By Elissa Gilbert
“If we were in any other vehicle, we’d be upside down right now.”
Our guide, Cody has steered us through Hell’s Revenge to park the Hummer at a crazy angle against a slick, rocky hill. Through the open roof, the dark sky looks as if someone emptied a salt shaker of stars on it. The Big Dipper is right over our heads.
We’re not the first creatures to explore up here, and it’s not just the taillights of other four-wheel drive vehicles making the slow climb up the “Roller Coaster.” Chunks of rock as large as 70 feet have crashed to the ground from Landscape Arch within the past 15 years; in 50 years — or less — the arch may be gone. In other places in the park rock crashing to the ground is creating new arches, not destroying them. If you discover a new arch you get to name it.
At Balanced Rock, a 3,500-ton boulder precariously perches on a sandstone column. A jackrabbit dashed across the path in front of us, as if afraid it will fall at any moment. We walk around it slowly.
At Arches Park we gaze at columns reaching upward and arches opening views skyward. Later, at Canyonlands Park we stare down at a canyon so deep that the river that carved it can’t be seen. We are 1,000 feet above a white rim mesa, which is 1,000 feet above the river below. The plateau is scarred not just from the river, which left its mark over millennia, but also by roads leaving their mark from mining operations a century ago. At the Green River Overlook the river is visible, a slash of color twisting through the brown desert soil.
We walk to Mesa Arch, following a trail marked by stone cairns, the gray stone brightened by a vivid pink cactus bloom. Here, even the arch directs our eyes downward, framing the mesa below.
Canyonlands has two other districts, very different from Islands in the Sky. But we don’t have time to visit them today. The sun is starting to set and Mesa Arch is glowing gold.
We drive to dinner along a road next to the curving Colorado River. The fields next to it are green but make us uneasy because they are contaminated by uranium tailings from Moab’s mining days. The other side of the road is lined with dark red rock cliffs.
It’s late in the afternoon but a few belayers still squat by the side of the road, keeping an eye on the rock climbers clinging to the sandstone. Further down the road, the red rock is carved with petroglyphs. It’s so high up you wonder if they had to rock climb to get there, but before the road was built there was enough scree to scramble up that high. Some figures are clearly hunters; others make me feel illiterate.
Dinner is a cowboy Dutch oven feast along the river. We heap tin plates with five kinds of meat, all tender and shredded from 12 hours of cooking, and sit down at tables covered with red-checkered cloths. We eat until “Mountain Shadow Time” casts grayness on the nearby rock face. This is the signal to put down our forks and pile into a boat. As we cruise up the Colorado River, both sides lined with sandstone cliffs, our guide coaxes us to find images in the rock: a pretty woman, a young man who morphs into a chinless geezer as the boat passes him by, a witch on a broom. When the darkness has become heavy he stops talking. A soundtrack narrates the story of Utah as a light plays on the cliffs and a pale white moon floats overhead.
Our imaginations have been primed and we watch the dinosaurs, the settlers, the cowboys and Indians, on the rocks, in the shadows, and in our heads.
The next morning we head back to the river. Although there are only mild rapids on this section of the Colorado River we’re given a handout to read telling us what to do if we fall out or if the raft capsizes. I pull my lifejacket tight. There’s already muddy water in the raft when I get in and I pull my lifejacket tighter and clutch the “chicken rope” as we set off.
My grip soon relaxes. The river is slow where we’ve put in, and we gently drift downstream. There is time to count the 14 layers of rock, though they look like more, and to try to count the tiny cliff swallows flitting in and out of nest holes in the rock just a few feet above the water. Then there is a roar up ahead and the water is churning, its brownness turned to frothy white. Our guide stops chatting and begins to row, steering us into the rapids. Even this beginner-class whitewater tilts the boat and splashes us with cooling water. We pass through a few more rapids before floating to the riverbank and continuing our adventure on horseback.
Teresa, the wrangler, demonstrates how to steer a horse. “At some places I know,” she says, “they tell you don’t worry about it. The horse knows the way and he’ll get you there and back. We don’t do that here. We kinda assume that when you come for a ride, you want to ride.”
There’s not actually much steering required — the horses do know the way — but unlike many guides who are happy to lead a nose-to-tail line of horses, we are asked to space ourselves and the line stretches out beneath Castle Rock. A collared lizard, green and orange, darts off a rock, spooked by the horses’ approach. Teresa has us taste juniper berries, not nearly as sweet as the blueberries they resemble, and a tart, sour red berry, nameless, that leaves our mouths puckered.
Some of the rocks along the trail are dusted with white-like-snow, minerals left behind by a now-dry stream. We splash through the still-flowing waters of Castle Creek on our way back to the corral. Along the edges the vegetation is dense and moistly green, unlike the scrubby brush among the rocks, and even horses which didn’t snack earlier along the trail can’t resist the temptation. It takes some pulling on reins and kicking to get them going. But it’s cool here in the shade and we are in no hurry for the ride to end.
This is a desert but the dryness actually helps grapes grow here. We taste five varieties of wine from Castle Creek Winery back at the ranch. With time left before dinner we walk down the hall to the Movie Museum.
John Wayne greets us at the entrance; he filmed “Stagecoach,” “Rio Grande,” and other movies here. Other exhibits in the museum show locals who have been in productions and posters of the many films shot in town. We pass one more celebrity on our way out: Thelma, or is it Louise?, is here. Her face is smudged from her drive over the cliff, but she’s still smiling.
Dinner is on an open terrace as the sun disappears. The red cliffs are soon lost in blackness, fading from sight on our last quiet night in Moab.
If you go:
Moab is a hotbed of outdoor adventure 235 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah, and 110 miles from Grand Junction, Colo. Besides the activities mentioned, you can go skydiving, mountain biking, canyoneering and more.
We stayed at Red Cliffs Lodge, redcliffslodge.com, 14 miles outside town alongside the Colorado River. For information on other accommodations, visit discovermoab.com.
There are many outfitters in town; check discovermoab.com for details. Our rafting trip was through Adrift Adventures (adrift.net) and the Hummer ride through Moab Adventure Center (moabadventurecenter.com). Our horseback ride was at Red Cliffs Lodge as were the wine tasting and movie museum.
There are many petroglyphs in the Moab area; we viewed the ones on Potash Road. Canyonlands By Night (canyonlandsbynight.com) serves the cowboy Dutch oven dinner and presents the light show on the river.
Information on Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park is available at nps.gov/arch and nps.gov/cany. Arches is five miles from town; Canyonlands, 32 miles.