When I first started this blog, I was a city-hopping culture vulture: I loved exploring new cities, discovering museums, history, and art, and reporting back on the best ways to visit on a short time (or monetary) budget. Over the years though, I’ve begun to enjoy outdoor and adventure travel too. That’s why I was so excited to visit Moab, Utah last winter – if there’s one place that’s the perfect base for visiting some of the country’s best natural playgrounds, it’s Moab! Based on that trip I’ve put together this post on spending 3 days in Moab and all the things to do there.
This was only my second trip to Utah, following the one my friend Marissa and I took to Zion National Park in 2018. I’ve quickly become a convert to the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful states in the country – and my outdoor adventures there are just beginning.
With access to two of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks and a region of other natural wonders to explore, Moab really is the perfect place for a weekend exploring the Great Outdoors. As you’ll see, there’s no shortage of natural sights, trails, and adventures to be had, whether you’re just planning a weekend of 3 days in Moab or longer.
Moab Travel Tips
In all of my itineraries, I like to start out by offering a few important tips on logistics and planning your trip. Since you only have 3 days in Moab, you want to make the most of them and enjoy your time there.
How to Get to Moab
There are a number of ways to get to Moab, depending on your schedule and budget.
- The two closest major airports to Moab are Salt Lake City (3 hours by car) or Grand Junction, Colorado (1 hr, 45 min by car). These a good option since you’ll also have a vehicle to explore the area.
- There is also a small airport near Moab, Canyonlands Field Airport. You can book flights on SkyWest (as United) from Denver to Moab.
- If you do fly into Canyonlands Field Airport, you can either rent a car or arrange the Moab Express Shuttle which brings you into town. There’s an Enterprise car rental agency in Moab, as well as jeep rentals for off-roading and exploring.
The Best Time to Visit Moab
While many people think summer is the best time to visit Moab and the national parks, Moab is a year-round destination:
- In the summer, you’ll enjoy the best temperatures but it can get hot during the day and there are likely to be crowds in the national parks.
- During the spring and fall, you can enjoy warmer temperatures and fewer crowds.
- In the winter, the weather will be cold – but there will be virtually no crowds and you can enjoy the great outdoors almost all to yourself.
So it doesn’t really matter when you plan to spend 3 days in Moab; you can still have a great time and explore all the area has to offer.
Packing for Utah’s High Desert
If you’ve never visited a high desert climate before, it’s important to understand what you’re in for. The high desert – characterize by the arid, low humidity of the desert but at a higher elevation that results it colder winters and different biodiversity.
This means you should pack for whatever outdoor activities you choose to do, but also keep in mind:
- You should pack extra water beyond what you normally bring on a hike or day trip – the desert climate will dehydrate you much faster. I love my Cotopaxi Luzon 18L and this 2L water bladder from Amazon for day hikes.
- In the cooler months, the temperature will get cold much more quickly as the sun goes down. Pack layers to stay warm! I was warm enough with my Uniqlo Ultra Light Down under my North Face Apex Bionic jacket and with 1-2 pairs of Smartwool socks in my Toms Mesa Boots.
The Best Things to Do in Moab
Before we get into how to spend 3 days in Moab, I like to break down exactly what activities you can do while you’re there. Then you can review my 3-day Moab itinerary and decide which ones you want to do or swap out. Read on for the best things to do in Moab.
I thought about leaving this as the one and only “best thing to do in Moab,” but thought it might be a bit too cheeky. The reality is that Moab is a perfect base for outdoor adventures – if you’re not a fan of the Great Outdoors, it’s probably not the vacation destination for you.
As you’ll see on the remainder of this list, the rest of the best things to do in Moab all help you take advantage of the insane natural wonders and landscapes surrounding the town.
Explore Arches National Park
Utah may have only five national parks – called Utah’s Mighty 5 – but they really are mind-blowing! I’ve already visited Zion, and Moab is a great base to explore two more: Arches and Canyonlands. Arches is the easiest to reach; a short five-minute drive from downtown Moab to the Visitor Center.
There’s a lot to do in Arches, more than enough for a day or two of adventure (though I do have a guide to spending a half-day in Arches). Here are some of the must-dos and my favorites.
Hike to Delicate Arch
I’ll be honest: I haven’t done the hike to Delicate Arch, because when I visited Arches the trails were slick and icy and we didn’t have proper gear for that. But I know that Delicate Arch is one of the top sights in Arches National Park – and the hike is the best way to see it.
The hike to Delicate Arch is three miles round trip, including 500 feet in elevation change. It’s popular and can get quite crowded – and hot even during the cooler months. To really enjoy it without the crowds, do Delicate Arch as a sunrise hike and bring lots of water.
If you’re not up for that hike, consider taking in the view from Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint (pictured), or make the 0.5 mi one-way hike to Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
Learn About Biological Soil Crusts
One of the coolest things in Arches National Park is not the arches, it’s the dirt! Many people don’t know – or don’t care – that the soil in Arches National Park is incredibly unique, and that’s why you should stay on the trails.
It’s called biological soil crusts, also called “cryptobiotic soil”, and it’s a layer of living organisms on the top layer of earth that forms over centuries and is incredibly delicate. Just stepping on it is enough to kill the organisms and undo all those years of growth! The purpose of biological soil is to help the ecosystem with carbon and nitrogen management, and to stabilize the soil to support the flora.
Visit Landscape Arch
Landscape Arch is one of my favorite arches that I saw on my first trip to Arches; it’s a beautiful sweeping arch that requires a short hike to reach. There’s actually an urban myth that Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch have their names swapped – this arch looks so delicate, and Delicate Arch has a stunning landscape view!
Landscape Arch is at the end of Arches Scenic Drive in the Devils Garden part of the park. It’s an 0.9-mile hike one way to reach Landscape Arch, and there are five other arches in the area you can see too (Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Navajo Arch, Wall Arch, and Partition Arch).
Admire Park Avenue
Park Avenue is a beautiful viewpoint in Arches National Park – though you can’t actually see any Arches from it! This area gives a good introduction to the geology of the park and takes its name from the towering stone walls on either side of the valley.
There is a good one-way 2-mile hike from the parking area down through Park Avenue; you can either hike back up or arrange for a ride back to the trailhead.
See Balanced Rock
Balanced Rock might be the second most famous site in Arches, after Delicate Arch. This towering boulder appears to be perfectly balanced atop a rock spire – but geologists have actually spoiled the fun and determined that they’re a single piece of rock, so there’s actually no balancing at all.
Nevertheless, Balanced Rock is unmissable along Arches Scenic Drive, and there’s a small parking area and viewpoint. You can also take a short walk around the base of the formation… remember to stay on the trail! (Protect the biological soil!)
Discover Arches in the Garden of Eden
The Garden of Eden is one last part of Arches worth exploring – like the Devil’s Garden it’s home to many arches and relatively easy to explore. There are five main arches people typically see here: Turret Arch and The Windows (South Window Arch and North Window Arch) which are along a 1.2 mile loop, and Double Arch, which you can reach on an 0.6-mile out and back trail.
There are also other arches in the area too, Ribbon Arch and Cove Arch, though both are accessed through more primitive trails.
Visit Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District
As you research visiting Canyonlands National Park, you’ll discover: there are three ‘districts’ within the park. (District is the term the National Park Service uses to designate different areas. For example: Zion is comprised of Zion Canyon District and Kolob Canyon District).
The three districts in Canyonlands are Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. These vary in landscape and geologic formation, as well as ease of access and difficulty exploring. For example, Island in the Sky is quick to reach from Moab and easy to explore, whereas you typically need a backcountry permit to visit The Maze, and it takes twice as long to reach The Needles from Moab.
For that reason, most people visiting Moab for the first time will restrict themselves to visiting Island in the Sky, which is what I did. Here are some things you can do in this part of the park – as you’ll see, there’s no shortage!
Hike to Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch is one of the most popular arches in Canyonlands (yep, Canyonlands has arches and Arches has a few canyons!). It’s an easy 0.7-mile loop trail from the parking lot to the viewpoint, perfect for stretching your legs after the drive from Moab.
Be Awestruck at the Green River Overlook
Green River Overlook was my absolute favorite part of Canyonlands. I felt like I was looking out at an old oil landscape painting done by the first European explorers; the kind you might see hanging in a museum. It’s so beautiful and picturesque that it hard to believe it’s real! This is a super easy spot to stop and admire the view, and a must-see in my opinion.
Hike to the White Rim Overlook
White Rim Overlook Trail is a popular hike in the Islands in the Sky district, and is 1.8 miles out and back. From the furthest point, you’ll have another jaw-dropping view of the canyons below. In total, this one takes 45-60 minutes.
Watch Sunset at Grand View Point
If you time it right, sunset from Grand View point will be the grand finale of your time in Canyonlands National Park. This panoramic spot gives epic views to the east and west, including Monument Basin and the Green River Overlook. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the park to watch the sunset. The Grand View Point trail is only 1.8 miles out and back, so you won’t need more than 20 minutes to walk to the Overlook itself.
Explore Beyond the Parks
Many people visit Moab and only explore the national parklands – but it should be no surprise that there are incredible natural wonders, including trails and sights, outside the park boundaries too!
If you want to explore BLM lands, I recommend checking out the Utah BLM site for maps of the different lands and who manages them. In particular, you need to refer to Map #10 and the Map Legend to understand the BLM lands in the area around Moab.
Within the BLM, National Forest, and State Lands surrounding Moab, here are a few of my favorite things to do.
See Ancient Petroglyphs
It shouldn’t be a surprise that people today aren’t the first to be moved by the natural beauty surrounding Moab; ancient indigenous Americans lived in the area for hundreds and thousands of years.
There are petroglyphs all over the Moab area, especially along the Colorado River. There are a number of petroglyph sites along Potash Road on the north side of the Colorado, heading west out of Moab. You’ll see figures and animals and scenes – remember they’re delicate and not to touch! There’s also a famous “Birthing Scene” petroglyph along Kane Creek/Kane Springs road, and a short climb is worth it to reach Courthouse Wash Rock Art, which is right off Highway 191 on the edge of Arches National Park.
Because there are epic non-National Park lands, you can enjoy a bit more freedom on these parts of the Moab region than within the parks. Specifically, off-roading has become a popular activity for adrenaline junkies.
- On my trip to Moab, I went out with Mike from Big Iron Tours to explore along Onion Creek. Mike is a fantastic driver and guide – I could easily have spent the entire day being jostled around in the 4×4 Jeep and admiring the landscape with zero crowds.
- Hell’s Revenge is the popular trail a lot of drivers do for sunset tours in both jeeps and hummers.
- You can also rent your own jeep and try off-roading without a guide. Here’s a list of popular jeep off-road routes and how long each one typically takes.
Hike (or Snowshoe) in the La Sal Mountains
If you love mountain slopes and peaks, the La Sal Mountains will be the place for you. The range consists primarily of three mountains: Mt. Mellenthin, Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, and Mt. Peale. Primarily National Forest land, there are numerous trails crisscrossing the range to choose from.
During the summer months, the La Sals are perfect for hiking; in the winter you can rent snowshoes and head out on the snow-covered trails. (If it helps, the BLM maps for the La Sals are #5, #8, and #9.)
Eat Local to Re-Fuel
It should come as no surprise that with all the incredible things to do in Moab, it has drawn a special group of people to call the area home. That means there are some great local restaurants to try. Here are some that I ate at during my trip:
- Sweet Cravings – A perfect spot for lunch, with sandwiches and soups to enjoy there or take-away on an adventure
- Josie Wyatt’s – Fancy, delicious dining if you want to splurge
- Blu Pig – Delicious barbeque, far from the South but still delicious
- Antica Forma – Fabulous Italian including oven-fired pizzas
Browse the Moab Rock Shop
When we first drove into Moab, I noticed the sign for the Moab Rock Shop and knew I’d have to make a stop there; it was actually something I dragged several of my fellow travelers to!
The Moab Rock Shop dates back to 1958, when Lin Ottinger began selling fossils, petrified wood, and minerals from the quirky building. Today it’s packed to the gills with specimens of all shapes, colors, and ages. If you stop by, pay special attention to some of the huge specimens near the entry: these are famous ones discovered by Ottinger during his career.
Stargaze at Dead Horse Point State Park
As if the daytime adventures weren’t enough, did you know that one of Utah’s (many) dark sky parks is right in the same area of the state? Dead Horse Point State Park is located between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and a short drive outside of Moab.
The park is known for its epic views by day and pristine dark skies at night. They often offer astronomy programming where you can hike out onto the point and learn about the night sky from a ranger trained in the topic. If you happen to be visiting when the skies are clear and the moon isn’t too full, this is a great evening activity for all ages.
3 Days in Moab: How to Spend a Weekend
Okay, that was a lot of things to do in Moab – how can you string it all together if you only have 3 days in Moab? Here are my suggestions for a three-day Moab itinerary that packs almost all of it in.
To start, I want to clarify: sometimes when I write a three-day itinerary, I assume you’re arriving at some point on Day 1 and leaving sometime on Day 3. That’s not the case in this post: I think you need three full days to see Moab and the area properly. So I’m assuming you drive or fly to Moab on “Day 0” and leave late on the afternoon of Day 3 or on “Day 4.” If you’re short on time, consider condensing to visit Arches and Canyonlands in one day on your full day, and spend the other two half-days exploring beyond the parklands.
Day 1: Arches National Park
On your first day of your 3 days in Moab, head into Arches National Park! It’s easy to spend a full day here, so pick up lunch from Sweet Cravings the night before and get an early start:
- Do a sunrise hike to Delicate Arch.
- Explore and discover more arches by hiking in the Devil’s Garden.
- Enjoy lunch at the picnic area near Balanced Rock.
- Head into the Garden of Eden and do a few hikes to The Windows and Double Arch.
- Drive along Arches Scenic Drive to see sights like Park Avenue and the Petrified Dunes with the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
- Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about the park and grab souvenirs/passport stamps in the gift shop.
- If you decide to stay in the park until sunset, Balanced Rock is a beautiful place to see it.
It doesn’t sound like much, but I promise it’ll be a full day of unforgettable sights in one of the most beautiful national parks I’ve ever visited.
Day 2: Petroglyphs, Canyons, and Stars
After breakfast, I recommend starting with a short tour of the petroglyphs in the area; you don’t need a guide as there are some signs along Potash Road and the Colorado River to tell you more about the people who made the rock art centuries ago. On the way back into town, stop and make the climb to see the Courthouse Wash Rock Art.
You can enjoy lunch in Moab before heading out again to explore Canyonlands National Park.
For the afternoon, I recommend following my advice for spending a half-day in Canyonlands. You can start out at the Visitor Center and work your way back to Grand View Overlook for sunset. Don’t forget to stop at Green River Overlook (above), my favorite view in the whole park.
After the sun goes down, make your way back out of Canyonlands and into Dead Horse Point State Park for some stargazing. Even if there isn’t a set astronomy program on the night you’ve visiting you can still head up onto the point and admire the night sky on your own.
Day 3: Exploring Beyond the National Parks
On your final of 3 days in Moab, explore further afield. Consider booking a private car to do some off-roading or a 4-hour jeep tour with Big Iron Tours. On my trip, we went up Onion Creek to see some insane rock formations and wide-open spaces – this isn’t the kind of place you’ll encounter crowds!
For the afternoon, you could head out for a hike in the La Sal Mountains if you’re visiting during the summer months, or spend some time exploring the town of Moab itself, including the Rock Shop!
Now you’re all set! Do you have other questions about how to spend 3 days in Moab (or longer)? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks to Visit Utah for inviting me out to explore Moab during the winter season of “Peak Solitude.” All businesses and experiences were included at my own discretion.