There’s magic in the name Moab. The word conjures up dreams of sandstone landscapes dissected by canyons and lorded over by buttes and mesas. The town of Moab, Utah, nestled beside the Colorado River, casts a special spell on every visitor, enchanting them with the surrounding bare-bones landscape and a sense of limitless space. Spectacular scenery fills the Moab area, offering long views, a rainbow of colors, dazzling sunsets, and plenty to see and do. Driving Moab’s byways and backroads are the best way to explore its wild country and see its sights. These roads allow mountain bikers, rock climbers, hikers, and river rafters to get intimate with Moab’s red rock playground. Here are five of the area’s most scenic drives.
Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah 128)
The Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway, following Utah 128 or the River Road, runs 44 miles along the Colorado River and across open hills to Interstate 70. The drive, beginning north of Moab, twists through a dramatic cliff-lined gorge beside the Colorado River for the first 13 miles. Attractions include a hike up Negro Bill Canyon to Morning Glory Arch, bouldering at Big Bend, and rafting down the Colorado. Past the canyon, the land opens up and the drive passes Red Cliff Lodge and the Moab Movie Museum below Castle Valley.
A side trip leads to the Fisher Towers, a collection of strangely eroded formations. The byway continues through the upper river canyon, passing scenic overlooks below red rock cliffs, to the site of the historic Dewey Bridge. The one-lane bridge was destroyed by a brush fire in 2008. The final section runs across the barren desert to the ghost town of Cisco before ending at Interstate 70.
Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah 279)
The Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway, locally called Potash Road, follows Utah 279 along the twisty Colorado River for 17 miles to the site of a potash mine. Besides gorgeous scenery, the drive offers dinosaur tracks, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and four-wheeling on the surrounding cliffs and canyons. The byway enters the Colorado River gorge about three miles south of U.S. 191 and runs alongside the west bank of the river through a deep cliff-lined canyon.
At Wall Street, the road edges between the river and a towering sandstone cliff. The roadside crag is Moab’s most popular climbing area, with a couple hundred sport and trad routes. Poison Spider Mesa Trail offers great mountain biking along the canyon rim. An easy trail crosses slickrock to vaulting 105-foot-high Corona Arch. Jughandle Arch frames the north entrance of Long Canyon near the drive’s end at the Intrepid Potash Mine where potash is mined for fertilizer. Past turquoise settling ponds, the road turns to dirt and heads into Canyonlands National Park as the White Rim Road.
La Sal Mountain Loop Road
The La Sal Mountain Loop Road, a Utah Scenic Backway, is a 60-mile drive through the La Sal Mountains southeast of Moab. The road, with both paved and gravel surfaces, climbs from dusty desert valleys to aspen glades, rushing streams, pine and fir forests, and a dozen 12,000-foot peaks, including the range high point, 12,721-foot Mount Peale. The best way to drive the route is counter-clockwise, beginning on U.S. 191 south of Moab. The road climbs to Mill Creek Canyon, one of Moab’s best climbing areas, and then shelves across the northwest flank of the mountains.
Take a right turn and drive to Warner Lake, a gorgeous pond surrounded by wildflower-strewn meadows and golden aspen. Several overlooks yield striking views across the sun-baked landscape below. The final road segment switchbacks down to Castle Valley and runs north to the drive’s end at the River Road. This section passes monolithic sandstone formations, including Castleton Tower, The Priest, and The Nuns.
Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway (Utah 313)
The 35-mile-long Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway follows Utah 313 through sandstone canyons and across sagebrush-covered hills atop the Island in the Sky. Dead Horse Point at the end of the drive perches on the abrupt rim of the mesa, offering one of Moab’s most-loved overlooks. The drive’s last few miles cross Dead Horse Point State Park, a 5,300-acre Utah parkland, with overlooks, hiking and mountain biking trails, a campground, and visitor center. The view from Dead Horse Point, reputedly one of the most photographed scenes in the world, is breathtaking. The glassy Colorado River loops through a dramatic canyon lined with red cliffs more than 2,000 feet below the overlook. Beyond stretches a vastness of flat-topped mesas, ragged canyons, and the snow-capped La Sal and Abajo mountains.
After taking your own photos, head back to Utah 313 and head south to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Expect more great views from the park drive as well as hiking trails, natural arches, and a desert wilderness that reaches to the horizon.
Arches National Park Scenic Drive
The 18-mile park road at Arches National Park traverses a stunning landscape, with skyscraping buttes and towers, balanced rocks, and more than 2,000 arches, the largest concentration in the world. The out-and-back drive offers dramatic overlooks and trails to features like iconic Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and Skyline Arch. Before heading out, stop at the visitor center off U.S. 191 to acquaint yourself with the park.
Past the entrance, the road climbs to the Courthouse Towers, a sculpture garden of massive rocks, and edges alongside the Great Wall. A short spur leads past Balanced Rock to the Windows Section with Turret Arch and the Windows. Other sites to explore include the 1.5-mile trail to Delicate Arch, a must-do hike; labyrinthine slots canyons at the Fiery Furnace; and Devil’s Garden at the road’s end. A good trail explores Devil’s Garden, passing Landscape Arch, the world’s longest natural span, and other arches. Finish the drive by piling back in the car and returning to the visitor center.
Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated.
Featured image provided by Marc Piscotty/Moab Area Travel Council