Category Archives: Moab

Paddling the Placid Green River in Southeast Utah

Great, leisurely paddling down Utah's Green River

Great, leisurely paddling down Utah’s Green River

The primary purpose of any road trip isn’t simply to eat. Unless, of course, it’s me. But if I’m not on an intense road-food research journey, I, too, have other priorities: hiking, backpacking, exploring new landscapes.

But canoeing? I hadn’t paddled down a river in two decades. So when a friend asked if I was interested in joining a canoe trip down the Green River, in southeast Utah, my only question was “How hard is it?”

A pretty easy float, requiring rudimentary paddling skills, was her reply. That’s all I needed to know, since I already love Utah’s desert country. Cruising down through high sandstone walls, with all the weight in a boat, rather than on my back, sounded like an ideal way to spend 10 spring days, with the added bonus of native petroglyphs and canyon hiking sidetrips along the way.

Plenty of ancient petroglyphs along the way

Plenty of ancient petroglyphs along the way

Morning hike from a backwater camp

Morning hike from a backwater camp

So how hard was it? Pretty mellow, with the bows-people doing as much gawking/picture taking as paddling. When both people were paddling, you could increase the natural current speed of about three miles per hour to five, so the miles slipped by pretty effortlessly. The only concerns were wind gusts that could potentially dump unprepared paddlers and the last wee bit where the Green joins the bigger Colorado River.

When’s the best time to go? We went in late April-early May, when the river flows are good (though not nearly as high as the June runoff peak. After that, you run into bug problems plus heat). In late spring, the river’s cold but the air temperatures are generally pleasant, though the nights at 4,000-plus feet can be cool, as can the days on the river if the wind is blowing and it’s cloudy. Did I mention the desert flowers are pretty spectacular in spring?

Blooming flowers always draw a photo crowd, sand be damned

Blooming flowers always draw a photo crowd, sand be damned

A desert miracle: the claret cup cactus in bloom

A desert miracle: the claret cup cactus in bloom

How’s the camping? Mostly lovely. There are lots of potential campsites. Just look for shady cottonwood trees, tracks up sandy banks, little backwater entrances or maybe some flat rock ledges overlooking the river. It’s first-come, first-serve, however. So an early start (when the light’s good) and an early afternoon stop are the best bet for claiming prime sites, though things get busier closer to the confluence with the Colorado as the canyon walls get higher and the hiking gets better.

Pretty luxurious backcountry camping with a table and propane stove

Pretty luxurious backcountry camping with a table and propane stove

Two things worth mentioning here. You’d best not mind getting dirty, maybe even filthy. That’s because sandstone is made of, surprise, sand, which you’ll find at nearly every campsite. It tends to cling to clothing, seats, pretty much everything it touches. If the wind kicks up, you’ll find it seeping into your tent and maybe your mouth. Tip: Take your oldest/least expensive gear, stuff you don’t mind getting beat up. I had to replace a sand-scratched pair of sunglasses after the trip. Luckily, they were old and cheap.

Hope you don't mind getting sand in everything

Hope you don’t mind getting sand in everything

Second, you may not have heard of tamarisk before dipping a paddle into the Green. But you’ll soon be intimately familiar with this invasive, thick shrub, which in typical fashion was once introduced to control bank erosion and is now being battled with beetles, with limited success. From a canoeing perspective, it means not being able to land or camp at many otherwise great spots.

A break in the tamarisk to beach our boats

A break in the tamarisk to beach our boats

What’s a good stretch of the Green River to paddle? We put in at Crystal Geyser, just south of the town of Green River. In retrospect, we might have been better served to start at Mineral Bottom (a few days paddling downstream). The best scenery and hiking are downstream of here, in Canyonlands National Park, plus it gives you more time to spend an additional day or two at places that offer good hiking or just relaxing in superb settings.

Hiking high above the Green River

Hiking high above the Green River

Can I bring all my own paddling paraphernalia? Yes, but I wouldn’t bother, especially if you have to transport your canoe/s a long distance. Just contact Tex’s Riverways in Moab. They’ll rent you canoes, life jackets, paddles, food boxes, water jugs and mandatory toilets, plus drop you off and transport you back, by jetboat up the Colorado River. It cost those of us who went this route about $350 for a 10-day trip. They run a tight ship and have lots of good advice about camping sites and where to find native rock art and hiking opportunities.

Tex's Riverways, in Moab, is a one-stop shop for everything you'll need to go down the Green River

Tex’s Riverways, in Moab, is a one-stop shop for everything you’ll need to go down the Green River

Moab Mayhem

The Jeep Festival takes over Moab, Utah in late April

The Jeep Festival takes over Moab, Utah in late April

It pays to check the local events calendar before planning a trip to Moab, in southeast Utah. We’re arriving on the Easter weekend (prior to embarking on a canoe trip down the Green River) and are thus expecting heavier traffic. But we’re not quite prepared for the monster truck rally that doubles as the week-long Jeep Safari. Culturally interesting, perhaps, but non-stop traffic and noise, especially the midnight hammering of a dented axle in the RV campground, where tenters are definitely second-class citizens.

The Easter festivities mean restaurant lineups at dinner and reinforce the merits of solo road-trip dining. With six palates to please, it takes five minutes to decide if the group wants to eat at a particular establishment, during which time three or four tables are snapped up and a 20-minute-plus wait is guaranteed. At which point, one person flees to Subway and another heads to Moab Diner for liver and onions. While a little heavy on the starches and gravy, the latter offers reasonable fare (“You can’t go wrong ordering a clubhouse or BLT,” one participant observes) and the added spectacle of efficient servers whizzing past with loaded plates decorating their arms.
Moab Diner on Urbanspoon

The staff certainly hustle at Moab Diner

The staff certainly hustle at Moab Diner

The good news is meal prices are quite reasonable for a tourist town like Moab. If this were Banff, a beer and a burger would set you back about $23. But at the packed Moab Brewery, a burger and fries cost about $8 and a house pint $4. Our preferred burgers are a few bucks more at Peace Tree Juice Cafe, but they are half-pounders from Angus beef. It’s also the only place pouring our favourite Moab Brewery beer, the Scorpion Pale Ale.
Peace Tree on Urbanspoon

A tilapia sandwich, fries and pint adds up to only $13 at the busy Moab Brewery

A tilapia sandwich, fries and pint add up to only $13 at the busy Moab Brewery

Being a minimalist road tripper, my best Moab meal is at the Quesadilla Mobilla truck, where we twice lunch on divine and inspired quesadillas in a downtown parking lot. When they’re not off climbing (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), young owners Carrie and Steven have smartly focused on doing one unique thing extremely well. And most of our crowd, other than the semi-professional eater/blogger, have trouble finishing an $8.50 regular-sized quesadilla.
Quesadilla Mobilla on Urbanspoon

Quesadilla Mobilla co-owner Carrie combines a love of rock climbing with a commitment to killer quesadillas

Quesadilla Mobilla co-owner Carrie combines a love of rock climbing with a commitment to killer quesadillas

My enchanted chicken quesadilla is a wonderful, gooey blend of house-made green chile chicken, cheese, sautéed onions and corn, roasted red peppers and refried beans

The New Mexican Identity Crisis quesadilla is a wonderful, gooey blend of house-made green chile chicken, melted cheese, sautéed artichoke hearts, spinach and black olives

Breakfasts are a tossup. For a quick, light meal, it’s hard to beat the efficiency and quality of Love Muffin Cafe, which pumps out a range of breakfast burritos and paninis (about $6) to fast-disappearing lines of customers. For $2 more, a friend loves the skinny omelette, a crepe-like delicacy containing spinach, red onion, mushrooms and feta cheese.
Love Muffin Cafe on Urbanspoon

For heartier fare, there’s nothing like a mammoth plate of huevos rancheros at Eklecticafe. It’s undoubtedly Moab’s quirkiest diner, with a massive ceramic cup out front and tables containing collections of antique jewelry under glass. There’s a lovely garden patio, but on a chilly spring morning, it’s well worth crowding into the tiny dining room and enjoying the show, including a customer breaking a bookshelf she climbs onto to inspect a piece of art for sale.
Eklecticafe on Urbanspoon

The Eklecticafe certainly combines quirky charm and big plates of breakfast

The Eklecticafe certainly combines quirky charm and big plates of breakfast

My go-to coffee shop is Moab Coffee Roasters, which pulls excellent eight-ounce Americanos and pours fine dark brews from their organic beans. My only quibble is the lone barista running the entire place the first hour of business, when people are lining up for their java jolt.

Moab Coffee Roasters does a bustling business of java in the morning and gelato in the afternoon

Moab Coffee Roasters does a bustling business of java in the morning and gelato in the afternoon

Spring Climbing Road Trip

World-class crack climbing in Indian Creek, Utah. Photo: Nancy Hansen

World-class crack climbing in Indian Creek, Utah. Photo: Nancy Hansen

For those shaking off the last vestiges of winter, it’s not too late for a spring road trip to a climbing hotspot in the U.S. southwest. Both on the long drive down and as an occasional break from campsite cooking, it’s nice to grab something to eat or drink at independent, affordable, character places that won’t look askance at your chalky trousers. Here are some great such places, especially for those heading down the I-15 to Idaho, Utah and places beyond.

En Route on the I-15

Authentic Mexican street food... in Hamer, Idaho?

Authentic Mexican street food… in Hamer, Idaho?

Nine hours into a bleary-eyed drive south, it’s time to pull off the I-15… into Hamer, Idaho? Where the population has quadrupled over the past decade to 50? Trust me, just look for a little van with an awning on the edge of town. If there’s nobody inside, just wander around back, and you’ll likely see a little old lady in a blue hairnet come hustling up the lane. She doesn’t speak much English, but a look at the short menu board tells you all you need to know: burritos, quesadillas and tortas (Mexican sandwiches), all for ridiculously cheap prices, like $5 for three fresh, loaded and spicy tacos. Whether you eat them at a picnic table or in your car, it’s as authentic as Mexican street food gets, at least in southern Idaho. (I’m not sure of the name or the hours, but it only takes a minute from the Hamer interstate exit, north of Idaho Falls, to see if it’s open).

A delicious plate of hand-made tacos for $5 in Hamer, Idaho

A delicious plate of hand-made tacos for $5 in Hamer, Idaho

If a plate of ribs or a pulled-pork sandwich is what you’re after, persevere a little further to Malad City, also in southern Idaho. At the edge of town is Spero’s House of Barbecue, a shack-size structure surrounded by picnic tables and flanked by six barbecues. When I ask what’s in them, a woman lifts two lids to reveal thick slabs of pork ribs, then walks across to show me another filled with chicken. Spero and his wife and sister slow cook the meats till they’re fall-off-the bone-tender. My pulled pork sandwich is six ounces of juicy meat topped with slaw (for less than $6), with the barbecue sauce on the side, as I like it. Just about everything is house made including the garlic bread, BBQ sauce and potato salad.

The ribs are just starting to slow cook at Spero's House of Barbecue in Malad City, Idaho

The ribs are just starting to slow cook at Spero’s House of Barbecue in Malad City, Idaho

Spero’s House of Barbecue
168 East 50 South, Malad City
Daily 10 am-8 pm

If you’re like me, you normally try to get past Salt Lake City and its hour-long gauntlet of heavy traffic as quickly as possible. But sometimes it’s worth a surprisingly quick detour, especially if you need a caffeine jolt. The second surprise is that in a state where many people don’t touch coffee, SLC has two of the most passionate “third-wave” java places you’ll find outside the wet coast. Nobrow Coffee Werks has maybe the most advanced individual-cup brewing machine on the planet, while caffe d’bolla has half a dozen glass siphons for the same purpose. They both also make excellent espresso-based drinks and are a good place to buy first-rate beans for your trip. While you’re in the downtown area, stop at Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli for terrific Italian sandwiches.

Highbrow coffee brewing setup at Nobrow Coffee Werks in Salt Lake City

Highbrow java brewing setup at Nobrow Coffee Werks in Salt Lake City

Camp Escapes

Moab

The joke is so many Canadians flee in spring to Indian Creek, and its world-class crack climbing, that it’s become a suburb of Canmore. Despite the addition of camp picnic tables and toilets, most climbers occasionally need groceries, a shower or just a break for their beat-up hands and forearms. So they head to the tourist mecca of Moab, where there’s plenty of eating choices.

I have two good climbing friends who are most articulate about a wide range of subjects. But when I ask them to rate Quesadilla Mobilla, a parked food truck specializing in, yes, quesadillas, words fail them. The best I’ve gotten so far is “That is f…ing killer, man” and “Best quesadilla I ever had”. This after two or three visits. I’d give you a lengthier description, but when I blow through Moab, QM is closed…. on a Tuesday and a Wednesday; I thought the default closing day in Utah was Sunday! Sure enough, the couple that owns it are climbers and like to sneak away when the crags are quieter mid-week. The climbing theme is evident in a vegetarian quesadilla called The Dirt Bag, though my friends like the slow-cooked beef in the Southern Belle. Despite the lack of first-hand evidence, I suggest you give them a try. It’s #!*% awesome.

The Quesadilla Mobilla (mostly stationary) food truck in Moab, Utah

The Quesadilla Mobilla (mostly stationary) food truck in Moab, Utah

Quesadilla Mobilla
83 South Main Street, Moab, Utah
Thursday, Sunday and Monday 11 am-4 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-8 pm. Tuesday and Wednesday closed

These same two friends give a bruised two-thumbs up to a new place, Twisted Sistas Cafe (11 East 100 North) especially for its roasted beet pomegranate salad.

The Love Muffin Cafe (139 North Main Street, opens daily at 7 am) gets a lot of early morning love in Moab. Get there much after eight, and a line of active folks will be stretching toward the door awaiting their organic coffee fix and breakfast items headlined by seven types of burritos. But things move quickly. Within a few minutes of ordering, I’m munching on a warm, satisfying egg and chorizo burrito, an adequate size for a relative Moab bargain of $6. If you’re looking for something more substantial in a funky setting, try Eklecticafe (352 North Main Street), featuring a huge, steaming cup in its front garden and large plates of huevos rancheros and giant cinnamon rolls.

You want funky, big breakfasts in Moab? Try Eklecticafe

You want funky, big breakfasts in Moab? Try Eklecticafe

Zion National Park, southwest Utah

After a night or two in a portaledge on one of Zion’s big sandstone walls, you’re no doubt ready to gorge.

The big walls beckon in Zion National Park in southwest Utah

The big walls beckon in Zion National Park in southwest Utah

“You will not leave Oscar’s hungry. I guarantee it,” the Zion shuttle bus driver says as she drops me off in downtown Springdale, just outside the park gates. “If you do, it means you haven’t finished.” Oscar’s Cafe is thus the perfect breakfast for big days of climbing or hiking. A couple of minutes after ordering, my huevos rancheros special arrives so hot it’s still bubbling. The house-made green chile, salsa and guacamole topping contribute to a first-class dish. Yes, it’s big enough to take five minutes of delving to get to the eggs in the middle. And if your bivy mate is hogging the space, Oscar’s has a list of half-pound garlic burgers, including The Murder Burger. As I leave, I flip over their business card: “Hungry??? Don’t Blame Oscar’s.”

"You will not go hungry" eating breakfasts like this huevos rancheros at Oscar's Cafe in Springdale, outside of Zion National Park

“You will not go hungry” eating breakfasts like this huevos rancheros at Oscar’s Cafe in Springdale, outside of Zion National Park

Oscar’s Cafe
948 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale, Utah
Daily 7 am-10 pm

City of Rocks

Thousands of rocks climbers flock to this remote southwest corner of Idaho every year to scale granite face routes that rank among the finest in the U.S. It’s not far from the camping sites here to the whistlestop community of Almo, which might be a hair bigger than Hamer.

Great granite in City of Rocks, Idaho

Great granite in City of Rocks, Idaho

Canadian friends who come to City of Rocks most years always make the pilgrimage to Outpost Steakhouse (“Where the pavement ends and the West begins”) for its superb Angus rib-eye steaks, ranging from 12 to 16 ounces. I arrive too early for that much protein so instead opt for the $12 steak sandwich—tender slices of Angus beef with melted Swiss in a hoagie bun along with steak fries. I’m still working on my side salad when the hot meal arrives. “I keep telling her (the cook) she’s too quick,” the waitress says. Nearby, there’s a great selection of beer and made-from-scratch thin-crust pizzas at Rock City Mercantile.

Great rib-eye steaks and steak sandwiches at Outpost Steakhouse in tiny Almo, Idaho

Great rib-eye steaks and steak sandwiches at Outpost Steakhouse in tiny Almo, Idaho