Exploring Moab by bike, then foot

Biking trails offer excitement, but Utah’s beauty is easier to see while walking.

My first Moab mountain biking excursion started off bumpy — and not because of the rocks.

My husband, Neil, and I had traveled to this red-dust town in Utah, about a four-hour drive southeast of Salt Lake City, for a long weekend of biking, hiking and magical desert scenery.

As we drove past dramatic gingerbread stacks of sandstone to pick up our rented mountain bikes, I was nervous for the ride ahead, despite my husband’s assurance that he’d chosen an easy route. He’s a regular visitor to Moab, an area known for some of the world’s greatest mountain biking. Before this trip, I’d ridden a total of 2 miles on singletrack trails.

At the bike shop, the woman who’s helping us asks if I’ve brought my CamelBak. A fair-weather outdoor enthusiast, I do not own a CamelBak. I tell her no.

“I always wear a CamelBak,” she says in a chiding tone. “For spine protection,” she adds without missing a beat. She explains that if she goes headfirst over her handlebars — which she’s done, more than once — that CamelBak acts as a cushion for that vulnerable cord that helps the body move.

I’m mostly silent as we drive about 30 minutes toward the trail, staring at the relentlessly beautiful red rocks that are, apparently, conspiring to break my back.

We pull up to the Klondike Bluffs trail — a mix of singletrack and slickrock (i.e. sandstone) trails for varying skill levels — and hop on our bikes. My confidence builds as we pedal down tight crimson paths, steering around chunky, iron-tinged rocks and green shrubs. It takes so much focus to navigate the ups and downs of the terrain — leaning low when I shoot down steep, rocky slopes to avoid going tea-over-tea-kettle — that it’s only during breaks that I can take in the glory of the landscape around me: the serpentine switchbacks, the misty mesas in the distance, the impossibly blue skies.

After proving myself on the easy stretch (designated with a green circle), I graduate to a moderate area (blue square). Slopes become steeper, and I stop quickly a couple of times to catch myself. A few times I walk my bike, but I never actually fall. Then we come upon the black diamond trail — aka difficult. Neil does not point out the black diamond. I do not mention the black diamond. The truth is, I see these words: “dinosaur tracks,” and all else is forgotten.

“You want to try it?” asks my husband, surprised that I’m even considering the challenging terrain. “I want to see the dinosaur tracks!” I say. And we set off on a steep, up-and-down slickrock trail that has me walking my bike within seconds while he zips ahead, in his happy place. About a half-hour in, I’m frustrated and ready to throw the bike I’m dragging. We decide to turn around and head back.

Next stop: Moab Brewery, where we savor onion rings and a couple of well-earned craft brews, clinking glasses as I proclaim under my breath that one day of trail riding might be enough for me.

I persuade my husband to stop at what might be the cheesiest roadside attraction ever: Moab Giants dinosaur park, where a trail meanders in front of dozens of fake dinos — some doe-eyed, others in attack mode. Neil, who is unabashedly unimpressed by the plastic creatures (and the $16 ticket fee) rolls his eyes as I go on about how easy it is to imagine the monsters roaming these same red rocks 200 or so million years ago — if you just got rid of the nearby power lines and train tracks.

We take the prehistoric theme one step further and drive out to see some of the many dinosaur tracks around town. Dusty, one-lane Willow Springs Road leads us to what looks like a dried-up red riverbed. Sure enough, there are chunky, three-toed footprints made by theropods and ornithopods 165 million years ago. We agree on this one: It’s incredibly cool to go toe-to-toe with the ancient beasts.

We retreat for the night to our Airbnb cabin, a spacious house in a development called Whispering Oaks Ranch, high up in the snow-covered La Sal Mountains, about 20 deer-filled miles from town. (We must have seen two dozen of the graceful creatures on the side of the road.) We open a bottle of wine, grill steaks, soak in the hot tub and get lost in the star-filled sky.

The next day, we’re both sore but eager to spend more time outside. Per my request, we take the bikes to a paved path alongside the Colorado River. Since we don’t have to focus too much on the path ahead, we can admire the babbling waterway and towering rocks. We ride long enough to feel justified in an indulgent meal, and, upon a friend’s recommendation, head to Milt’s Stop & Eat. It isn’t just Moab’s oldest restaurant, it’s a slice of 1950s Americana. A line snakes around the side of the building as people wait to order at the outdoor window. As the picnic tables fill, folks eat out of their cars. The burgers and fries — with a side of Utah’s signature mayo/ketchup combo known simply as “fry sauce” — are simple and divine.

We’d asked around for hiking recommendations and kept hearing about one place: Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, just north of town. The image of the arch — a spectacular structure standing out among the 2,000 arches — is one that’s often associated with the national park.

By late afternoon, the nearby parking lot is packed, with crowds flocking to the arch in time for sunset. The narrow start of the 3-mile round-trip hike is elbow to elbow, but as the hikers fan out by the dozen across the rising rocks in the distance, it looks as if we’re watching a pilgrimage of some sort. Or an episode of “The Walking Dead.”

The scene at the arch, itself, reminds me of a giant amphitheater, as people grab a seat before the sunset show begins. We snap a couple of photos of the 65-foot arch, admiring the graceful mesas and misty, snowcapped mountains that peer through the fiery icon. We promptly turn and head back, taking advantage of the remaining daylight and now-empty trail.

Along the way, I hear a rustling in the quiet and look up just in time to catch one, two, no, three deer sprinting across the high desert. The sun is going down in the distance, and they stop on a hilltop, their silhouettes highlighted by a ring of sunbeams, so perfect that the moment feels like a gift.

Taking it all in, I have a sudden appreciation for being on foot, able to do a slow 360 to savor the surroundings — no spine protection needed.

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