We squeeze into the SUV to drive to Moab, the perfect base for exploring Utah’s national parks.
Onboard is Baby, who recently took his first steps. He delights in his newfound skill and protests when imprisoned in the baby capsule (also known as the car seat). Across from him is his four-year-old brother Arthur who is obsessed with dinosaurs. Wedged between them is poor Nan (that’s me!). While I sometimes snare the front seat, I’m mostly jammed between the siblings and their spilling crayons, toppling dinosaur books, and the snacks I can’t quite reach.
My daughter and her husband are in the front pretending they are young marrieds again on a three-day jaunt. They can forget the ticking time bombs in the back because Nan is there. They are recovering from the morning horrors of packing diapers, bibs, baby bottles, baby monitors, strollers, and the other baggage that accompanies parenthood.
My solution to the chaos was to plonk in an armchair, jostle the baby on my knee, and yell instructions like “Don’t forget Baby. He’s not on your list!” Possibly the reason they banished me to the back seat.
1. The Scenery From Salt Lake City To Moab
Salt Lake City (SLC) to Moab takes four hours. We take seven hours with stops so the children aren’t constrained for long. Locals argue that Utah has better scenery, but I’m captivated by the snow-capped mountains ringing SLC. Route 6 takes in Price Canyon with its sheer mountains, ridges, spires, and buttes. To my surprise, the four-year-old doesn’t request his tablet. The landscape keeps him amused as do the trucks and long freight trains.
2. Eastern Prehistoric Museum, Price
My daughter lives in SLC, so the tips I pass on come from mothers in her circle. One suggestion was to break the trip halfway at the Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price. The kids beeline for the indoor sandpit and use brushes to unearth dinosaur fossils — the four-year-old pretending to be a paleontologist. The university-run museum has skeletons of local discoveries including an Allosaurus and a Utahraptor, a dedicated children’s area with dinosaur-related puzzles, activity sheets, and a moderately priced gift shop.
Pro Tips: Many tourists fly to SLC and rent a car to drive to Moab. If you do this, it is worth visiting SLC’s Museum of Ancient Life, which has a mock stream running through a canyon where kids can excavate dinosaurs. Another gem is the Natural History Museum of Utah, but make sure to prebook.
Timing Is Everything: Moab is home to some of the most stunning red rock landscapes on Earth. More than 1.5 million people visit Arches National Park each year. While chatting with a park ranger, she said that visiting in late fall or early December as we were doing was perfect timing. “In summer,” she said, “visitors can wait for an hour just to park the car!”
The days are sunny, with a blue sky setting off the landscape of ochre rocks. When we lunch at a picnic shelter with a view of Balanced Rock, we have the icon to ourselves.
Pro Tip: The National Park Service is piloting a timed entry reservation system in 2022. For example, May reservations open on February 1.
3. Pick Up A Junior Ranger Guide
Arches National Park is five miles north of Moab. Grab a free Junior Ranger Guide from the visitor center just inside the park. There are lots of kid-friendly activities with simple explanations. A butte is a flat-topped hill, I learned, a fin a skinny wall of rock. The booklet suggests activities that invite children to use their five senses to experience the park. Based on our experience, parents of young children might present these activities orally and hand the booklet to the children when they leave the park. I noticed Arthur became so obsessed with the map he stopped taking in the scenery!
4. Driving In Arches National Park
The road corkscrews up the hill, with increasingly spectacular views. Nature’s striking outdoor gallery features sandstone arches (there are 2,000 in the park), soaring pinnacles, and spires.
The 36-mile round trip takes half a day, including photo stops. Even if you can’t wander far because of the kids, most landmarks are visible from the car (except for the famous Delicate Arch, an incredible 46 feet high and 32 feet wide and so renowned, it graces Utah’s license plates).
While my daughter and son-in-law walk the 100 yards hand-in-hand for a view of Delicate Arch, I remain trapped between two sleeping children.
5. Hiking With Small Children
Hiking in Arches National Park with small children is possible. There are several short hikes: Landscape Arch (1.6 miles), Broken Arch (2 miles), Windows Primitive Loop (1 mile), and Park Avenue (2 miles).
My daughter strapped Baby on her back to hike to Double Arch (0.8 mile). Using a stroller for the first paved section would be possible, but the last portion involves steps and some climbing. I was walking with Arthur, and he had no problems. Little did he realize that my holding his hand kept me stable! The walk is classed as easy, but nothing is easy with a baby on your back. Looking at my daughter slugging up the hill brought back memories of carrying her on our first tourist outing when she was a baby. The guide told me she was the youngest participant to venture on a historic walk — how history repeats itself!
6. Canyonlands National Park
Sadly we didn’t visit Canyonlands National Park. One of the consequences of multi-generational travel is that children’s needs are paramount because if the kids are happy, everybody’s happy. Ours was a dinosaur-centric trip to meet the interests of the four-year-old. If your focus is national parks, Canyonlands has several kid-friendly trails at Island in the Sky and the Needles. The remarkable Dead Horse Point State Park is also close to Moab.
7. Potash Road
Potash Road is a 17-mile scenic drive with unforgettable views of the Colorado River on one side and towering walls of red rock on the other. At the section nicknamed Wall Street, kids can watch rock climbers and view ancient petroglyphs from the road. We wanted to locate dinosaur footprints on the Poison Spider Dinosaur Track. This involved a hike that my daughter did with Arthur. With a weak knee, it was too steep for me. She found the walk unsettling because of the drop on one side. Later I learned you can see the footprints embedded in the rock from your car if you bring binoculars!
Pro Tip: The Potash Road Byway is 4.1 miles north of Moab off Highway 191. Drive in the late afternoon when sunset magnifies the intense colors of the sandstone cliffs.
8. Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail
When I told the ranger how inaccessible the Potash Road dinosaur footprints had been for little kids, she suggested visiting Mill Canyon. “You can easily see 200 footprints there,” she said.
The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite is 15 miles north of Moab on Highway 191. There’s no entry fee.
Families can wander a quarter-mile board loop over the dinosaur tracks. Information panels feature realistic artwork depicting the dinosaurs in their former marshland home teeming with crocodiles.
Nearby Mill Canyon Dinosaur Bone Trail is accessible by 4WD. We have an SUV. My daughter and Arthur venture forth like intrepid dinosaur explorers, fording a stream — one step for my daughter but for Arthur, it meant stepping stones. They climb a narrow ridge to explore the trail of real dinosaur fossils embedded in the hillside. Both agree this was a thrilling adventure.
Pro Tip: Moab Giants is the other significant attraction for junior paleontologists. It includes a half-mile trail with 100 full-size replicas of local dinosaurs and a 5D underwater theater showing prehistoric deep-sea creatures.
9. Lions Park
Lions Park and Bike Path Trailhead is between Moab and Arches National Park. The Boulder Park playground allows kids to rock climb safely. Even Baby loved it as he could totter and fall with impunity on the five-inch-thick padded surface.
There is a 2.5-mile paved walk along the banks of the Colorado River. The bridge is part of a network of bike trails leading to the national parks. Rent bike trailers for babies or trail-a-bikes for toddlers in Moab.
Pro Tip: Discover Moab provides a good resource for family activities.
10. Downtown Moab
Moab’s long main street is flanked by motels, tourism operators, and souvenir shops. The goods become sameish with endless racks of t-shirts and stickers. A local artisan gift shop, Moab Made, breaks this mold. I buy a painting of Double Arch for my family in memory of our hike and a calendar for Arthur of Lego figures photographed against the Moab desert.
Moab Rock Shop is on the outskirts of town. Owner Lin Ottinger discovered four species of dinosaurs, including his namesake Iguanodon Ottinger. His store overflows with rocks, minerals, fossils, and vintage vehicles. Kids can rummage for inexpensive treasures.
11. Family-Friendly Accommodations
We stay at a self-contained building within Bowen Motel with three bedrooms with queen-sized beds and TVs. The family bedroom has two additional beds. We appreciated the family-sized kitchen, dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer. Every morning, the first person up goes next door to Love Muffin Cafe to buy takeaway coffee and sensational muffins.
We loved staying in town and walking everywhere. I didn’t find the main street noisy, but light sleepers should book accommodation one block back or outside of town. TripAdvisor has a good list of recommendations.
12. The Half-Way Stop
Heading home, we stop at Helper, named for the “helper engines” that assisted steam engines as they climbed the steep grades of Price Canyon. The Mining & Railroad Museum is stuffed with local history. Kids love the model railway and the real caboose. Helper has an Art Deco streetscape and funky cafes. Happiness Within offers great coffee, couches, and specialty drinks that kids love. Or spill as in Arthur’s case. But them’s the breaks when traveling with grandchildren!
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