst. Rangers advise arriving between 7 and 8 a.m. or between 3 and 5 p.m. to skip the long lines.
—Canyonlands National Park
Rivers, canyons and mountains divide Canyonlands into three segments, and only one is easily accessible from Moab. But not to worry. There is plenty in the one area called — and you have to love the name — Island in the Sky.
Island in the Sky is mostly a huge mesa that offers forever views of deep valleys, towering cliffs and bizarre natural features. One resembles a giant loaf of bread and is called Upheaval Dome. Another is a crater-like scoop that is 1,500 feet deep.
Tip: Bring lunch, snacks and plenty of water. There is no food or fuel in the park — but that also means very few people.
My wife and I fly over undulating slick rock in a zone so Zen that fear disappears, instinct takes over and being in the moment is all that matters.
A twisting, turning trail plunges down and we shoot up the next rise with just enough momentum to make it to the top. We drop down and zoom up again. And again.
The area is called Navajo Rocks, a place where cliffs dotted with pines rise above a deep gorge. Flat mesas line the horizon. Bands of rock morph from yellow, to orange, to red.
We break for lunch. A rock formation resembles giants marching in formation with enormous gaps of blue sky separating each figure.
We cross and recross an off-highway road. In total, Navajo Rocks offers 16 miles of intermediate to upper intermediate trails.
Here are some other mountain biking parks.
This is a super family-friendly mountain bike park that is close to Moab. It offers a smooth dirt road off Highway 19 and includes a big parking lot with basic bathrooms.
Mostly, this is easy to easy/intermediate riding. You can zoom — but, please, watch out for little ones and beginner adults. The trails are rated easy to difficult. Yet a difficult at Brands is an intermediate elsewhere.
With 57 miles of rugged mountain biking, difficult in this area means difficult. How difficult? Within an hour on an expert-rated trail called EKG, I sandwiched a toe between steel pedal and rock and snapped a bone.
The approach from the highway is easier. It’s a 3-mile dirt road that’s doable in a low-slung sedan.
Along with EKG, a favorite trail at Klondike is Baby Steps, but don’t let the name fool you. There’s nothing baby about the loop. It packs a wallop and is best for intermediate riders and above.
This is Magic Mountain for mountain bikers. With 24 miles of trails, there are loops, carved turns and roller-coaster dips. For a wild ride, check out the awesomely named Gravitron. Then ride it again for more fun.
—Dead Horse Point State Park
With 14 miles of trails on relatively flat terrain, much of this area is family-friendly. The access road is paved and the park includes a visitors center, restrooms and a snack shack.
If you have time, check out Twisted Tree and Prickly Pair trails. Both offer views that look out over a vast desert labyrinth of river-carved canyons, sandstone spires and mesas.
World famous for 10 miles of tough and amazing fun — or so I hear. I was forced to pass until my busted toe heals.
After a long day of wilderness, it’s nice to return to downtown Moab for a some rest and recreation. Fortunately, the strip doesn’t disappoint.
Tourist curio shops sell everything from rocks that look like they were found on the side of the road to fake Davy Crockett raccoon hats. There also are plenty of upscale stores such as Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery with works by local artists as well as by Native Americans in surrounding states.
For dinner, Fiesta Mexicana offers relatively inexpensive family fare (the chicken mole is excellent), Spoke on Center has a variety of craft beers and Moab Diner specializes in sinful ice cream treats.
Making the most of Moab
1. Make reservations early. Rooms and campsites fill up fast in summer, spring break and for the holiday season. With mountains nearby to cool things off, the season is year-round.
2. Plan on several days. There is a lot to do and see.
3. If you have time, break up the drive. With traffic, it can take 12 hours. Mesquite, Nev., is an inexpensive overnight.