The fabled city of Moab was a popular area for Native Americans and Mormons in the very early parts of the 19th century, with one story telling of how the Latter Day Saints followers came into the valley by disassembling their wagons and lowering them piece by piece down the cliff faces. While it was a stopping place on the Old Spanish Trail, Moab wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1878. The name comes either from a Biblical town near the Jordan River, or as an alternative story we heard there, a Native American word for “mosquito”.
In the 21st century, it is a small town, population about 5,000 not counting the tourists who more than double that amount, with one Main Street lined with SUV’s, VW campers, Jeeps, dirt bikes and mountain bikes, announcing that this is an outdoor activity sort of place.
In the spring of 2015, Jay and I based ourselves for a week at the Red Rock Inn, an old-style accommodation located conveniently across the street from the Moab Grill and about a block away from the Moab Brewery and Restaurant, next door to a gas station. We came here with our XT 250 dual sport bikes to ride the trails in and around the collection of National Parks that form this area.
Dawn breaking onto the cliffs above Moab, right across the street from our room, this first morning, is a sight that I cannot adequately describe and so it must be experienced. The bright blue skies, seeming endless above the red rocks make one want to just stay here forever. But we have only a week or so to enjoy them to the fullest and we must stir ourselves to get out amongst them on these motorcycles.
It is bright sunlight, though still in the high 40’s, when we fill up the bikes and our “Rotopax” spare gas cans and ride through Moab to the entrance to Arches National Park. Both of us well into our 60’s, we present our Golden Age (“old geezer”) free passes to the young lady ranger at the gate and take the road into the park following the Moab Fault, where eons ago the earth ripped apart and separated the two sides of the valley. From the top of the road, one can see the sides of the rift looking like a three dimensional fabric torn asunder by giant hands. Red rocks tower far above us, in shapes sculpted with infinite patience by wind and sand. The “Courthouse Towers” are enormous flat walls of rock, more impressive than any construction of man, and so thin that it seems the constant wind will topple them over on us at any moment. It is stunning, such that words completely fail me.
We ride the narrow asphalt through the shaped sandstone, very tiny creatures on small motorcycles, hardly worth the notice of these timeless monuments to nature’s ingenuity.
There are tour busses in the pullouts, disgorging hundreds of folks in various styles of clothing, speaking a polyglot of languages, all marveling at the same things as we are. Regardless of our respective cultures, we have all seen these landscapes, behind the cowboys and Indians, in countless John Ford westerns and other movies. But like any picture, the movies, the magazines, all of our sophisticated imaging media cannot begin to convey the sweeping grandeur of what is now before us. You might just as well show someone an iPhone photo of the Pacific Ocean.
We parked our bikes and climbed up to the Delicate Arch viewpoint, about a half mile. This is the iconic arch that appears on all of the literature for this park, though there are many examples scattered throughout. Later I will encounter a tourist who asks if it is easy to get to “the arch”, as if there is only one here. The dusty floor and sides of the valley are covered with low scrub plants of many varieties, with insects, lizards and birds going about the business of making their way in this world, oblivious to we temporary tourists tramping among them. It is amazing that so much life clings to these hostile rocks and dry earth. Why do we humans think our claim to life is superior when others work so much harder for it?
Back on the XT’s, we toured around the park like everyone else, viewing arches and windows and more rock formations in every configuration one could imagine and many that we couldn’t. So many impossibly huge shapes perched precariously on top of others, apparently defying gravity, but really just in the process of falling, very very slowly. Nature’s time frame is incomprehensible to we creatures for whom 100 years is a really long stretch. Every little weakness in the sandstone has been exploited to make these holes and depressions and balanced rocks, by a sculptor who can spend a million years just getting one little piece exactly in this shape .
Three quarters of the way around the last loop of the park roads, we spot Salt Valley road going off to the right with a sign saying “High Clearance Vehicles Only”. Down this rocky dirt and gravel road, the real riding of this trip begins. Now we are not just pavement tourists, seeing the prescribed views, we are out among them with red dirt under our tires and the whole of the vista spread out before us, like those riders in the Westerns, the distant shots that showed them small among the expanse of desert. Our map shows trails leading off of this road, but the first one we try dead ends at Tower Arch hiking trail with no motorized vehicles allowed. The second one, Willow Flats, has a beginning that climbs arduously in high rock steps that may be a bit too serious for this early in the day. We back off from that one and proceed on down Salt Valley until it leaves the park and begins to branch off. After trying a few of the branches, leading to nowhere, we stay on the “main” trunk that ultimately leads across the wide expanse of tan earth to fences and cattle who seem amused, but not upset to see us in their domain. Eventually we find 191 and head back toward Moab, stopping briefly to replenish our and the bikes’ vital fluids. There is a better map on the gas station wall that tells us Willow Springs Road, which we just passed, becomes Willow Flats after it enters Arches National Park a few miles in, so off we go to backtrack our way into the trail we’d postponed this morning. We figured that the rock steps at the other end couldn’t be that bad going down. Oh, the boundless optimism of the no-longer-young !
Although termed a “road”, Willow Springs is more of a trail and in places, merely a suggestion, with steep rocky outcrops, deep sand, washes, and grooved rock that feels a bit like a metal grated bridge under our tires. Still, it isn’t bad traveling and the views out over the valleys with the Park off in the distance, are more than adequate recompense for the effort.
At a sort of intersection, a crude signpost tells us that we are 1.8 miles from Balanced Rock, inside the park with Willow Flats now breaking off to our left, 10 miles to Salt Valley Road. Figuring that it hasn’t been onerous up till now, we detour off to pick up the trail we’d abandoned this morning. Like a classic Bait and Switch scam, the trail soon becomes long stretches of deep sand, washes, punctuated by rocky bluffs to climb and descend. The further we go, the worse it gets until by the time we’re about 2 miles from the end, we are faced with a series of long steep uphill rock faces with sequential ragged stone steps and loose rock just for spice. Our legs are in fully cooked noodle mode, it’s hot out here and we are wondering just why two old men thought this would be a good idea. The last ascent is about 30 degrees up the slope and so tall we can’t see the top. Neither of us has the strength left to climb it on foot to see where it goes, so the little XT’s are again dispatched into the breach, carrying their burdens to the unknown. Through the bikes’ capability, with little of ours left to help, we make it to the top and stand gobsmacked looking around at the valleys and peaks spreading off in the distance as far as we can see. The sun is low in the sky behind us, with long shadows adding depth to the colors. Suddenly we aren’t quite so tired. This is worth it. Descending the steps that looked so high this morning is an easy task and soon we are back in Arches NP and heading for dinner and an early bed to rest abused old bones. There will be more tomorrow.