As the high country melts off, desert adventures are just a day trip or overnight away from Garfield County
How do you know when it’s spring in Moab, Utah?
All the license plates turn green — Colorado green that is.
With mud season in full swing in the lower and middle elevations of the Central Rocky Mountains, and it still being pretty much winter up high, it’s true the desert country straddling the Colorado-Utah line is a popular destination for mountain folks.
The so-called “shoulder season” is definitely a good time to venture into the wilds of the high desert, before it starts to get too hot during the day and before the late-spring insects hatch.
Desert wildflowers, including several varieties of cactus, yucca and desert paintbrush, are starting to bloom. And the contrast of the snow-covered La Sal Mountains with the red slickrock and bluebird skies as the backdrop is hard to beat.
Daytime temperatures fluctuate, but tend to be tolerable, and (campers beware) nighttime temps in the spring can still get below freezing.
And just like Colorado high country, snowstorms and cold rains are quite likely at times but with a little more hint of summer.
Whether just looking for a day trip and a nice hike, bike or off-road vehicle excursion near Grand Junction, or an overnight stay in or around the Moab desert country, there’s lots of landscape to explore.
“We sell a lot of maps for the desert areas; usually people passing through on their way to that area,” said Emma Honnicutt, manager for Summit Canyon Mountaineering in Glenwood Springs.
For anyone new to the area who may never have ventured into desert country, Honnicut suggests a visit to any of the many park or Bureau of Land Management ranger stations. It also might be best to stick to the national parks, such as Canyonlands, Arches and, on the Colorado side, the Colorado National Monument outside Fruita.
A good hydration pack, rather than a bottle of water, is also recommended for anyone spending much time hiking or doing other desert activities.
“We always suggest a reservoir system so you can take in a little water over time, instead of gulping,” Honnicutt said.
Glenwood Springs resident and Roaring Fork Road and Weather moderator Ray Alexander is a longtime desert rat, be it camping, hiking, mountain biking or four-wheeling. He offered a few ideas on places to go and things to see.
“We’ve been going west since the ’90s, and it’s funny, you know, we used to have these secret spots that no one knew about, but they’ve all slowly been let out of the bag,” Alexander said.
The Moab area has lots of options, though, and even a few spots where it’s possible to find some seclusion, depending on how adventurous one chooses to be.
The Dalton Wells/Willow Springs area north of Moab just off U.S. Highway 191 is one.
“There’s access to tons of trails, and you can get into the boondocks for camping whether you’re using a tent or RV,” Alexander said. “Biking, hiking, rock crawling, off-roading, you name it, you can find it.”
Other spots to consider include multiple stop-offs along the Potash and Kane Creek roads west of Moab, including Corona Arch. South of Moab, on the way to the Needles section of Canyonlands, is Newspaper Rock, which has some of the highest concentration of petroglyphs (Native American rock art) in the region. And east of Moab, just off of state Highway 128, are several popular hikes including Fisher Towers and Grandstaff Canyon.
A little closer to home, there’s also Rabbit Valley south of Interstate 70, just before you hit the Utah line.
“We go there for a lot of extended stays, and even come home for a day or two to restock and head back out,” he said.
Again, lots of trails for hiking, jogging and some fun off-roading, Alexander said.
Many of what used to be dispersed camping sites are now managed by the BLM and have been developed with pit toilets, fire grates, gravel landings for campers and such — with a nightly fee, of course.
“Some of the big, large group sites are nice, because you can circle the RVs and have a great time with friends and family,” said Alexander, who happened to be driving out from Wildhorse Canyon near DeBeque during the interview.
“For a day trip, this is also a pretty place to go out and be by yourself,” he said of the area north and west of DeBeque. “And, if you’re lucky, you might find the wild horses out running about.”
Other western Colorado options include the extensive Kokopelli trail system just off I-70 at the small towns of Loma and Mack, the Bookcliffs area north of Fruita, and Dominguez Canyon south of Grand Junction.
A couple of things to keep in mind and be wary of this time of year in desert country include flash flooding that can occur, even in dry washes if it’s raining upstream, and nighttime temperatures which can easily dip into the 20s. High winds are also common in the spring.
Another desert aficionado, Carbondale resident Will Grandbois, also has a few tips when it comes to desert etiquette, including making an effort not to be an obnoxious tourist.
“Consider the things that make you roll your eyes about tourists around here and realize that you’re likely to be equally out of your element in the canyon country,” Grandbois said.
There are different challenges for off-roading, hiking and biking than you see in the mountains, he said. “Do you know how to spot quicksand or which areas to avoid if there’s the slightest risk of a flash flood? If not, you should probably check in with whoever’s in charge of managing the land you’re planning to visit.”
Arid landscapes like the Colorado Plateau are fundamentally fragile. “Your sunscreen or the oil from your hands could seriously contaminate a tiny desert stream,” Grandbois said. “Biological soil crusts that are essential for plants to live in some locations take centuries to grow and can be trampled in an instant.”
Cultural artifacts, from rock art to cliff dwellings, are similarly vulnerable. “It’s against federal law to interfere with any ruins or objects that have been in place for more than 50 years — as well as any fossils from animals with a backbone.”
The descendants of the area’s original inhabitants are still out there. “They are places of great meaning to them you really shouldn’t go trampling through. The Mormons also have their own deep history in the area and a lot of influence, even in fairly liberal areas like Moab.”
Oh, and that marijuana you bought legally in Colorado can get you in serious trouble across the Utah state line. “Alcohol also has some restrictions, and they don’t sell lottery tickets at the gas station.”
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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