The desert is beautiful, in part, due to the harshness of the landscape. It’s a stunning, barren, wind-scoured world where life has made incredible adaptations to even exist. Vegetation is sparse. Water is scarce. Shade can be elusive. Many of the prominent features are the result of millennia of ceaseless erosion, the earth itself slowly succumbing to the besieging elements. Because of this, not in spite of it, the desert of southeast Utah offers some of the most enchanting hiking destinations in the world.
Harsh, also, is finding quality trails to enjoy with your four-legged companion. Large swaths of land are protected as national monuments, state parks and, of course, the two world-renowned gems: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Dogs simply aren’t allowed on many of the most famous trails, even on a leash. This isn’t without good reason, as it’s meant to protect wildlife, ancient historic sites and delicate rock formations. Other routes are simply inaccessible to most dogs, such as difficult slot canyons or exposed summits. Finally, there are trails so heavily frequented by mountain bikes and off-road vehicles that a poor pooch would have to spend most of his time dodging fast-moving objects.
Scattered among these, however, are a wealth of awe-inspiring hikes that are accessible, safe and exciting for you and your pup. Here are a few of my favorites from several years exploring the high desert around Moab.
If you’re attempting any of these hikes, go prepared for the severity of the desert environment. Plan your excursions in the morning or evening to avoid the afternoon heat. Better yet, visit in the mellower seasons of fall, winter or spring. Carry plenty of water for both you and your dog. Keep your companion on a leash or trained to stay near you to avoid encounters with dangerous wildlife, including rattlesnakes, and research beforehand the nearest animal hospital. Avoid canyons or other low-lying areas in storms.
Mary Jane Canyon
This is perhaps the ultimate dog-friendly trail in the Moab area because it’s lightly trafficked and follows a stream the entire way. In fact, much of the trail lies in the creek itself. Wear footwear suitable for water. If your dog loves liquid and you don’t mind jaw-dropping scenery, this hike’s for you.
The trail for Mary Jane Canyon starts in the southeast corner of the parking lot. If you drove straight in and parked without turning around, that’ll put it on the extreme left side, dropping steeply down toward the creek. Don’t take the trail starting at the obvious trailhead sign, which gains elevation up to a scenic pass. Once you’re on it, though, the trail is easy to follow. You’re basically walking beside or in Professor Creek the entire way.
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The first mile is flat and open. Castleton Tower and The Priest and Nuns rock formation will dominate your gaze. Eventually you’ll drop into a small canyon, which steadily narrows until it becomes a true slot. Be sure to explore some of the thin side canyons along the way. In some areas, the walls are more than 100 feet tall with a canyon width of only a couple feet. Your destination is approximately 4.5 miles in as the trail ends at an impassable double waterfall with a wading pool at its base. Take some time to splash around, then reverse your route back to the car.
Visit www.alltrails.com for directions and additional details on Mary Jane Canyon.
These stunning red rock formations are some of the most wondrous in the entire world. The highest, called The Titan, is said to be the largest free-standing natural pillar on Earth. The trail itself brings you up close and personal with many of the pinnacles, descending to their base and ascending to stunning viewpoints. Note how crumbly and insecure the towers appears, and marvel even more at the bravery of the rock climbers you’re likely to encounter.
The route is steep in parts, and the constant shade holds ice and mud. Some sections are mildly exposed. The full trail meanders for about 2.6 miles one-way, but many folks stop after 1.5 miles at the base of The Titan. Hike as far as your heart desires, then retrace your steps to the trailhead.
For more information about Fisher Towers, go to www.alltrails.com.
This popular and high-trafficked route was known by a less politically correct name until 2017. The trailhead sits off paved Highway 128, adjacent to the Colorado River just a few miles north of downtown Moab. Due to the crowds and the prevalence of poison ivy along the trail, a leash is recommended.
Despite the heavy use, the path criss-crosses a creek and can be difficult to follow in sections. If you lose it, just take a few steps back and resurvey your surroundings. You’ll either see the trail, or more likely, other hikers. The stream is a great water source for hot and thirsty dogs along almost the entire length.
The destination is Morning Glory Arch, the fifth-largest natural arch in the world. It’s only about 2 miles from the trailhead, bringing high value to this short outing. It’s easy to see why it’s so popular.
Additional details about Grandstaff Trail are available at www.alltrails.com.
If the Grandstaff Trail offers a grand payoff for limited effort, Corona Arch takes that concept and doubles down. It’s only about 2.5-miles roundtrip and brings visitors directly to the base of two of Moab’s most fascinating arches.
The trail is its steepest right out of the gate, climbing from the trailhead up to a scenic railroad crossing. From there, the route is marked with green paint and cairns. As you round the corner and get your first views of Bowtie Arch and Corona Arch, you’ll encounter a section that may be tricky for some dogs. The human route goes up steep slickrock with a wire handrail, followed by a wooden ladder. I’ve seen smaller dogs simply carried or handed up. In the two times we’ve been there, my Border Collie simply went around on the rock to hiker’s left of the ladder without issue.
The rest of the hike to the arch is on a wide, flat, mildly exposed ledge. You’ll find yourself first beneath Bowtie Arch, which is basically a giant hole in the canyon wall above you. The highlight of the hike, however, is Corona Arch. It’s one of the more striking visual sights in Utah. (That’s saying something.) After you get done taking a couple thousand pictures, return from whence you came.
Think of this one as a slightly more adventurous Corona Arch. Though the trailhead is only a quarter-mile from the starting point for its more famous neighbor, Jeep Arch gets a fraction of the traffic. It’s still only a short 4 miles roundtrip, with an equally satisfying payoff. Corona Arch and Jeep Arch can easily be paired together in one moderate day.
The trail begins by going through a tunnel beneath the railroad, which in itself is a fun experience. Take a left past a sign for Jeep Arch, climb up a small hill, then turn into Culvert Canyon. The route is well marked with cairns.
Eventually you’ll come to a fork. You can go either way — it’s a loop that passes through the arch. I opted to stay left, which climbs a steep section that will require some use of your hands to the base of an impressive rock tower. Follow the trail across another flat section of desert dust, and the arch will make its first appearance. It will look initially inaccessible, but the trail winds around on a ledge system and easily passes through the center. Finish the loop to return to the car.
Additional information about Jeep Arch can be found at www.alltrails.com
NOTE: The final two hikes listed below are about 90 minutes south of Moab, near the town of Blanding, Utah. This is the area known as Cedar Mesa, which contains parts of Bears Ears National Monument. Both routes in this article used to be a part of Bears Ears, but Lower Fish Canyon now falls outside the boundaries.
The biggest draw for these areas are historic Anscestral Puebloan ruins and rock art that’s more than 700 years old, preserved shockingly well thanks to the dry desert climate. Some of these sites are incredibly fragile. Please educate yourself on the proper etiquette before visiting. Leave no trace. Don’t remove anything or enter the buildings. Dogs should be secured and kept away from ruins, as shown in this video from Friends of Cedar Mesa.
Upper Fish Canyon
Upper Fish Canyon is a seldom visited hike in a seldom visited area. For those looking for a little solitude, this one’s right up your alley. The best ruins are all within the first two miles of the canyon, making for a quick and easy outing. Getting here requires going to the middle of nowhere and then driving 9 miles on a dirt road, however, so you might as well make a day of it and do the full 9-mile roundtrip.
Start on an open desert trail that eventually drops into a very wide and shallow canyon after about a mile. All of the ruins will be on hiker’s right, to the north. The first is at 1.3 miles, but the most exciting is a long structure with four windows and stunning rock art about a half-mile farther. The high bench housing of this impressive site is a scenic place for lunch. For those continuing on, the trail becomes more difficult to follow on the way to four more historic ruins. Keep your eyes peeled.
For directions and additional details, visit hikingwalking.com.
South Fork Mule Canyon
This hike is most known for a wonderful site called the House on Fire Ruin, named for how the roof of the alcove glows orange when hit with the right lighting. It’s only about 1 mile from the parking area on a good trail. Many people make that their sole destination for a brisk one-hour jaunt. While House on Fire is certainly the highlight of this hike, there are several more ruins farther down the canyon worth visiting as well as an impressive rock formation known as the Angel’s Wings.
From the small side-of-the-road parking area, drop down past a trailhead kiosk and follow the easy path to House on Fire Ruin, which sits just off the trail. Explore to your heart’s content. Once you’re ready to move on, continue hiking into the canyon and keep your eyes up and right. There are ruins roughly every half-mile or so. Some are accessible, some are not. The trail becomes increasingly difficult to follow — not many people go this far — and at one point detours around an otherwise impassable pourover.
You should find yourself in a wide wash after about 3.5 miles, with ruins high on the northern wall and a towering rock formation called Angel’s Wings. (You’ll know why when you see it.) This is my suggested turnaround point, though it is possible to continue on and even form a loop hike with Mule Canyon’s North Fork.
For more information about South Fork Mule Canyon, visit www.alltrails.com.