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Destination: Moab

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Writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey called it home. Thousands of tourists seek out its slick rock, epic canyons and Technicolor landscapes every year. Vanessa Chang investigates the allure of Moab
Braving Epitaph on the Tombstone near Kane Springs Canyon, one of Moab’s most iconic climbing spots. Image by Cory Richards/National Geographic Creative/Corbis.
Braving Epitaph on the Tombstone near Kane Springs Canyon, one of Moab’s most iconic climbing spots. Image by Cory Richards/National Geographic Creative/Corbis.

“Paddle right! Paddle right!”
My rafting companions and I swing our oars furiously to our guide’s command. A family of Germans and a couple from Florida, along with my friend and me, clumsily wrestled the weight of the Colorado River with our oars. Icy cold water dribbles down onto our skin. After about 200 yards we get the OK. “All right, full stop — good job, everyone!”

A vulture circles over the east bank, and a breeze blows in between the red-rock mesas. A little over an hour ago, we were strangers, brought together because of a chance reservation at the Moab Adventure Center. And now we applauded one another for paddling as if our lives depended on it. We put down our oars, and high-fived each other for not falling overboard or losing any equipment. My friend and I had already hiked Delicate Arch and Negro Bill Canyon in unshaded 90-degree heat. Others on the raft had just been on a Hummer safari to off-road this stark area.

Of course, we know there is never really any danger. The guide was more than able to make up for the fact that half the boat had never picked up an oar. And the Colorado River was swollen but gentle from the seasonal rains a week before. The only real danger was from not reapplying the sunscreen.

Rafting on the Colorado River through Fisher Towers.
Rafting on the Colorado River through Fisher Towers.

But for each and every one of us, it didn’t matter. We were in search of the same things pioneers, outlaws, scientists, miners and Edward Abbey came for. Abbey called this “the most beautiful place in the world.” Desolate, isolated and so severe in its dry beauty, Moab, Utah has inspired movie directors, road-trippers and thrill-seekers who are chasing a sense of wonder and adventure. Along the way, every visitor also comes across the quirkiness of the town that serves as the launching pad for Arches National Park, slick rock trails, and the quintessential American West landscape.

Staring out onto the moonscape-like space from the cramped van of wet river rafters makes the 30-minute commute go by quickly. Soon, we decamped out onto the crowded parking lot, wished one another well in pursuit of other adventures and were left on Main Street, the artery of tourism that personifies most visitors’ Moab experience.

A constant hum of automobiles — cars packed to the gills with outdoor gear, souped-up Jeeps and rented RVs emblazoned with American flags and filled with European families — provide the soundtrack. Gasoline fills the nostrils. This stretch of road is hotter than other parts of Moab — at least that’s what it feels like to the pedestrians who crawl along the storefronts and wildlife photography galleries looking for reprieve from the midday heat. Some take refuge in Moab Brewery for a cold, tall glass of Johnny’s American IPA with a side of sweet-potato fries.

A mountain biker conquers Slickrock Trail at Sand Flats Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of iStock.
A mountain biker conquers Slickrock Trail at Sand Flats Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of iStock.

“It’s the best recovery meal,” a neighboring mountain biker assures me. He and his friend, both in their mid-40s and in much better shape than people 15 years their junior, wear a light dusting of red dirt. “Porcupine Rim Trail was amazing,” they coo. After about 10 minutes of their waxing poetic, I confess that I’m not much of a mountain biker — that I’m in town to mostly to take in the scenery. They laugh and offer tips on their favorite climbing areas off Kane Creek and tell us about a friend in the area who could offer us a base-jumping experience, and then wish me luck among the oversized Jeeps that are bound to block my view.

A welcome sign for travelers. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.
A welcome sign for travelers. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

Though not the most picturesque in this postcard-perfect region, the town’s main road clusters the majority of lodging. Luxury has never been Moab’s vibe. The town that Mormon pioneers built has always prided itself on resilience, not necessarily high thread count sheets. But annual visitors swear by The Gonzo Inn, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s journalistic stylings and the hippie vibe that permeates the yoga studios, chakra alignment services and Moonflower Community natural foods co-op. The skinny, amiable man at the register approves of my purchase of edamame hummus, artisan salami and carrots (grown in neighboring Colorado) for my snack. It would tide me over for the short drive out of town and into a new lodging experience.

The timeless romance of the Old West at Red Cliffs Lodge.
The timeless romance of the Old West at Red Cliffs Lodge.

Moab Under Canvas can barely be seen, though it’s right off of Highway 191. From the exit you wend your way around a dirt road to the reception cabin — a tent on a platform — to start the area’s only “glamping” experience. On one side, teepees and larger tents are clustered together. On the other, slightly larger tents outfitted with viewing decks and personal bathrooms and showers perch over the edge of the property, looking directly into Arches National Park.

A golf cart takes our luggage to the tent, and we open the flaps to let in some air and cool down the interior. Inside are a comfortable queen-size bed, dresser, tables and lamps. The adjacent teepee is ready for more guests with cots, high-end sleeping bags and lanterns. No climate control of any sort. Just the elements and the arrival of the cool desert night.

The suite life at Moab Under Canvas.
The suite life at Moab Under Canvas.

It is like something Teddy Roosevelt would enjoy in the middle of the Amazon. Only here, it is a friendly couple from Chicago who road-tripped in their new Audi Q7. They warned us about the rowdier groups in the teepees on the other side. We watched the sunset from our deck chairs with a bottle of wine we grabbed from the state-run liquor store and then headed back into the more residential part of town for dinner.

Milt’s Stop & Eat is a diner. But it’s the sort of diner that serves local grass-fed burgers and fresh hand-cut fries, and braises its beef and bison for amazing chili. It’s best to go early or late -— otherwise, it’s a jostle with tourists and road warriors for the limited counter seating or the outdoor benches. I’m not sure if it’s this landscape or the elevation, but it’s pretty easy to down a Frito pie (house chili slathered over, you guessed it, Fritos), mushroom Swiss burger and chocolate malt without feeling overfed. It’s just what we needed to fuel the next day farther away from town.

Easy living at luxe Sorrel River Ranch.
Easy living at luxe Sorrel River Ranch.
Nightfall over the Colorado River and red-rock cliffs at Sorrel River Ranch.
Nightfall over the Colorado River and red-rock cliffs at Sorrel River Ranch.

To get to Sorrel River Ranch, you have to wind down the Colorado River on Highway 128. You drive past Red Cliffs Lodge, an expansive and beautiful property that houses a small winery and tasting room. Farther down is the smaller Sorrel River Ranch. Along with Red Cliffs, it’s the closest thing to high-end luxury Moab can speak of, but it’s incredibly charming, with cabins outlining the horse property. It has a full working farm (including some friendly pigs that guests interact with). There is a full roster of outdoor adventure activities. But we are there to meet up with a friend who escaped Denver to get some R&R. Landscape painting lessons are followed by a helicopter tour of the red-rock spires she painted. She knows we love good food and wants us to join her for dinner. Braised pork belly, duck breast and other seasonal produce listed on the menu make us oblige.

Sorrel’s farm-fresh menu changes with the seasons.
Sorrel’s farm-fresh menu changes with the seasons.

We congregate in the main lodge’s patio that overlooks the Colorado River. The sun is just starting to set behind the mesas on the banks of the river. Wildflowers colored the tall green grass. I sit back in the Adirondack listening to the water lap softly into the reeds. Suddenly, there is splashing and the distant sound of voices. I looked up. A raft floats past, another paddle tour. Everyone inside the boat sits back in awe of the red-rock walls. Some close their eyes and listen. A few wave at me, and I wave back.

I get up and head inside to the ranch’s new bar. The bartender promises me one of the best Manhattans I will ever have.

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