In February, around my 40th birthday, my old college roommate, Nick, emailed me and asked if I would go away with him for his upcoming 40th birthday, on a mid-life crisis trip of sorts. Nick is an Assistant Principal at a local school, and he’s got a sister in Santa Fe, NM, so he thought it would be good to take his spring vacation somewhere in the southwest and visit her. He’s not a huge cycling enthusiast, but I asked if we could spend some time in Moab, and he was game. Nick had been to that area with his wife some 15 years earlier, and had fond memories of the region.
I’d never been to Moab but I knew whom to ask for advice: Jill and John. They seemed more excited than me at the prospect of this trip, and they provided me with oodles of helpful advice, all of which turned out to be absolutely spot-on.
We flew out of Bradley on Friday morning, April 16. We booked the trip through Albuquerque so it would be easier for Nick’s return from his sister’s place, and after arriving early afternoon, we started driving our rental car northward. We spent Friday night in Durango CO, a quaint little cowboy railroad town with a cool village vibe and good restaurants and shops. We stumbled into a show by one of my favorite bands, the veteran jump-blues/swing masters Rick Estrin and the Nightcats (formerly Little Charlie and the Nightcats), who just happened to be playing at a local theatre. Serendipity was already on our side. It turns out Durango was also hosting its annual bluegrass festival that weekend, so musicians were everywhere and the whole place was hopping. We didn’t sleep much on Friday night, and I would have liked to stay longer, but Moab was beckoning, and we drove onward Saturday morning.
The scenery became more and more breathtaking and awe-inspiring as we drove on. Arriving in Moab, the town was much as I expected. Nestled in a desert paradise, it was a busy bohemian utopia even in this early off-season. Every car that wasn’t laden with a rack of road and/or mountain bicycles, had a trailer filled with ATV’s and dirt bikes. The weather was perfect–sunny and about 78 degrees.
Nick and I were ravenous so we stopped at Hogi Yogi’s and ordered the pulled turkey sandwich, as Jill had recommended. Wow. Perfectly cooked tender white meat, blue cheese dressing, fresh lettuce and tomato on crispy yet soft foccacia bread. If you really want to treat yourself, add avocado to the party. Hogi Yogi’s ice cream and smoothies didn’t suck either.
In order to burn off those calories, we showed up at Chile Pepper bike shop, where Jill and John had steered me, to pick up the rental bikes I’d reserved. Very cool place, and extremely helpful staff, both with the bikes and with suggesting riding areas and trails for us to explore. We loaded up our Giant Trance X2’s and headed off to check out the Klondike Bluffs trail, about 20 minutes away. This was a good introduction to the somewhat foreign world of slickrock. The trail wasn’t too challenging for Newbie Nick or out-of-shape Doug, in terms of climbing or technicality, which was good since we didn’t start out until about 3 pm. The end of the trail provided access to a short hike at the boundary of Arches National Park, with great views of the park and the LaSal Mountains looming in the distance.
The entire landscape of the area is difficult to process: there are dramatic, sweeping mesas, majestic buttes with craggy cliffs, layers of painted sandy/soily colors and textures representing different historical eras, impossibly complex and delicate stone structures sculpted and scalloped through the ravages of the elements, literally over millions of years. The backdrop of the larger peaks in the distance was still blanketed in snow. It was like simultaneously touring a gigantic studio of nature’s art gallery, and receiving a crash course in visual geological history.
After our ride we checked into the Gonzo Inn, a really funky and comfortable hotel (another Jill and John winning recommendation). It had a very quirky hip/industrial vibe to it and included breakfast, as well as an outdoor pool and hot tub. Although bicycles were not allowed in guest rooms, it was clearly bike-friendly, with a dedicated, secured bike storage area, and even a community space to wash and service one’s ride (including a bike stand). When we’d cleaned up, we walked down Main Street to Moab Brewery for dinner. We enjoyed the fresh local swill (I liked the Scorpion Pale Ale and Derailleur Ale), but neither of us was impressed with our BBQ combo dinners. We were shooting for quantity over quality when we ordered, and that’s just what we got. A nearby table ordered the hummus plate appetizer which looked and smelled fantastic when it rolled by us. We vowed to return and try that dish sometime.
On Sunday morning we headed out early to explore Dead Horse Point State Park, about 45 minutes drive away. The access road to the park itself is a beautiful ride, with sweeping views and cattle roaming the surrounding fields and even the road itself. We parked at the visitor center, which was all but deserted at that hour, paid our fee, and unloaded the bikes. We biked the relatively new Intrepid trail, about 10 miles total. The trail snakes along the plateau with various viewpoints offering incredible vistas.
The terrain was a fairly easy mix of slickrock and single track dirt/sand, with relatively gentle slopes. When we finished the loop, we hiked about a mile from the visitor center to the Dead Horse Point lookout (also accessible by car via the main road), where, at an elevation of approximately 6000 ft, we were treated to panoramic views of the Colorado River snaking through the canyon some 2000 ft directly below us.
We hiked back to our car and drove the return route to Moab, for lunch at the Slickrock Café. I enjoyed my chicken wrap but the service was slow, and the clock was ticking on our bike rentals.
After lunch we drove over to the true Mecca—the infamous Slickrock trail, just a few miles from town. Our bikes had to be back at Chile Peppers by 5 pm, and it was already about 2 pm. Due to the late hour and the fact that we’d already biked and hiked all morning, we resigned ourselves to the limitations of the shorter “practice loop”. It was definitely enough. A big lunch (the fries were poor judgment) and the hot sun conspired to make the slickrock a real challenge. I’m not sure how anyone could ride that trail in the full heat of the desert summer. The climbs and descents are daunting and unforgiving, although the traction on the bare sandstone is remarkable.
It is truly a unique bicycling experience. We finished unscathed and in time to return our bikes to Chile Peppers with some additional wear, several layers of dust, and 3 flat tires.
On Sunday evening we ate at Pasta Jay’s on Main Street in Moab, which had a nice patio dining area, substantial and flavorful entrees, and very good service. We ended the night with a soothing dip in the Gonzo Inn hot tub, and a game of setback with coffee by the pool.
On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel and departed fairly early to Arches National Park, the entrance to which is only about 5 miles from Moab. The park fee was waived for the week, and the access road is an exhilarating climb through scenic switchbacks, making me wish I was pedaling on a road bicycle rather than sitting in a rental car. We drove the entire main park thoroughfare, with several side-trips and hikes to various arches and stone formations of interest. There are literally thousands of amazing structures to gawk at. We parked and hiked up to the famous and infinitely photogenic Delicate Arch, which included a nice climb up a slickrock face that led to an up-close encounter with this remarkable formation.
In the interest of time, we made our last stop at Devils Garden, where we hiked to some additional arches.
We returned to town for another lunch at Hogi Yogi’s (pulled turkey sandwich was a winner again) and then headed back towards Albuquerque, so I could make my flight home the following day. After sharing the 7 hour drive, we arrived about 8:30 pm, and checked into our hotel, Casa de Suenos, in the Old Town section of Albuquerque. We got settled and enjoyed a late dinner at a cozy local restaurant called High Noon, where we treated ourselves to a couple of great steaks, and some untold number of excellent margaritas.
The next morning we were greeted by the sights, sounds, and scents of the Casa de Suenos courtyard, which seemed more like a B&B than an actual hotel. With hidden flowering gardens, patios, and a made-to-order breakfast, it was a nice place to recharge for a while. We wandered around the shops and cafés of Old Town before heading off to the airport. I boarded my flight and Nick continued on to visit with his sister in Santa Fe. As the plane took off, I found myself dozing, dreaming of gorgeous vistas and endless slickrock.