2 to 3 Days in Moab Itinerary: Explore Arches & Canyonlands


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With all the adventures to be had among the towering desert mesas of southeastern Utah, making the most out of a short trip can be a challenge. Planning out a 2 to 3 days in Moab itinerary and using the town as a base camp is a great way to do this area justice.

Canyonlands and Arches national parks are both within a 40-minute drive or less, and opportunities to get outside for activities like whitewater rafting, canyoneering, climbing, and mountain biking are everywhere. With a solid Moab itinerary planned out and a couple of days minimum, this part of Utah can work well as a medium to longer-distance road trip for anyone traveling from surrounding Western states.

There are a lot of reasons why Moab has become such a draw for tourists, thrill-seekers, and outdoor explorers alike. Its location along the banks of the Colorado River, for starters, has made it a desert outpost since it was first settled in the late 1800s.

Nowadays, downtown Moab exudes an undeniable sense of identity that seems to have one foot in the cultures and rugged surroundings of the southwestern US and another in its best-known reputation as an epicenter for outdoor adventure. Adobe-style architecture and colorful mural walls are dotted around town alongside a nice array of shops selling locally made arts, jewelry, and other products, and guides, outfitters, and rentals are easily located.

How Many Days in Moab?

When figuring out how many days to spend in Moab, you’ll want to prioritize your goals in terms of desired activities and how rushed (or not) you want to feel. Two days is plenty of time to get a feel for the town of Moab itself and fit in some touring of both Canyonlands and Arches, and other attractions like Westwater Canyon and Dead Horse Point State Park are close enough to be experienced in well under a day’s time.

With all of that said, 3 days is an even better time span for a trip to Moab, especially if you plan on doing anything like backpacking or a longer rafting trip that might entail an overnight stay. DIY backpacking and hiking are best done in Canyonlands National Park, with its extensive network of rock cairn-marked trails, and local outfitters will be prepared to take you out in this area or potentially others if you choose to hire one.

Another thing to consider is whether it might make sense to plan for 1 to 2 days of adventure with a day of rest and local exploration on the front or back end. Moab can be a great place to relax and recharge after a one- or two-day climbing, hiking, or rafting expedition before making a long drive home.

Whatever the trajectory of your trip, it’s a good idea to plan for at least 2 or 3 days in Moab.

Tower of Babel in Arches National Park near Moab
Tower of Babel in Arches National Park near Moab

Getting To and Around Moab

Getting here by car is very straightforward since Moab lies just beyond Arches National Park along the I-70 corridor some 30 minutes or less down Highway 191.

If you’ve flown to the area and are considering driving to Moab from Denver or Salt Lake City and plan on renting a car for transportation, it’s a good idea to request one with four-wheel drive and high clearance, if possible, as some of the desert and BLM roads around Moab can be a little rough. It’s also possible to visit the area by driving from Phoenix to Moab and visiting of beautiful sites along the way.

You can browse Rentalcars.com to find deals on car rentals across major providers, or alternatively, you can search for RVs or campervans from Outdoorsy if Moab is just a stop on a longer road trip such as from Denver to Las Vegas or Phoenix to Denver.

Main roads in and around the national parks do tend to be very well maintained and paved, however, so even making the drive in a sedan or minivan shouldn’t be a total deal-breaker.

Once you’ve arrived in Moab, getting around town can be done via very short drives or short to medium-length walks, depending on where lodgings are. And for cyclists wishing to skirt parking hassles, or even just pedestrian hikers looking to do so, there are a variety of shuttle services available. Rentals of Jeeps, ATVs, and other offroad-capable vehicles are also a popular service.

Read on for more ideas on a possible 2 to 3 day itinerary for a trip to Moab and the surrounding area.

Driving to Canyonlands National Park
Driving to Canyonlands National Park

2 to 3 Days in Moab Itinerary

Having 2 or 3 days to spend in Moab means you aren’t quite afforded the luxury of being able to just “fly by night” and go in with minimal preparation.

Especially if you’re looking to enlist the services of outfitters and gear rental shops or are planning on booking lodgings, you’ll want to have at least a decent start on planning. It’s not a bad idea to be several weeks to a month ahead on any bookings and reservations these days if you’re headed to Moab outside of the desert weather extremes of mid-winter and summer.

The most ideal Arches and Canyonlands itinerary based out of Moab will be the one that makes the best use of your available time without causing too much stress. You could easily spend an entire month exploring this area and see something new every day, so take this 3-day Moab itinerary as an example and a jumping-off point for your own trip.

Day 1: Explore Moab and Arches National Park

Settle in and Explore the Town

Especially if you’ve made a long road trip to town the day before, you’re likely to start your first day in Moab with a little less energy than you may have on the next couple of days. So why not start your trip off by touring around town? E-bikes and bicycles are easily rented if you’re staying a little bit outside of convenient walking distance, and the main downtown strip has everything from restaurants and bars to gear shops and museums.

The Museum of Moab is a fun local stop, especially for families with kids, as it houses an impressive collection of dinosaur bones and other archaeological artifacts that give a fascinating sense of the area’s geologic past.

If you’re feeling under-equipped for any planned outdoor activities, some time spent around town is a good chance to visit a local favorite outpost like Gearheads Outdoor Store or Moab Gear Trader.

Not only can shops like these offer you a chance to get that new pair of hiking boots or trekking poles you desperately need, but they’re also a chance to have a fun conversation with some locals who have real knowledge about the area and some of the more “off the beaten path” things to do.

Arches for Sightseeing

Now that you’ve had a bite to eat, chatted with some locals, and gotten a sense for the culture of Moab, it’s time to make the short trip over to Arches National Park, one of Utah’s crown jewels that’s home to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring sedimentary rock formations.

This also happens to be one of America’s national parks that’s most easily explored and viewed from paved roads. Many of the main geologic formations in Arches—including the Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock, and the Tower of Babel — can be easily viewed from the park’s main road.

Stunning Arches National Park is a must visit during your Moab itinerary
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

For those who are ready to go ahead and get some hiking in on day one, there are several trailheads in Arches leading to day hikes that get you up closer to many of the arches, including some that otherwise wouldn’t be viewable from the road.

Trails in Arches vary in difficulty from easy to moderate and on up to difficult. Popular short hikes include the Balanced Rock loop trail and The Windows climb, and you could choose a hike as difficult as the Primitive Trail at Devil’s Garden, which tends to take even experienced hikers at least 4 hours to complete.

It’s important to note that since there are generally little to no opportunities to find or filter water on trails in Arches and Canyonlands, you always need to plan on bringing at least enough water to cover you for the entirety of your hike, plus a little extra in case of an emergency.

Devils Garden in Arches National Park near Moab
Devils Garden in Arches National Park

Day 2 – Bike Rides and Hiking in Canyonlands

Take a Bike Ride

Having hopefully woken up well-rested after your first full day, kick off day 2 in true Moab fashion with a morning bike ride.

If you’re not looking to fill the entire day by riding something like the renowned Slickrock Trail — a challenging, 9.6-mile mountain biking experience that’s known to be as technical as it is thrilling — you can even opt for renting an e-bike and heading out on any of the many motorized and some non-motorized routes and loops surrounding Moab.

E-bikes offer performance benefits in sandy terrain and on steep hills that are akin to giving a regular bike steroids, so these can be an interesting option for exploring some places that would be next to impossible to reach with either a car or a regular bike.

If you prefer to go in a group, there are a number of options including this 4-hour tour on the Moab Brands Trail or this 5-hour tour both of which depart from Moab.

Canyonlands for Hiking

Canyonlands National Park is a quintessential southeastern Utah national park on the same level as Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and others. What sets Canyonlands apart, however, is the immense variety of different terrain and geology types housed within its borders.

Hiking in or near the area called The Needles, for example, will have you feeling like you’re walking on the surface of Mars or some other extraterrestrial landscape. The massive red- and white-banded rock formations here are the result of millions and millions of years when sand was deposited and eventually eroded. 

The Needles in Canyonlands
The Needles in Canyonlands

Other prominent sandstone features in Canyonlands National Park include the Wooden Shoe Arch, Mesa Arch, and the Whale Rock. Canyonlands, being a good bit bigger than Arches, has a lot to offer in terms of hike-in sightseeing and overnight backpacking opportunities.

Destinations like the soaring Druid Arch can only be accessed via several-mile-long hikes heading out from trailheads like Squaw Flat. Given the oftentimes hot (and always dry) conditions here and the overall lack of water, it’s best to keep shorter day and half-day hikes to around 4-5 miles or less round-trip.

If you’re not looking to do an overnighter like Druid Arch or heading out into the remote Maze District, other stops like Pothole Point and Big Spring Canyon Overlook are great options.

In the northern area of the park, by entering through the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, you can choose to drive all the way in to the Orange Cliffs and Grand View Point overlooks or head up the fork toward views of the Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome.

Mesa Arch at sunrise in Canyonlands
Mesa Arch at sunrise

Day 3 – Colorado River Rafting & National Park Evening Hike

Raft Down the Colorado River

Assuming you aren’t waking up in a tent somewhere down a trail in Canyonlands, your last day on this Moab itinerary is a great chance to get out for some guided whitewater rafting. There is a slew of great local outfitters to check in with as far as booking an outing. Half days, full days, and overnight trips tend to all be offered, and floats are tailored to client preferences.

Pleasure floats with only mild whitewater and gorgeous scenery are on the table along with more intense whitewater trips for the more intrepid types.

A nice middle ground to consider is Westwater Canyon, often dubbed “The West’s Best Short Whitewater Trip,” as it offers narrow whitewater canyon stretches with exciting rapids along with plenty of unique scenery spaced throughout.

For travellers that prefer to pre-book their rafting adventure, some options including this full-day trip along the Westwater Canyon, this half-day leisurely rafting trip or this full-day combined rafting and Jeep tour.

Colorado River overlook in Canyonlands National Park
Colorado River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Evening Hiking and Sightseeing

As your 3 days in Moab come to a close, you’re bound to feel the urge to head back to either Arches or Canyonlands for one more dose of sightseeing. Since you’re likely to only have visited one stretch, loop, or general area of either of these parks at this point, it’s a good idea to look at a map and figure out a different zone to cover.

In Canyonlands, for example, if you already visited the southernmost area accessible from the Needles Visitor Center, then head up to the northern Island In the Sky area, and vice versa. Keep a wary eye out for a chance at spotting some of the incredibly adapted native animals like the small desert lizards that often dart about in the rocks here.

Have More Time in Moab?

Castle Valley

Another great sightseeing area that’s less than a 15-minute drive from Moab is the town of Castle Valley. This might feel like more of the same if you’ve spent a good bit of time in Arches and Canyonlands, but the castle-esque cliffs that line this valley are a worthy stop on your way out of town and look especially pretty in the twilight of evening.

Castle Valley
Castle Valley

Take a Balloon Ride

Local Moab business Red Rock Ballooning offers roughly one-hour-long hot air balloon rides guided by pilots who also double as guides. This is an especially fun way to cap your trip by looking down at some of the same arches, mesas, and canyons that you’ve explored and viewed from the ground.

Where to Stay in Moab

When planning the perfect Moab itinerary, you’re going to need to find a great place to stay in this beautiful Utah town Luckily, there are countless options available to suit all kinds of budgets and travel styles. if you’re wondering where to stay in Moab, have a look at these suggestions:

Adventure Inn Moab — If you’re looking for a great place to stay in Moab for a mid-range budget, then this boutique motel is an excellent option for you. They have a number of comfortable and clean rooms available, self-service laundry facilities available if you need to do a wash on your trip, and free parking on site. Click here to see their availability

Comfort Suites Moab — If you’re visiting Moab with a bit of a higher budget, this hotel is a fantastic choice for you. They have a number of great amenities, including a heated swimming pool, and countless great rooms available. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own private home when visiting Moab than stay in a hotel there are a number of fantastic options available to you. For instance, this beautiful home with panoramic desert views is located within easy reach of both Moab and Arches National Park. Click here to browse more Moab private rentals

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Moab hotels

Canyonlands National Park near Moab
Canyonlands National Park near Moab

Staying for 2 or 3 days in Moab and exploring the nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks is a great way for travelers to get acquainted with the state of Utah and its natural areas. The best part is that even the most veteran outdoor adventurers can probably always find a new part of either of these parks to explore.

With Zion, Canyonlands, and the many other surrounding attractions linked to the Colorado River drainage in such close proximity, Moab is sure to have plenty of activities to pique the interest of travelers—especially those who enjoy the outdoors.

Are you planning a Moab itinerary? Have any questions about your trip? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains. If he could teleport to anywhere on the planet, it would be the mountains of Patagonia in Chile.

Comments

  1. Hi. I’ve read the itinerary and it all looks fabulous. I’m very interested in your suggestions on a few things . Where would you recommend staying? We have a 9 year old granddaughter traveling with us . The trip is not until 5-2023. I’m also interested in which off road jeep tour you recommend along with the white water rafting . I’ll plan 3 days in Moab if possible. This was a fantastic read with great suggestions. So in summary if you had to pick one exciting / different adventure which would you do ? Balloon ride ? Helicopter ride ? White water rafting ? Off road jeep( hells revenge )?
    Thank you for your time.
    Christine Sindon

    Reply

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