Moab State of Mind

Spring means desert season.

Words and photos by James Roh

Rolling over in my sleep, I open my eyes to a desert night sky full of bright stars. I can’t remember exactly the last time I slept out in the open like this, but after months of snow, short days, and cold weather, it feels right.

In Salt Lake City the day before, I chaotically sifted through my closet, pulling out an assortment of hibernating camping, climbing, and warm-weather gear. Next to me, my snowboard leaned against the wall; my coat rack held several puffy jackets, climbing skins, and wet gloves. Judging by the contrast in gear, you’d think I was packing for a far-off destination. But no, I was headed only a few hours south.

You see, us Utahns are spoiled in the spring. About this time every year, seasons overlap, marking the beginning of what we like to call “desert season.” The high mountains are covered in a fat snowpack, while the southern part of the state boasts perfect sunny weather. What this really means is that you can ski powder one day and be mountain biking in shorts the next.

Moab, Utah

This weekend we decided to head to the fabled town of Moab. The town is surrounded by an endless landscape of sandstone cliffs, narrow canyons, winding rivers, and rolling slickrock, which means hardly anyone goes to Moab for the town itself. Aside from groceries, getting gas, or a burger after a long day in the backcountry, most visitors don’t actually plan to spend much time in town. Moab is essentially a verb, a well-understood generic term for going to play in the desert. Mountain biking, rock climbing, ATVing, backpacking, or visiting the national parks—that part is up to you.

“Moab is essentially a verb, a well-understood generic term for going to play in the desert.”

Like clockwork, the brisk desert morning steadily warms as the sun rises above us. Several cups of coffee are guzzled until someone abruptly yells, “Let’s go play!” as if any of us need convincing. In true Moab style, the group splits—one car heads to a classic mountain biking trailhead while the rest of us decide to go climb.

Moab, Utah

Potash Road meanders west out of town, paralleling the Colorado River and a long continuous wall of vertical sandstone—a crag known as Wall Street. More than 100 diverse, established routes, from crimpy sport routes to splitter trad cracks, attract climbers from around the world. Not only that, but the access is so uniquely immediate that you could belay your partner while sitting in your car.

Moab, Utah

Hours go by, and, after countless chalky hand jams, we gather around to watch Derek send Knapping With the Alien. Our arms can’t handle much more, so we decide to call it. At sunset, we find ourselves wandering a vast expanse of the world-famous slickrock—aptly named by settlers whose boots and horses’ shoes struggled to grip the sandy surface. Nowadays, the name is irrelevant, as that same grittiness provides perfect traction for rubber mountain bike tires. The once seemingly useless terrain has now become a mecca for the sport.

Moab, Utah

We pitch our tents under an old cottonwood tree just as the last light of the day gives way to darkness. Munching on tacos, we sit around a crackling juniper campfire in true Edward Abbey style, passing around a flask and excitedly chatting about our day in the desert. Above us, dull clouds roll in and out, occasionally obscuring our view of the stars.

Moab, Utah

By morning, the lingering clouds sprinkle the campsite with raindrops. The skiers among us secretly celebrate, as we know this means snow in the higher places of the state. Surely, the nearby La Sals are getting a fresh coat of paint, and—we hope—so is our beloved Wasatch.

Before heading back north, we opt for a quick hike through Fisher Towers. A blend of sandstone and stucco, these magnificent vertical pillars shoot up to 900 feet and are just one more attraction in the geological freak show that is southern Utah.

Moab, Utah

Back to the car, we catch word that the recent system has, in fact, delivered. Sure enough, awaiting us at home is a foot of fresh snow in the mountains with more on the way.

James Roh is a photojournalist based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. When not on assignment, he can be found out wandering around in the mountains sniffing out the best powder stashes, singletrack, and hiking trails in Utah.