MOAB, Utah -- “This town must be crazy in the summer,” I rhetorically asked the waiter as he set two pints of Dead Horse Amber ale and a massive plate of post-hiking nachos on our table at Moab Brewery. Immediately the inaccuracy of my mental transfer of normalities from the North -- where June, July and August are the busy times in any tourist town -- to the desert Southwest was pointed out by our friendly server.
“Actually, this time of year is our peak, April, May, and some weeks in the fall,” he said, noting the midsummer temperatures that are normally in the 90s and often touch triple digits, making this corner of southeast Utah a more popular spring and fall destination.
Indeed, the weather had been absolutely perfect for hiking earlier in the day on this early May Friday, as we had traversed a few miles of well-worn but uncrowded trails inside Arches National Park. There was a 20-minute line of cars, trucks and RVs stretching back nearly a half-mile from the entrance toll booth when we arrived at the park after a beautiful four-hour drive from Salt Lake City. But while parking was at a premium at a few of the trailheads, there was nowhere in the park that you felt the shoulder-to-shoulder crush of Disneyland or the Las Vegas Strip.
Dead Horse, the local brewery’s aforementioned popular beer, is named not for a tragic day at the racetrack, but for nearby Dead Horse Point State Park. Long before it formed the Grand Canyon a few hundred miles downstream, the Colorado River was winding through this stretch of Utah desert and created a prominent high cliff peninsula which served as a natural corral for horses -- a few of which succumbed to the intense summer heat. It was also the site of the final scene in the popular 1991 movie “Thelma & Louise” where the ladies on the run from the law decided (spoiler alert, for a 28-year-old flick) that they would not be taken alive. It was far from the last time Hollywood came to this remote region.
“We get quite a few people asking about ‘Thelma & Louise’ and several other movies as well, and every year we get a couple of producers who come up for different shoots,” said Dillon Hoyt, the state park’s manager, “We do get a little bit of that, but it’s not as much as people might anticipate.”
While the Dead Horse scenery is on par with anywhere in Utah, it is just one of a series of attractions that have become a circuit for countless visitors, similar to the “Wisconsin Dells then Chicago” trip that is seemingly mandated by state law for young parents each October when Minnesota schools are on break. Moab is within seven-hours drive from three major airports -- Salt Lake City, Denver and Las Vegas -- but Nevada seems to be the deplaning point for more and more visitors to the region.
“It’s cheaper to fly into Vegas and then people get a rental car and come up through the national parks,” Hoyt said. “They’ll hit Zion and Bryce (Canyon) and Capital Reef, and then Goblin Valley State Park, come around to Dead Horse Point, Canyonlands and Arches, and then circle home. It takes a good seven to 14 days to do that loop depending on how fast you’re moving.”
Visitors can pick how fast they move, and at what volume, upon arrival as well. The parks have hundreds of miles of trails for relatively silent pursuits like hiking and mountain biking, and Moab is widely considered one of the top off-road biking destinations in the nation. The self-propelled crowd has generally found peaceful coexistence with the high-speed, high-volume ATV/UTV/4WD enthusiasts.
On a Friday in May, the number of trucks pulling ATV trailers was reminiscent of the sheer numbers of snowmobiles seen during a midwinter weekend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the Moab tourism officials offer trail advice and list the Utah state laws for what constitutes a street legal vehicle on their website. While the national parks are off-limits to motorized off-road vehicles, there are many guides to where one can traverse the terrain outside the parks, and a number of private tours and ATV rental places in Moab.
By contrast, they stress serenity with nature at Arches, where an informative 15-minute video at the visitors center shows the natural forces that have worked for millions of years to create and then destroy those natural sandstone arches -- more than 2,000 of them -- throughout the park. It’s noted that the forces of wind and water are constants here, and that the park is literally a different place every day, as nature re-shapes the landscape again and again. It also serves as a reminder that all of this scenery is temporary. As new arches are being created, the 2008 collapse of Wall Arch -- a 71-foot span that fell overnight in August of that year -- reminds us that our natural world is a delicate place.
Indeed, the most iconic arch in park, which graces many Utah license plates, is named Delicate Arch and is a 46-foot high rainbow of stone that can be viewed from afar or up close via a well-traveled three-mile round trip hike.
Feeling winded and sore after a day of such hikes, that’s where relaxing with the beers came in. Utah still has some of the most restrictive alcohol laws in the nation, but they’re slowly being relaxed, and tap beer with 5% alcohol content will be allowed in the state starting in November. Until then, 4% is the upper limit, although higher-strength spirits are available in cans and bottles.
The Dead Horse Amber can came decorated with a green and white checkerboard pattern, and was emblazoned with a slogan that nicely summed up the region’s scenery and variety of available outdoor pursuits.
“You can’t beat a Dead Horse,” it read.