Beyond the Arches

Here are a few details to help you in your journey beyond the golden arches and isolated buttes of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Gail Newbold Mar 1, 2017

Most people come to the Moab area to visit Arches and Canyonlands. Not many know about some of the area’s lesser-known delights, understandably dwarfed by its two spectacular and beloved national parks. We aren’t suggesting you forego the charms of these two beauties, but simply proposing you tack on an extra day or two to your trip. Use the time to explore sites like the beautiful Grandstaff Hiking Trail to one of the nation’s longest rock spans, the futuristic-looking pinnacles of Fisher Towers, spooky Cisco ghost town, charming Castle Valley, the Colorado River by boat and two seriously scenic byways.

Grandstaff Trail

Until recently, this scenic trail alongside a stream was better known as the “Negro Bill Canyon Trail” — named after a black cowboy named William Grandstaff who ran cattle in the canyon in the 1870s. The Grandstaff Trail has everything you love on a hike: Beautiful green foliage set against the red cliffs of the canyon, a perennial clear stream, variety of scenery and a big payoff at the end — Morning Glory Natural Bridge. At 243 feet, the bridge is the sixth-longest natural rock span in the U.S. The hike is four miles round-trip, and the trailhead is located on Upper Colorado Scenic Byway (Utah State Route 128), three miles east of the junction with U.S. 191.

Fisher Towers

What do “Wagon Master,” “Against a Crooked Sky,” “The Comancheros” and “Rio Conchos” have in common? All were Western movies for which the futuristic rock pinnacles of Fisher Towers once served as a scenic backdrop. One of the most outstanding features along the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway, Fisher Towers also achieved a measure of fame when its highest tower was scaled by three men in 1962 who wrote about their experience that year in National Geographic magazine.

The towers can be enjoyed from the parking area, but views are even better on the 4.4-mile, round-trip Fisher Towers Hiking Trail. If you’re short on time, an outstanding view of the area can be seen by hiking just halfway along the trail to the base of the highest tower, the 900-foot Titan. The Fisher Towers Recreation site is located northeast of Moab at the end of a 2.2-mile graded dirt access road near highway mile marker 21 along Route 128.

Upper Colorado Scenic Byway

Sometimes a scenic drive enjoyed from the warmth of your car is the best way to enjoy the rugged beauty of Utah’s eastern region, especially in the off season when a bitter wind is howling and snow is on the horizon. Begin with what’s been called one of Utah’s top five most scenic drives at the Colorado River Bridge on the north end of Moab. This spectacular 44-mile drive on Route 128 along the Colorado River Gorge offers breathtaking views of red sandstone cliffs with the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the background, the entrance to the Grandstaff Hiking Trail and further up the road to Fisher Towers, Castle Valley and finally the eerie ghost town of Cisco. Allow two hours for the drive.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway

For more than just beautiful scenery, take the 17-mile, one-hour scenic drive along Route 279 where you often see rock climbers close up scaling the vertical cliffs locals refer to as Wall Street. There are convenient pullouts so you can get out of the car and stare for a while with your heart in your throat as the rock climbers occasionally lose their footing and dangle precariously in the air.

Less fear inducing is the scenic byway’s ancient rock art, views of the Colorado River and a hiking trail to the Corona and Bowtie Arches. The paved road ends at the Intrepid Potash Mine where potash, a mineral often used as fertilizer, is extracted. High clearance vehicles can continue on the dirt road to Canyonlands National Park. This byway begins 4.1 miles north of Moab where Potash Road (Route 279) turns off Highway 191.

Colorado River From the Water

The view from the water of the Colorado River Gorge should not be missed. There are a variety of ways to see it — either on your own or through a commercial company like Canyonlands By Night and Day. And as its name says, you can enjoy the river and its environs in every form of light or darkness.

Tiny Castle Valley

Not a tourist attraction, but it’s worth turning off Route 128 onto the La Sal Loop Road to enjoy the tiny town of Castle Valley’s tranquil beauty. Older homes and pricey contemporary vacation “cabins” dot this valley surrounded by towering red rock cliffs.

Cisco Ghost Town

Hand-scrawled threatening signs warning people to keep away, decrepit buildings and eerie signs of life such as clothes flapping on a line give the ghost town of Cisco a decidedly spooky feel. If you get goosebumps, you’re in good company: The Huffington Post described Cisco as “the creepy ghost town from ‘Thelma and Louse’ and ‘Vanishing Point,’” as well as “one of the most iconic ghost towns in all of America.” If you like feeling a bit uneasy, it’s worth a drive-through if you’re already on the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway. The photo ops are plentiful.

Red Cliffs Lodge

Red Cliffs Lodge is the perfect place to stay when exploring the above sites. Located on the banks of the Colorado River along the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway with a breathtaking backdrop of steep cliff walls, this all-suite lodge includes the Moab Movie Museum, daily wine tastings and the Cowboy Grill offering fabulous views of the river to diners.

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