If you’re traveling in Utah for Memorial Day weekend, there’s a good chance you are joining tens of thousands of your closest hiking, biking and rafting buddies on a trip to Moab.
The place gets so much traffic over the holiday weekend, the Utah Highway Patrol has taken to shutting down the entrance to Arches National Park. My family, friends and I have gone to Moab nine of the last 10 Memorial Day weekends. While the town and its surrounding amenities are getting more crowded, Moab — like the nearby river — remains navigable.
Last year, I invited one of my coworkers ([Coughing] Robert Gehrke) to join us in Moab. He declined for fear of crowds. Instead, he told me later, he went on a regrettable inflatable kayak trip down Muddy Creek that included uncooperative dogs, tamarisk and Russian thistle.
But planning and strategies are important, especially if you’re a first-time visitor to Moab. Here’s a way to not just survive, but thrive during your Memorial Day weekend.
Whatever you want that is reservable, reserve it immediately.
This might include campsites or lodging; mountain bike, Jeep or watercraft rentals; permits to hike in sensitive areas; and all manner of tours; and restaurant reservations. Come Friday there will still be some first-come-first-serve campsites (More on that in a moment.) and some of the aforementioned items and services might still be available on a walk-up basis, but your life will be easier with this planning.
The website discovermoab.com has a list of many of the campsites and businesses you’ll need, and Recreation.gov will let you search for camping outside of town.
Learn the geography
People often say they are “going to Moab” when they are really going to some campground, trailhead or boat ramp 35 miles away.
Take a few minutes to map how long it will take to get from your home to your destination and where it is in relation to downtown Moab or other locations you plan to visit. Also remember that reaching destinations may require drives up winding roads — some of them not paved — on which there could be traffic.
Reconsider the national parks
My advice would be to skip Arches and Canyonlands on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The entrance lines are just too long and there’s plenty of other stuff to do and arches to see around Moab.
If you’re making it a four-day weekend, hit one or both of the parks Thursday or Tuesday. If Friday, Saturday or Sunday is your once-in-a-lifetime trip to see Delicate or Mesa arches, be at a park entrance before 8 a.m.
The Salt Lake Tribune has a list of best Moab hikes outside the national parks.
One place to explore: the La Sal Mountains. Most people to go Moab for the desert vistas and arches, but the La Sals, which are the peaks southeast of Moab, offer great, green vistas and cooler weather. Camping is available there, too.
You don’t want to be forced to drive all the way into town to eat, or get ice or sunscreen. Think ahead about everything you will want each day of your trip. Before you leave camp or your motel in the morning, make sure you have everything you will need that day.
Designate the early person
It pays to be early, whether you’re trying to grab a campsite or a seat at a restaurant. If someone in your party can go to Moab on Thursday or early Friday, have them grab one of the premium campsites along the Colorado River.
This can work for dining Saturday or Sunday night, too. Send someone 15 minutes ahead of the group to get names on the list. But not more than that. Restaurants like to seat the whole party at once.
Don’t get hurt
Grand County charges for searches and rescues. Even if it didn’t, getting saved from a trail or slot canyon or out of the Colorado River could take hours, put rescuers in danger and prevent them from helping other people who need it.
Safety begins by making sure you have enough water and protection from the elements. After that, don’t do any activities that are too physically challenging or beyond your technical expertise.
If you’re camping, camp. Especially in the evenings.
Maybe the nightlife in Moab rivals that of some exotic city. I don’t know. I don’t stay in town past sunset. The moon and stars at your Moab-area campground are spectacular, and so can be the conversation. Plus, the only line you might encounter there will be one or two other people waiting for the pit toilet.