Thursday, August 20, 2009

Arching through Moab

Even though I woke up later than usual, I was still unable to face the "continental breakfast" provided by the hotel. Instead I grabbed an astringent cup of coffee and a small, tasteless sleeve of powdered donuts at the gas station next to the Travelodge and was on my way.

Leaving the narrow strip of civilization around Salt Lake City, the most western most part of my drive, I was headed back through the Wasatch on highway 6, across the San Rafael Desert to Moab, Utah, 3 hours to the southeast.

The first hour of the drive was beautiful as the ever changing landscapes of the pine covered Wasatch passed by. Descending the eastern slope, the mountains and trees gave way to a landscape of parched valleys bordered by high cliffs and desert plateaus, distinctly beautiful in its own right but I wouldn't want to be caught without a canteen.

I jumped off the highway and took a quick spin through the town of Helper, Utah hoping for some grub. It was not to be. With the exception of the Western Mining and Railroad Museum just south of town, Helper seemed like it was in need of some help itself, with most of the stores, hotels, restaurants and theaters along the picturesque main street long since abandoned.

Above Left: Main Street, Helper Utah. Above Right: Groggs and Pinnacle Brewing Co., Price Utah.

About 10 miles further down the highway, near the town of Price, I followed the signs for Groggs Restaurant/Pinnacle Brewing Company which, it turned out, was well worth the 2 mile detour down North Carbondale Road. A big bowl of their homemade beef chili along with chips and salsa was just what the doctor ordered particularly when washed down with a couple of tasty glasses of their Pinnacle Brewing Company Amber. Sweet!

Jumping back on highway six, I continued another 60 miles through the harshly beautiful and thoroughly depopulated desert to the intersection with Interstate 70, just west of Green River, Utah. From there it was 25 miles along the base of the imposing Book Cliffs which towered over the desert to the north to the turnoff for highway 191 and the descent into Moab.

For those living along the northeast coastal regions who have never been out west and are used to the verdant green of the eastern summer, the vast rocky expanses of the canyon lands surrounding Moab are a world apart. Huge rock formations rise up from the rocky horizon in place of trees while miles long escarpments rise and fall across the desolate landscape, creating and swallowing entire mountains and plunging deep into jagged rocky canyons.

Over this twisted and contorted landscape, volcanic upheavals and millions of years worth of wind and weather erosion, floods and and runoff have shaped and sculpted the rocky promontories, ridges and shelves into towering citadels of multi-colored rock. As you cross the plain above Moab, these distant rock formations are framed by the 12,000 ft plus La Sal Mountains towering over the rocky desert plains 30 miles to the southwest.

Moab itself is situated at the base of a broad valley, carved from mountains of red sandstone by the Colorado River. Here the river makes a sweeping turn south that forms a wide flat valley, creating a green oasis between the soaring red cliffs. This outdoor wonderland is a paradise for rafters, kayakers, climbers, mountain bikers and tourists, and provides easy access to two nearby national parks: Arches and Canyonlands.

I wouldn't have time to visit both parks, so I opted for the more popular and easily accessible Arches National Park. After passing the entrance to Canyonlands National Park, the highway starts down through a steep ravine of red sandstone known as the Moab Fault.

The entrance to the Arches National Park lies at the bottom of the Fault where the soaring sandstone cliffs open to form a semi-circular ravine which houses the swank Visitor Center. After paying the $20 entrance fee (which, incidentally, is NOT valid for the nearby Canyonlands National Park) I stopped at the Visitor Center to get my bearings, a map and some water.

Being late in the afternoon, the temperature at the Visitor Center had dropped precipitously from 120 degrees to a pleasant 110 in the shade, which hit you like a brick wall when you opened the car door. The sun was starting to get low and casting deep shadows across the valley, which I guess this was prime time for visiting the park as cars, buses and RV's were arriving by the truckload.

Above: Arches National Park. Left: Park Ave. Viewpoint. Right: Balanced Rock

Continuing on from the Visitor Center I followed the nicely maintained park road up and out of the fault, stopping to view some of the park's signature sights. I stopped at the monumental Park Avenue Viewpoint, continued past the towering Three Gossips and grabbed a photo at the teed up golf ball known as Balanced Rock.

Arches National Park. Left: View up Park Ave. Right: Three Gossips (left) and Courthouse Rock (right)

I stopped at the sign for "The Organ" but many of the rocks had a distinctly male organ look to them and I couldn't tell which one was which...or maybe that's not what they meant. Moving right along, I took the turnoff leading to the Cove of Caves and took a walk along the well groomed and popular paths up to The Windows and Turret arches, then back down and across to the gapingly huge Double Arch.

Arches National Park. Left: North Window Arch. Right: Turret Arch

"The Organ" notwithstanding, many of the formations had an organic look to them, which gave the park a distinctly different "Planet of the Apes" look and feel. Luckily, once you were up above the Visitor Center, a robust wind kept the searing temperature from feeling too oppressive.

Arches National Park. Above: Double Arch (note: small dots at bottom are people)

Having seen enough arches for the day and more than a little worried about securing a hotel room in town, I retraced my steps back down to the park entrance, jumped back on 191 and headed across the Colorado River into Moab.

First item on the agenda was a hotel. I parked in the middle of town and walked to a couple of hotels along main street, which were expensive and full. Taking to the lesser and uniquely named hotels along the backstreets, I found a room in The Virginian Motel based on a tip from another budget Motel a couple of streets over. Perfect! $58 a night, right in the center of town, quiet and off the main drag.

Moab, Utah. Left: The Virginian Motel. Right: Miguel's Baja Grill (ohhhh the margs!)

The next item on the agenda was food, and based on another lucky tip from a local coffee shop patron, I headed to Miguel's Baja Grill on Main Street for "Fine Mexican Food". They delivered better than advertised with a superb fresh enchilada plate and the best margaritas I'd had on the whole trip (sorry Rio Grande in Boulder). The first marg went down so easily the waiter apologized for giving me the glass with the hole in it...very funny.

Moab, Utah. Left: Back of Beyond Books. Right: Owner Andy Nettell

Anyway after stuffing myself on enchiladas washed down with a couple of stupendous margaritas I was off to the next and final item on the agenda: bookstores! The first store I visited, just a couple of doors down from Miguel's Baja Grill, was Back of Beyond Books. This great little new and used indie specializes in local natural history and environmental literature, guidebooks & maps, Native American and Western history along with a distinct and interesting assortment of general fiction and non-fiction.

Owner Andy Nettell is a big Edward Abbey fan and among his three cases of rare and collectible books you'll find an entire case devoted to Edward Abbey. Directly across the street from Back of Beyond Books is the equally cool Arches Book Company, featuring a great selection of general new and used titles, a great coffee bar and a diverse offering of maps, local guidebooks and books by local authors. Last but certainly not least is ABC & Beyond Used books, just a couple of blocks south on Main Street, which offers a broad selection of general used titles at great prices.

Moab Utah. Left: Arches Book company. Right: Arches Book Company coffee bar.

All three of these interesting and diverse stores are owned by Andy, making him Moab's one man media marvel. He's also a major sponsor of the Moab Confluence Literary Festival: A Celebration of Eating and Writing, to be held October 22-25 in Moab. If you 're going to be in the neighborhood, you won't want to miss it!

Moab Utah. :Above: ABC & Beyond Used Books, outside and in.

Another day, another dollar spent. Salt Lake City is already a distant dream and tomorrow it's back to Colorado. I headed back to my room at the Virginian Motel a little earlier than usual to catch up on some writing, reading and well deserved rest. It was a great day in Arches and Moab and the unique landscape combined with the plethora of activities available make it a truly one-of-a-kind destination.

Join me on my next post as I head back to Colorado, sampling the bookstores of Grand Junction, dinner in Aspen and a drive over the 12,000 foot Independence Pass.

Until then-


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