Feel the Rhythm of Moab

Mindy Sink

People come to Moab, Utah, to enjoy the outdoors, so it makes sense that its annual music festival is designed to make the most of the natural surroundings.

The annual Moab Music Festival was created by two New York musicians who were so captivated by Moab’s magical landscape that it inspired them to combine it with the sounds of music. Held over a two-week period from late-August to mid-September (Aug. 30–Sept. 16, 2021), the festival features chamber music, jazz, Latin sounds, and more. There’s everything from high-priced multi-day raft trips to a free concert in the town park. In between these experiences (and price points) are concert hikes, riverside concerts at a local ranch, and a boat ride to a natural grotto for a concert just outside of Moab, making for sublime listening moments surrounded by soaring red rocks and wide blue skies.

I found what makes some of these concerts even more fun is the locations are kept secret. Guests are taken in groups by small buses to a trailhead for a short hike into the performance space in the early morning, then are bussed back out afterward. This keeps the lands pristine, and probably keeps away anyone who wants to attend the concert without a ticket (though the occasional startled hiker does wander by).

There’s something exotic about getting on a bus with strangers in the early morning desert light when it’s still cool outside, no one aware of where the exact destination is, and then gathering for a hike into the red sandstone toward a bit of mystery. The hikes are not strenuous, and some people carry along a cushion or light portable chair to sit on, rather than scramble up on the rocks to take in the concert. In the hush of anticipation, the first chords of music bounce off the rocks and everyone in attendance sits enthralled with this one-of-a-kind concert.

Hit the Trails

Early morning hikers head to a concert at an undisclosed location in the red rock country of Moab. © Mindy Sink

There is no shortage of jaw-dropping scenery on hikes in southern Utah. Here are a few of my favorite memorable day hikes around Moab that can be added to a day of listening to music at the festival.

My personal favorite is Grandstaff Trail, just off Scenic Byway 128 north of Moab. The five-mile roundtrip hike takes you to Morning Glory Natural Bridge, where you can learn about the differences between rock arches and bridges. Depending on when you do the hike, there could be full sun exposure, so be sure to bring water and a hat. At times, we found the trail and the stream had merged into one, which made for a unique—and naturally cooling—hike.

Another of my favorites is Mill Creek Trail. Just under two miles, this spectacular hike packs in several little waterfalls along the canyon. If you’re here during the festival in late summer, the water shouldn’t be too high for crossing, but always use caution when hiking through water and on slippery rocks.

The iconic Delicate Arch at sunset in Arches National Park. © Mindy Sink

Here’s my little secret to avoid the crowds at Arches National Park: Go early in the morning, when the stars are still out, to watch the sun come up. You might need a headlamp to see your way carefully. But then watch as the light hits that golden sandstone at The Windows or the iconic Delicate Arch. I’ve hiked to Delicate Arch at both sunrise and sunset, about a three-mile hike, and it’s very busy at the end of the day. For a more adventurous hike, and if you have more time, the 7.8-mile Devils Garden Loop Trail shows off seven arches. Be careful, though, as this trail has steep drop-offs.

Hang Out & Eat

Red Cliff Lodge is one of the venues for the Moab Music Festival and has appeared in numerous films and commercials. A free museum honoring the area’s cowboy and film heritage is located on site. Courtesy of the Red Cliff Lodge

For me, my lodging needs to have a sense of place almost as much as the trail does. I love staying at the AAA Three Diamond-designated Red Cliffs Lodge. Whether I’m just looking out the window of my room or sitting on the lawn for a concert, I cannot get enough of the Colorado River snaking below the namesake cliffs above. You can dine here at the Red Cliffs Lodge Cowboy Grill, even on a patio overlooking the river, which is handy since it’s 14 miles into town.

Another three miles down the road is the AAA Three Diamond-designated Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa. It offers wonderful little cabins, plus horseback rides, off-roading, and a luxury spa to help your body say yes to more adventures the next day. The on-site Sorrel River Grill, a AAA Three Diamond-designated restaurant, is known for multi-course farm-to-table menus, and if you’re staying in town, might just be worth the drive for a special meal.

When I stay in Moab proper, I always aim for the AAA Three Diamond-designated Sunflower Hill Luxury Inn. There’s a lot packed into this place, with an outdoor pool, hot tub, a hearty breakfast (some ingredients are grown on-property), historic buildings, and it’s all walking distance from the shops and restaurants on Moab’s Main Street.

One place that’s worth a stroll to is Doughbird, with its own spin on the old chicken and waffles combo—chicken and doughnuts. In this case, they’re not combined, so it’s more like dessert after lunch or picking up your lunch with your breakfast.

If you’re looking for a great breakfast, The Jailhouse Café, a AAA-approved restaurant, will get you set up with all the carbs you need for that big hike. Was it a jail? Sort of. It’s been a private residence and a county courthouse where prisoners were briefly held before court appearances. It’s cute, tasty, the people are friendly, and the location puts you in the heart of Moab.

For a casual dinner in Moab, the AAA-approved Zax Restaurant on Main Street will hit the spot, with pizza, burgers, or pasta to refuel you after a day of exploring on the trails.

A fun local mainstay over on Mill Street is Milt’s Stop & Eat, with not only burgers, but buffalo burgers, too, and Anasazi bean & beef chili—with a milkshake, of course.

If you go

As you make your plans, note that some events with the Moab Music Festival have age limits, such as no children under the age of 12. The 2021 calendar has four “music hikes” to choose from, along with three grotto concerts that involve taking a jet boat down the Colorado River to a naturally acoustic space. These concerts aren’t about dressing up, so choose comfortable shoes and bring a hat!

AAA Connection

Starting August 2021, Rocky Mountaineer’s newest route, “Rockies to the Red Rocks,” will travel between Denver and Moab—the gateway to the treasured “Mighty 5” national parks. This area of the U.S. is rich in natural history, with the mighty Colorado River, vast canyons, and mesmerizing red sandstone landscapes—all sculpted by nature millions of years ago. The newest rail journey will put you in the heart of the stunning scenery of the American Southwest and is filled with highlights best seen from the comfort of our expansive glass-dome trains. Contact your local AAA Travel Advisor at 866-235-7070 or AAA.com/Travel to book this brand new adventure in your backyard!

Mindy Sink is a Denver-based freelance journalist and guidebook author. She is the author of Walking Denver, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Denver and Boulder, and Moon Handbooks Guide to Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post, and many other publications. Read about her latest adventures at mindysink.com.