Avoiding the Crowds in Moab: Alternatives to Utah’s Overcrowded National Parks
What to do near Arches and Canyonlands That Won't Require Hours of Waiting in Lines
Canyonlands National Park: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
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Southern Utah's 5 iconic National Parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef) bring millions of tourists every year to see stunning red rock cathedrals, hoodoos and arches. In 2020, Zion alone attracted 3.6 million visitors to the Park. When talking about millions of people, overcrowding is an understatement. When I pulled into Zion in the beginning of May around mid afternoon I couldn't find a single parking spot for 45 minutes, and reluctantly had to return just before dusk to even step out of my car. Similarly, during my first attempt to enter Arches at midday the park was already at maximum capacity and no entry was allowed. I returned the following morning at 8am and still had to wait 45 minutes in line to enter. Fortunately, there are several alternatives to these Parks that provide just as memorable experiences and views, without the stress of reservations and crowds.
Arches National Park: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Moab, a city in Eastern Utah, is the home of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. This region of the state is known as a red-rock wonderland. The iconic rock formations attract millions of visitors each year that cause serious traffic jams, so much so that Park officials are pushing for reservation systems to be implemented. Spending the day mountain biking, rock climbing, or visiting Dead Horse Point State Park (located right between the two famous National Parks) might be the perfect alternative to waiting in long lines and fighting crowds at popular scenic pull-offs. Although rock climbing these magnificent red-rock walls or mountain biking on Utah's famed terrain is not for the faint of heart, Moab is known as a mecca for both.
Slickrock Bike Trail: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Mick Haupt
Renting mountain bikes at Moab’s oldest mountain biking shop, Rim Cyclery, is a great way to experience the red-rock landscape without the crowds. At the bike shop, specialists will size and fit you perfectly for a top-of-the-line mountain bike to rent for the day. Gear such as helmets and flat tire repair equipment is included in the rental.
Naturally, I wanted to mountain bike the iconic Slickrock loop located within the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Having never ridden a mountain bike before, this strenuous 9.6 mile loop was indeed way outside of my skill level, and I reluctantly had to turn back around mile 2. P.S. First timers - pick a more moderate trail! Nonetheless, the exhilarating 3.6 mile ride from the bike shop to Sand Flats Recreation Area that included many hairpin turns was both beautiful and memorable.
Plenty of climbing opportunities in Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce
I stumbled across some rock climbing routes by accident when looking for a campsite in the late afternoon. Heading North on Route 191 out of Moab, turning left onto Route 279 puts you into a canyon with sheer red rocks on one side of the road and the Colorado River just feet from the other side. Even if you don't have the time to climb here, I would recommend this epic drive through the canyon!
I discovered the Wall Street Rock Climbing area about 5 miles down the road while searching for Williams Bottom Campground on Route 279. Climbers flock to these road-side climbing destinations to take on routes with a range of difficulties, usually during either the early morning hours or late afternoon to avoid the beating sun on the canyon walls. Whether you are a first-time or veteran climber, doing a half- or full-day guided experience with Windgate Adventures is a great way to learn the basics of climbing in an iconic location or simply get beta from the guides. Moab is, after all, home to some of the best crack climbing in the United States!
Williams Bottom Campground: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce
Campgrounds in Arches and Canyonlands fill up months in advance, and are full every night during the busy season. Williams Bottom Campground, along with a few other small campgrounds on route 279, are great alternative paid first-come first-serve options. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, I would highly recommend leaving the rain fly off your tent while camping to stargaze, because this region of Utah is known for its dark skies!
Willow Springs Road Dispersed Campground: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce
If you're looking for a free alternative camping site, Willow Springs Road Dispersed Camping is an excellent option just 30 minutes north of Moab. This free BLM site is great for camping after a long day of activities in the area. I arrived in the evening and there was still plenty of space to pull off and camp. The site may be better suited for RV/van/car campers as the ground is mostly made up of hard rock and sand, making it extremely difficult to stake down a tent. The road to enter is a rough dirt road, but it's manageable - even with a two wheel drive car.
Dead Horse Point State Park: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
I would also recommend visiting Dead Horse Point State Park, located about a 45 minute drive West of Moab. I came across this park while I was leaving Canyonlands National Park - I saw the road sign and decided to stop. This Grand Canyon-like park offers stunning views of Utah's diverse landscapes and the Colorado River as it passes through the canyon below. The park offers 22 campsites and a famed 9 mile hiking loop. This state park is also an International Dark Sky Park, offering incredible panoramic views of the stars at night.
Dead Horse Point State Park: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce
Although these are great alternatives to visiting the region’s National Parks, I do recommend waking up early to try to catch a 6:00am sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, or returning at dusk to catch a sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park while you’re in the area! Check the park's Twitter feed frequently to stay alert on changing traffic conditions and entrance closures. Avoid the majority of traffic by visiting the National Parks at sunrise or dusk! And whatever you choose to do in Moab - avoid extreme temperatures, especially during the day from May through September!
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce
Pathloom Intern Abby Voce is a senior at Babson College, studying business administration with a concentration in legal studies. Growing up in upstate New York, Abby has been passionate about the outdoors since she was young, and recently completed a trip to visit 51 National Parks across 45 states in the past year alone. Look for more of Abby's stories from her adventures in the upcoming weeks and months on the Pathloom Blog!
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