Before visiting Moab, I had heard about it from friends and saw it show up regularly on my Instagram feed. All the reviews about Moab were positive and the pictures looked beautiful. So when I found out we Moab was somewhat along our cross-country road trip route, I decided to add it to my itinerary. And it’s the best decision I made because Moab turned out to be one of the most magnificent places I’ve been to-date! The scale of everything was out of this world. If you’re visiting Moab for the first time or want to more thoroughly plan out your next trip, this guide is for you. Here are my favorite things to do in Moab Utah for first time visitors.
Before I get into it, there are four main areas in or near Moab that I’ll cover: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Downtown Moab, and Castle Valley. And within each, I’ll have a few recommendations on things to do. For first timers, the best things to do in Moab will be to visit Arches and Canyonlands. If you have more time, Castle Valley also offers an amazing landscape for your eyes to feast on. Downtown Moab is a place you’ll pass through if you’re already going to Arches and Canyonlands – it’s between the two parks and offers great dining options.
1. Drive through Arches National Park at Sunrise
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
“Sunrise” is the key here. The way the light hits the red rocks at Arches National Park at sunrise is stunning. It’s a sight you’ll likely only see once in your life. If you’re going to Arches National Park in the summer, when temperatures rise as high as 100℉, you’ll also want to go early to beat the heat.
We visited Moab in June and arrived at the national park at around 6 AM. The sun was just coming out and the temperature hovered at around 70℉, the perfect weather for the first thing to do on our list – hike the Delicate Arch Trail.
2. Hike the Delicate Arch Trail
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
If you had to choose to do just one thing to do in Moab Utah, I’d say hiking the Delicate Arch Trail should be top of your list. The trail is just 3.2 miles out and back, and you’re awarded with the sight of a beautiful, naturally-formed arch midway through.
Since most of the trail is exposed and you’ll barely come across shade, starting the hike right after sunrise is the perfect time to go. Imagine hiking with no shade in 100℉ weather. You’ll be exhausted before you even see the beautiful arch. Plus, parking fills up quick. By the time we had finished the hike (around 8:00am), the parking lot was full!
One thing I’ll point out with this hike is that while it isn’t strenuous, there is one stretch where you’re basically walking on a cliff. I’m afraid of heights so my legs got all soft walking that part of the trail, but it’s short enough where anyone can do it – just take your time and don’t do anything silly!
3. See More Arches at Windows and Double Arch
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
If you have time for just two things to do while you’re in Moab Utah, then the Delicate Arch Trail should be priority number one, and the Windows and Double Arch trails should be priority number two.
Windows and Double Arch are close enough to each other that you can see both in one go. Visiting Arches National Park is like driving into a sculpture garden formed by Mother Nature. The Windows and Double Arch trail have so many different formations lined up next to each other that you’ll feel like you’re walking through nature’s garden.
One of my favorite things about Arches National Park is how small the formations make you feel. It really puts things into perspective and allows you to appreciate nature more.
4. Visit the Grand Viewpoint
You’ll be amazed by how many things there are to do in Moab Utah. There’s not just one National Park but two – so plan your day wisely if you want to visit both. Because we only had a few hours to explore Canyonlands National Park and wanted to get the most out of our time, we bought a narrated tour from GyPSy Guide for the drive.
Canyonlands is similar to Arches National Park in that everything you see there is grand and vast. However it’s totally different at the same time. Someone described it to me as the Grand Canyon of Utah with the canyons even more spaced out from each other.
Visiting Canyonlands made me realize why I’ve come across so many photos of Moab Utah. It’s truly a photographer’s heaven.
5. Try the Banh Mi Salad at 98 Center
When a Vietnamese restaurant called 98 Center was recommended to me as something to do in Moab Utah I was skeptical. How can there be good Asian food in the middle of the desert? As an Asian American, I was ready to call the place inauthentic or too fusion=y. And I’m so glad I was wrong!
98 Center is an Asian fusion restaurant in Moab with Vietnamese inspired dishes. Some of their popular items include the Pho and Banh Mi Salad. I ordered the Banh Mi Salad and the flavors were amazing. What made it extra delicious was how fresh the ingredients were.
After some more research, I found that 98 Center’s whole mission is to serve up delicious food with fresh, local ingredients. They certainly accomplished that!
6. Stargaze at the Mesa Arch
We arrived at Mesa Arch a little after sunset and only planned to spend time there while it was still light out. Nonetheless, plans change, and sometimes a better option presents itself while I travel! We ended up staying for another two hours to watch the stars light the whole sky.
I don’t think I’d ever stayed in one place from sunset to pitch dark, and it was the most amazing feeling. It’s one thing to stargaze and another to watch the transition from sundown to starry night. This place makes for a great spot to practice your astrophotography skills, or just chill and drink a hot cocoa while admiring nature’s work.
7. Stay at Castle Valley Inn
Castle Valley is just thirty minutes outside of Moab Utah, just far away enough where it’s a little quieter and more serene than downtown Moab, but still close enough that its scenery resembles Canyonlands and Arches Natinoal Park.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Moab, consider staying at Castle Valley Inn. It’s technically 35-40 minutes outside of downtown Moab but you get a great view for a much better price than some of the fancier resorts in the heart of Moab. If you have extra time on your hands, you can also spend time in the valley tubing down the Colorado River.
8. Kayak in the Colorado River
Another cool thing to do near Moab Utah is to tube, stand-up paddle board, or kayak in the Colorado River. Spend an afternoon traveling down the 9-mile Colorado River trail and surround yourself with rocks and desert scenery. It’s the perfect thing to do on a hot summer day.
You can rent a floatie from Canyonlands by Night for $29/day or a stand-up paddle board for $69 for the day. I’d say it’s totally worth it for the unique experience you’ll get. When else are you going to be traveling down a river in the middle of a desert? If tubing is your thing, you may also want to consider floating down the Russian River, one of my favorite day trips from San Francisco of all time!
Amazing Things to Do in Moab Utah
It was only after I visited Moab myself that I realized how many cool things there are to do in the desert land. We totally did all of the above in less than 24 hours, so if this is a stopping point for you on a road trip, you can totally do it in that time frame. I’d just consider staying the night there so you don’t tire yourself out and can actually enjoy all the hikes.
Of course, it’s better if you can stay a little longer. And if this is your first time visiting, I guarantee you’ll love all the things I’ve listed here. They are the big hits in Moab after all.