How to Make the Most of Moab's Fascinating Culture

Moab is home to a thriving arts scene inspired by the natural beauty, a robust cultural and intellectual community, and a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere.
Moab is home to a thriving arts scene inspired by the natural beauty, a robust cultural and intellectual community, and a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere. Arches National Park
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The high desert has a reputation for being inhospitable. And with sheer canyon walls and lack of shade and water, it’s not entirely untrue. Moab certainly fits the bill in these areas, but it couldn’t be less desolate. In fact, Moab is home to a thriving arts scene inspired by the natural beauty, a robust cultural and intellectual community, and a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere.

Once a strategic Colorado River crossing point on the Old Spanish Trail, Moab earned its Biblical name when its first postmaster noticed similarities between the area and the eastern banks of the Jordan River. (An alternate theory about its name points to the Paiute word for "mosquito" as the inspiration for the town’s name.)

Crossing the Colorado at Moab was largely rendered obsolete when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was constructed 40 miles north of the town in 1883. Still, Moab got by on a mostly agricultural economy for the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Crossing the Colorado at Moab was largely rendered obsolete when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was constructed.
Crossing the Colorado at Moab was largely rendered obsolete when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was constructed. Patricia Henschen

By the 1920s, uranium and vanadium had been discovered in the area, followed by potash and, eventually, oil and gas. As nuclear power and weapons came into existence, Moab earned renown as the "Uranium Capital of the World," a designation that lasted until the end of the Cold War.

Still, Moab’s natural surroundings continued to make it a major destination, this time for film and TV. Dozens of movie scenes, commercials, and television shows have been filmed in the area around Moab since the 1930s. This includes plenty of Westerns, of course, but also films of other genres: the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the iconic ending of Thelma and Louise, City Slickers II, Con Air, *and *Transformers, to name just a few. You can get a glimpse of the wide-ranging filming here at the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, located at Red Cliffs Lodge and Winery, just up the River Road (State Highway 128) from town.

Moab has countless races and community events held each year.
Moab has countless races and community events held each year. Mark

These days, thanks to its location on the banks of the Colorado River, not to mention its proximity to two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), a state park (Dead Horse Point), countless square miles of locally managed recreation areas, and the snow-capped La Sal Mountains, Moab sees more than its fair share of outdoor recreational tourism each year. Adventurers are drawn from all over the world to hike, climb, mountain bike, raft, and camp around Moab, and tourism has a major economic impact on the town. It’s also a huge part of the culture here, with countless races and community events held each year.

The local scene isn’t just dirtbag climbers and adventure outfitters, though. The town also holds wide-ranging community events throughout the year, the likes of which you might expect from a bigger population center like Salt Lake City, about four hours to the northwest. This little Western town packs a real cultural punch.

Moab Photography Symposium

The Moab Photography Symposium classes let out just before sunset so photographers get to apply what they’ve learned.
The Moab Photography Symposium classes let out just before sunset so photographers get to apply what they’ve learned. Bruce Hucko/Moab Photography Symposium

With some of the most dramatic scenery you’ll find anywhere in North America, it’s no wonder Moab draws photographer from around the globe. The Moab Photography Symposium, put on in May, has been running workshops, hosting speakers, and putting on exhibitions since 2004. Half-day workshops include "Visual Metaphors," “Captivating Color,” and “The Edge of Reality,” and a field workshop offers participants a chance to get one-on-one instruction time while shooting. Class lets out just before sunset so photographers get to apply what they’ve learned.

Moab Music Festival

Held in late summer, the Moab Music Festival uses the acoustics of the area’s towering sandstone cliffs—the naturally occurring amphitheaters make the perfect concert venue. The festival first appeared in 1992, and since then, organizers have sought to bring attendees "music in concert with the landscape." In addition to the grottoes reached by jetboat, concerts are also held in town at the Grand County High School auditorium, city park, and various other locations. The once-in-a-lifetime experience is bookended by Musical Raft Trips through Westwater and Cataract Canyons.

Plein Air Moab

Plein Air Moab takes advantage of the cooler weather to get artists into the surrounding parks to paint.
Plein Air Moab takes advantage of the cooler weather to get artists into the surrounding parks to paint. Dave Bezaire

From the French expression en plein air, which refers to open-air painting, Plein Air Moab takes advantage of the cooler October weather to get artists into the surrounding parks to paint. There are workshops on water media and oil painting, plus drawing and painting competitions at Castle Creek Winery, downtown, and at Dead Horse Point State Park. Plein Air also features a public art sale. In 2017, the first annual Moab ArTTrails sculpture exhibition will combine the gorgeous walking paths around town with local art.

Moab Folk Festival

The Moab Folk Festival offers everything from live music outdoors to jam sessions, and workshops.
The Moab Folk Festival offers everything from live music outdoors to jam sessions, and workshops. Reggie Barrett/Moab Folk Festival

For 15 years, November’s Moab Folk Festival has gathered folk musicians and music lovers for a weekend of live music around town. Regular jam sessions take place post-concert at Eddie McStiff’s downtown. If you’re really a folk enthusiast and want to play music, too, head out a week early for the Moab Folk Camp, which offers workshops on specific instruments, singing, songwriting, outdoor photography, and outdoor performance art. (A few select workshops are held at the Festival itself, too.)

Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.

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