Moab, a small town in southeastern Utah, is a popular hotspot for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy white-water rafting on the Colorado River, rock climbing on petroglyph-covered cliffs, or extreme mountain-biking on precarious ledges.
But what Moab is really known for is its superb 4×4 trails; in fact, this small town (and the surrounding area) has been called by many the off-roading capital of the world.
Long considered a mecca for mountain bikers, ATV riders, and Jeep owners, southeastern Utah offers some of the most harrowing off-road experiences imaginable. While we had neither the guts nor the gear to tackle the worst of these (like Hell’s Revenge), we did spend a week exploring some of the more interesting (and less deadly) OHV trails in our 2010 Jeep Islander.
Just north of Moab lies Arches National Park, home to some of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve ever come across. Most of its famous rock formations can be accessed via the main road or a hiking path, but Arches also boasts a few 4×4 trails that offer incomparable views of untrammeled backcountry far from the majority of the park’s 800,000 annual visitors.
The main trail looked pretty tame on the map, but what we thought would be our introduction to true, you-probably-wouldn’t-want-to-try-that-in-a-sedan dirt roads quickly turned into a somewhat more exciting adventure.
And by “somewhat more exciting” I mean “well, there’s no way in hell we’re going to be able to go back up that rocky mountain we just inched over, so we’d better be able to handle what’s in front of us… or else we’re going to die a very dry, dusty death in the desert.”
The photos don’t do it justice, but we were a little freaked out that we’d bottom out over a boulder and have to walk (the long, long trail) home. We crawled at a snail’s pace and scouted ahead for the best route, and after surviving the first quarter mile (which took the majority of our time) we sailed through the rest.
It turns out our trusty little Jeep is actually a lot more capable than we thought, and we hadn’t come close to find its limits. Which, as you can imagine, was quite a relief to discover. 🙂
It wasn’t until we got home and Googled the trail that we realized it’s rated a five on a scale of 1 – 10.
That might seem perfectly average and safe, but for some perspective one should consider that a rating of seven means “vehicle damage likely“, at nine roll-overs are common, and “carnage is a certainty” at a rating of ten.
So a rating of five on our first real OHV adventure? We’ll take it!
Canyonlands is a massive national park that begins just thirty miles south of Arches, and it boasts its own 100-mile-plus 4×4 trail (White Rim) that takes days to complete.
Multi-day off-roading excursions aren’t exactly our cup of tea (can you say perpetual whiplash?!), so we opted for the somewhat tamer Shafer Trail — a road that starts at the rim of a canyon, winds its way down the canyon wall, and eventually pops out on the canyon floor!
And don’t be thinking I’m overusing the word canyon, or that just because I didn’t preface it with “grand” this must be some little valley or ravine — when I say canyon I mean CANYON in the “takes two hours to drive down the walls” sense of the word. With the top off the jeep and our camera at the ready, we took the plunge.
It turns out the dirt road itself isn’t actually that challenging (in fact, you don’t even technically need 4WD), but the view is absolutely thrilling.
The entire way down to the valley floor you’re perched along the edge of the cliff. In some places the road is wide enough to accommodate two vehicles passing… but in most of those situations I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one on the outside edge!
About halfway down an offshoot of the Shafer Trail rewards you with a view of one of Canyonlands’ own arches (which is mightily impressive), and another side trail leads to an overlook of the Colorado River snaking its way through the canyon far below.
Canyonlands National Park proved that off-roading in Moab isn’t just about the thrill or adventure – it’s also scenic!
Unlike Arches and Canyonlands – which are first and foremost national parks that just happen to have 4×4 options – the 7,320 acre “public lands treasure” of Sand Flats Recreation Area is primarily focused on off-road and backcountry adventure.
Don’t let the name fool you, though; while there is definitely quite a bit of sand, the area is best known for its smooth, steep, and long expanses of slick rock (also called fins).
During the famous annual Jeep Safari, the forty miles of OHV trails in Sand Flats are buzzing with beefed-up off-roading machines tackling some of the most dangerous trails in packs.
The slightly more moderate Fins N’ Things trail (difficulty rating: 3.5 out of 4) was plenty for us, though; it’s an exciting loop alternating between rocky sand pits and scores of slick rock fins.
Getting on and off the fins is an exhilarating experience, as the sections are often extremely steep. Thankfully “slick rock” is a bit of a misnomer, though, since under most conditions the sandstone is actually extremely grippy and offers enough traction to conquer all but the most vertical of climbs — and there were times when we definitely needed every bit of it!
While ascending many of the fins we found ourselves at such an angle that we couldn’t see anything but sky out the windshield… but the views at the top are usually well worth the terrifying climb.
Off-roading in Moab – be it via jeep, mountain bike, or ATV – is an amazing experience that offers a combination of challenge, thrills, and incredible scenery.