Utah Rocks: Journey to the Real Westworld
Westworld, due back on HBO on Sunday for its second season, features Utah’s desert scenery so prominently that it is a character unto itself. You can see these sights for yourself, and all you have to do is head to Moab. A convenient hub for trips to both Canyonlands and Arches (and other worthy jaunts nearby like Castle Valley, featured in the show), the town’s natural attractions are truly grandiose. Many movies, TV shows, and ads have been shot in or near Moab. Westworld is just the latest. John Ford discovered the area in the ‘40s, using it to mimic Texas and other western locales in movies like Stage Coach and Rio Grande. Audiences didn’t know the difference. The Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage has more on the cinematic history of the region. During your visit, you’re sure to recognize a few things you’ve seen before on the big or small screen.
For my journey, I enlisted a couple of friends to celebrate a milestone birthday with me. I’d seen photos of it, and I knew I had to see the place with my own eyes. Traveling along Scenic Byway 128 heading south on the approach to Moab, UT, the plain, empty landscape begins to change. We soon felt as though we were passing through a portal to another world. Huge, red rock cliffs begin to emerge along the road. You glimpse the mighty Colorado River, and the magic begins.
On our drive into town, we uttered the words “amazing” and “awesome” so much, we all felt they were quickly losing their meaning. But those are the appropriate descriptors. The beauty and otherworldliness is simply overwhelming at first, and in the best possible way. It stuns the brain and defies description using mere words. And we hadn’t even made it to any of the parks yet. Rocks carved by sand, wind and water into unimagined shapes and impossible formations awaited.
Nearly dazed from our initial introduction to the scenery, we found our hotel, the Gonzo Inn. I chose it for its Southwestern decor and stylings, central location, and the pool. Oh yes, it has a lovely pool. I refused to stay at a cookie cutter chain out in the rugged desert, and I made the right choice. Plus I love the Southwestern style. We had a suite, with a kitchen and living area in addition to the bedroom, and a small terrace outside.
We were also happy to find a liquor store right across the street. Knowing that Utah is a dry state, we had some concerns about what alcohol we could find, and while there are limits on what you can buy or consume, there are ways around the rules (if you’re heading out for other parts, be sure to stock up in Moab though -- we had a hard time finding even beer once out of town). After unpacking and hanging out on the terrace, we ventured out and wound up at the Moab Brewing Company for dinner. I had a cheeseburger and fries, with one of their delicious beers. I mentioned to the waiter that I love mustard. He brought me five varieties. Good food and drink, great service, and a gift shop made the Brewery a smart first stop. Make sure you get a t-shirt or other souvenir. I still wear mine many years later.
Our first task the next morning was a cruise down the Colorado on a Jet Boat Tour. The trip took us down a portion of the Colorado, south of Moab and just into Canyonlands. The rocks on one side of the river are often completely different from the other -- evidence of geologic artistry in every eyeful, including one cliff I swore looks like Simpsons characters. One favorite was Kettle Rock, so named because of a huge “handle” protruding off the rock face. We passed Thelma and Louise Point, the place they really shot the iconic end of the film.
We were allowed to get off the boat at one point and wander around. We found a few felled trees had been petrified, baked hard as stone by eons of blazing sun. One thing we noticed: no critters. We didn’t see one animal. I don’t even remember insects. It was 100+ degrees, so the desert dwellers must have been waiting for nightfall. On our way back, we saw ancient hieroglyphs painted by a native dweller long ago. We spied a rock climber scaling one of the behemoths. Not to my taste, but if that is your thing, Moab has you covered.
Back in town by early afternoon, and with temperatures around 105, we indulged at the pool. There was a trio of other travelers there, and after we got to talking, we swapped notes about our planned activities and promised we would hook up later.
With evening approaching, we were ready for our Hummer safari. This was booked by accident. I had been looking for a sunset tour of Arches (which was unnecessary it turned out, since we had a car and could do this ourselves). We went along for the safari trip anyway and didn’t realize this would be the wackiest ride of our lives. The safari is on the slick rock above town. There are no roads. There are rocks. Huge Rocks. The “trail” is aptly named Hell’s Revenge. We bumped and bolted over these huge slabs and bowls, which part of the Colorado Plateau. It was insane. I took lots of pictures. One of them is just blue sky, because that’s all I saw at one point when the Hummer lunged up a hill. It was scary at times, but our driver was in full command of his vehicle, and we were completely safe. This area is extremely popular with mountain bikers. They are more intrepid than regular humans. Don’t believe me? Watch this video.
We stopped for a breather and took in the sunset. Soon enough we were back on the trail, bouncing on the rocks and marveling at our bravery. Once we were safely back in town from our never (never) to-be-repeated adventure, we headed over to meet two of our new pool friends, Pat and Amy, at Eddie McStiff’s. The prime rib I had on my birthday eve remains the best I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s been embellished by my memory, but I still have happy thoughts when I think of it.
After dinner, my friends, old and new, returned to our hotel room, and we partied on the terrace until it was time to pack it in. Pat brought a bottle of Jack Daniels, and Amy shared her Grand Marnier with us. We had also stocked our makeshift bar with rum, vodka, mixers, and wine. Needless to say, we had a good time.
On my actual birthday, the Summer Solstice, we set out in our convertible and found Dead Horse Point State Park. If you have watched Westworld, you’ve seen it. Rising 2,000 feet above a gooseneck in the Colorado, this vista is the most incredible place I’ve ever beheld. The sheer magnitude of it all--the colors, the sharp curve of the river, and the magnificent canyons below and beyond are a sight to behold. It is named for stories about mustang roundups where the ponies not chosen supposedly leapt to their deaths, a gruesome legend about a wondrous place. Can you spot the White Horse?
After our long day exploring, we grabbed some dinner at Pasta Jay’s then sought refuge at Woody’s Tavern: where the locals hang, and the atmosphere is just like any neighborhood joint--friendly, chill and cheap.
Our last full day in town was packed with morning and afternoon adventures.
Arches National Park, so named for over 2,000 stone archways, has features like The Devil’s Garden, Windows, and Balanced Rock, one huge stone precariously resting on the edge of another (which even looking at it, you think is impossible). Delicate Arch, one of the best known of the formations, dwarfs all in its presence. That such a wonder exists is mind-boggling. That so many others are nearby even more so. We parked in the lot at the bottom of the trailhead and began our hike. It was 9 am, and already in the high 90s. The day would be a scorcher.
Carefully placed cairns guide you up the to the arch, and once you reach it, nothing but “amazing” or “awesome” comes to mind once again. It’s truly spectacular. So much bigger than you think it will be when looking at photos, all puny humans are diminished by its splendor. I’m not much of a hiker, but I am so glad I made it up there. The scene is etched in my mind forever.
The walk back was easier as it was downhill, but the temperature was rising, and we had to get to our next expedition on the river. We booked a mellow rafting experience. Our guide was a local and knew the river well. I had opted for an easy ride, not knowing how I would take to it. We hit only hit one big rapid, but I absolutely loved it. One reason to go back: more rafting, bigger rapids. I don’t know if I will ever be ready for Cataract Canyon, but I need to try at least class III or IV some day. And here I always thought those people were crazy.
We stopped for lunch and cooled off in the icy Colorado. After baking in the 110-degree sunshine, it was perfect.
All too soon the trip was over, as was our time in Moab. Our new friends invited us to join them on Lake Powell. They were renting a houseboat, and we were welcome to come. Well, that too was glorious, but that story is for another day.
Moab remains the most incredible place I have ever been, and my favorite place in the U.S. I have more places to visit, but I also need to return to Utah. I want to check out the slot canyons in Zion, see the hoodoos in Bryce, and I need more rapids and maybe some rappelling in Moab. Yes, I’m afraid of heights, but Utah has a way of challenging your assumptions about yourself. It genuinely is a place where you can discover who you really are.
Want to have your own Westworld experience? Huckleberry Travel can help get you there.