Off the Beaten Path

March 14, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Moab, Utah is a small town that does the outdoors in a big, big way. It's surrounded in all directions by an abundance of natural beauty: an embarrassment of riches.

The fact that not one, but two spectacular national parks are situated nearby should be enough to impress even the most jaded visitor - but that's only the beginning. 

Outside of the parks you'll also find beautiful Dead Horse Point State Park; the stunning La Sal Mountains which dominate the skyline; the Manti-La Sal National Forest; the Colorado River; the Green River; and no shortage of amazing, jaw-dropping desert ecosystem scenery.

While you can access a great deal of the picturesque landscape conventionally, it really does help to have a vehicle capable of handling off-road, rough conditions. For each of my last two visits to Moab, I've been fortunate to have traveled with a friend who not only owns a Jeep but knows how to navigate tricky terrain with it. 

I have zero experience with things like cadence braking, the crawl ratio, the breakover angle, or flexing. I leave that to him!

Having spent more and more time in the Moab backcountry, especially in and around Canyonlands National Park, I've become enamored with it. 

If you've never visited, Canyonlands boasts hundreds of miles of unpaved, high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive roads which provide access to trailheads, campsites and knock-your-socks-off, expansive scenery. They range in difficulty from intermediate to highly technical.

White Rim Road, on which we've spent a fair amount of time, is a 100-mile loop which takes anywhere from two to three days to traverse if you wish to complete the entire thing. However, you can also access the road from a few different places so it's possible to explore various areas via day trips if you don't want to do it all at once.

If you're looking for subject matter that isn't over-photographed, you can easily find it in the backcountry.

Another thing that draws me off the beaten path in Moab are the trees. While the climate is arid high-desert, because two major rivers flow through the area, there is an abundance of vegetation nearby. Fremont cottonwoods are plentiful, not inside Arches or near paved roads in Canyonlands, but follow the water and they're everywhere. These trees are beautiful: in my opinion, so much nicer than the black cottonwoods which predominate along the Snake River here in the Tetons.

Especially during the winter months when they're without leaves, the graceful lines of the Fremonts are accentuated as is the color of their limbs. When backlit they look as if they're bejeweled: their nearly-white branches appear to sparkle. 

Last week I was once again working in Moab, and though we started each morning inside Arches, the explorations then went in other directions.

There were thousands of cottonwoods, but nothing that spoke to me until I saw the ones pictured here, set off by themselves.

PARTNERSSIDE BY SIDEGraceful cottonwoods nestled among dense low vegetation near the Green River

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The ground was thick with low vegetation since the Green River was very near. Because these cottonwoods were sidelit they didn't sparkle, but still they popped thanks to the contrast between their lovely white limbs and the darker underbrush. 

As I got closer to those two, I noticed this tree over my shoulder, which I liked just as much:

STATUESQUESTATUESQUEThe lovely lines of a Fremont cottonwood pop against the darker underbrush in the backcountry near the Green River

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Originally I envisioned these as black and whites but the subtle brown/orange splotches of color in the underbrush added something so I stayed with color.

I was thrilled to have found them. At least one of these images will have a home in a little folio I'm producing.  

If you're not a fan of dormant trees you're probably rolling your eyes by now thinking I've oversold the backcountry. Believe me, there's no shortage of spectacular red rock. It's wide open country but filled with all sorts of interesting smaller scenes, too.


Near Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Near Moab, Utah


Near Moab, Utah

You don't need to be in Moab with a Jeep to get off the beaten path. It can just as easily be a trail you've never hiked. Sometimes exploring the road less traveled is simply a matter of changing your mindset and finding a new way of looking at something you've seen dozens of times.

There's always something new to photograph, even in an iconic location, and even in a place at which you've worked often. Keep an open mind; there's no telling what might catch your eye on any given outing. 

Enjoy the exploration!


In Local News

Winter has made itself known - with gusto - since the first of the month. Grand Targhee had to close on March 2nd because there was so much snow in such a short amount of time they couldn't get Ski Hill Road open. Since I've lived here I don't remember hearing about either of the big resorts having to shut down operations for any reason, let alone too much snow too quickly.

At any rate, Jackson Hole is currently reporting 402 inches season-to-date at the summit with 107 inches depth, while Grand Targhee has had 374 inches total with 126 inches depth.

Meanwhile, Old Man Winter may be making hay but the calendar says it's time for Yellowstone National Park to call a wrap on the winter season. Tomorrow the West, South and East entrances will all close to oversnow travel (the other entrances have already closed) so the park service can begin clearing the roads in preparation for re-opening.  


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