320 miles Northeast of the Grand Canyon in Southeast Utah lie not one but two world-famous National Parks: Arches and Canyonlands. Here, the Colorado River winds its way down from its watershed in the Rocky Mountains toward Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon, twisting and turning, carving the surrounding red-rock into dramatic forms that seem to stand in defiance of logic, technology and sometimes gravity itself.
Named for over 2,000 catalogued arches, natural bridges and spans that abound within its borders, Arches National Park is a place where the forces of nature have joined to create an other-worldly landscape of living sculptures; a place where wind and water just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Consisting of a hard layer of sandstone lying atop a 300 million year underground old salt bed (called the “Paradox Formation”) the inherent instability of this geologic layering is what gave rise to the unique features of Arches National Park. As the salt bed shifted, the rock layer above began to buckle, causing parts of some formations to be thrust upward. Later, as water seeped into cracks, the process of freezing and thawing caused small pieces of rock to break off a larger formation, forming openings, through which the wind would eventually blast a hole, resulting in an arch.
At nearby Canyonlands National Park, the power of the Colorado River is readily apparent to the beholder. While the great river appears to have sculpted the Grand Canyon with a degree of gentleness and subtlety, at Canyonlands, the Colorado has carved the Earth open with the precision of a scalpel. Sheer cliffs, rugged mesas, hairpin turns in the river form a geologic puzzle dividing the park into three distinct “districts:” Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. As it makes its way toward Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River joins with the Green, picking up speed as it careens through Cataract Canyon. But hard edges and extreme “verticality” aren’t all there is to Canyonlands. This park does have softer features, too, such as rounded spires, arches, and domes. Though both parks are most famous for their geological features, phenomena such as ephemeral pools and cryptobiotic soils provide scientists with valuable insight on how certain species manage to survive the extreme conditions of the desert, while others perish.
Neither park has services such as lodging or dining, but travelers who wish to visit one or both parks will find that one gateway community can serve all their needs: Moab, Utah. Moab is a community of 8,000 that was recently voted one of the Best Small Towns in the West. Commuter air service is available from Denver, Colorado to Canyonlands Field. Another popular commuter airport for visitors to this area is nearby Grand Junction, Colorado (90 minutes away). Or one can simply fly into Salt Lake City, rent a car, and take the 4 hour drive to Moab.
Hotels in this area consist primarily of mid-range chains such as LaQuinta, Hampton, Best Western and Ramada, with a handful of independent bed and breakfasts and higher end resorts. For dining, visitors can choose from café’s specializing in healthful organic cuisine to chuck wagon dinner shows to ethnic fare. Where Moab truly excels as a vacation destination is its opportunities for adventures of nearly every sort: horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, whitewater and smooth water river rafting, four-wheeling, air touring, wine tasting, chuck wagon dinner shows, museums, even hot air ballooning and skydiving! From relaxing, reflective retreats to rip-roaring, heart-stopping action, Moab truly has it all!