- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

MOAB, Utah — By the time we got to Moab, we had the national park equivalent of museum eyes. You know that feeling you get when you’ve seen too many paintings, and they all begin to look alike? After a couple of weeks on a road trip out West, that’s how our family felt.

The tallest trees, the top scenic drives, the most breathtaking trails — too many superlatives had taken their toll. We couldn’t tell where the Painted Desert ended or began, and the youngsters refused to view the Grand Canyon from yet another scenic overlook.

Then we arrived in Moab.

Suddenly, our vacation doldrums evaporated. So many adventures are offered from this small desert town that you could try something new every day for a week. Mountain biking, white water, Jeeps, ATVs and horseback rides — every storefront promises a unique thrill.

We chose a white-water trip on the Colorado River for the following day, booked through Adrift Adventures, a local outfitter.

At Arches National Park, five miles from Moab’s Main Street, we couldn’t wait to get out of the car to explore. Red rocks in awesome and whimsical formations — arcs, cliffs, geometric shapes — framed the azure sky in every direction.

Elsewhere in the Southwest, we had seen the red sandstone that dominates Arches’ landscape, but the scenery at Arches was simply stunning. It looked like a playground designed by a giant with the heart of a 4-year-old and the agility of a mountain goat.

Actually, the formations are easily explained by geology. Eons ago, an underground salt bed shifted, thrusting the rock layers upward. Over millions of years, water, ice, heat and wind eroded and sculpted the soft rocks into interesting and appealing shapes.

There are imposing towers, such as the tall, sheer, nearly one-dimensional canyons known as Park Avenue, which resemble a city skyline. Some formations seem to defy gravity, such as Balanced Rock, a big chunk that appears to teeter improbably atop a conical mass.

Other formations invite Rorschach-style guessing games, like playing “What does that cloud remind you of?” but with stones. One outcropping called Nefertiti, for example, resembles a regal figure in a headdress.

Throughout the park, you’ll also find the arches for which it is named, some 2,000 of them. Their rainbow-shaped half-circles are an amateur photographer’s dream, creating natural frames for viewing the sunset or the snowcapped La Sal Mountains in the distance. The largest stone arc is Landscape Arch, about 300 feet wide at the base and 77 feet tall. Others worth seeing include the Delicate Arch, Double Arch, the Double O Arch, the Skyline Arch and the North and South Windows.

Arches is a relatively small national park, and you can see most of the noteworthy formations in a half day of driving. Easy hikes lead from parking areas to the rocks. A closer look at the arches provides a fun lesson in perspective; it’s hard to estimate their height from a distance, and up close they seem taller than you expected.

Any visit to Arches must be topped off with an excursion from Moab. Our half-day white-water trip was a perfect introduction to the sport. Adrift Adventures takes children as young as 5, which not all white-water tours will do.

We were issued life jackets and boarded a bus for a 20-minute drive to a launch site on the river. The guide in our inflatable boat provided an entertaining travelogue as we floated past more red-rock scenery, the luxury Sorrel River Ranch Resort, and sites used for filming Hollywood movies, from old Westerns to recent comedies such as “City Slickers II.”

The rapids are wildest in May and June, but we visited in late summer, when the water is lower and tamer. No one was flipped into the water on our trip, but no one stayed dry, either. We were splashed, swirled and bumped by the rapids, and the guide encouraged passengers to jump in for a dip if they wanted. We also had a friendly water fight with other boats in our group.

We left Moab energized about the rest of our trip, and we vowed to come back for more adventures soon.

• • •

Moab, Utah: Visit www.discovermoab.com or call 800/635-6622. The Web site lists information about nearby attractions and activities, including Arches and other parks, mountain biking, ATVs, Jeeping and white-water outfitters.

Arches National Park: www.nps.gov/arch or 435/719-2299. The park entrance is five miles north of Moab along Highway 191. Fee: $10 per car for a seven-day pass. Bring water, sunscreen, sturdy footwear and a camera.

Adrift Adventures: 378 N. Main St., Moab; www.adrift.net or 800/874-4483. Whitewater half-day trips: adults, $36; children 5 to 17, $29. Full-day trips: adults, $49; children, $36. Adrift also offers combination horseback-raft trips, jet-boat trips, Jeep trips and sightseeing tours.

Lodging ranges from campgrounds, B&Bs; and chain hotels to the Sorrel River Ranch, www.sorrelriver.com or 435/259-4642, a top-rated luxury resort on the Colorado River; nightly rates are $209 to $459. We had a pleasant stay at Moab’s Holiday Inn Express, 1515 Highway 191 North, www.ichotelsgroup.com (search for Moab) or 888/465-4329; nightly rates $97 to $139.

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