Hiking and Biking in Utah: Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks

The red rock country of Utah has been on my list for a long time now, since my visit to Sedona, AZ, a couple of years ago. We visited it over the Thanksgiving weekend (November end) and the weather was a bit chilly at night but we had perfect 40’s during the day; had we timed our trip a little earlier, it might have been too hot for outdoor activities. Utah’s sister state, Colorado, has icy roads by this time of year. Utah encourages RV vacations; just rent out a motor home, and live and cook in the National parks for a real ‘nomad’ experience. But for us poor graduate students, we had to be content with coming back to boring hotel rooms every night.

We wanted to explore a couple of National parks in Utah – Capitol Reef and Arches. Both of them have many scenic vistas to splurge your retinas with. The sun-drenched red rocks made for some spectacular photos, here, during sunrise and sunset. In Capitol Reef, we aimed to hike the cottonwood wash; we started on foot only to realize that we were not on the correct one. In retrospect, the starting points of the various trails were not too clear driving from highway 24. Many of the hiking trails here are along the slot canyons – narrow paths with towering red cliffs on either side – and you are “thermostated” naturally, just walking through them.

Mountain biking in Arches National Park is fun for everyone on downhill runs; the rest of the trail was a lot of puffing and panting for a few of us. Certainly not a sport for the faint-hearted! Nevertheless, the trails take you to the heart of the canyon backcountry where it could easily qualify for Martian terrain. The easy loop (Lazy – EZ) has some dirt allowing for grip but once on the rock (Bar-B) learn to trust your bike. We were out of the park at sundown and biked our way on paved roads back to the city. Shuttle services are available for transporting men and bikes but we opted to take it only to enter the park in the morning. It was a good decision, on hindsight, because the way back was simply cruising downhill on the old 191 highway back to Moab. Though refreshing, the sight of Poison Spider (our bike rental shop) was a huge relief at the end of strenuous day. And I love their free water bottles! Pile up on sunscreen and plenty of fluids and invest in a pair of padded shorts (Ouch!) before entering the park.

Apart from adventure activities, spending half a day along the park road can be worthwhile too. Many viewpoints including and of the windows section, turret arch and balanced rock are a short stretch away from the main road.

Torrey is a nice small town to stay in, if you want to explore Capitol Reef National Park. We landed on Thanksgiving Day and everything was closed except for one Rim Rock Restaurant run by a solitary guy who was scrambling between waiting the tables and cooking. Pizzas were a safe bet on the menu and they turned out well. Moab, close to Arches and Canyon Lands, is an awesome city to hang out and stay in. If I had had more time in Moab, I would have loved to rent a Hummer and drive inside the park.

In my opinion, the four landlocked states – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico – offer more genuine American experiences than the coastal cities of New York and Los Angeles. Long stretches of verdant countryside, crumpled snow-clad rocky mountains, boiling sulphur springs, a rich variety of wildlife, grand canyons and gorges, the snaky swift Colorado river… the list is long. Yet, rarely have I seen them on the itinerary of a standard tourist. Truly sad!