Get your adrenaline pumping on these three adventure trip itineraries in Arches and Canyonlands national parks near Moab, Utah. From Arches National Park’s towering red-rock walls in the Fiery Furnace and the churning rapids of Cataract Canyon to biking the White Rim Trail and backpacking the Big Needles Loop in Canyonlands, the national parks surrounding the incredible outdoor town of Moab, Utah, have so much to offer for those looking to take it to 11. If you’re someone who prefers coming back from a vacation feeling well-rested, then these itineraries aren’t for you. But if you love to push your body, see remote and wild places and come back home feeling that good kind of sore, keep reading.
We’ve put together three incredible long-weekend itineraries for you to maximize your time on your next trip to southeastern Utah.
Itinerary One: Grind it Out on White Rim Road in Canyonlands
You could rent a Jeep to explore the stunning four-wheel-drive White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park, but we’d argue that it would be much more satisfying to traverse it using your own power. This 100-mile loop is usually done as a three-to-five-day intermediate bike ride with a four-wheel-drive support vehicle carrying water. You’ll circle Island in the Sky, riding along the edge of cliffs, past deep canyons with rivers ribboning along their bottoms and breathtaking viewpoints. The average grade of this backcountry road is only 2%, but it does max out at 37%.
Plan Ahead: There are 10 camping areas with 20 total sites along the road, ranging from the seven-mile mark to the 77-mile mark. Toilets are located at each area. Permits are required for all day and overnight rides and drives. Backcountry camping permits open four months in advance of each season. Spring permits open Nov. 10, summer permits open Feb. 10, fall permits open May 10 and winter permits open Aug. 10. Permits are competitive, especially in the spring and fall, so reserve your dates at www.recreation.gov as soon as they open.
Not traveling with your bike? Reserve a bike in advance at Poison Spider Bicycles (poisonspiderbicycles.com) at 497 N. Main St. in Moab. They offer daily, three-day and five-day rentals and have a range of mountain bikes from standard to premium models. You can also rent bike racks. Pick up your bikes the night before you start your trek, so you’re ready to get an early start. Or, if you’d like to leave the logistics and meals to a pro, do a guided trip with Holiday River Expeditions.
Day One: Island in the Sky Visitor Center to Gooseberry Campground
Make sure your support vehicle has a full tank of gas before you leave Moab and check weather conditions before setting out.
The White Rim Road can be done in either direction, but if you’ve seen photos of the famous Shafer Trail and cringed imagining pedaling up it, you’ll want to go clockwise so you’re riding that section downhill. This means that the last section of your ride will be a longer uphill, but it’s more gradual than Shafer Trail, a narrow, rocky dirt road leading from the top of the canyon rim to the valley below.
Descend Shafer Trail and ride the 30 miles to Gooseberry Campground. Keep your eye out along the way for Gooseneck Tower and Musselman Arch. Gooseberry A Campground offers gorgeous views right next to the canyon rim.
Day Two: Gooseberry Campground to Potato Bottom
Riding clockwise, day two trends mostly downhill. You’ll ride 36 miles to Potato Bottom Campground at mile 66.
Today includes two worthy detours: first, White Crack Campground which is 1.4 miles off the main road and will give you stunning views of the Needles and Maze districts of the park. It’s nine miles past Gooseberry Campground, so stop here in the morning along the first portion of your ride.
Don’t miss an afternoon stop at Holman Slot, a narrow canyon. It’s one of the few slot canyons in the park and doesn’t have many obstacles, making it an easy side trip. Find it just west of where White Rim Road crosses Holman Spring Canyon.
Day Three: Potato Bottom to Moab
From Potato Bottom, it’s a long 24-mile climb to Mineral Bottom Road and away from the Green River. By the time you reach the end of the 100-mile trek, you’ll be more than ready for après drinks.
Itinerary Two: Hike Arches’ Fiery Furnace and Raft Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands
Day One: Hike Fiery Furnace
7 a.m. Fuel up at Doughbird: Start your morning at the unlikely Doughbird, a donut and coffee shop in the morning and a fried chicken joint open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Grab a donut and a coffee or espresso drink here at 125 N. Main St., and hit the road to Arches National Park.
8 a.m. Explore Fiery Furnace: Arches’ Fiery Furnace is a stunning and remote maze of sandstone canyons. The only way to access this part of the park is via a ranger-led hike or with a self-guided exploration permit.
You’ll need to squeeze through tight canyons, balance on precarious ledges and keep your wits about you to ensure you know where you’re going and where you’ve come from. Get more information on planning your Fiery Furnance hike.
2 p.m. Paddle the Colorado: Tomorrow you’ll be rafting some major whitewater so it’s a great time to warm up those paddling muscles with a leisurely float down a mellow section of the Colorado River on a stand-up paddleboard. Join a guided tour from Paddle Moab (www.paddlemoab.com) or opt for the Rent & Ride Package in which the company picks you up at Lions Park just south of Arches and shuttles you as far up the river as you want to go with paddleboards and life jackets. They’ll meet you back at the park to pick up your rentals at the end of the float. You’ll pass beautiful canyon walls as you skirt the national park’s border.
7 p.m. Head to the Food Truck Park: Moab Food Truck Park is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Order from one of the many trucks surrounding the courtyard at 39 West 100 North and then enjoy your meal at one of the picnic tables as the sun sets.
Day Three: Raft Cataract Canyon
Utah’s biggest whitewater rafting can be found on the Colorado River in the Cataract Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park. It’s not a stretch of river for small children. The 14-mile section through the park includes up to Class V rapids that should be navigated only with expert river runners.
This trip can be done as a day trip, or as a longer adventure launching north of Moab in Potash or Green River. The takeout is usually Hite Marina on Lake Powell. Many guiding services, such as OARS and Holiday River Expeditions offer guided trips through Cataract Canyon, which is an excellent choice if you’re not a very experienced river runner who has years of experience running challenging rapids.
Get more information on planning your rafting trip in Cataract Canyon.
Itinerary Three: Backpack the Big Needles Loop
The Needles is Canyonlands’ most popular backpacking area for good reason. First, its trailheads are easily accessible by most cars. Second, it usually has seasonally accessible water, something that’s not always a guarantee in the desert. And lastly? It’s just plain gorgeous.
The 23.2-mile Big Needles Loop makes an excellent three to four day trip. We’ve highlighted a three-day itinerary below to make carrying water easier.
Backcountry camping permits open four months in advance of each season and can be obtained at www.recreation.gov/permits/4675315. Spring permits open Nov. 10, summer permits open Feb. 10, fall permits open May 10 and winter permits open Aug. 10. Permits are competitive, especially for the spring and fall months so reserve them as soon as they become available.
All backcountry campsites in The Needles require you to pack out your solid human waste. Outdoor stores like REI sell WAG Bags, which are bags that contain chemical crystals that gels your #2, which neutralizes it and lets you throw it away in most normal trash cans when you get back to civilization.
Day One: Trailhead to Campsite Squaw Canyon 2 Site
From the Squaw Flat Trailhead just under three miles west of the Needles Entrance, near the Needles Campground, you’ll start your clockwise 23.2-mile loop. Plan on carrying a heavy pack. Rangers suggest carrying at least one gallon of water for each day since water isn’t always accessible. Check with rangers before starting your trip to find out if there are opportunities to filter water along trail. Otherwise bring enough for the entire trip. Another option is to leave one car at the Chesler Park Trailhead, which you’ll reach on day two, and stash water in your car here.
You’ll follow the Squaw Flat Trail to the Peekaboo Canyon Trail to the Lost Canyon Trail to the Squaw Canyon Trail, traversing 5.7 miles on your first day giving you opportunities to take in the scenery and explore side trails if interested. There’s many trail forks on this loop so bringing and consulting a map is imperative.
Day Two: Squaw Canyon 2 Site to Devils Pocket 1 Site
You’ll cover 8.6 miles today to get to your next campsite, but if you’re up for a big day, consider a side trip to Druid Arch, a stunning geometric-looking 4-mile detour. You’ll reach it at the 8.8-mile mark after taking the turnoff for the Elephant Canyon Trail. Feel free to drop your pack and bring only your water bottle as you’ll be returning to this point again.
If you didn’t opt for the Druid Arch detour, there’s another detour that’s shorter and equally incredible as you continue past the junction on the Joint Trail. Take a side trail to the Chesler Park overlook, which is approximately a half-mile round-trip detour.
As you continue along the Joint Trail, you may scrape the narrow walls if you have a large backpack. It’s an incredible experience. You’ll pop out at the Chesler Park Trailhead where you can use the pit toilet and grab more water if you shuttled a car here.
Follow the road for just under a mile until you reach the Devils Pocket Trail and follow it to Devils Pocket 1 Site.
Day Three: Devils Pocket 1 Site to Squaw Flat Trailhead
Today you’ll finish Big Needles Loop with a challenging 7.7-mile stretch. Continue for half a mile to Devils Kitchen Camp, a car camping area where you’ll find a pit toilet. Check your map carefully when you leave this area, as it can be confusing.
After 2.3 miles take a left onto Elephant Hill Trail where you’ll get stunning views of the Pinnacle and Needles formations. Continue into the sandy Elephant Canyon. When you reach the junction, take the Squaw Flat Trail back to your car.
Back in Moab, stop in to the Spitfire Smokehouse (www.spitfiresmokehousemoab.com) at 2 S 100 W for a beer and some barbeque to celebrate an excellent adventure. Order entrees like a Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich, a pulled chicken platter or even a vegan sausage sandwich with sides ranging from hush puppies to pit-smoked beans. Don’t miss the house made sauces.