Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Ouray to Moab

Around The West in 95 Horsepower: Moab

By Andy Lilienthal; photos by Mercedes Lilienthal

In part five of Around The West in 95 Horsepower, Mercedes and I explored the amazing San Juan Mountains of Colorado. In this segment, we're exiting Ouray. 

Leaving Ouray was bittersweet. The San Juan Mountains are filled with so much history and beauty that we could spend months there and still be exploring. That being said, we were also excited to get a move on to Moab.

I’d been to Moab a number of times for my day job in the automotive aftermarket, mostly to Easter Jeep Safari where I’ve joined 10,000 other people in 4x4s and run some amazing trails—it’s great. I’d never been to Moab when there hasn’t been a major event going on, so I was curious as to what the town would be like.

The first time I ever went to Moab I drove into town in the dark from nearby Grand Junction, CO. I knew there were cliffs and canyons all over the place, but I couldn’t see them. When I awoke the next morning, I was awestruck by the colors and the natural scenery that is Moab. It’s one of these places on earth that everyone should visit at least once. Unfortunately, I had never had the opportunity to bring Mercedes with me, but that was all about to change.

The night before leaving Ouray we had spoken to a couple about more off-road-centric routes to Moab. However, since we were traveling solo and I wasn’t familiar with the route, we opted for pavement. We hopped on highway 62, then 145, and eventually highway 90 and 46, which turns into US 191. We had left early because we were hoping to run a trail or two that day upon our arrival, after all, it's a short three hour drive between the two destinations. The  winding route takes you through canyons and along farmland, eventually dumping you into the red-rocked glory that is southwest Utah.

We arrived in Moab with cloudy skies and a good chance of rain. We decided we should scout somewhere to camp for the night. Since it was midweek, there weren’t a whole lot of people out, which made camping choices plentiful. I knew there were some spots down by the Colorado River, and I knew there were spots in Sand Flats Recreation Area.

Testing the Dinoot Trailer in Moab

We stopped at the entrance to Sand Flats Recreation Area, paid our day-use fee, and stopped at Baby Lion’s Back, a huge sandstone hump that you can drive over which is surrounded by sand and slickrock to crawl around on. We figured this would be a good place to see how the trailer does on more varied off-road terrain. It’d also be a test for whether or not we’d pull our Dinoot trailer along with us on the Fins N Things trail we would run later. As I had remembered, Fins N Things wasn’t too difficult. Granted, I was a passenger … and it was five years ago … and we were in a very capable Can-Am Commander Side x Side. I mean, how different could it be in a 21 year old Suzuki?

The trailer had plenty of clearance, and did just fine. That being said, we got to thinking about why we’d bother to bring it if we had the option to leave it or do an easier trail. After all, we were essentially towing our house with us. We decided that instead of doing Fins N Things with the trailer right away, we’d explore the unpaved Sand Flats Road instead, and do Fins N Things tomorrow without the Dinoot.

As we drove down the sandy unpaved road, we noticed several camp spots nestled in depressions among huge sandstone features. A sign at the entrance to these spots warned of potential flash flood dangers. So long as we didn’t get crazy amounts of rain, this looked like it’d be a fantastic camping spot. It was a ways off the dirt road and tucked up against an enormous rock feature. We decided not to leave the trailer just yet, and continued down the road.

Mercedes in a rock formation along Sand Flats Road
Mercedes in one of the many rock formations along Sand Flats Road in Moab.
Sand Flats Road is not difficult, but is full of curves, hills, and classic Moab scenery. There are rock monuments, caves, smooth slickrock humps, cacti, and at some point, the terrain changes form a desert setting to a forest setting. We really weren’t sure exactly where we were headed, but we were OK with that; that’s the fun of exploring, right? As we progressed, a sign informed us that Sand Flats Recreation area ended and Manti La Sal National Forest had begun. This is also where the paper map we were given ended. Our GPS recognized our location, so we progressed. We passed a couple of mountain bikers and one or two vehicles heading the opposite way. But other than that, it was just us—and just perfect.

Clouds in Manti La Sal National Forest
Low clouds in Manti La Sal National Forest.
After more miles and a few stops for photos, we came to a paved road, which I believe was La Sal Loop Rd. We ran into what we thought were a bunch of wild horses (although after looking at photos, we noticed they had shoes), several adventuring touring motorcycles, and low-hanging clouds. Those clouds helped set the stage for some wild views of the La Sal Mountains.

Southwest Scenery in Moab

The mountain clouds transitioned to filtered sun as we took in the mountain vistas. The winding road continued for miles and miles; it was fantastic. We could see some of the enormous geologic formations this area is known for, which looked like a scene from a Road Runner and Coyote cartoon.

 As we reentered the red desert terrain we came upon the town of Castle Valley, population 324. Not surprising, there wasn’t a whole lot there. A lodge, a great view of the famous Priest and Nuns rock formation, and then there was Castle Creek Winery, one of only 12 wineries in Utah. To give you some perspective on this, our home state of Oregon has 400 wineries. Granted, Utah isn’t exactly known for its fantastic wine growing climate—or alcohol consumption—whereas Oregon is world-renowned for its ability to grow grapes, especially Pinot Noir. Regardless, when we travel it’s always fun to try the local beverages—especially the fermented kind.

Castle Creek’s facility was a quaint, rustic place offering a host of wines, some of which were surprisingly good. Due to Utah’s odd, dare I say draconian, liquor laws, you are only allowed three samples per person, so you had to pick your poison wisely. After our three samples, we ended up buying a bottle of their Monument Red table wine, which was a bargain at $12.95.

Highway 128 to Moab

From the winery, we headed back towards Moab on highway 128, which winds along the Colorado River. This is a spectacular drive along sheer rock walls with vistas of enormous holes in rocks on the opposite side of the river. Just as we were really beginning to soak in the scenery, the skies opened up. It poured so hard that our hardtop started to drip water onto my shorts. This also got us to thinking about where we’d set up camp that night. Plus, we also needed to get groceries and make dinner.

Once back into town we decided it was a good time to get some groceries. We also figured that the more time we spent in the grocery store, the more time we’d have for the weather to blow over. It was late afternoon, and we’d still have plenty of daylight to set up camp and make dinner, so no rush. The grocery store is filled with a mix of locals and international tourists. We heard English, German, Japanese, and Spanish, and the people were as varied as the food selection. We carefully planned out our meals, making sure we’d have enough room in our ARB fridge freezer for meat, veggies, and some of Utah’s finest 3.2% alcohol beer, Polygamy Porter from Wasatch Brewing. The motto? “Why have just one.” You cannot buy beer at a grocery store that’s more than 3.2% ABV in Utah. Even with the low alcohol content, Polygamy Porter is a delicious brew.

Despite our best efforts at stalling, it was still a deluge when we exited the store. We threw the groceries in the back of the Sidekick and decided what to do. He headed for the shelter of a scrub-it-yourself carwash so that we could organize our edibles without getting more drenched. Unfortunately for us, the carwash had 1980s hair metal blaring through a PA system at about 300 decibels. It was very annoying.

We looked at the radar on our smartphones in an attempt to determine what the weather was going to do. Allegedly it was supposed to break at any minute. Once again—we decide to stall for time.

Moonflower Canyon Petroglyphs
Moonflower Canyon Petroglyphs 
Resupplied, we headed down Kane Creek Boulevard, which is one of several offshoots from the main drag in Moab, in search of the Moonflower Canyon Petroglyphs. These are a series of ancient drawings and even an old log ladder used by the Native Americans to get to what I assume were cliff dwellings. It’s amazing to see such ancient drawings and such, even in the pouring rain. There are drawings of animals, humans, and unfortunately some graffiti. But even some of that was nearly 100 years old, assuming the dates carved into the stones were correct. Still stalling, we drove all the way down Kane Creek to the end of the road (yep, still pouring), and started to head back towards town.

Wet, hungry, and not really wanting to set up camp in the rain or cook dinner we decided to go out to one of my favorite places in Moab, the Broken Oar. Good food, good beer, good service. The Broken Oar is in a log cabin structure and the torrential rain was making it leak. Luckily, it was nothing a couple of beers and some grub wouldn’t solve.

Our Camp Spot in Moab
Our campsite along the base of a huge rock formation.
By the time we were done with dinner, it had stopped raining. We headed back to Sand Flats Recreation Area and found the camp spot we had discovered earlier in the day. Despite the big rains, there wasn’t any flooding, and the evening, as it often is after a storm, was glorious. We set up camp with no immediate neighbors in sight and started our first Moab campfire and enjoyed some of that 3.2% beer. If we were going to do the trails, it would be tomorrow. So we decided that we’d hit up Fins N Things—sans trailer—that morning. But despite our soggy day, Moab was still enchanting.

Moab Utah Sunset

Stay tuned for our second day in Moab which includes some great off-road driving, meeting new friends, and more. 

Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Exploring the San Juan Moutains
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Imogene Pass
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Murtaugh to Ouray
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Portland to Murtaugh
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Intro and Preparation 


Paul said...

What was your fuel economy, and what did your trailer weigh ready for the trip? Love reading these reports.

Andy Lilienthal said...

We got about 18-20 MPG. Trailer weighs about 800 lbs. loaded.