Rediscovering Utah's Desert Magic

The red rock and dry climate of Southern Utah never interested me as a kid. My family always headed south in the summers, to places like Moab, Phoenix and Las Vegas, and they quickly became too familiar to spark interest.

Luckily time usually allows for a shift in perspective.

A weekend getaway full of hiking, exploring in search of Butch Cassidy’s hideout, Robber’s Roost, wine tasting and a wedding in Arches National Park, reminded me that Moab really is a Utah state gem.

Moab is everything you could hope for in a thriving, yet remote, desert city. From shops full of locally crafted goods to close proximity to three national parks and some of the most beautiful hiking and biking trails out there, this area is a bucket list destination.

Day 1: Off-Roading in the Desert Between Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park

I left my home in Ogden early in the morning, planning ahead for plenty of time to look for Robber’s Roost. The nostalgia was already setting in as I passed places from my past along the way. After being in Oregon for 8 years, the drive felt new to me.

In total, it took about 4 hours and 45 minutes to get to my first stop in Southern Utah - Hanksville.

Hanksville is a small town with a population just shy of 300. The gas station I stop at is set inside of a big red rock wall. Everywhere I look deep red, soft browns, blue sky and splashes of green foliage dominate the landscape. The red dirt settles in a thin film on my skin as I step out of the jeep to expose myself for the first time to the dry heat.

Inside the gas station, I look around at the cavernous interior, flipping through books about sage moon rituals and the history of the wild west, while my husband, Mike, asks the woman running the cash register for directions to Robber's Roost. She says she doesn't know what we mean, sells us a $12 map of Capitol Reef and sends us on our way.

We feel sure that we can find it on our own, despite the directions on the Capitol Reef website being extremely vague. There are coordinates, but neither of our cell phones have reception. We go for it anyway.

We leave Hanksville, backtracking the way we came,  heading north for about 20 miles. We take a dirt road on the right, just before the Goblin Valley turnoff, towards a ranger station. It seems to be the most comparable on the map to the one on the Capitol Reef website. With plenty of water and a first aid kit stocked in the jeep, we are prepared to find out.

The road gets bumpy and heaps of red dust fly up around the tires as we drive the winding back roads around plateaus and pillars of rock. Deep green desert sage and cacti pepper the ground with an occasional vibrant pink blossom peaking over the top of the surrounding foliage. Here and there cows and the occasional antelope appear just to the side or in front of us.

Relaxing into the miles ahead of us for another half an hour, we come to a spot where we finally get to test the jeep's power. To the right there is no flora holding the earth down and the wind is blowing  up dirt quickly. Almost a quarter mile of the road in front of us has been covered with mounds of earth. We plow over each mound, laughing, feeling the weight of the jeep shifting underneath us as it grips down. After that the roads are easy to navigate. 

After another hour and a half we come to a fork. Still having no real sense of where we are in proximity to the Roost, we guess, heading to the right. Every once in awhile we stop to hike and walk around a bit, discovering plenty of ghostly remnants of the harsh desert climate. Dried up stream beds and delicate animal bones lying forgotten.    

Finally we reach a campground that looks like the one on the map near Robber's Roost. I get out of the jeep again, throw on my hiking boots and begin looking around. Fire remnants and glass bottles litter the ground. The knowledge that others have recently been here leaves me hopeful.

An hour passes before we realize that we don't have much more time to look. We have to be back in Moab for the bridal party's rehearsal dinner. So we reluctantly give up the search for the day.

 Appreciating the day for what it was is the only option - we got to explore a place that not many people go. 

**After getting home we looked up the coordinates for Robber's Roost again and realized we were in the right vicinity, but obviously a bit off track. We plan to go back and use the coordinates and a GPS to find the spot in the near future.

Day 2 - Moab and Arches National Park

The next morning is another early one. We meet my family at Courthouse Towers inside of Arches National Park around 7 a.m. for my sister’s wedding. The ceremony is short, simple and of course gorgeous. Places like this usually have me dressed ready for a hike, so getting some shots in my dress against the stunning background feels nice. 


From there on out, our adventure becomes much tamer and we focus on exploring the less wild environments down South.

Next on the agenda is breakfast. Driving in downtown Moab we see cars with license plates from all over the country. Hiking, camping, fishing, off-roading and biking are all major draws to the area, bringing in a diverse mix of people that I find incredibly refreshing. It has an eclectic, laid back sort of vibe that isn't found often here. 

We get our breakfast at the Peace Tree Cafe. The boho aesthetic and menu full of fresh juices and smoothies alongside classic diner bites reminded me of cafes back home in Oregon. Going back on our next trip is definitely a must. 

After eating, Mike and I head out on our own, driving 30 minutes NW of Moab on highway 128 to Castle Creek Winery. Castle Creek is on the same property as the Red Cliffs Lodge, which is all part of the historic White’s Ranch. This is also the location where many western films (classic and modern) have been filmed, including some of John Wayne’s classics and more recently The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer.

We head inside the winery for a tasting. *I recommend the Chenin Blanc (Castle Creek grows the grapes for this one at their vineyard near downtown Moab).

Next we hit the movie museum inside the lodge. It is small, but I love looking at the set pictures and props on display. Most of the items are unusual remnants - items actors made on set, costumes, design drawings and photographs. 

The afternoon heat becomes more intense as we step outside once again. The open air patio between the lodge and winery is our lounging area for the next few hours. With a drink from the upstairs BBQ buffet and our books from the jeep in hand, we relax and enjoy sunshine.

After awhile hunger inevitably sets in again, so we choose another local spot, The Spoke on Center, in downtown Moab. Each bite of the fish tacos here is refreshing, making me quickly decide they are probably the best I have ever had. *Either that or I'm hungrier than I thought. 

With not much else to do, we browse several of the local shops before heading to Rotary Park where we are meeting everyone for a wedding dinner. Most city parks are similar and a bit underwhelming, but this park is dreamy. 

Aside from the expected sod and picnic tables, a small rocky creek shaded with native foliage and trees runs along the edge and the playground is made up predominantly of chime-style musical instruments of all sorts. 

We spend the rest of the evening here with family and friends, enjoy some cake and decide to head back to Ogden around 8 p.m.

After this trip, I now have a fresh perspective and new ideas about Southern Utah's appeal. The point is not lost on me that exploring locally is just as eye opening and exciting as seeing a new country for the first time.