Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

Things to Do in Moab, 2023: From Dinosaurs to Today

Start your day in Moab by watching an incredible sunrise in the Canyonlands National Park. Follow the sun throughout the day and then watch it set on the red rock formations in Arches National Park. It is here in Arches where you will find Moab’s iconic Delicate Arch. And find it you should. Not only are there many other things to see in the park itself, there are so many more things to do in the Moab area. From finding the tracks of dinosaurs from a million years ago, to visiting rock art sites with petroglyphs and pictographs created a few hundred years ago. From finding the locations used in some well known Hollywood films, such as Thelma & Louise, to choosing your own style of adrenalin-pumping experiences.

In the early 1800s Moab was a promising trading post at one of only a few crossing points on the mighty Colorado River. When the Denver-Salt Lake City train line was built in the second half of the 19th century, the route bypassed Moab. And later, as other more strategic river crossings were constructed up and down river, Moab’s reason for being was no more. Almost.

For a brief time during World War II, a camp to the north of Moab that had been used for the Civilian Conservation Corps became a centre for the internment of Japanese Americans. In January 1943 Japanese men who were deemed particularly troublesome were transferred to Moab for their role in the Manzanar riots of December 1942. By the end of April these men were moved on to another more secure facility and the Dalton Wells CCC Camp-Moab Relocation Center was abandoned. In 1994 the centre was added to the National Register of Historic Places (Location find the Dalton Wells Camp and other historic sites and museums on a map).

In the 1950s Moab became known as the world’s Uranium Capital. And with the advent of nuclear weapons and power, Moab experienced something of a boom. In the meantime, the well known Western film producer John Ford had been invited to Moab and chose to film Wagon Master here. Since then the spectacular landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have been, and are still, used for many of Hollywood’s blockbusters. Including, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Thelma and Louise in 1991, and Star Trek in 2009 to name only a few.

The Westerns that were filmed in the area not only attracted more film producers, but they also raised an interest in the area. And by the 1970s tourism began to feature in Moab’s economy. An economy that was about to hit a slump with the end of the Cold War and a decrease in the demand for uranium. Today there is no doubt, Moab is a popular destination for visitors choosing to explore the vast red rock landscapes, either by hiking or mountain biking, in a car or on a boat. What will you do in Moab?

Watch the Sun Rise at Mesa Arch

You don’t have to be an early bird to appreciate an eye-catching sunrise. So if being up with the larks is not usually your thing, you might want to think again when visiting Moab. Sunrises can be something to behold on any landscape that is out of the ordinary. But here the colours of the rocks that make up the canyons and geomorphological features take sunrises to a whole new level.

Canyonlands National Park with its many east-facing vistas (along the Grand Viewpoint Road) offers the best opportunities to see a good sun rise. In particular, Mesa Arch is a favourite. The trailhead is just under an hour from Moab, and the arch is a short walk from the car park. Another easy to get to spot is Green River Overlook.

Those points that involve a bit of a hike tend to be less popular, such as Grandview Point (a trail of about half a mile). Murphy Point Overlook and Aztec Butte are another two options to consider. Plan ahead with sunrise times for Moab.

Spend a Day Looking for Rock Art

You really do not have to go too far to see rock art while staying in Moab. There are a number of very good sites within a 25 km radius of the town. Whether you want to see one or two exceptional sites, or you would like to see as many as you can. Whether you are looking for sites with easy access, or are looking to see a few sites as part of a moderate hike. Moab has a collection of sites to suit all levels of interests.

And of the sites and rock art themselves. There are both petroglyphs and pictographs, engravings and paintings. Art that is relatively old, and art that is relatively recent. Of the different traditions, you will find Barrier Canyon style rock art, Freemont, Basketmaker and Ancestral Puebloan rock arts.

When visiting rock art sites, this applies to all archaeological and historical sites, remember that despite their age they are sensitive sites. Read the widely accepted guidelines for visiting rock art and archaeological sites.

While there are some rock art sites that are signposted, the vast majority are not (many of which are not even on public maps). This is simply to not advertise these sites for people who are likely to vandalise them. To find rock art sites near Moab, search out Interactive Map of Rock Art Sites. We only locate sites that are relatively well known. This does not mean the usual visitor etiquette for visiting rock art sites should not be observed at all sites, and at all times.

Join the National Parks’ Community Artist

Moab has a thriving contemporary arts and crafts scene. Check out the Moab Arts website for more information and a programme of events for the year.

Since 2009, the group of National Parks in southeastern Utah (ie Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Natural Bridges National Monument) has had its own Community Artist in the Parks program. The artist in residence for 2021 is Julia Buckwalter, a painter who uses oil on canvas and panel to explore the dynamics of clouds in skyscapes and variations of colour in landscapes.

Visitors are free to join her to watch her at work and chat to Julia about her work. Or why not take your materials and create your own art. Check out her programme for 2021. Each week Julia is at a different location in the National Parks. The webpage gives times and locations so that you can participate. There is no cost, this is a free activity provided by the National Parks Service.

Spend a Day in Arches National Park

Covering some 300 square kilometres, Arches National Park is known for its red lock landscape and magnificent geomorphological features. You have surely seen a photograph of Delicate Arch, an iconic symbol not only for this area but also Utah. There are more than 2,000 natural stone arches scattered throughout the park. As well as hundreds of other types of rock formations, such as pinnacles, massive rock fins and giant balanced rocks.

Arches is a popular national park. Rather than being surprised by how busy it is during peak holiday seasons, check the Arches Website for tips and suggestions for avoiding congested roads. The park is open throughout the year, and is just as interesting in winter as it is in summer.

Besides publishing a lot of information on the website. This is obviously a good place to start with your planning. With your visit, a good physical place to start is the Visitor Center. There is a Ranger Programme, for those who want to learn more about the park, its geology and history. But you are also free to explore the park yourself. Get a decent map, or download an app to your phone: Arches National Park Self-Guided Driving Tour.

The app uses gps from your smartphone to give you a reliable guided tour of the park. You get to learn about the park as you go along through audio narration and on screen text explanations. You explore the park at your own pace, and visit those points of interest that interest you. And there is a lot of choose from, including Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Windows Arches, Tapestry Arch and Fiery Furnace. You can also head out to the historic Wolfe Ranch wood cabin and the nearby Ute petroglyphs that depict humans on horse back and big horn sheep.

Or take a guided tour of the park in a 4×4 and head out to the more inaccessible and less crowded points of interest, such as Tower Arch and the Eye of the Whale Arch. You will also get to see an old cowboy trail as well as some older dinosaur track on the Half-Day Arches National Park 4×4 Driving Tour.

Take a Daytrip to the Best Rock Art Site

One of the finest rock art sites in North America can be found in a small canyon called Horseshoe Canyon. Although physically separate, administratively this canyon is part of the Canyonlands National Park.

There are a number of rock art and archaeological sites in the canyon, but it is the Great Gallery that everyone wants to see. Protected by a slight overhang in the cliff wall is a panel that measures around 60 m long (that is 200 feet) and 4.6 m (15 feet) high at its highest point. There are 20 life-sized anthropomorphic images, mostly painted but with engraved lines too. The largest of these measures over 2 m tall.

Getting to Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery panel is relatively easy, but it is a long hike. From Moab to the trail head is about a two and a half hour drive. (find the trail head on our Interactive Rock Art Map). From the trail head, at the rim of the canyon, you then walk down to the canyon floor, descending about 230 vertical metres (750 feet).

From there the walk to the Great Gallery is about 4.8 km (around 3 miles), along the canyon bottom. In all the hike is just over 10 km and takes anywhere between 3 and 6 hours depending on how fast you walk, the heat and your fitness. Although there is a decent path in and out of the canyon, climbing out at the end of your hike is a tough one. Be prepared: where good hiking boots and take plenty of water with you. Read more information about the Rock Art in Horseshoe Canyon and Getting there Yourself.

Alternatively get an experienced guide to pick you up at your accommodation in Moab, drive you to the trail head, give you lunch and guide you to the sites in the canyon. And yes, take you back to your hotel. At ten hours, this is a full day trip from Moab, but one you will not regret. Read More About the Day Trip to the Great Gallery from Moab and Book Online >>

See the Canyons and Rock Formations From Above

Following the trails in the parks on foot, walking under arches or through the canyons, is quite an experience itself. And both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks make it possible for their visitors with different abilities to achieve this. For me, and I am sure many others, it is the scale of the various formations that captures my imagination. Perhaps the fin-like rock formations with their sheer cliff faces are only half as tall as the Empire State Building in New York city and not quite as high as Paris’s Eiffel Tower. But 600 feet is still very high.

As wonderful as gazing up at these rock features is, with your feet firmly on the ground, looking onto this remarkable landscape from above is another experience altogether. The local company Pinnacle Helicopters offers two different helicopter flights in the Moab area.

The first, the Arches Backcountry Helicopter Flight, is a short spin (you can choose either 20 minutes or 30 minutes) above the Colorado River and some of the well known arches around Moab, including Uranium Arch and Gemini Bridges. They also offer a longer flight lasting 60 minutes, the Edge of Canyonlands Helicopter Flight, that adds a flight over (and into, when the weather allows) some of the spectacular canyons, including Dead Horse Point, as well as the arches and red rock landscape.

Develop Your Photography Skills

This ‘thing to do in Moab’ may seem somewhat self-evident given all the talk about the extraordinary landscapes in and around Moab. Moab is a photographers paradise, whether you enjoy day time landscape photography, the challenge of night time photography or tackling specific subjects, such as rock art. Whatever your interests and level of expertise, you are sure to be inspired here.

Get prepared by watching this YouTube Video in which Frank Lee Ruggles, a National Parks photographer, talks about photographing in the Moab area. It is a short video, only 3 minutes 27 seconds, but he offers some great tips and suggestions for photographing in these parks, including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.

Alternatively take a photography tour with not only a professional photographer but one who know the area. Someone who knows where the good locations are, and who can help you develop your own skills. Rock Light Photo Tours offer three different photography tours in the Moab area that you can book online via Viator. Your first option is a Full Day of Photography in Moab, Arches & Canyonlands: a great opportunity to explore the photo opportunities throughout the day at the best locations in both Canyonlands and Arches National Park. If a day is more than you can spend, or you would rather focus more, choose between Sunrise photography in Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands National Park or catch the golden hour on the Sunset and Night Photography in Arches National Park Tour.

See ‘Thelma & Louise Point’

The ending in Ridley Scott’s iconic Thelma & Louise has become something of a cinematic classic. And is as relevant today as it ever was. The two lead characters, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, go on the run after Louise shoots and kills a man who tried to rape Thelma. Louise decides to take off for Mexico and Thelma chooses joins her. After killing another man and locking a policeman in the boot of his vehicle the full force of the law is on to the two women. Thelma and Louise are finally cornered by the police at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Thelma suggests that they “keep on going”, and then drives into the Grand Canyon, to their deaths.

Except in reality it is not the Grand Canyon. The final scene was filmed at what has always been known as Fossil point, just below Dead Horse Point in Dead Horse State Park. This and a number of other locations from the film, such as the car park near Courthouse Towers, are detailed in Andrea David’s blogpost Following in the Footsteps of ‘Thelma & Louise’, and check out filmtourismus on Instagram.

You can find and go to ‘Thelma & Louise Point’ using a Google map.

Follow in the Footsteps of the Dinosaurs

Yes, you can literally follow in the footsteps of the dinosaurs when in Moab.

In 1859 the first dinosaur remains were found near Moab. Since then there have been many more discoveries and now the area around Moab is internationally renowned for its dinosaur fossils and track sites. A number of these track sites have been made accessible to the public.

The best place to start is at Moab Giants, a relatively new attraction just north of Moab on Highway 191 (find on USA map). Here science meets adventure for all ages. In a number displays and exhibits cutting edge digital technologies are used to tell the story of these amazing creatures that lived in the area some 66 million years ago.

Museum displays give visitors the science behind footprints; how important they are and what they can tell us about these animals. A 3D theatre takes you from the Big Bang to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And if that does not impress you, the Paleoaquarium will. 3D displays showing what life was like in the seas all those millions of years ago develop into a 5d experience you will not forget.

An outdoor trail, a mile and a half long, includes over 100 life sized replicas of the dinosaurs that have been found in the area. Besides the interactive displays for kids, there is also a ‘dig’ put where your kids can try their hands at excavating a bone or two. These may all sound quite matter of fact aspects of this attraction, but a visit to Moab Giants is one any budding palaeontologist will enjoy.

Take a Guided Off-road Rock Art Tour

Scrambling around the rocky sides of valleys looking for rock art is not for everyone. Particularly if it is hot. If you want to get to a few petroglyph sites but would rather not do this yourself, then take a guided tour. And if you want to combine a bit of history with exploring the back roads in a 4×4, then this really is the perfect guided tour for you.

On this Three-Hour Offroad Rock Art Auto Tour not only will you get to see petroglyphs, but you will also see breath taking views of towering canyon walls along the Colorado River in a 4×4 vehicle.

Watch the Sun Set at Delicate Arch

Whether you like to just sit and watch the sun slowly slip behind the horizon or are looking for special photo opportunities, you will find sunsets in Arches National Park hard to beat. The distinctive colour of the striking rock formations in Arches are only enhanced as the sun sets. The rock surfaces seem to glow. Even if there is a bit of cloud about. The term ‘golden hour’ holds up to its promise.

The most popular spot in Arches to watch the sunset is at Delicate Arch. That does mean that during peak holiday times, you will almost certainly not be alone. With over 2,000 arches and numerous other rock formations in the park, there are many other equally special places. These include Courthouse Towers, Tower Arch and the Windows.

And one that might not spring to mind is Balanced Rock. The rock formation here seems to defy all laws of gravity. An 3,500 ton rock appears to balance quite precariously on a pile of rocks. From this spot, a short hike of about 15 minutes from the car park, you get an diverse set of views. And of curse the balancing rock looks different at each turn. As late as April you can get beautiful views of the rock with a snow-capped La Sal mountain range behind it. The snow pink in the light of the setting sun. Plan ahead with sunset times for Moab.

Spend Some Time Stargazing

Remember, it is not all over just because the sun has set. With only minimal urban light pollution from Moab, the skies get very dark at night. Especially on a moonless night around new moon. So dark are the night skies in Arches that in 2019 it was officially declared an International Dark Sky Park.

The best time for star gazing is when there is not even a sliver of a moon in the sky. If star gazing or night photography is on your list, plan ahead by knowing the phases of the moon, knowing when the sky will be pitch black. For even better dark skies get as far north away from Moab as you can. When you start looking at the skies, allow your eyes to adjust. Where possible avoid using white-light torches and your smartphones. Rather, use torches that have a red-light feature. And get yourself a map of the skies, trying to find the various constellations is great fun, and often very amusing.

Around new moon rangers in the national parks in this area hold star-gazing events, with telescopes. These events usually take place in car parks, so they are suitable for people with impaired mobility. The visitor centres of both Canyonlands and Arches will have more details closer to the time. You can find out more on the National Park’s stargazing events page.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

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