Hiking Moab: Outside the National Parks

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You don’t have to know me too well to know that I love hiking, and if I had my choice of doing it anywhere in the world, I’d choose Southern Utah. I’ve been a heck of a lot of places on the globe, but I just can’t get enough of my coveted Promised Land. Most people who’ve been to the vast and exciting area choose to go to what I call “the other side,” meaning Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. I completely understand why: easier access from Vegas, much more well known. Guess I can’t blame them. And hey, less traffic on “my side,” which is the east side of Southern Utah. Moab and I  met way back in 1995, quite by accident, when my beloved Mom and I wanted to see Arches and maybe just a bit of Canyonlands on one of our first road trips. Which we did! Love was born. Love has only grown. In fact, when I buy an RV and head out to live on the road in a few years, guess where I’ll be heading first? Maybe I’ll never leave!

Today, I’ve done so much hiking in Arches and Canyonlands that when I went back this summer I decided to explore outside the parks. Frankly, Arches is wonderful, but it’s so small and there are so many vehicles choking the roads that I take a pass now. I’ve pretty much hiked everything there and with plenty of other wonders to keep me busy, I’m not hankering yet to do them again. On the other hand, I still have not had enough of Canyonlands. It’s much more remote, way bigger, and offers four “districts,” two of which I haven’t even set foot in yet. So, I did spend some time there yet again, repeating hikes I haven’t done in a few years. But here are a couple of treks beyond the famous parks that I’d give about seven hundred stars to. They’ll feed your hunger for the Arches and Canyonlands, with a lot less human traffic.

Fisher Towers

Located on the gorgeous Utah 128, Fisher Towers is an absolute stunner about 20 miles east of Moab. Leave I-70 at exit 214, SR 128 West, not at US 191 the way the interstate signs say, and take this lesser known and used route to Moab. You can thank me after you do it. I’ll talk more about the highway itself below, but for now let’s concentrate on Fisher Towers.

As you near the majestic and castle-like towers, there will be a few pull-offs along SR 128. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any of these are the official parking areas for the Fisher Tower Trail; they aren’t. The actual trail is about a mile down a well-maintained gravel road that is accessible by any vehicle and has its own clearly seen sign. Any of those other lots will have you on horse trails. I made that mistake, though I can’t say I’m at all sorry, as I was hiking surrounded by arguably the most incredible scenery on Earth, and different 360 views than the Fisher Towers Trail. But if you only have a few hours to hike before you continue on to Moab, take the signed dirt road.

Before I did this hike I found some misleading information that designated the trail as easy. Don’t make this mistake, either. Fisher Towers isn’t easy. It’s rocky, the footing is tricky in some places, and there’s 1,800 feet in gain/loss over approximately five miles round trip, including a ladder. I suggest full hiking gear, most importantly sturdy boots and socks high enough to keep you from collecting dirt. There’s also very little shade if you’re hiking in warm weather, not a drop of water, even though the Colorado River is not far away on the opposite side of SR 128, and slippery sand in several places. But make no mistake about it, the payoff is grand. The rusty sandstone towers resemble man made ruins, so much so that when I posted pictures on Facebook I had to explain that the scenery is the handiwork of none other than Mama Nature.

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The entire trail is a spectacle to behold, but the real payoff is the first mile and a half. Expect nothing better than that and you won’t be disappointed when you get to what appears to be the “end” and find many little side trails to views your jaw has already dropped for a thousand times. Find your personal favorite and have lunch before you head back to your car.

Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail

This is one of those trails that I can’t believe I didn’t do the first several times I was in my favorite place. Do yourself a big favor and don’t GPS this one! The route GPS or Google Maps gives you is misleading. The trail is totally simple to get to from Moab. Just head toward Arches National Park on 191 North from town and turn left on SR 279, another beauty, albeit a short one. Drive with your head on a spindle until you come to the well-marked trail parking lot on the right hand side.

The Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail is another hot, dry, sandy one with a big time reward. It’s much flatter than the Fisher Towers hike, with less than 500 feet in gain/loss, a lot of it on the initial climb from the parking lot. If not for some rather tricky cables and a ladder, I’d rate it as easy. The hardware makes it moderate. And yes, you can see the arches without ascending the ladder, but don’t you dare miss a closer look.

I had the whole fabulous area to myself, though All Trails rates it as “heavily trafficked.” It’s fair enough to say that the cables and ladders will keep some people away. Don’t be one of those people; it’s takes about two minutes to do both, and the cables have very good footholds, though I wouldn’t recommend doing it with dogs, children, (including those on your back) or in wet or icy conditions. This trek is real National Geographic stuff and better yet, can be done in a matter of two to three hours, including all the silly selfies you can muster.

Highway 128

Okay, it isn’t really a hike, and if you’ve never been to an area like Southern Utah you probably can’t fathom a highway being a destination, but take my word, SR 128 to Moab is a trip in and of itself. When I go to the area now I’m prone to just parking on the side of the highway, donning my backpack, and setting off to see what I can see. When you leave I-70 it’s going to take an hour or so of driving for SR 128 to “get good,” but when it does, oh, it’s pretty fantastic! The Colorado River will start out to your east, on the left side of the road, but will eventually flow underneath the highway and end up on the right the remainder of the way to Moab. Before long you’ll enter the Colorado Riverway Recreation Area, scene of delight for paddlers and rafters. I had my first trip on the river this summer, but that’s another blog! Soon Fisher Towers come into view on opposite side of the road, with Castleton Towers thrown in for good measure. I’ve always thought that this land of wonder could be a national park. Maybe it will be someday.

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Closer to Moab on 128 are Grandstaff Canyon and Icebox Canyon. I intended to do Grandstaff while I was there this summer, but I ran out of energy! Next time.

My side of Southern Utah offers so much, inside and outside the national parks. This is just a morsel of what the area offers to hiking fans, not to mention mountain bikers, BASE jumpers, and many other adventure seekers. I like to say that if you ain’t been to Moab, you ain’t really been. When are you going?

Author: brendakstone

Brenda K. Stone is the pen name for Barb Lee, a native of Western Massachusetts who loves to write, travel the world, hike the world, and go to rock concerts. When not engaging in these particular adventures or the several other activities she enjoys that leave her no time for rest, you can find her dreaming of living on the roads of the American West in an RV, and her fuzz ball bunny Muffin not far away, probably sleeping.

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