Travel: Moab a hub for visitors looking for scenery

In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, Thelma (Geena Davis) and her best friend, Louise (Susan Sarandon), pursued by the police, drive off the edge of a cliff in Louise’s ’66 Thunderbird, plunging into the Grand Canyon.

Except, it’s not the Grand Canyon; it’s Dead Horse Point State Park, 1,900 feet above the Colorado River just outside the city limits of Moab, Utah. And near the edge of a cliff in the same park where the final “Thelma & Louise” movie scene was filmed, you can pose for photos with your BFF or family.

Moab, a small city with a variety of hotels and restaurants, is a hub for visitors in Red Rock Country, where wind and receding seas formed the landscape. Over millions of years, sand deposits were compressed into layers of sandstone, which eroded into spires, arches and canyons. Mountains were formed by molten lava, which pooled up under the sandstone but never broke ground.

Today, much of Red Rock Country has been preserved as parkland — national parks, state parks and Bureau of Land Management areas — offering spectacular scenery and recreational activities.

“Ninety percent of people who come here see Arches National Park and the Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands National Park. The other 10 percent do specialized adventure — rock climbing, white-water rafting on the Colorado River and mountain biking,” tour guide Jim Schreck says.

But there’s much more to see and do. You can look up at Indian petroglyphs carved on canyon walls and look down on canyons from the rim of a high plateau. You can play hide-and-seek in a valley filled with boulders resembling goblins and search for petrified wood, clam fossils and geodes in canyon washes and dry creek beds. You can photograph fog hovering over the Colorado River at dawn and mule deer grazing in orchards planted by pioneers.

Schreck, a retired school teacher and former guide at Yellowstone and Grand Teton, will drive you to the national parks and lesser-known scenic spots in southern Utah, tell you about the history and geology and show you the highlights. Schreck is a driver/guide for Redrock Express in Moab, which offers private airport shuttle service and private customized park tours.

“I like the differences in each park,” Schreck says. “Arches has formations that sit up high. Canyonlands is the reverse. Instead of being down in it, you’re up above, an Island in the Sky, getting a bird’s-eye view of the canyon below.”

If you have several days to explore Red Rock Country, here are four scenic day-trips from Moab to put on your itinerary:

Day 1: Arches National Park

Arches National Park, five miles north of downtown Moab, has an 18-mile paved road to its trailheads and viewpoints. The park is famous for its sandstone arches, more than 2,000 of them, the world’s largest concentration.

Make your first stop at the Park Avenue Trailhead to hike a two-mile trail (round-trip) through a landscape of rocks, gnarled juniper and pinyon pine along the canyon floor. The trail is named for its canyon walls — massive sandstone fins and monoliths resembling skyscrapers on Park Avenue in New York City.

The next attraction along the park road is The Balanced Rock, a boulder the size of three school buses perched on top of a pillar. Of the many balanced rocks in the park, this one is the best known and is featured with a sign and short walking trail.

Another highlight is the Devil’s Garden Trailhead, where you can pick up the trail to Landscape Arch and side trails to Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. To see all three arches, it’s a two-mile walk on hard-packed trails of gravel, sand and rock.

Just before sunset, stop at The Windows, where the sandstone arches glow a fiery red and the rock formations make photo-worthy silhouettes.

Day 2: Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park

Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah. The most accessible region is Island in the Sky, 32 miles from Moab. There’s a paved park road, so you won’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to visit this region of the park.

The park road crosses the Neck — a 50-foot connection to a mesa 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, the only way in and out. On the mesa are a visitor center, scenic overlooks and walking trails, including the half-mile trail to Mesa Arch (one of the most photographed arches in Utah), and the one-mile rim trail at the Grand View Point Overlook.

On the drive back to Moab, stop at Dead Horse Point State Park, a high plateau overlooking a gooseneck in the Colorado River. See the natural history exhibits in the visitor center, learn about native plants on the nature trail and enjoy the views from eight overlooks connected by seven miles of easy walking trails. And, don’t forget to pose for photos at Dead Horse Point.

Day 3: Other scenic spots near Moab

At sunrise, you might want to photograph the fog hovering over the Colorado River near The Portal — the break in the rock that allows the river to exit the valley. Then, travel Utah Scenic Byway 279 (Potash Road) along the river to view Indian petroglyphs carved on the rocky cliffs.

Next, follow the Colorado Riverway (State Route 128) towards Castle Valley and visit the Red Cliffs Lodge, by the Colorado River at the foot of dramatic Red Rock cliffs. The lodge is home to a restaurant, winery and the Moab Movie Museum, which contains memorabilia from movies filmed in the area, including, “Rio Grande,” starring John Wayne. See the mannequin of Thelma that went over the cliff at Dead Horse Point for the movie, “Thelma & Louise.”

Continue along State Route 128 and take the side road to Fisher Towers, a series of vertical sandstone cliffs and pinnacles, which are popular with climbers (who hike a rugged trail to the base) and photographers (who follow the shorter, easier Photo Trail).

Before returning to Moab, travel the La Sal Mountain Loop Road into the La Sal Mountains, an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. At the pull-off, enjoy panoramic views of Castle Valley and its natural monuments, including a sandstone spire called Castle Rock and a square butte called The Rectory.

Day 4: Goblin Valley State Park and Capitol Reef National Park

A spaceship lands in a valley of mushroom-shaped boulders on an alien planet. This scene in “Galaxy Quest,” a Star Trek spoof released in 2000, was filmed at Goblin Valley State Park near Green River, 52 miles from Moab.

Today, you can play hide-and-seek among the park’s oddly-shaped sandstone hoodoos, which were formed over millions of years, as water and wind eroded the rock. You can follow three walking trails for views of the Henry Mountains and distinctive rock formations, including Three Sisters and Wild Horse Butte.

From Goblin Valley State Park in the San Rafael Desert, it’s 94 miles to Capitol Reef National Park, so-named for the white domes of sandstone resembling capitol buildings and the impassible ridges, which early settlers called “reefs.” Located in Torrey, the park encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust believed to have been caused by the same colliding continental plates that created the Rocky Mountains.

Follow the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, a paved 25-mile loop with parking areas near highlights — Grand Wash, Hickman Bridge, Panorama Point and the remnants of Fruita, a small community established by Mormon pioneers in the 1880s, which has historic buildings (one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and homestead) and orchards where visitors can pick fruit in season and see herds of mule deer.

This four-day sightseeing itinerary is an example of what you might do in southern Utah, with Moab as your hub. See discovermoab.com for more sightseeing options; see redrockexpress.com for customized private tours, shuttle service and vacation packages.

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