By Scott Thornburn, Travel Writer
Children play in playgrounds; adults usually just watch their offspring from the sidelines by the fence. But imagine a playground so vast that it can’t be fenced. And imagine that any age can play here.
That’s how to consider the Moab, Utah, region that opens doors to several National Parks and provides those-fun-for-all ages bells and whistles – not quite swings and slides – that enhance time spent here.
Time is key. But spending even one day in the region immersed in hot air ballooning or stand up paddleboarding or bumping along on a jeep safari brings out our playful side.
Let’s first find our way to Moab in eastern Utah. Along the way you may feel that you’ve been here before as you peruse visitor brochures flagging the red rocks of Canyonlands National Park that’s a magnet for the intrepid. As a Hollywood darling you may have enjoyed the landscape in such box office hits as 127 Hours, City Slickers II, Mission Impossible II and Thelma and Louise.
Standing at a kiosk at Moab Adventure Center on Main Street, your first stop, you may feel like you’re in an old-fashioned diner where you can drop a quarter into a jukebox to hear a tune. The choices that kiosk outlines for you, like the jukebox, are many and varied. Will you make a reservation here to explore by land, water or air – or all of the above?
Mountain biking, river rafting and sightseeing from a single-wing aircraft are among assorted day trips available here nearly year-round.
Mountain biking engages you (and anyone 10 and up) for some four hours on the Intrepid Trail, a nine-mile moderate to intermediate single-track, slick-rock trail rising to 6,000 feet above sea level in Dead Horse Point State Park. Relatively level terrain, gentle slopes and spectacular views of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park make the trail very family-friendly.
Rafting the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon and Canyonlands National Park starting in early May comes in two and four-day programs, again for ages 10 and up. Rates include water and land excursions, overnight camping, all meals from departure to return and transfers back to Moab.
The two-day Cataract Canyon Express traverses some 100 river miles as professional guides share stories and facts about ancient Native American civilizations and local folklore before the raft drops into a series of nearly 30 whitewater rapids that make Cataract Canyon legendary. The journey ends at Lake Powell where guests are shuttled back to Moab. A four-day Cataract Canyon Classic (minimum age 12) explores by water majestically cut canyons past Dead Horse Point State Park and beyond the confluence of the Colorado and Green River enroute to head-to-head encounters with world-famous class III-V whitewater. The way out is by air.
A scenic flight over Canyonlands National is a one-hour commitment to soar over some of Earth’s most spectacular country. Flights operate daily year-round for witnessing the etching that the Colorado and Green rivers have created over millions of years, a perspective impossible to grasp by land. A professional pilot and guide direct the tour over the Colorado River past Island in the Sky, Dead Horse Point, and The Maze, (hideout of famous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). On the approach to the Needles area the plane flies over the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, absorbing the breathtaking beauty of Chesler Park, Druid Arch and Angel Arch.
Hour-long hot air balloon flights that begin at sunrise with set-up and launch give passengers a bird’s-eye view of multi-colored sandstone formations, mesas, buttes, deep canyon mazes and natural arches. Sights include the rugged red rock canyons carved by the Colorado River, fanciful rock towers and arches and often such wildlife as desert big horn sheep, mountain lion, pronghorn antelope and bald and golden eagles.
“I enjoy contour or close-to-the-ground flying. This gives a very unique perspective of the landscape. The sensation of climbing over a sandstone butte then watching the ground drop hundreds of feet below you can only be compared to rock climbing. The biggest difference with a flight in Moab to anywhere else is that you are actually a part of the landscape, not just an observer. Conditions permitting, I also like to fly up to 4,000 feet above the valley floor to give everyone an overview of the entire area,” says Lou Bartell who owns and pilots the six-passenger balloon.
In addition to mountain biking, other land excursions include Hummer safaris, climbing and canyoneering and horseback riding. Guests who want to be on the water can, in addition to rafting, engage a jetboat on the Colorado River and pursue the fast growing sport of stand up paddleboarding.
Stand-up paddle board packages accessing a calm section of the Colorado River include transportation to the river, board rental (long, 10 to 12-feet Surftech paddle boards), adjustable paddle, personal flotation device, instruction on beach and water, guide and snacks/water. The 2 to 2.5-hour excursions depart mornings and at sunset.
Moab Adventure Center (www.moabadventurecenter.com) serves active travelers with half, full, and multi-day adventure programs including Moab rafting, Hummer safaris, Arches National Park Tours, canyoneering, Moab mountain biking, Colorado River jet boat tours, horseback riding and hot air balloon rides. In addition to activities, the Adventure Center also offers Moab lodging and Jeep rentals as well as complete Moab vacation packages.
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