“Isn’t that the place where that climber amputated his own arm?” I asked, quickly turning to my phone to Google it.
“No. That guy was in Canyonlands.”
“I swear it was Arches. Moab, right? Remember the movie with James Franco?”
I tapped my phone.
Arches National Park.
Cut off arm.
For the record, the climber who cut off his own arm with a 2-inch dull knife in 2003 was trapped in a canyon in Canyonlands, just 30 miles from Arches National Park.
“See?” Peter said. “Totally different.”
And that was that. We were going to Moab to explore the arches and try not to lose our limbs.
The Adventure Begins
Located in Eastern Utah, Moab is the high desert city that holds the key to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Surrounded by some of the most breath-taking and gravity-defying red rock formations in the world, Moab’s combo of small-town vibes and thrill-seeking adventure is a gem in the American Southwest.
Our adventure started with a reservation at Aarchway Inn. While most would say the real way to experience Moab is by camping, I prefer not to sleep with visions of rattlesnakes dancing in my tent. Also, you can read about how I feel about camping here.
Aarchway Inn is a basic hotel but had plenty for Skinny Jeans to explore within the property. With the temps reaching close to 80 in April, the pool was a welcomed way to wash off the winter. The on-site playground and breakfast (unlimited Fruit Loops!) were also a plus.
Rocks are Weird
After a night at the hotel, we prepped for a day at Arches. Backpacks. Water. Snacks. Pocket knife (just in case). A winding drive through what looked like red rock geysers erupting from the Earth took us to the visitor center where we tried to figure out what the hell was happening to make the landscape look like Mars. Inside the visitors center, it was a geologist’s dream, and I got lost somewhere between tafoni and cyanobacteria and picked up the Junior Ranger Adventure Guide so I, I mean, Skinny Jeans, could understand this natural phenomenon through matching games and coloring pages.
With a map in hand, we charted our course. We were unsure how much hiking Skinny Jeans would be up for or how much time we had before I started to get phantom pains down my arm as I imagined the climber pinned between boulders, sawing and cracking through his bone. (We’d be staying on the easy trails, mind you, many of them practically paved and wheelchair accessible, but this is how my brain works, people.) Driving from trailhead to trailhead and getting out of the car at each to explore makes the enormous park doable for just about anyone.
About nine miles from the visitors center, we stopped at Balanced Rock, which is exactly as the name suggests. From there, we hit up the Windows and hiked the primitive trail loop. We then drove out to the Delicate Arch viewpoint. With little kids, this is a perfect way to see the park’s biggest rock star. (I had to.)
We continued on to Sand Dune Arch, which was our favorite. Entering through the narrow nook is like slipping through a magic portal. Within a few steps, you’re inside what looks like a gigantic sandbox protected by high walls of red rock. Skinny Jeans loved playing in the sand and climbing from rock to rock. She looked longingly as the more prepared parents produced sand toys for their children, causing Peter and I to rummage through our backpacks to find anything resembling a shovel and pail. Unfortunately, Skinny Jeans was left to scoop sand with her shoe.
We ate a picnic lunch somewhere near the campground at Devil’s Garden before heading back down the road and out of the park. All the rock hopping burned almost an entire day and we were all ready for a dip in the hotel pool afterwards.
90s Rap Music Videos Lie
The town of Moab is quaint and full of folks who all look somewhat like the rocks around them: chiseled, red, and weathered. Most have spent the day (or decade) outdoors and are cooling down with tall, frosty drinks as they compare stories under umbrellas on the patios. As the sun sets, the town dims into a laid-back, slow-swaying evening; a stark contrast to the harsh heat and extreme edges of the afternoon. The thrill-seekers take a seat, maybe for the first time all day. The campers quietly wander back to their sites with bundles of firewood, bags of marshmallows, bars of chocolate. Quite honestly, it’s nothing like 2Pac and Dr. Dre made the desert look like in the “California Love" video, and I’m slightly disappointed no one is organizing a four-wheeler race across the sagebrush. But then again, it is Utah, after all.
Moab is like nothing I’ve ever seen and was an awesome adventure for my family. While I doubt we’d ever go in the dead of summer when the temperatures rise above 100, I’d go back in the spring or fall in a heartbeat. It’s good fun for everyone and just as extreme as you want it to be.
And--bonus!--no one lost an arm.
Where to Stay
Breakfast included, nice pool (although a little deep for kids under six or seven), playground. Two miles from Arches National Park.
What to Do
Arches National Park There’s a trail and rock formation for everyone. We loved the visitor center, and these easy trails: Balanced Rock, The Window Section, and Sand Dune Arch. If you go without little kids, Delicate Arch is where it’s at.
Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum: we didn't have time to do this, but if you've got a dino die-hard, you might want to check it out.
Mountain Biking: Moab Brands trails. Bar-M Loop is a mellow family ride.
Where to Eat
If I’m totally honest, I have to work pretty hard to keep up with the outdoorsy persona that comes with living in Colorado, where every single person looks like they’ve just stepped out of an REI catalog. In the winter, when the excitement over the first snow reaches a level of mania that only an underdog winning the Superbowl could match, I’m the one slow-clapping in the back and thinking about how good the hot tub will feel after the first brutal day on the mountain. In the spring, when the trails dry up and the bikes come down from the rafters and the spandex shorts are out in full force, I’m the girl on the side of the singletrack, gasping for my breath and trying not to vomit. In the summer, when the rapids roar with rafts and kayaks, I’m waving from the bank, praying I don’t get stuck in the mud. And, in the fall, when the aspens turn to a fiery yellow and make the tops of the hills look lit up like a birthday cake and the hikers marvel at the beauty around them, I’m wondering if we will ever find our way back and how hungry one has to be to eat their companion. (Don’t judge. You’ve read those lost in the woods horror stories, too.)
Here’s the thing: I try. And, mostly, I like it. But it takes a lot of work, you know? Happily enjoying the great outdoors day after day, season after season. And, every so often, I yearn for the clouds that cover the skies in the Midwest and provide permission to stay inside and do...nothing. When it’s sunny 300 days out of the year, it’s hard to binge watch Game of Thrones for a solid 24 and feel good about it.
Peter knew what he was getting into when he met me, fresh out of Chicago, clutching onto my stilettos while everyone else laced up their hiking boots. And yet, he persevered. It started out small. “Let’s take a hike!” or “It’s just like riding a bike, except if you fall, you die.” And then it grew, like the coppery beard on his face and the collection of flannel in his closet. Then, some years later, it happened. I’d married a mountain man and I was going to have to do the one thing I had fervently avoided in the decade I’d lived in Colorado.
“Let’s go to Aspen!” he said, one August afternoon. I adore Aspen. I love everything about it: the uppity shops, the beautiful mountain, the celebrity sightings.
“Sure!” I said, already planning on where we’d go for dinner.
But, just then, Peter went to the garage. He climbed a metal ladder and pulled a plastic storage bin from the top shelf. With a grunt, he lugged the box to the floor, blew the dust off the top, and peeled back the lid.
And, there it was: a tent.
It didn’t take long to realized that while I was busy deciding between staying at The Little Nell or the St. Regis, make a stop at Lululemon or Theory first, he had other accommodations in mind. By then, it was too late to argue. Skinny Jeans knew about his sneaky little plan and it would have been cruel to squash her delight. As she plowed through the garage door with a headlamp fixed to her head and a sleeping bag strapped to her back, I faced facts: I was going camping.
Ruedi Reservoir is located in the White River National Forest, about 35 miles outside of Aspen and 14 miles east of Basalt, Colorado. At 7,800 feet, the Ruedi Campground sits on the edge of the reservoir. The reservoir has about 1,000 acres of water and is popular with boaters and fishermen, which made me totally psyched since I am neither. Apparently, the reservoir was built on top of what was once the town of Ruedi where early settlers lived. I’m not sure why they flooded it or what happened to all the people and wagons, but this was enough to convince me that we’d be spending our night under the starry skies cuddling with ghosts who want their land back.
We packed the car with our paddle boards, tent, sleeping bags, pillows, and enough food to last us the week, although we were only staying one night. Dreading going to bed smelling like a campfire, I also packed a solar shower, body wash, and all the toiletries I’d normally pack for a month overseas. For tips on efficient camp packing, I am not the one to ask. I am told that our SUV should not have been bursting and that there are things one can go "without" for an overnight, but I have no interest in going without, especially when it comes to snacks or shaving my armpits or toilet paper.
When we got to Ruedi, it was late afternoon and most of the campground was full. Being a first-come/first-serve type of deal, we were lucky to find a site that offered a beautiful view of the reservoir and was conventiently located near the flush-toilets (score!). There, we set up our tent and made at least 100 trips to the car before our camp was ready.
Once we unpacked, we headed to the marina to check things out. There wasn’t really a great place to put in our paddle boards that didn’t have boats zooming past, so we decided to skip the on-res activities and make the most of our camp. I was surprised that, for a full campground, it was still relatively quiet, even in the afternoon. Back at the tent, we played cards, made a beer run to Basalt (amateurs), then started dinner on our camp stove. Hot dogs never tasted so delicious, beer went well with everything, and Skinny Jeans kicked our butts at Go Fish.
As dusk arrived and Skinny Jeans and I changed into our night time attire of fleece pants and sweatshirts, I noticed something. It had been hours since anyone had looked at a screen. We were too busy laughing at the absurdity of me camping and exploring the campgrounds and rolling around in the tent that we hadn’t even checked a phone for the time. We prepared to roast marshmallows and, for the first time in as long as I could remember, the three of us were truly present. With no emails to respond to, phone calls to answer, practices to be at, or reasons (the appointment, the meeting, work, school) to get ourselves “ready,” we could just “be.” Outside of a once a week yoga class and my failed attempts at meditating, I’m not sure I’ve ever really sat with myself, with my family, and just allowed us to just be.
And I got it. This is why people camp.
As the burnt marshmallow started to droop off the end of my stick, I quickly caught it before it fell into the ash. Skinny Jeans was licking the sticky mess from her fingertips. Peter was staring at the embers as they rose into the sky. From across the fire, he raised his koozie-wrapped can. I raised mine. Before, I would have been counting the hours until I could shower. But not anymore. While I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who poops outside on my own free will, I just might be someone who camps, even if it is only for a night.
This place fits: Families who like camping or even those who don't think they do.
Where to Stay: Ruedi Reservoir Campground
Where to Eat: At the campfire! (There's a Whole Foods in nearby Basalt where you can stock up on gourmet hotdogs and artisan buns.)
What to Do:
Get out on the reservoir: kayak, paddle board, boat.
Take a hike on one of the nearby trails. We did and, Skinny Jeans didn't even complain. Win!
Stop by historic Basalt and learn about the miners, ranchers, and railroads.
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