Utah’s impossibly red sandstone rocks make up some of the country’s most iconic landmarks and by far the best place to see them is in Moab, a smallish desert town on the state’s Eastern edge, not far from the Colorado border. Sidled up next to the Colorado River, Moab is sandwiched between Arches National Park, a series of stunning red arches and rock formations, and Canyonlands National Park, which is comprised of canyons made as the Colorado and Green Rivers meandered through the desert. While the arches and canyons themselves are more than enough to draw crowds (sunsets here are some of the best anywhere), Moab was built for activity—ample opportunities for hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, and even Jeep-ing make it great for kids who need to be tired out.
Mile 17, Highway 128, Moab | 877.317.8244
If you dig camping, there really isn’t a better place to do it than Moab—the stargazing here is bar none. That said, if tents aren’t your thing, Sorrel River Ranch probably is. Located right in the middle of dramatic cliff tops, this resort has farm-to-food plates, a great spa, as well as national park walking, river rafting, off-road touring, and additional family-friendly activities (like pony/horseback riding). Check into one of the 55 wood-beamed suites and feast your eyes on dramatic views of the Colorado River. Or better yet, come with an extended group of family and friends and stay at the 2,000-square-foot Ranch House.
It’s no secret that the premier campsites in Moab are on National Park lands (close access to monuments and hiking trails is a huge amenity), but they book up months in advance. If you’re traveling last minute, try out a campsite on some of the surrounding Bureau of Land Management lands. Grandstaff campground, situated along the edge of the river, is just off the highway within close range of both parks—it’s also the trailhead for a hike over Morning Glory Bridge into Negro Bill Canyon, where there’s a swimming hole for cooling off.
57 S. Main St., Moab | 435.259.2337
Since 1991, Eddie McStiff’s has been a mainstay in Moab for good tavern food. As to be expected, this a spot for burgers, chicken tenders, nachos, cobb salads, and pulled pork wraps. Less expected: Eddie McStiff’s carries a gluten-free menu (and a kid’s menu.) Head here for lunch or dinner, and go next door to Wake and Bake Cafe for the awesome breakfast tacos.
686 S. Main St., Moab | 435.259.6333
The craft brewery scene in Utah and Colorado is surprisingly strong, and it’s at its best at neighborhood hangouts like Moab Brewery. Climbers, bikers, runners, and others from the athletic set head here after a long day out in the desert to swap stories and sip on the brewery’s famous Dead Horse Ale. Bonus: The restaurant is huge and very casual, so kids are very welcome.
356 Millcreek Dr., Moab | 435.259.7424
Moab’s oldest restaurant is a walk-up counter with a blessedly simple burgers-and-fries type of menu. While the lunch and dinner options are great, Milt’s is really famous for its milkshakes, which you’ll inevitably find yourself dreaming about as you’re out exploring the hot, dry desert trails.
36 S. 100 W., Moab | 435.259.0756
Fancy dinners out are not the real draw of Moab but if you’re looking for an upscale meal on your family trip, this is our pick. A cozy bistro with a laid back patio outside and Southwestern decor inside, this restaurant is housed in Moab’s original dance hall, which was built in 1892. The menu rotates seasonally and the entree offerings can include everything from free-range chicken breast stuffed with black beans and sun-dried tomatoes to handmade Agnolotti pasta filled with parmesan, asiago, and truffled mushrooms to grilled pork tenderloin to veg-friendly creations.
San Francisco-based startup Fireside Provisions is a little like the Blue Apron of camp food—peruse their website ahead of your trip, enter your specifications, and they’ll deliver pre-packaged food with recipes to your door on the day of departure, swiftly eliminating any anxiety over food preparation. This isn’t your Dad’s camping hot dogs, either: Recipes include chilaquiles, salmon pita sandwiches, pork-fried rice, and even trail snacks like apples and peanut butter. No-brainer.
On hot days (which are frequent here), locals head out to a swimming hole called Power Dam. The spot itself is off 400 E—take Mill Creek Drive to Powerhouse Lane and park at the end of the road—and it’s a short one-mile hike up to the water. You’ll find a lower section where slippery rocks form a makeshift slip ‘n slide and an upper section where braver kids can jump from tall overhangs into the water; jumps are as low as ten feet or as high as 40 feet, so you can build up your courage over the course of the day. Photo: Tyler McFall
Slickrock trail is the epitome of Utah’s famous mountain biking. There’s no dirt trail to follow, as you’re cruising directly on the rocks, so you’ll follow a spray-painted dash line for most of the ten-mile lollipop trail. Slickrock is rated as technical, and while there are a few gnarly moments, amateur bikers who aren’t embarrassed about walking through a few steep sections can finish it easily. For advanced adrenaline junkies, there’s also the decidedly non-kid-friendly Porcupine Rim trail. Moab Cyclery offers rentals, guided trips, and shuttles.
The best way to see Arches National Park is the old-fashioned way, by driving through. Pick up a map at the ranger station—most of the iconic arches like Delicate Arch, Corona Arch, and Devil’s Garden are just short hikes from roadside parking spots. Ambitious adventurers will want to plan ahead and get a permit to check out Fiery Furnace, an area in the northern part of the park with narrow canyons that kids love to sneak through. The labyrinth, while beautiful, can be difficult to navigate, so first-timers should consider taking a guided tour with a ranger. While you’re at it, try to snag one of the very few camping spots in the park, as there’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise over the rock formations (or getting to the more famous spots before the crowds).
Moab’s rock features and gorgeous scenery make it one of the world’s best places for exploring by Jeep, and the BLM land surrounding the two national parks is snaked with off-roading trails. While it’s tempting to rent a Jeep from one of the many outfits and head out on your own, we actually recommend booking a tour on a multi-passenger vehicle. Professional drivers can take you on the most difficult terrain (and show off what the crazy all-wheel-drives are capable of) with the added bonus of circumventing any back-and-forth safety conversations between parents. Dan Mick’s Jeep Tours is a family-run operation staffed by local experts with plenty of stories to color the ride along the way.
Canyonlands National Park was formed when the Colorado River and its tributaries wound their way through Utah’s soft sandstone, leaving towers and pinnacles of striped red rock in their wake. The park itself is divided into four sections: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon Unit, each of which is separated by the Colorado or Green Rivers (and there aren’t bridges in the park) so they each have to be accessed separately—it definitely takes a few days to explore the park fully. Island in the Sky, a mesa that rises more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, is great for hiking and Jeeping; it’s also home to Willow Flat, an accessible campground in the park. Experienced bikers might try biking the Island’s White Rim Road, a famously scenic bike and four wheel drive road that can be covered over the course of a few days. The Needles (which looks just as its name would have you suspect) is home to Squaw Flat Campground, which is a great basecamp for hikes to famous rock formations like Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, and Elephant Hill. As with all National Park campsites, be sure to book well in advance.
Moab is a short drive from the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, both of which make for great rafting. Before the confluence, both rivers are slow and mellow, making for Lazy River-style trips that are safe for little kids. After the rivers converge, the force of their combined strength creates dramatic whitewater and a more adventurous ride that’s fun and exciting for older kids. Moab Adventure Center offers both options, plus self-guided SUP and kayaking on the calmer waters.
Read & Watch
Some fan favorite Westerns were shot in Utah and the region’s landscape has inspired illustrated children’s books and narrative non-fiction alike. But if you’re camping family-style, put the below guide at the top of your to-be-read pile
Goes Camping by
Mélanie Watt Amazon, $12.63
Buford the Little
Bighorn by Bill Peet Amazon, $9.99
The Down and Dirty
Guide to Camping with
Kids by Helen Olsson Amazon, $13.71
by Edward Abbey Amazon, $5.17
by Jon Krakauer Amazon, $8.82
A Story of Life at Wolf
Ranch by Maxine Newell CNHA, $2.99