Moab, Utah: A Trail Runner’s Paradise

Running beneath the sandstone towers of Castle Valley. Photo: PatitucciPhoto

With hundreds of miles of trails, this outpost is a trail runner’s dream world.

The first several times I visited Moab, Utah, I was overwhelmed — like everyone else who happens upon this coveted desert hamlet for the first time — by the stunning red rock beauty and serene desert ambiance. But what struck me after being there for three days was the relatively few number of runners out on the amazing backcountry trails and desolate dirt roads.

This was the late 1990s, and back then, almost everyone was there to ride on wheels — either mountain bikes, Jeeps or motocross bikes. But as trail running has grown in popularity, so, too, has Moab’s allure as a refuge for logging long miles on technical routes on foot.

Throw in several relatively new (but very good) trail races that have popped up in recent years, and Moab has become the consummate escape for trail runners, both for quick weekend jaunts or extended training retreats.

“There’s no place like it the U.S., maybe the world,” says Meghan Hicks, an ultrarunner who spent most of February and March there in preparation for this month’s Marathon des Sables in Morocco. “It’s easy to lose yourself there and just focus on running because you can plan a new running adventure every single day.”

Although Moab is, by some standards, a bit commercialized, it’s considerably less developed than similarly trendy Western outposts of Santa Fe, N.M., or Sedona, Ariz. The local population hovers around 5,000, but it’s actually smaller now than the heyday as a uranium mining center in the 1970s.

And even thought it’s not uncommon for 10,000 people to visit Moab on a normal weekend in the spring or fall, it still gives off a small-town vibe — especially during the week when weekend warriors from Denver and Salt Lake City have dispersed. The reality is, with several hundred miles of trails available within a 15-minute drive, most routes are sparsely populated during peak months.

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Running in the desert has a way of taxing your lungs and legs, but calming your mind, soothing your soul and rejuvenating your spirit. It’s with that charm that Moab draws you in and compels you to run long or, at the very least, run twice a day on routes you might never consider running back home, says Chris Martinez, an accomplished ultrarunner who puts on several races and organizes commercial running tours through 360˚ Moab Adventures.

“The desert makes you feel alive,” says Martinez, who has been running and guiding on Moab’s trails for more than 15 years. “Once you’re out there, it gets in your blood and becomes a part of you.”

Moab is known for numerous named mountain bike trails that, not surprisingly, also make great running trails. (And there are plenty of detailed maps available.) The 9.5-mile Hurrah Pass loop off Kane Creek Road gives a little taste of everything Moab’s backcountry has to offer: steep climbs and descents, technical terrain, tight switchbacks and great views of the surrounding red rock buttes. Other great runs can found on the Gemini Bridges Trail (up to 16 miles as an out-and-back-route), Porcupine Rim (16 miles) and the gnarly Poison Spider Mesa (up to 13 miles) that hangs high over the Colorado River valley. For the ultimate trail workout, try running the entire loop of the famous Slickrock Trail. The 13-mile circuit rolls up and down over a landscape of petrified sand dunes (a.k.a. sandstone).

Where To Race

Moab has great spring and fall road half-marathons, including The Other Half (Oct. 20; www.moabhalfmarathon.com), but it’s the trail races that are really special. The Amasa trail runs (April 13; www.grassrootsevents.net) have courses of 6.5, 9.5 and 14.5 miles. The Moab Trail Marathon (Nov. 2, www.moabtrailmarathon.com) also includes an adventure 5K and the U.S. trail half-marathon championship this fall. If you’re looking for an ultra, there are several good options: the Desert R.A.T.S. (stands for Race Across the Sand), a 148-mile six-day race that begins in Grand Junction, Colo., and the M.A.S. 50 (Sept. 13, www.grassrootsevents.net). If you visit late next fall or winter, consider the Winter Sun 10K road race (Nov. 30; www.moabhalfmarathon.com) and the Moab Red Hot 55K and 33K trail races (Feb. 15; www.grassrootsevents.net).

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Where To Shop

There isn’t a running specialty shop in Moab, but Poison Spider Bicycles (497 Main St., www.poisonspiderbicycles.com), Rim Cyclery (94 West 100 North; www.rimcyclery.com) and Gearheads (471 S. Main St.; www.moabgear.com) all have sports nutrition, hydration products, lightweight jackets and trail maps. WabiSabi Thriftique (411 Locust Lane; www.wabisabimoab.org) is a unique second-hand store that caters to outdoor adventure enthusiasts, making the claim that “it has what you forgot to pack.” Moab is also known for galleries and Tom Till Gallery (61 N. Main St.; www.tomtillphotography.com) is renown for its Moab photography, while Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery (70 N. Main St.; www.kokopellioutlet.com) has a wide variety of Southwest art, jewelry and pottery. Moonflower Market (39 E. 100 North) is a popular natural foods store that offers healthy trail snacks and more.

Where To Eat And Drink

If you’re in need of a quick, decadent fill-up after a run, visit Milt’s Stop & Eat (356 Millcreek Drive; www.miltsstopandeat.com) for the best burgers, fries and shakes in town. (It’s owned by renowned adventure athlete Danelle Ballengee.) The beer cheese soup and jalapeno cornbread at Moab Brewery (686 S. Main St.; www.www.themoabbrewery.com) and the carnitas tacos at Eddie McStiff’s (57 N. Main St., www.eddiemcstiffs.com) help trail-weary patrons replace lost calories, while the tasty locally brewed beers help with rehydration. The Desert Bistro (36 S. 100 West; www.desertbistro.com) is a bit pricier, but, if you’re a carnivore, the bacon-wrapped elk tenderloin and quail quesadillas are out of this world. Buck’s Grillhouse (1393 N. Highway 191; www.bucksgrillhouse.com) is a classic American steakhouse with loads of Southwest flavor—the “cowboy-style” double-cut pork chop comes rubbed with spices and is slathered in BBQ sauce. For a pre-run breakfast and coffee or post-run brunch or lunch, consider the one of these: Love Muffin Café (139 N. Main St.), Sweet Cravings Bakery + Bistro (550 N. Main St.), Eklecticafé (352 N. Main St.), Jailhouse Café (101 N. Main St.) or the Moab Diner (189 S. Main St.).

Weather

The best times to visit Moab are March through May and again from September to November, when afternoon high temperatures are more moderate (low 60s to mid-80s) than the summer months (regularly in the upper 90s). It doesn’t rain much in Moab (April and October are the rainiest months), but the cool to cold morning air is more of a variable if you’re planning early morning runs. No matter when you visit, plan on dressing in layers.

Other Details

If you’re not sure about going out on technical backcountry trails alone, consider booking a trail running trip with 360˚ Moab Adventures (www.360moabadventures.com), which offers a variety of guided tours ranging from half-day to three-day trips (plus an option that includes stand up paddling).

This piece first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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