Thursday, May 11, 2017

Xtreme 4x4 Tours (or: A Moab Thrill Ride)

Let's say you're an adventurous outdoors type, and you want to start a business. You also happen to know a thing or two about cars. What do you do?

You build your own vehicle—complete with roll cage and 5-point harnesses—custom-designed for traveling over Moab's steep and rocky terrain, and then you start driving tourists around Moab's plentiful trails.

I've been to Moab a few times, but this time I decided to do something I'd never done—take a 4x4 tour.

So after a quick safety tutorial in the parking lot of the Moab City Market, we got strapped into our seats and headed off to our first destination—a scenic overlook on a cliff to the southeast of town.

But first... We take a quick detour to some more petroglyphs. There are a lot of these scattered throughout the region—this one is easily accessible from the roadside.

After viewing the petroglyphs, we leave the paved road and start traveling straight up the mountain on what looks like a trail designed for hiking, not driving. At times we seem to have arrived at a dead end as we face a three foot rock ledge—but then, somehow, the “car” manages to climb over the wall.

Unfortunately, it was hard to capture the steepness of these barriers and the sometimes crazy angles we were sometimes driving at.

That's the path we're driving up
Driving uncomfortably close to the edge

Notice how I'm quite a bit higher up than the driver...

We keep going up and up, and... it’s actually quite exhilarating. Soon we’re a few thousand feet above the Colorado River and the canyon road where we started.

After about twenty minutes or so of driving, we reach our destination—a scenic overlook of Moab and the surrounding countryside (with the lovely La Sal Mountains still snow-capped in the distance.)

But this isn't the end point of our journey.

Once we’ve had a few minutes to stretch our legs, admire the view, and hear a little about the history of the area, we head back down the way we came—and then across Moab once more to the attractively named Hell’s Revenge trail.

Notice the art on the rear rock

Hell's Revenge

This is where it gets fun. Hell’s Revenge is essentially a giant rock playground for ATVers. There are all sorts of different paths you can take through this slickrock maze—ranging from the gentle and easy to tough technical slopes and “potholes.” There are a number of deceptively dangerous spots, and people do occasionally die from rollovers (or, in a sad case just a few weeks before we arrived, from a rollover followed by spontaneous combustion of the 4-wheeler the passengers were pinned under.)

Our driver, wanting to show off his vehicle and his driving skills—and give us a few thrills in the process—takes us along the most treacherous route.

And it’s incredibly fun.

At times, as we travel down what seems to be a 70-degree slope into a hole, I’m freaked out—and grinning from ear to ear. We do make a few stops—for pictures in a spot that overlooks the river and Arches, or for lunch in a hidden grotto.

The shady grotto where we ate lunch

But mostly it’s just a nonstop ride along the trails, into and out of potholes, and up and down the steepest slopes you wouldn’t expect to be able to manage in any sort of vehicle.

See the people at the top? We're driving straight toward them

Of course we're gonna drive into that hole

Yep, we drove down that too.

When I'm not holding my breath wondering if we'll make it up a slope, I admire the distinctive Moab scenery.

A cyclist takes a break on the trail

The other ATVs seem so wimpy in comparison...

It’s thrilling, and I don’t want it to end. After a while, I start to feel something approaching euphoria. It’s the most enjoyable experience I’ve had in a long time, and the most enjoyable part of my trip.

But, like all good things, it does eventually come to an end.


Before heading back into town, we make one last stop to admire some dinosaur tracks that are preserved in the open air on the top of the cliff. They aren’t the only tracks we’ll see in the area (more on that in the next post), but they’re a vivid reminder of the natural history of the area and the radically different landscape of tens of millions of years ago.

Tiny indentations of ancient tracks

Our guide poured water into the track to make it more visible (and "photographable")

Geology Detour (No Non-Nerds Allowed)

Though I've never taken a geology class, I've long been fascinated by the history of the Earth and concepts like geologic time, and I've (voluntarily) read a few books (and, well... Wikipedia articles) on the subject. In few places is the history of the Earth on more open display than in Utah, where tens of millions of years of Earth's history can be exposed on a single cliff face. 

Which all leads me to a little "nerd moment" I had when our driver pointed out a feature of the rock we were crossing. 

See the parallel black bands on the rock in these two pictures?

That's the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) Boundary. It's the (literal) line in the geologic record that marks the most recent mass extinction event in Earth's history—the one that killed off the dinosaurs (and most other species alive at the time.)

Below the line, you can find dinosaur fossils. Above the line... You can't. So that exact point marks rock that is about 66 million years old (give or take a few million.)

The date of the boundary matches the date of the impact of the several-kilometer wide asteroid that formed the massive Chicxulub crater in Mexico—an impact which would have sent huge amounts of matter into the atmosphere, and which would then end up falling as rain and ashfall throughout the world. And, as mentioned, both the boundary—and the crater—coincide with the time period that marks the start of the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction event. In other words, this band of rock is a remnant of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs.

Why is it darker? Because it contains a certain mineral (iridium) at a concentration many times higher than you usually find on Earth. The same layer—the K-Pg Boundary—is found in the same spot in the geologic record throughout the world.

Ok, maybe that's only cool to me. 


  1. Two things: I have to keep my kids from seeing this post, otherwise they will want to take an ATV ride in Moab. I think I might like it for 10 seconds, but I would be absolutely terrified before long. I think my daredevil kids would love it.

    Second, I really, really want to read the "Annals of the Former World" that you recommended, so I can be a geology nerd like you. My geology classes from college are too far removed from my brain to have left any remnants of nerdiness behind.

  2. Okay. I am a bit terrified by this and at the same time think its pretty cool. The things you saw on that tour make me a bit jealous. Interesting geology and history lessons. Never heard anything about the parallel black lines before. What an adventure!