Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Rediscovering Moab, 'the most beautiful place on Earth'

November 24, 2009, 6:56 am
Live long enough, travel enough, and sure enough, one day you will return to a favorite destination to find it overcrowded, overcommercialized and unable to regenerate itself.

Sadly, that's happened in Moab, Utah.

It's getting more and more difficult to reconcile the Moab that Edward Abbey wrote about in "Desert Solitaire" — he started the book with the words "This is the most beautiful place on Earth" — and the depressingly sign-choked string of commercial eyesores the city has become. "TOURS," "MOTELS" and "MORE TOURS" blaze before the deep-orange cliffs that surround the city like swear words spray-painted on a Rembrandt.

Yet step away from the town, avoid the trails choked with the devoted hikers and mountain bikers during peak season (spring and fall), and Moab is many people's idea of heaven.

As the gateway to Arches National Park and Canyonlands, there's no end to the rocks — the jagged, undulating peaks of the La Sal mountains are like oversized, red-ribbon candy leading from Moab to the cornucopia of Entrada sandstone sculptures, doorways, arches and fins of the two national parks, their beckoning series of playgrounds and rock galleries continue to captivate legions of RV drivers from around the world.

But Moab is different, a way station and a stopping place that has fomented controversy over the years as it has transitioned from sleepy space in the middle of nowhere to mining boomtown to mountain biking mecca and roadway for oversized Tonka toys.

"This is my favorite place to bike," says Sam Nelson from Austin, Texas, taking a break from his second spin on the practice loop at the Slickrock Trail.

The Slickrock Trail sits in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, an expansive series of slickrock dunes in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, a mesmerizing and seemingly endless ocean of dunes, rock fins and bowls with shrub-dotted mesas and the La Sals as backdrops.

It's hard to imagine Moab without mountain biking, but there was a time when it was so. Mountain biking didn't exist there before 1983, when Rim Cyclery, a block off Main Street, sold only road bikes, and Marin County, Calif., and Crested Butte, Colo., were on the cusp of the fat-tire craze.

Over the next couple of years, the three locales became the holy trinity of the sport, and the motorcyclists and Jeep drivers who had created the Slickrock Trail found themselves pushed aside.

Since the two factions became Moab's big money makers after the mining decline in the late 1970s, they have squabbled loudly and publicly, with environmentalists and Hummer-makers taking sides and the locals often caught in the middle. At restaurants and souvenir shops, you can see the Lycra-clad cyclists and the mud-spattered motorcyclists and Jeepsters eyeing one another warily, but for the most part, everyone gets along. Walk Main Street, though, to read the bumper stickers and really know their thoughts: "Don't Bust the Crust" and "It's a Jeep Thing, You Wouldn't Understand."

Yet there is so much more to Moab than the back-and-forth between the two- and four-wheelers.

Most of the canyons were carved by the wide-roaming Western rivers, and in one such section, where the Colorado River cut a particularly dramatic swath, now sits Red Cliffs Lodge, a working ranch since the 1800s that houses a winery, an old movie museum devoted to the Westerns filmed there and in the surrounding area, cabins and one of the best horse outfits around.