Canyonlands and Arches: Two visions for national parks in one town

“Let the people walk,” reads the quote on a sign at Arches National Park, taken from Ed Abbey’s classic of nature writing, “Desert Solitaire,” about his two seasons as a ranger there.

Despite Abbey’s connection to the park, the quote is an odd choice: Arches and its location of Moab, Utah, have become virtually everything “Cactus Ed” hated. The road he opposed turned Arches into an epitome of “windshield tourism,” allowing visitors to see nearly every attraction with little effort. Once-sleepy Moab became a hub for “adventure travel” where outfitters offer mountain biking, zip lining, off-road driving – just about anything, it seems, except plain old hiking.

In “Desert Solitaire,” “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and other bestselling books, Abbey showed why wilderness should not be paved, making him a favorite of desert rats and many others.

While southeastern Utah has become more developed since Abbey’s time, travelers can still find the starkly beautiful red-rock country that drove him to rapture. This corner of the state is known for its fantastic rock formations and the wide variety of ways people enjoy the landscape, be it by foot, bike, boat or car. Moab is also unique in that it has two national parks just outside its boundaries: Canyonlands National Park and Arches are on opposite sides of U.S. 191 about 10 miles apart.

Although they share a location, Canyonlands and Arches represent dramatically different visions of what a national park can be. Canyonlands is less developed than Arches, making it more work to see.

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