MOAB, Utah -- The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is paradise for windsurfers. Hatteras Island in North Carolina is a mecca for kiteboarders. And it is to this little town that mountain bikers flock for its trails and canyons among the buttes and mesas where nature has created a spectacular show. This is mountain bike heaven.
Except for groves of yellow cottonwood trees with dappled leaves shimmering in the sunlight, the land is dry scrabble. Tough-looking shrubs grow in ground covered with a dark, knobby, brittle crust. Called cryptobiotic soil crust, it is very much alive and of great ecological importance, as it is made up of cyanobacteria, mosses, soil lichens, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. This area 230 miles south of Salt Lake City looks like a totally different land from the rest of the state. Geologically, the Moab Valley is a collapsed salt anticline, formed when a thick layer of salt underlying more recent formations dissolved. The result is a mass of rust-colored sandstone buttes, spires, mesas, and natural monuments that tower over the town. The rivers in the area carved canyons around Moab, creating some of the rarest and most varied landscape on earth, from the desert floor to 13,000-foot peaks.
The harshness of the area provides an unparalleled network of back country trails for cycling, hiking, or horseback riding. There aren't many people in Moab (pop. 6,600), so there's much undeveloped land for recreational activities. Years ago, one of the trails -- Slickrock Trail -- was mapped out by a motorcycle group. The name stuck and now everyone calls the petrified sand-dune-like mounds "slickrock." Moab is a young town, a town for adrenaline junkies who look as if they live to be outdoors. Most of the townspeople look like 30-somethings, in boots or biking shoes and shorts, and the only reason they're in town, it would seem, is to grab a cup of coffee before heading off to the canyons again for a rockin' bike ride. Moab may be the only place in the world where you can find a combination bike and espresso shop on Main Street. Serious mountain bikers can ride all the way from Telluride, Colo., into Moab -- about 100 miles -- on a trail through the mountains.
We had three generations of family on our car trip to Moab, so while the mountain biker in the group scoped out possible trails for riding with his baby son, on this day we all drove together into Arches National Park 5 miles north of town, getting out of the car at some of the more scenic sites. Although many of the public trails in Moab welcome pets, the Arches asks that they be leashed and kept in the parking areas, so Sherman, our 160-pound Newfoundland, waited patiently until we took him on one of the more welcoming trails closer to town.
Arches is well worth a drive-through. More than 100 million years of erosion have created the greatest density of natural arches in the world here, and the La Sal Mountains form a dramatic backdrop. It is impossible to take a bad picture here. Point your camera at anything in this park and you have a stunning picture of a sandstone arch silhouetted against a clear blue sky. They say this is the best place for miles around to see the stars at night, because there are no lights nearby.
Painters have a heyday, too. All along the road, artists set up folding chairs and easels to paint the arches. You can stop at the visitors center to pick up a self-guiding booklet and an audio tour, and a description of the many trails, in their varying degrees of difficulty. You can camp in Devils Garden Campground, which asks only that you reserve ahead of time. Pets (on leashes) are welcome.
In a town where nearly half the retail shops along Main Street have something to do with the two-wheeled life, visitors who've never been on a mountain bike can rent one. Most shops will rent you a demo bike and take you, with a professional guide, on an all-day or half-day tour descending from the mountain trails.
There also are places for motorcycles, ATVs, and Hummers to roam. The Land Rover G4 Challenge, pitting teams of off-road drivers against punishing elements and tricky terrain all over the world, recently competed in Moab. If the scenery looks familiar, it's probably because since 1949 everybody from John Wayne to Harrison Ford has acted in a film against the background of Moab's sandstone formations and mountains. The Movie Locations Auto Tour will show you where "Thelma and Louise" or "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" was filmed, courtesy of the Moab Film Commission.
If you tire of biking, you can choose water activities. The Colorado River runs through town, with accompanying kayak, canoe, and adventure rafting expeditions. In a day, with or without a professional guide, you can bike and hike the sandstone and desert country and then raft the Colorado. You can also fish for trout in mountain lakes or for catfish in the rivers. People hunt deer and elk, too.
Fueled with great organic coffee and manly burgers, we biked, hiked, ran the river, and even took to the air in a small plane to see the remarkable formations.
Heading toward Albuquerque still in the mood to see geological wonders, we stopped at a geographical one, where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona meet at Four Corners. Somehow the $10 fee didn't seem worth it. We had about the same response to the corners as visitors to our part of the country have when they come upon Plymouth Rock. Then we drove farther south -- 156 miles south of Moab, exactly -- to Ship
rock, N.M., a tiny town in the middle of a huge Navajo reservation. Rising from the desert floor is a giant rock that looks like a massive ship, and dominates the otherwise flat and barren landscape. The locals say this is the ship that transported the Navajos from the "other world" to New Mexico, where it sits, landlocked forever. It is, much like the tiny, fascinating town of Moab, a natural wonder.Julie Hatfield is a freelance writer who lives in Duxbury.