MOAB: Adrenaline Town
Our fearless writer takes on the thrills and extreme spills of a small town in <strong>Utah</strong>
The name Moab is a biblical name for a place just short of the Promised Land. The Moabites were historically regarded as the perpetual enemy of ‘God's chosen people’. Moab in the American state of Utah is, like its biblical namesake, a verdant valley in the middle of a serious desert. Because of those similarities, the little town was dubbed Moab by Mormon settlers in the 1800s.
But don’t let that put you off.
Moab is now known as the extreme sports capital of the world, offering activities such as mountain biking, off-roading and and rafting on the Colorado River. Two national parks are located in the Moab area: Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park.
Danny (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle’s new film 127 Hours is based on the true story of a rock climber who gets trapped and is forced to cut off his own arm to free himself. The movie was shot in the vicinity of Moab.
When Hollywood needs the Grand Canyon it comes to Moab (no special permission is needed to film here). The amazing scenery has long inspired movie-makers. Westerns like Rio Grande (1950) and Cheyenne Autumn (1963) to The Greatest Story Ever Told (1963) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988) and even Austin Powers’ Goldmember (2002) were all filmed here. The pod races in Star Wars Episode I (1999) is a CGI montage of Moab landmarks.
There's a real laid-back, great-outdoors vibe in this adrenaline town. Some 569 km (350 miles) from Denver, Moab sits in a basin surrounded by spectacular red rock buttes (isolated hills or mountains rising abruptly above the surrounding land). The town itself (population 5,000) is, it has to be said, pretty unremarkable, but it's the surrounding countryside that visitors from around the world come for. Moab is the only town in Utah on the banks of the mighty Colorado River. Even if you're not into extreme sports (or sports of any kind for that matter) Moab offers epic scenery and value-for-money excursions. Whatever you do take plenty of memory cards for your camera – this place is a photographer's paradise.
Mountain biking helped put Moab on the extreme-sports map. The famed Slickrock Trail was first laid out by dirt bike riders in the late 1960s. Demanding ledges, climbs and drops make this trail a favourite for experienced mountain bikers. Even the 3.2 km (2 mile) practice trail is not for the fainthearted. But there are other routes like the Bar M Loop, a 12.8 km (8 mile) dirt road that's easy peasy. There are any number of places to rent bikes – one of the best is Poison Spider Bicycles right in the centre of town (the arachnid reference has nothing to do with nasty creepy-crawlies but is named after a rock formation).
If you're looking for something a bit less challenging you can always rent an all terrain vehicle, quad bike or even a Hummer! About the most sedate form of transport is the jetboat that takes you up the Colorado River for about four hours. It's a great orientation lesson and a good way to see what the area has to offer.
Visitors to the Grand Canyon are often slightly miffed. It's certainly “grand” but its scale is so huge that it's difficult to appreciate the overwhelming spectacular-ness of the place. Not so in Moab. Here you're closer to the action. It's a kind of Grand Canyon lite and so much better for it. From the jetboat you'll see Thelma & Louise Point named after the über-chick flick in which at the end Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon take the ultimate wrong turn.
More dramatic still is Dead Horse Point State Park which offers views of the goose neck section of the Colorado River 600m (2,000ft) below, the distant La Sal mountains and the Canyonlands National Park. The name comes from the legend that in the 1800s cowboys corralled wild horses on this high point. The beasts were left too long without water and perished. For once the adjective “awesome” really applies. The views are, arguably, better than the sheer mass of the perspective-defying Grand Canyon. Visit Dead Horse Point when the sun goes down to see the famous western sunsets and watch the rocks turns from terracotta to astounding deep red.
If you want to get in touch with your inner cowboy horseback riding is another excellent way of seeing the natural wonders that surround Moab. Red Cliffs Lodge offers great two-hour trails in real John Wayne country. Gentle quarter horses are ideal for inexperienced riders and the western saddle is far more comfortable than the equivalent in the UK. Protective headgear is available but most riders prefer a cowboy hat that keeps the sun off. Treks start at 8.30am to avoid the midday heat.
The nearby Arches National Park is where you'll find the largest number of arched rock formations anywhere in the world. The jewel in the crown is the Windows (all the top sites have names – Park Avenue looks like a street of slim skyscrapers). The North and South Window Arches are like two giant eyes. There's something very magical, inspirational (even spiritual) about the sheer scale of these immense structures: arches, spires and balanced rocks that look as though they'd tumble in a sudden gust of wind. It was water and ice, underground salt movement and 100 million years of erosion that created this strange surrealist landscape, a landscape that inspired Native Americans for thousands of years – their presence marked by pictographs of animals and figures.
Though Moab is not much more than a one-street town there's a heap of activities available and plenty of places to help you get the adrenalin pumping. The Moab Information Center is in the middle of town and nearby you'll find the Moab Adventure Center which offers any number of “carefree adventure” packages.
A selection of high-octane activities:
Moab has become a mecca for mountain biking partly because of the varied options close by. You can DIY at several bike rental shops or take a professionally guided tour. As well as the Slickrock Trail there's the 48km (30 mile) Porcupine Rim with its 914m (3,000ft) descent.
This is exploring the red rock canyons and you can tailor what you do to your experience. You might need some basic climbing skills for some routes and others are strictly for hardcore enthusiasts requiring abseiling (Americans say “rappelling”) skills that take you 30m (100ft) into canyon chambers. Not for the fainthearted.
There are hundreds of established climbing routes that are surprisingly uncongested. There are numerous sandstone walls and demanding crack climbs.
On the water
Take a paddle raft with everyone with their own oar, try simple kayaking or adventurous whitewater action. Even when everything looks calm the Colorado has a strong undertow and you should always wear a lifejacket.
The area's uranium mining past means there are thousands of kilometres of 4x4, ATV and dirt-bike trails. Even the biodiesel-powered Hummer safari trips, with driver thrown in, are 90% fun rides. The Moab Jeep Safari is held every Easter.
There are tandem jumps for first-timers as well as opportunities for experienced skydivers. There is also the chance to do some BASE-jumping.
You can't fly direct to Moab from Scotland. Try Glasgow to Durango but there are two stops en route. Alternatively, most major carriers fly Heathrow to Denver. For reasonable car hire try Budget, Thrifty or Dollar.
There's a huge range of accommodation in and around Moab. Try the Hampton Inn (mid-price range). Rooms have flat-screen LCD TVs and coffee makers. The Super 8 is a 45-room budget hotel that has loads of features that come standard, like free WIFI and complimentary continental breakfast. There is also an excellent 24 hour restaurant adjacent to the hotel. Rooms start at £31, off-peak.
The official website of the Grand County Travel Council in Moab, www.discovermoab.com
Moab Adventure Center offers a range of outdoor adventures, www.moabadventurecenter.com
Poison Spider Bicycles, www.poisonspiderbicycles.com
Moab lodging Red Cliffs Adventure Lodge is on the Colorado River on scenic Highway 128. Activities include horseback riding, mountain climbing, www.redcliffslodge.com
The annual Easter Moab Jeep Safari, www.moab-utah.com/jeep