This week I took a quick solo road trip to Moab, Utah to explore some trails and see the southwest under a light dusting of snow (it’s hot as heck in Moab 6-9 months per year). I know every guidebook says to only go there March-October, but I’d been watching the weather for weeks and despite torrential rains and cold fronts slamming the US, Moab–even at 6,000′ above sea level–is remarkably mild and sits in a rain shadow, while Salt Lake City a few hours away gets pummeled with snow.
Having Moab all to yourself
My last trip to Moab was during the 2022 Easter Jeep Safari, when about 20,000 jeep owners descend on the small town like a giant CES consumer electronics convention. Hotels can be $500/night, restaurants are packed and the trails around Moab are choked with built up off road Jeeps.
In mid-January, things are different. You can drive right into Arches National Park without using their online reservation lottery where thousands of people jockey for a one-hour window that gives you permission to enter the park. Instead, you just drive in, park near one of the arches and walk up to it. Seeing so many famous spots all by myself was pretty great. I once went to Yosemite in early January and got to sit at the base of massive waterfalls that see millions of visitors each year, but I was completely by myself in total silence. Most of my time in Moab was like that.
Off road trail fun
The main reason I went to Moab was to explore more tails in the Jeep I bought last year. I had an incredible time on mellower trails on my last trip, and wanted to try more challenging things.
Arches national park
Day one, I did the Willow Springs road, to Eye of the Whale arch, to Tower arch off road trails that eventually spit you out in the middle of Arches National Park. I saw petrified dinosaur tracks and hiked to two arches, and drove up and down the mildly challenging trails for a couple hours that morning, having a blast the whole way.
Fins and Things
In the afternoon I drove Fins and Things, which is a popular trail near downtown Moab. It’s often marked off as easy-ish and a good introduction to Moab’s off road trail network.
I went in expecting a cakewalk and I did all the extra optional sections and harder obstacles when options were available, but I would describe it as solidly in the middle to difficult range—not easy at all. There were tons of short shelf climbs and drops, times I had to use my front-trail camera to see because out the windshield was only sky. I had to use front and rear axle lockers to get up particularly steep sections, and every transition tested the approach and departure angles of my Jeep.
My favorite bit was the photo at the top of this section: you’re about 90 minutes into covering only 6 or 7 miles and then you see the back half of the trail on petrified sand dunes (called “Fins”). If you look closely at the image, you can see the black line of tire tracks going off into the distance and back again, each dune requiring steep climbs and descents.
When I finally made it out a couple hours after starting, a sense of relief washed over that you only get from intense, stressful but fun trails.
Dome Plateau trail
I devoted my second day to the Dome Plateau trail. It’s an all-day long trip of 35 miles criss-crossing a plateau above the Colorado River and promises some of the best landscape views in all of Moab. I knew this one could be sketchy because the four or five trail videos I found on YouTube all involved people losing the trail, running out of fuel, and generally barely making it out safely. I prepared as best I could, I had a full tank, food, water, drinks, a 20ºF sleeping bag and pillow, waterproof shoes, a winch, and a giant duffle bag filled with recovery equipment. My cell phone booster meant I had phone connections for about 75% of the trail and my iPhone went into SOS satellite mode outside of that.
Still, things got dicey at several points. The climb in the first couple miles was pretty gnarly and this trail definitely requires a body-on-frame lifted and modified off road vehicle like a Jeep or a mid-sized or full sized truck.
It was just above freezing when I started and after a few miles snowflakes began to fall, but they melted on impact with the windshield. A mile later and the snow was sticking. Then I was just on snowy trails for the next few hours.
The thing about climbing an off road trail in snow is that if you can’t make it up in the first try, you don’t just put it in reverse and try again, because often you start sliding out of control, down a hill. So I had to hammer a few steep climbs to make sure I got over the top in one go.
I understand why people often get lost on this long trail since it has lots of twists and turns with tiny forest service signs to denote the trail, and I only completed it successfully by using “Follow Mode” in the Trails Offroad app, while also keeping the Gaia app on my CarPlay screen with topo maps and the same trails as a reference. There were several spots where the trail faded into a forest, only for me to double-check my two maps to realize which couple of trees ahead I was supposed to drive between to keep going properly.
The incredible views the trail is famous for were largely gone in the clouds but I did seriously enjoy two spots on the trail. The first was the La Boca Arch, which was about halfway into the day. I hadn’t seen anyone since I started the trail so having the arch all to myself was pretty great.
The other memorable spot was Cave Springs closer to the end of the trail. It’s a series of caves with active springs inside dripping out, helping erode the bottoms of these giant sand monoliths. I took a late lunch here, sitting on a giant slab of fallen rock in total peace and quiet. Apparently cowboys camped here to stay out of the weather in the old days.
Exiting the trail, things got a bit dicey because you have to drive through a flash flood wash area with dozens of shallow river crossings. I had to avoid one section of the trail that was completely washed out, but I got to see two abandoned shacks on the alternate route that looked to be cabins from the 1800s, just sitting and slowly decaying on a hilltop.
The final section of wash was only up to a foot deep in spots, making the water crossings easy even during a rain/snow storm. In the end, it took about four hours to complete and I’ll definitely return on a sunny spring day to enjoy the views I missed that day.
Tips and lessons
Moab offers utterly fantastic scenery unlike no other, and it’s only a few hours out of Salt Lake City. I will probably return to the region every six months or so for the foreseeable future. There’s just too much to see, experience, and cover in this area that each trip I feel like I’ve only scratched 5% of what is there.
The land is a bit dangerous and no joke. In the winter, you can easily get stranded far from cell service making quick rescue impossible. The other nine months of the year you battle heat exhaustion and dehydration. You shouldn’t go four wheelin’ alone, especially in poorly marked snowy conditions, but if you do, be prepared with self-recovery equipment, emergency comms, food, water, and sleeping gear. There are half a dozen companies in Moab who will rescue you, but it can cost thousands of dollars to assemble a team to tow you out to safety.
The bible for getting to know the trail network is the Funtreks Moab book. I would also strongly suggest using the Trails Offroad app, which mirrors many of the trails found in the Funtreks book, but on your phone complete with turn-by-turn directions and hints and photos and details of each major obstacle. I would have been completely lost without it and it’s a unique set of features I haven’t found elsewhere. I found the Gaia app useful for reference, but didn’t get anything out of having the OnX Off Road app, as the crowd-sourced trail info was poor.
In the end, I got snowed out the last day of my trip and headed home early, as several more trails I wanted to do were closed due to the extreme winter weather. Despite weeks of blue skies and cold temps but no snow, a winter storm finally slammed Moab. I plan to return in a few months at the start of Spring for another trip, and I am counting the days until it happens.