As a backpacker who travels mostly internationally, I never considered writing my backpacker guides for destinations in the United States. Few places in the U.S. are backpacker-friendly. The vast distances of the country often make it difficult to travel on a budget. As a result, international travelers to the U.S. typically aren’t of the backpacker species.
However, my visits to Moab have always given me a familiar feeling of backpacking trips abroad: small towns, big mountains, and a vibe that just makes you feel at home. I was in the middle of a Patagonia road trip when Coronavirus sent me packin’ back to the U.S. It wasn’t until I got to Moab did I get a strangely familiar feeling. I last felt it while hopping from small town to small town along Patagonia’s vast expanses. Moab is a fantastic destination, and as I write this from the home-y comforts of my hostel, I can’t help but realize that Moab is one of, or at least should be, one of the U.S.’s premier backpacker destinations.
International travel isn’t much of a thing right now, but when it opens back up, I encourage all of y’all to come out here and see what Utah’s all about.
How to Get to Moab, Utah
We drove to Moab from Colorado, staying in Grand Junction to split up the drive from Denver. After a brief drive through of Colorado National Monument, we finished the less-than-two-hour drive to Moab. The drive is quite dull until you get close to Moab, so it feels much longer than it actually is. You’ll drive along I-70 until you see the turn off for Moab, and then it’s another 30 minutes or so from there.
From Salt Lake City, it’s about four hours to get down to Moab. Once you get past Provo, the towns are few and far between. I think we passed only two decently-sized towns along the way, so make sure to have enough gas, food, and water for the road trip down.
Basically, get on 191 until you reach Moab.
The Best Things To Do in Moab
Moab is an adventurer’s paradise. I’m only going to scratch the surface on this post because honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface of this region.
Arches National Park
The most popular of Moab’s national parks, Arches is the priority for most travelers visiting Moab. The vast national park boasts otherworldly views throughout. Getting on the ground and taking on one of its many hikes is the best way to see the park. Delicate Arch is the most famous. It’s iconic formation graces the Utah state license plate.
There are many more hikes to do in the area, though, like Devil’s Garden and Fiery Furnace. You’ll need a permit for some of the other hikes in Arches, so make sure to check in at the visitor center beforehand.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park often plays second fiddle to Arches National Park. It’s a little more rough, rugged and out of the way, but it is absolutely worth the visit. It doesn’t boast the infrastructure that Arches has, but hey, that might be a good thing. After dealing with the crowds of Arches the night before, Canyonlands was a pleasant change. We ran into fewer people our entire time in the park than we did hiking up to Delicate Arch for sunset.
Everyone knows about it, so I can’t necessarily call it a hidden gem. In comparison to how crowded Arches feels at times, it definitely felt like a hidden gem in comparison. Mesa Arch and Grand View are two of the most popular short hikes, although I’d recommend tacking on Upheaval Dome as well.
There are many different districts to the park. The most easily accessible from Moab is Island in the Sky, about 30 minutes off the main highway leading to Moab. Needles District, on the other hand, is about an hour and a half away from Moab. There’s a ton to explore, but no matter what you decide to do, it’s worth the visit.
Dead Horse Point State Park
A state park right next to two national parks? If Canyonlands played second fiddle to Arches, then Dead Horse Point is definitely a distant third when it comes to popularity. We drove by after Canyonlands and contemplated visiting, but decided against it. The next morning, the FOMO got too real and we decided to check it out.
The $20 entrance fee might seem a little off putting, especially considering the value you get for an annual national parks pass. I mean, what State Park has the audacity to charge the same as a national park? We ended up handing the money over and even though we only spent a few short hours there, it was a beautiful visit. You get stunning views of the Colorado River that you don’t get at Canyonlands.
Mill Creek Waterfalls
This was an adventure that we stumbled upon by surprise. We were absolutely suffering from the midday heat and were on our way to our campground. We set up camp, hoping to chill for a few hours before adventuring once more when the heat became more manageable. Unfortunately, there was no chilling to be had. I remembered passing by a road that said “Access to Mill Creek”, and without knowing what it was but desperate to cool off, we drove down.
All I have to say is if this wasn’t in Moab, it’d be the star of the show. It’s overshadowed by the tons of other activities in the area, but damn, is it pretty here. It’s definitely the best place to cool off on a hot day. The hike to the waterfalls runs along the creek and is about a mile long. We hiked to the waterfalls just to see it then decided to find a more secluded spot to cool down and swim. It is absolutely stunning here, and it feels a little bit like a less narrow version of The Narrows in Zion.
A 45-minute drive from Moab will take you to a lesser-visited part of the region. There are plenty of beautiful, free hikes to do in this area. You’ll be surrounded by breathtaking rock formations and desert, all with a fraction of the people you’ll run into at one of the more famous parks near Moab. The drive here, and through this region, is one of the most beautiful in the United States. You’ll find yourself flanked by towering canyons and driving alongside the majestic Colorado River.
Other Hikes in Moab
There are a lot of other hikes in Moab outside of the national parks and state park. State Route 279 and State Route 128, both along the Colorado River, is where you’ll find some of the best. Drive along State Route 279 to hike up to Corona Arch, Jeep Arch, and some of the best rock climbing Moab has to offer. Drive along State Route 128 and hike the Grandstaff Trail, running along a refreshing river and capped off at another beautiful arch. Keep driving along this road for gorgeous views of the Colorado River. This is a popular spot for boaters, kayakers, and rafters, as well as cyclists.
Outdoor Activities in Moab
Outside of hiking and visiting the parks, Moab has a ton of outdoor activities for the adventurous traveler. Mountain biking, rock climbing, off-roading, rafting, kayaking, and more are all things that one can do while in Moab.
Where To Stay in Moab
Moab may have the widest range when it comes to the price of accommodation. On one hand, you’ve got the resorts that cater to your every need, not that I would know anything about that. I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Outside of Moab, you’ll find an abundance of free places to camp. Within Moab, you’ll find a range of budget accommodation options, if you’re looking to be closer to the action.
I’ve stayed at three different places in Moab. I hammock camped at the Moab KOA, tent camped at ACT campground, and then splurged on a private cabin at the Lazy Lizard hostel. By splurge, I mean split a $50 room with my sister, so $25 each. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lazy Lizard charged $12 for a shared dorm room. As far as hostel prices in the U.S. goes, that may be the cheapest I’ve ever seen. It was a pretty great place, too, with fast Wi-Fi, a common kitchen, and just a short drive from the center of town.
Moab is getting more and more developed by the month, and we saw tons of hotels being built or renovated along the highway. It was a bit sad to see, but I guess it can be expected because capitalism. As long as they don’t infringe into the parks, the road work and ugly construction can be tolerated. I’d still recommend sticking to the local spots that have been around for decades, though. Don’t let Marriott win!!
Miscellaneous Tips for Budget Travel in Moab
There’s a grocery store in Moab called the City Market. If you don’t want to eat out for every meal, it’s a pretty good spot to grab some groceries. Eating out can get expensive very quickly. There are a ton of great food spots in Moab, and that can be really tempting. Balance it out with a few budget meals and you should be okay. Giliberto’s and Moab Diner are home to some absolutely fire food. Treat yourself to those after a lengthy hike in the desert heat, for sure.
Staying outside of the Moab city center will also be cheaper, although much more primitive. You can check out freecampsites.net for a list of free campgrounds in the Moab region. As one can expect from a touristy destination like Moab, you won’t find any that are close to town. However, there are quite a few that are close to the national parks, so if you’re well-stocked for a few days of living off the grid, then those are an excellent option.