Driving across southern Utah, you have two main options: Race along I-70 and get somewhere else in a hurry, or slow down and search out the truly unforgettable scenery the state has to offer. One of the best places to base yourself for an exploration of the region is Moab (pop. 5,046), an old uranium mining town located 30 miles south of the freeway, surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands) and hundreds of thousands of acres of desert wilderness.

Thanks to Outside magazine and the recent mania for outdoor athleticism, Moab has experienced a massive tourist boom in the past decades—Edward Abbey, cantankerous poet of the Southwest who wrote his first book, Desert Solitaire, about a season he spent at nearby Arches National Park, would probably turn in his grave if he saw the gangs of Lycra-clad mountain bikers milling around Moab’s Main Street T-shirt stores and brewpubs. But despite the addition of fast-food franchises and hundreds of new motel rooms, Moab is still a dusty little back-of-beyond hamlet, albeit one that gives easy access to the wilds nearby.

If you’re not prepared to camp out in the backcountry (if you are, the nearby state and national parks have a full range of possibilities), Moab has the usual national motels plus local ones like the Apache Motel (166 S. 400 E., 435/259-5727 or 800/228-6882, $45 and up), where John Wayne slept while filming Rio Bravo near Moab in 1958.

For breakfast or lunch, try the excellent Jailhouse Café (101 N. Main St., 435/259-3900) or the Moab Diner (189 S. Main St., 435/259-4006), two blocks away. For a treat after a day on the trails, enjoy a gourmet dinner at the Desert Bistro (36 S. 100 W., 435/259-0756), in the heart of downtown.

For more information on visiting the Moab area, including all the surrounding parks, contact the helpful Moab Information Center (435/259-8825 or 800/635-6622, daily) at Main and Center Streets in the middle of town.

The prettiest route east from Moab, Hwy-128, winds along the broad and brown Colorado River past 25 miles of swimming, kayaking, and camping spots. Hwy-128 links up with I-70 about 23 miles west of the Colorado border at junction 212, near the former sheep-ranching center of Cisco, a ghostly old US-50 crossroads abandoned after completion of the interstate, where old gas station buildings are slowly decaying into a post-apocalyptic art installation.

Fifteen miles south of Moab along US-191, one of Utah’s oddest attractions is the Hole N’’ The Rock (435/686-2250, daily, $6), a 5,000-square-foot home carved out of a sandstone cliff over a 20-year period, beginning in the 1940s, by Albert and Gladys Christensen. Now open to tourists, the site also includes a large carving of FDR’s face.

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