The planning for our trip to Moab, Utah really started a few years ago when Jesse and I bought a Tacoma Toyota. I thought we were buying a truck... something to get us from point A to point B and maybe haul some things along the way. I was sorely mistaken as this truck was to become much more than that, at least to my husband.
It really started when my husband went online to research something about our truck and found a forum specifically for Tacoma owners. One thing snowballed into another, and a few posts on the forum led to connecting with other local Tacoma owners, new shocks and tires (and countless other things that didn't really need replacing, but the old versions might not be appropriate for driving off the beaten path) and eventually multiple road trips with these new truck friends.
They've gone as far as South Dakota and Michigan, but also spent multiple weekends up north here in Minnesota. My husband loves the outdoors, as do I, but I'm not really a winter camper - nor is our 7 year old, so I was glad that he found this group of people who enjoyed much of the same things he did and were willing to do it during any season of the year.
Some of these guys are much more the off-roading type and have their trucks modified a bit more than ours. They love to drive over big rocks and put their trucks to the test, perhaps even feeling an excursion wasn't as great as it could be because they didn't break anything on their vehicle. Jesse is more of a "I want to drive off the beaten path, camp, and hike" type of guy, but is open to a little challenge as long as our truck can handle it. Sometime in the last year, the guys started talking about driving to Rock Therapy, an event held in Moab each year. As best I could understand it, it was an event where people could come together and bond over off-roading adventures.
Jesse and his buddies planned out a 10 - 12 day road trip that he wanted me to come on, but that just wasn't going to happen. He'd been wanting me to come along on one of these trips for some time so I suggested that Riley and I fly to Utah to hang out with him for a few days. If I'd known what a challenge that would be I might not have suggested it (super early flight out, late flight in, two flights with layovers each way, and then a two hour drive to our final destination), but in the end it was totally worth it. My only wish was that we'd stayed longer than four days as it just wasn't enough.
Six guys (Jesse, Sam, Chris, Aaron and his two boys), four trucks, two trailers, a scooter, and a dirt bike left Minnesota on Thursday and made their way to Colorado where they dropped off a truck and a scooter with Chris' brother. They forged on in three trucks (plus two trailers - one carrying the dirt bike) and took the 142 mile Kokopelli Trail from CO to UT. Let me back up here for a second and share that about six months ago Jesse shared a blog post of some guys who took this trail. The trail is fine, mild in many areas, but there is a section called the Rose Garden Hill that looked incredibly difficult in a truck such as ours. I most definitively said "don't ever do that trail" and then he broke it to me that it was probably going to be part of the Moab trip.
So he did it (in the dark even), and I think it burnt him out a bit. He said it was hard and at some point they were all beat from the Kokopelli trail and just wanted to get to Moab so they didn't finish the trail. I think this kills Jesse a little to not be able to say that he finished the entire trail, but it is what it is. I have yet to see all the pictures or video footage from this part of the trip. I can't wait, and yet I can.
And that really brings us up to where Riley and I come in. By lunchtime on Tuesday, we were in Moab eating at The Spoke and getting ready to check out our new home at Ken's Lake campground... except that those plans changed. Apparently, the weather forecast nighttime temps around 38 - 44, but ended up being more like 28 degrees. We didn't think we had enough blankets (Sam had bought an extra for himself after a particularly cold night) so Jesse determined that we needed to find a hotel for that evening. I think he may have also wanted to sleep in a real bed for a night.
Moab is lined with hotels so we hoped we could easily find a room, but Moab is also an adventurers town (even if some of those adventures don't want to rough it at night) and people flock to it in the fall when they don't have to worry about 100 degree daytime temps. It took a bit, but we were able to secure a room. I had mixed feeling about staying at a hotel, but was also relieved that I didn't have to sleep out in the cold. Travel tip: if a hotel says they are full, check Expedia as we were able to secure a room that way. Also, Sam and I tag teamed this trip with our Travel Advisor and Yelp apps to find hotels and restaurants.
We had plenty of time before settling into the hotel for the night so Sam, Jesse, Riley and I decided to go for a hike at the Grandstaff trail. Grandstaff is located off the beautiful Rt 128 which weaves along side the Colorado River in between mountains. We didn't have a lot of time to hike this trail so we didn't go far, but it was one of my favorite excursions on this trip. If I ever get back to Moab, I will be hiking this trail to the end to see the Morning Glory Natural Bridge which is supposed to have the 5th largest span in the world. Travel tip: dress in layers in Utah. It get's hot in the sun, but can be cool in the shade. Unfortunately, Sam was still dressed for his cold overnight sleep and got way too hot.
On the way back into town we made a rock stop at Lin Ottinger's Rock Shop. This isn't just any rock shop as it's owned by the guy who discovered the Iguanodon dinosaur. We were delighted to recognize that dinosaur from our dinosaur book (which Riley insisted on bringing with her and yet, we never pulled it out of the suitcase). At any rate, this place has all sorts of rocks, fossils, jewelry, dinosaur bones, etc. Riley settled on a necklace with her birthstone of amethyst and we picked up a reproduction of a dinosaur claw for a dinosaur loving friend.
From there, we headed to the campground to get some clothes for Sam and Jesse and then headed to the hotel to check in. Riley and I were barely functioning on fumes (I'd been up since 2:30 am, she since 3:30 am), but we were determined to power through no matter how much we just wanted to take a nap.
Our next stop was Dead Horse Point which my wonderful husband made a point of going to just before sunset so I could get some pretty pictures. That guy knows the way to my heart. The views here were really breathtaking (as were all our views from above on this trip). I wasn't the only one that thought this would be a good place to snap a few pics as there were also a bunch of other photographers who all seemed to be waiting patiently with their tripods for the sun to set. Jesse grabbed my tripod for me, but I declined. I knew I couldn't stand in one spot - I wanted All. The. Pictures.
That view was just what I needed on the first day of this trip. This stop hadn't been on our original agenda, but I'm so glad Jesse suggested it. We'd promised Riley an ice cream treat of some sort so afterwards we stopped at Milts in Moab for some food and shakes before heading back to the hotel. If I hadn't already eaten a burger for lunch, I totally would have had one here and I sort of regret I didn't anyway. It's a small place, mostly outside seating, but we grabbed a counter seat inside next to the grill which was filled with 'flavor country' as we call it. Instead, we split some chicken fingers and had a couple of shakes which turned out to be a really great combination. With bellies full, Jesse and Sam went to the laundromat while Riley and I went to sleep early to rest up for another active day.
On Wednesday, we met up with the rest of the guys back at camp. This was going to be our off-roading day. We had plenty of touristy things we wanted to do, but this was also the reason we came here. The guys decided on the Top of the World trail which was rated at moderate to difficult, and now that I've taken the trail... and in my one time off-roading experience, I would say was an accurate rating. We traveled along Rt 128 again, but even farther out (such a beautiful view on this road) and turned at the Dewey Bridge. The bridge used to be the main road across the Colorado River here, but after the new bridge was built it was converted to a walking bridge. Unfortunately, due to a human made fire, it was destroyed and now the remnants stand as a reminder of the destruction that a few matches can create.
For this excursion, we were joined by Shawn from North Dakota with his buggy while Sam rode his dirt bike. The trail is anticipated to take 3 - 5 hours and we likely took close to 5 hours with the downtime we had at the top. You definitely should not attempt this trail with your stock vehicle. There were quite a few 'stairs' of rocks that we had to drive up and down and while the drive up felt easier, it still had some challenging spots.
Jesse allowed Riley to sit up front (in her car seat, fully strapped in) as a bit of a treat. We were always going slow so I wasn't worried about her and at times she and I were walking. Jesse taught her how to shift and she caught on quickly as to when he needed to be in L or 2. Later in the trip, we'd be hiking and she'd say "this trail looks like a 2, and up there a 3" or something to that effect. I learned how to drive on a three on a tree and my first 3 vehicles were manual transmission so I was extra proud to hear my kid talk about gears and totally get it.
The guys were all really great about looking out for each other. They all had CB radios so they could chat and communicate things of importance. Whoever was up front might note to stay to the right at a particular point or let everyone know if there were other vehicles coming that they might need to move for. During extra challenging spots, one person would get out and spot for those behind them, guiding the other drivers with directions like "passenger" or "driver" to let them know which way to turn the wheel. I even did my share of spotting which seemed to really delight Jesse. He saw me embracing his hobby and I saw myself as making sure the exhaust on our truck didn't get ripped off. We're partners in this.
We finally got to the top and took in the amazing view. It's no doubt why it's called Top of the World. The guys took turns having their picture taken on the slab of sandstone that juts out over the cliff. I have a great fear of failing off a cliff so it was a little nerve wracking to see (and I'm even a little wobbly kneed just thinking about it now), but I took a few deep breaths and stepped back from the edge (and nervously watched my kid the entire time we were up there).
It may be obvious, but I was the photographer of the group. I mean everyone was taking pictures with their phones, but everyone knew I had the DSLR camera and they seemed pretty open, if not excited, for me to take pictures. I'm used to my husband avoiding the camera at home - he just doesn't like his picture taken (it happens anyway), but I know part of the reason he wanted me on this trip - besides my wonderful company - was to document, in pictures, their adventures. Not that I needed it, but I was often nudged to capture one picture after another. "Oh, you should get out and capture how his tire is lifted off the rock" and so on. I'm not used to such willingness to be in front of the camera, but I now know that my husband is totally cool being having his picture taken as long as it includes his truck or nature.
While we mostly debated the 'difficult' rating on the way up, we had no doubt on the way down. The entire route is basically one road up and then a loop at the top that brings you back to the same road you take back down. It was on the down side of that loop that Chris and Shawn (with their more modified vehicles) got ahead of us. Aaron and Jesse took a slower pace to make sure that they didn't rip the undersides of their trucks off. Sam was at the back on his dirt bike, but eventually passed us slow pokes down to catch up with the other guys. Travel tip: Not that this means much to other people (or me, really), but for those that understand it... Jesse has 34 inch tires with a 2 inch lift in the front and 4 inch lift in the back so this trail certainly isn't for just any truck. Do not take this trail in your 'off the show room floor' stock vehicle. You will regret it or end up walking most of the way. Not that I should need to say that, but you know... some people.
By the time we finished this trail and dropped the bike off at the campsite, we were starving. We wanted to check out the local Thai restaurant, but were told it was a 45 minute wait. We drove around and Jesse suddenly pulled in to a McDonald's parking lot. I was not in the mood for this and wanted to throw a hangry fit, but was also hangry and just needed food. I put my big girl pants on and ate their new chicken tenders which really weren't that half bad. After dinner, we settled in to our second hotel room of this trip as we anticipated another cold night. Travel tip: Make sure you have food when you go on long rides. We had snacks which acted as our lunch, but we didn't anticipate it would take quite as long as it did to do that trail. Big fail on our part.
And so on Thursday, after a day driving over the hard stuff, we split up. Chris and Shawn went on trails with names like Bone Crusher and Metal Masher or something like that, and Aaron and his boys, Sam, and Jesse selected to go sight seeing with us in Canyonlands National Park. I have to admit going into this, I really wanted to see Arches National Park over the Canyonlands, but this was a big one on Jesse's wish list and I now totally get why. You could spend a week or two just in the Canyonlands as there are so many places to drive, hike, bike, and explore. We started at the Island in the Sky visitor center and then checked out a number of must see touristy spots before taking a road less traveled back into town.
At our first stop, I had an 'aha' moment when I saw the Mesa Arch which I'd seen photographed before. Maybe this place was pretty cool to visit - we weren't the only ones that thought that same thing, though. There were plenty of people out exploring, although it did feel like we might have gotten there a bit before the big crowds arrived. Still, expect to see a lot of other people exploring along side you here.
Each stop had a short hike with an amazing view. We all tried to capture the amazingness with our cameras, but the pictures never really quite gave it the justice it deserves.
We started at the Mesa Arch, went on to Grand View Point, explored Whale Rock (recommended at the Visitor Center as a must explore for kids), and at the end of this particular road, found Upheaval Dome. Travel tips: Stop at the visitor center for suggestions from staff, especially important if the weather may be inclement. Additionally, keep in mind that the altitude may be different than you are used to. On the trip out, the guys stayed up in the mountains in Colorado and got sick from the altitude with it hitting Sam the worst. Sam and I tended to take some of these hikes slower as we were mindful that our bodies did not handle the altitude change as well. For a moment, I thought I was terribly out of shape with my huffing and puffing type of breathing, and then realized that it was the darn altitude impacting me.
We planned ahead and picked up sandwich stuff for our lunch this day. Such a better experience!
It's unclear what caused the formation at Upheaval Dome, but a leading theory is that it was created by a meteorite. Whatever it was, it is pretty impressive.
Once we hit all the hot spots along the Island in the Sky road, we ventured back to Moab via Shafer Canyon and Potash roads. The first part of this trail was navigating a bunch of switchbacks on Shafer's Pass. This road claimed to be two way, but was only wide enough for one vehicle for much of the way. If another vehicle came your way you hoped you were on the wider part of the road or might need to back up until it is safe to pass. The difficult road we drove the day before was not nearly as scary as this type of road is, at least for me. It's one thing to bang the bottom of your truck into rocks, it's another to careen off the side of the road altogether. Travel tip: While your vehicle might not need quite the modifications needed for the Top of the World trail, it would still be recommended to have a 4 wheel drive and to be a skilled driver to take this route.
From Shafer Canyon road, you can continue on to White Rim road - something the guys really wanted to do, but time wise it wasn't in the cards for this day. We turned off on to Potash road which brought us back to Moab on mostly smooth roads, with interesting views. We were able to see the Potash ponds from Dead Horse a couple days prior so it was interesting to be able to drive right past them.
We got back into town during the late afternoon so we stopped by some local shops to pick up our obligatory vacation trinkets (t-shirts, magnet, etc) before walking over to Arches Thai for dinner. We made sure to call ahead and arrive much earlier than the day before. We had planned to eat here on Tuesday, but discovered they are closed that day, and of course there was the wait on Wednesday so I was incredibly grateful that the food was really, really good when we finally did get to eat here. After a highly satisfying meal, we headed back to the campsite where we planned to actually sleep for our last night in town.
Ken's Lake campground has a man made lake within view of our campsite so Riley and I decided to walk down the road to check it out. Turns out it was far further than it appeared. It seemed within walking distance, but at one point I turned us around to avoid being stuck out in the dark by ourselves. As we returned to the campsite, I noticed that I was over 19,000 steps on my fitbit so I walk around a little more to finally get that 20,000 steps in a day badge. Done! A walk to the bathroom (one of the nicest smelling vault toilets I've ever used) and a short trek to the neighboring campsite for some chit chat around a fire got me to my goal.
Jesse and Riley headed to bed around 9:00 pm and I attempted to get some star shots. There was a lot of light coming from the campsites (which I tried to include in some shots), but I still don't feel like I nailed these. My quest to get a good star shot continues.
That night was warm inside the tent - no worries at all about being too cold. I really needed to get up and use the bathroom, but it sounded incredibly windy and cold outside. Jesse went out in the middle of the night to secure parts of the tent better as it was making quite the racket and scaring Riley. I finally got up about 6:20 to find it wasn't nearly as windy or cold outside as I anticipated. It was still quite dark so I thought about setting up for another star shot because the stars were AMAZING, but it was windy so I crawled back into the warm tent for a smidge before getting up for our last day in Utah.
Friday's plan was to explore Arches National Park before Jesse and Sam drove Riley and I back to Grand Junction, CO to catch our 5:00 PM flight. I got up to take pictures of the rising sun while the guys discussed plans for the next few days. Originally, they planned to leave Saturday morning which then changed to Sunday. I think Jesse was done and just wanted to go home and the thought of driving 4 hours round trip that day only to be heading in that direction in a couple days didn't appeal to him. Sam was driving with him and agreed that he was ready to go as well so they decided that once they dropped Riley and I off they would head home to Minnesota. Aaron and Chris stayed another day and two, respectively.
We got most of the campsite packed up, but knew we'd be coming back after Arches to get the trailer so off we went National Park exploring with Aaron and his boys. Travel tip: Arches is popular which means it's busy. Get there early or you will be waiting in line for some time.
A co-worker recommended hiking to the Delicate Arch. I'd done some research and it was on my must do list, but we just didn't have enough time to work it in. Maybe next time... for now, we enjoyed seeing it from afar and were able to see other arches up close.
Like the Canyonlands, there were a number of places along the road to stop off at, take a short walk and see something amazing. After seeing the Delicate Arch, we checked out the Fiery Furnace, the Sand Dunes and Broken Arch, and then finished wih the Skyline Arch.
Sand Dunes and Broken Arch was an unexpected treat, even if it was a little more challenging to walk on the sand. The walk wasn't far and you were greeted with a cool looking arch (which just had a small slice of rock fall off of it a few years ago). It was a good reminder that some of these rocks could come down at any time. Travel Tip: If you have little kids, you may want to bring your beach toys here. It was a nice cool, comfortable spot for families to take a break.
My 35mm lens just didn't do this arch justice, but it was incredibly windy so I didn't dare switch out to my 15mm fish-eye lens. You can see the lighter shade of rock in the upper left which is where some of the rock fell off. It doesn't look like much, but I still wouldn't have wanted to be under it when it happened. I wish I would have explored that path behind Riley, but I guess that gives me another excuse to go back.
Speaking of fallen rock... the Skyline Arch just lost an enormous rock in 1940 which doubled the size of it's opening. We were able to walk right up to the base of this arch and probably crawled over the piece of rock that fell out.
We left Aaron and the boys to explore more while we went back to the campsite one more time to pack everything up for our return home. Jesse and Sam dropped Riley and I off at the airport in Grand Junction and we joked that they might be in Denver by the time we fly in there for our layover. Inside the airport Riley's bag was searched because she had so many books with her. Only my kid. Travel trip: If you have a voracious reader like my kid, encourage her to bring books, but not ALL the books, and talk her out of bringing hard copy books. She didn't complain once, but her bag was heavy. We arrived home around midnight - later than I care to be up, but it was well worth it. I'll admit that Utah wasn't originally high on my list to visit, but after this experience, I know we'll be back one day.