Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Moab delivers adventure

February 8, 2010, 7:15 am

Aside from a bevy of devoted mountain bikers who pay homage to the place every year in the 24-Hour Mountain Bike National Championship, Moab, Utah, doesn't usually hover at the top of most people's vacation wish lists. That's a shame, because it's one of the most uniquely beautiful destinations in the country.

Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are short drives from the center of Moab. Each one features breathtaking red rock formations that virtually glow in the fading light of sunset. By itself, Arches offers days of exploration via short walks or extensive hikes under and around 2,000 stone arches formed by the imprecise art of natural precipitation. The rugged grandeur of these monuments -- each idiosyncratic and constantly changing -- is unparalleled.

From Las Vegas we rented a car and drove to Moab, covering nearly 1,200 miles on the entire trip. Zion National Park is an easy stop along the way, with myriad hikes, such as the famous Narrows, beckoning for much more than a side trip. Instead, we lingered at Bryce Canyon National Park, just a few hours outside of Vegas, for a short hike to investigate the stalagmites -- conical mineral deposits that create spectacular rock pinnacles called hoodoos.

Taking this detour stretched our drive to Moab to about 12 hours, but it was well worth it. We made a note to return to explore the maze of trails amid the eerie red, rust and white natural amphitheater -- when we weren't on our way to another destination.

Several hours later, hungry and growing fatigued from watching for random deer and cows wandering onto the road through the inky blackness, we stumbled across Hell's Backbone Grill (www.hellsbackbonegrill. com, 435-335-7464) in Boulder, Utah, a tiny town (population 180!) that feels like it's in the middle of nowhere (maybe because it is?). Expecting mediocre food, we were thrilled to discover a restaurant with mouth-watering dishes accented with herbs and vegetables from the restaurant's organic farm and on-site gardens. They even get their eggs from their own heritage-breed hens. When I explored the log cabin-like interior, I found an article about the eatery from Oprah Winfrey's magazine framed on the wall, along with dining awards and a piece in the New York Times travel section. Not so hidden and unknown, after all.

When we finally arrived in Moab at 2 a.m., we settled into our three-bedroom condominium at Moab Springs Ranch, with a full kitchen, two bathrooms and the wild addition of a fire pole exiting the loft. In all, it could sleep eight people comfortably. Moab is casual and fairly economical; our condo was among the nicest accommodations, which peak with the Hampton Inn.