Moab Belongs on Your Road-Trip Itinerary
America's best-known mountain bike town keeps reinventing itself with new trails, improved camping, and more diversions. Plan your trip now.
When Jen and I rolled into Moab, Utah, earlier this summer, we realized that almost six years had passed since our last visit. That’s a long time given that from the mid-’90s through mid-aughts we visited the town almost monthly in fall and spring to ride. There were some extenuating circumstances to our absence. But at the time, Moab, which was mostly a dusty biking town that built its reputation on two-track riding, was losing its appeal as other destinations began ramping up purpose-built riding trails.
On this visit, however, we discovered that Moab has reestablished itself as a destination worthy of every cyclist’s attention (even roadies!)—and more. Thanks to a concerted effort over the past decade to create purpose-built trails for mountain bikers (which started with an aptly named trail called Baby Steps), Moab has added 150 miles of new singletrack, as well as a $20 million system of paved bike paths. The town is booming, too, not just from cycling, but from national park, 4×4, and river tourism, the latter accounting for the biggest share of Moab’s visitor dollars. Visitor numbers are up nearly 70 percent over the past decade, and eight new hotels are either planned or under construction. To handle the influx of tourists, the town has instituted a Resource Management Plan that safeguards its camping experience.
We passed through in early summer, and though daytime temps were up to 100 degrees, cool mornings allowed us to tick off a bunch of rides we’d never seen. From the North Klondike area to Navajo Rocks, the new trails are interesting, varied in difficulty, and spectacularly sited. We also inflated our packrafts and spent some time on the river, went jeeping on the town’s roller coaster of slickrock 4×4 trails, and even got some of the better sushi we’ve had this side of Tsukiji Fish Market. Which is all to say that Moab has grown up and diversified as a destination and is worth at least few weeks on your vanlife itinerary. We bet you’ll stay longer than planned.
Partly because of all the public lands, there is a profusion of camping in and around Moab, including 25 Bureau of Land Management campgrounds within striking distance of town. The local tourism bureau publishes an excellent compendium of all the options. Dispersed camping has become more formalized, meaning there are additional restrictions and rules these days, but that’s a good thing, as it ensures the influx of visitors don’t completely trash everything. The map at the bottom of this page on the local tourism site is a great resource for planning ahead. A good option in fall and spring, Mineral Bottom Road, off State Highway 313, has lots of good pull-off sites close enough to many of the newest trails that you can ride from camp. Willow Springs Road and the road to and south of Klondike Bluffs hold great potential. We also found camping on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road, south of town, where the higher altitude proved plenty cool even in the summer swelter.
When people think of Moab, they think of the Slickrock Trail, ten miles of chutes-and-ladders entertainment on Navajo sandstone. It’s great fun, though I haven’t ridden it in two decades because of the crowds. Another classic, the Whole Enchilada, still remains one of the finest rides anywhere. If you include these and all the other classic rides of Moab, such as Gemini Bridges, Poison Spider, Moab Rim, Flat Pass, and Porcupine Rim, you could ride here for months and never get bored.
However, the newer areas excited us most. Where Klondike Bluffs used to be just a sandy dirt road that led to a bit of slickrock, now there are 30 miles of trail loops. Even the intermediate stuff, including Baby Steps and Little Salty, is engaging and gorgeous. My favorite, EKG, is slow-mo rock picking at its best. The Navajo Rocks area, off 313, offers lots of punchy slickrock riding and moderate trails. The largest, outer loop packs in many of the finest, including Ramblin’ and Coney Island, and since the route circles the road, there are plenty of bail options. Navajo Rocks hooks into the Horsethief area, with still more great intermediate trails (don’t miss the extremely varied Rodeo, which is a lot of cross-country riding broken up by a little tech). Across 313 to the east is the Magnificent 7 area, which is a little older but has tons of fast, flowing singletrack, as well as an epic run back into town that finishes on the (difficult!) Poison Spider. The trails at Dead Horse Point State Park, still farther along 313 toward Canyonlands, may not be technical but make up for it with jaw-dropping scenery. Last but not least, the La Sal Mountain Loop, a 60-mile paved-road ride that’s the official Grand Fondo Moab course, means there’s quality pedaling even for the skinny-tire crowd.
As soon as we arrived in Moab, before we settled into town for refueling, we took our Alpacka rafts and floated the Daily, a section of the Colorado northeast of town with Class II and III rapids through strident, sandstone country. The surrounding area has lots of options for paddling, SUPing, and tubing, and we decided that no future trip to the desert will transpire without a dip in the water.
For as much development as has happened in Moab over the past decade, we were surprised to see old standbys such as Eddie McStiff’s, serving pub grub, and the Love Muffin Café, still serving up the best hearty breakfasts in town. Top burger honors go to Milt’s Stop N’ Eat, with grass-fed, hormone-free beef and buffalo patties, as well as shakes thick enough to replenish even the most depleted cyclist. Moab Brewery, on the south side of town, is the town’s only microbrewery and has the best selection of craft beer. And there’s surprisingly good Asian food, including Vietnamese fusion at 98 Center, which we preferred at lunchtime, and sushi that will floor you given the middle-of-nowhere desert locale, at Sabaku Sushi. No, seriously, don’t be afraid!