24 Hours in Moab: A Whirlwind Visit to 2 National Parks
Utah has 5 stunning National Parks and an abundance of remarkable state sites and national monuments. How to choose where to spend your vacation? Well, for our first trip to Utah, we decided to visit the two national parks that were closest together: Canyonlands and Arches.
These two geological wonders are just 30 minutes apart! The town of Moab is a town of nature lovers and outdoor adventurers, perfectly set up to sustain a substantial tourist population out in the desert. In just 24 hours, you can sample the highlights of these two parks.
We love to travel with Bert and Ernie, but our November 2021 visit to Utah was a dog-free trip. Not only did we fly to Utah from Minneapolis (strike one), but Canyonlands and Arches, like many national parks, are not particularly dog friendly (strikes two and three). Frankly, even if they were dog friendly, Ernie would have found a way to eat a cactus and Bert would probably have leapt off a canyon edge.
Bert and Ernie stayed home for this adventure, but we brought #TeenyTinyErnieBernie, our travel-sized Berner toy, along for the ride! For more on #TTEB, see this post. And to learn more about how to bring your dog to a national park, see this post: How to Become a B.A.R.K. Ranger.
TICK TOCK: THE 24 HOUR ITINERARY
Running total since arrival
What to do
Arrive at Canyonlands National Park (4 hours from SLC)
Hike Mesa Arch Trail - bring lunch
Hike Murphy Point Trail
Hike White Rim Overlook
Drive to hotel
Check in, freshen up
Head to dinner + explore Moab
Early to bed - early morning tomorrow!
Rise & shine!
Arrive at Arches National Park
Park at Delicate Arch Trailhead, stargaze, begin hike
Enjoy the sunrise at Delicate Arch (depends on time of year)
Explore Wolfe Ranch & Petroglyph Trail
Hike Windows Loop,, Turret Arch, Double Arch (same parking lot)
Stop at Sand Dune Arch on your way to the Visitors Center. Grab a souvenir and head on your way!
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
About the Park
If you’ve been to Grand Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park might feel familiar. And if you haven’t visited Grand Canyon, this park will feel like what you imagine the Grand Canyon to be. The Colorado River has carved the canyons, buttes, and mesas over thousands of years to create this spectacular landscape.
There are actually 4 districts in this massive 330,000+ acre park - we spent our time in the most easily-accessible one: Island in the Sky. The other districts (The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers) are several hours drive from the entrance gate in Island in the Sky nearest to Moab. You’ll need quite a bit more time to explore these remote areas, and likely a backcountry permit and an all-wheel-drive vehicle depending on how adventurous you’re feeling.
Plan for little to no cell service here. Get a paper map from the ranger at the entrance booth, and download your AllTrails GPS maps ahead of time.
A Quick Visit
For a speedy afternoon sampler of the park, spend your time at Island in the Sky, a mesa-top district of the park with stunning views of the canyons and snaking river below. There are 3 short trails we’d recommend enjoying. Because you’re on top of a mesa, there isn’t much elevation to these hikes - nice if you are still adjusting to the high altitude!
0.6 mile out & back
A classic for sunrise but lovely at any time of day. Bring lunch & enjoy the views. Can be crowded.
Park at Mesa Arch parking lot
3.4 mile out & back
Well marked (look for the rock cairns) and pretty flat. Nice views at the end
Park Grand View Pt Road - turnoff/parking before Grand View
1.8 mile out & back
More cool canyon views. Couple of spots where you can get close to the edge - beware if you are afraid of heights
Park at Gooseberry Trail/White Rim Overlook Trailhead off Grand View Pt Rd
Of course, there is so much more to explore at this park. The rangers usually have great recommendations, or check the board outside the visitor center to see what might be a good fit for you as you balance difficulty & time.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
About the Park
Spend any time driving in Utah and you’ll see renditions of Delicate Arch on every license plate. An icon of Utah and of Arches National Park, this 52-foot-tall freestanding arch is on many travelers’ bucket lists. But there’s so much more to see at Arches! Home to more than 2,000 arches, towers, spires, and plenty of red rocks set against blue sky, Arches NP is full of spectacular sights.
This extremely popular park is just 5 miles from downtown Moab, so its easy accessibility tends to add to the crowds. If you’re looking to catch sunrise at Delicate Arch (beautiful), plan to arrive early, early, early as parking lots frequently fill and in-park traffic can be gnarly. In the peak season (April 1 - October 31), visitors must have a timed entry ticket to access the park between 7 am and 4 pm. If you arrive earlier than 7 am, you do not need a timed entry ticket. To learn more about this system, click here.
We visited a day or two before Daylight Savings Time ended in November, so we didn’t need a timed entry ticket. We also had one of the latest possible sunrises of the year for our hike to Delicate Arch. We were among the first couple of cars in the Wolfe Ranch parking lot about 2 hours before sunrise, but for a peak season visit, I’d recommend budgeting even more time in the morning. Arches and Canyonlands are both certified International Dark Sky Parks. The stargazing is unbelievable - just another perk of a super early AM arrival.
A Quick Visit
We spent a morning in Arches on our speedy visit, but you could spend days exploring here! To hit the highlights and have a less crowded experience, you’ll need to arrive at zero dark thirty. Arches is a much smaller park than Canyonlands but traffic can still snarl travel between parking lots for some of these trails. As with Canyonlands, check with the rangers if you ever have questions - they know the park inside and out and can make great recommendations to make sure you have fun and stay safe.
3.2 miles out & back
Park at Wolfe Ranch lot (25 mins from Visitors Center entrance)
1.2 mile loop
Easy trail and fun to see so many arches at once. Great photos
Shares a parking lot with Double Arch
0.6 mile out & back
Shares a parking lot with Windows Loop & Turret Arch
0.3 mile out & back
A quick sandy jaunt
Park near Devil’s Garden
We ran out of time to enjoy the Park Avenue trail, a 1.8 mile out & back through a canyon. Next time!
Perhaps our favorite Arches memory is driving through the park in daylight as we were on our way out. When we’d entered at 5:00 am, it was pitch black and we couldn’t see anything beyond our headlights. As we exited, we were open mouthed as we drove past towering rock formations and even the massive Balanced Rock not far off the road - all had been completely hidden in darkness earlier.
LOGISTICS: HOW TO GET THERE
We flew into Salt Lake City (SLC) the night before we drove to Moab. We got a rental car knowing that we’d have a lot of driving ahead of us to get to Moab and also within the parks themselves. When we take these types of adventure trips, we usually find it worth the extra cost to spring for an SUV rental car. Not only is it a bit more comfortable with more leg room, but we also have plenty of room in the back for our gear and snacks! We drive SUVs at home, so we’re used to sitting up a bit higher, and it’s nice to know that we have AWD if we need it in the parks.
We also used some time the evening of our arrival in SLC to hit a grocery store and stock up on essentials for the week. For us, this usually means hiking snacks like nuts and bars, stuff to make sandwiches for lunches on the go, car snacks like chips and Oreos, and a case of bottled water. We’ll pack a small insulated lunchbox + a reusable ice pack in our suitcases so we can keep things cold on our drives and outings.
The drive from the SLC area to Moab is about 4 hours. You’ll drive through Provo, home of Brigham Young University, about 45 minutes south of SLC, then up and over the mountains to reach the desert. The landscape changes quickly on this drive! Be sure to keep your gas tank at least half full, and be prepared for cell service to be spotty. We kept opening whatismyelevation.com and watching the numbers rise and fall as we went over mountain passes. For some of our favorite road trip listens, check out this post: 3 Subscription Gifts for the Outdoor Adventurer
LOGISTICS: WHERE TO STAY
Once we got to Moab, we stayed at the Element Moab, a Marriott property. There’s an outdoor pool and hot tub as well as a free breakfast, but we didn’t end up utilizing any of these amenities since we were so busy getting in to the parks! Element Moab is dog friendly, but only up to 50 lbs - not much help for those with larger dogs. Bring Fido has a good roundup of dog friendly Moab accommodations here.
LOGISTICS: WHERE TO EAT
As mentioned, we packed in our lunches each day to give us more time in the parks. Moab has a couple of grocery stores if you want to wait to do your shopping once you arrive. After an afternoon of hiking at Canyonlands, we were hungry for some hot food. We grabbed dinner at Moab Brewery, just a couple miles from our hotel. It was CROWDED with hungry hikers and locals alike. In my pre-trip research, I’d also seen good things about:
Some of these (pizza/Thai) might be good options for take out if you have spent longer in the park and are just looking to grab something quick and get back to the hotel.
Bring a headlamp, and make sure to have extra batteries too.
Stay on trails and stay off the biological soil crust! This is present at both parks just off the trails and looks like crusty, slightly darker, maybe fuzzy dirt. It’s actually a living organism that is critical to the ecosystem and being trampled by hiking boots disrupts the way it controls erosion. These crusts can be thousands of years old.
Download Alltrails (affiliate link) GPS enabled maps on your phone since cell service will be scarce to non-existent and you will not be able to see cairns in the dark.
Wear good boots. The slickrock can be, well, slick. For more on boots & hiking gear, see this post: 5 Pieces of Outdoor Gear Worth the Investment.
Drink plenty of water & take your time. Altitude is different than what you may be used to and the desert air is dry.
Hiking poles (affiliate link) may come in handy.
Know that it takes time to get around in national parks, especially XXL parks like Canyonlands. Pack your patience!
Don’t forget your America the Beautiful park pass.
Now - do you feel ready for your whirlwind trip to Moab? Let us know which park is your favorite!