Moab has a reputation for being an outdoor junkie’s wonderland. No wonder, since it’s close to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Smack dab in the middle of those two famously stunning swaths of land is another gem: Dead Horse Point State Park. Cruise the park’s Dead Horse Point Scenic Drive and see why it’s such an underrated spot as you make your way between the two national parks.
There’s nothing better than a scenic drive that’s also incredibly short. This allows for a number of things: First, it saves time one would spend on the road and allots it to sightseeing. Second, it’s easy enough to fit into one day giving travelers the option to extend their time in a specific place. When it comes to the most scenic drive in the Moab area, Dead Horse Point checks all of these day-trip-drive boxes.
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While the drive is one that’s well-known, it’s one that’s also incredibly underrated. The total length of the trip is less than 25 minutes and takes almost 30 minutes to traverse with no stops along the way. Here’s everything you need to know about taking this scenic drive, and why it’s worth so much more hype than it currently has.
There are some things that visitors should know when taking the Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway and the first is that it resides mostly on the top of a plateau or mesa. The second is that on the way up, visitors will observe the narrow strip of land that connects the starting point of the byway to the top of the mesa, giving one a pretty good idea of the incredible views that wait at the top. The third is that Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway gives way to multiple hikes along the way, all before one even enters the park itself—so if this is something one wishes to take advantage of, it’s a good idea to note where the trailheads are beforehand.
Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway takes you through miles of incredible red rock canyon country. To reach the byway, head north from Moab on US-191. After about 9 miles look for the “Dead Horse Point State Park” sign and turn left (west) onto SR-313. This is the start of the byway.
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As a grand finale before reaching Dead Horse State Park, the Dead Horse Point Overlook is one for the books. This is not only a great way to end what’s already a short and scenic drive but it’s also one of the most spectacular views in the Moab Desert. From this elevation, visitors will be able to see the Colorado River roughly 2,000 feet below them as well as extensive views of the red canyonlands. On a clear day, it’s very possible to be able to see for nearly 100 miles in any direction.
After a series of hairpin curves you begin to ascend the plateau as the road mellows out allowing you to better appreciate the scenery. At about 14.6 miles from the beginning of SR-313 a fork to the left leads to Dead Horse Point State Park. Note that a fee is required to proceed to the viewpoints in the park. The view from Dead Horse Point is one of the most photographed scenic vistas anywhere. Towering 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the overlook provides a breathtaking panorama of Canyonlands National Park’s sculpted pinnacles and buttes.
A campers’ paradise, Dead Horse Point State Park encompasses 5,362 acres of desert at an altitude of 5,900 feet. Hiking is a popular activity with seven miles of trails taking you to eight breathtaking overlooks. The visitor’s center will help with navigating the park and learning the history of all its beauty. If you plan on staying the night, you can camp here as well. For geocachers, there are three official geocaches at Dead Horse Point, each with souvenirs.
Basin Overlook offers a short, easy hike down a nature trail that’s paved for easing trekking. Additionally, visitors can find other hikes along the rim of the canyonlands. This is also a popular spot for photographers.
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Another scenic point along the 22-mile route worth mentioning is known as The Neck. This is easily recognizable due to its small parking area and it’s a great midpoint to take advantage of on the way to the final overlook.
Tip: For more hiking, the West and East Rim trails can be found at The Neck; these trails are shorter than the rim trails at the Visitor Center thus better for novice hikers.
After leaving Dead Horse Point State Park, backtrack on SR-313, turn left, and head toward the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park ultimately ending at Grandview Point. This section of the park sits atop a massive 1,500 foot mesa—quite literally an Island in the Sky.
The access road for Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, SR-313 was first built in 1975 in place of SR-278. In 1988 the route was rebuilt from its original state of steep grades and blind switchbacks to its current state.
Tip: Although those driving along the scenic byway will have the protection of the vehicle and, hopefully, access to AC, it’s important to remember that this remote stretch of land is still a desert. Visitors are advised to bring plenty of water and snacks as well as pack a first-aid or emergency kit in their vehicles.
Fun Fact: According to a legend, Dead Horse Point State Park got its macabre name in the early 1800s when cowboys rounded up wild horses through a narrow land strip called the neck that was 30 yards wide. At the neck, they selected the horses they wanted and the released horses died of thirst after they were rounded up at a waterless point.
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Fun Fact: The Dead Horse State Park is known in popular culture for a Grand Canyon scene filmed there for 1991, Thelma and Louise movie starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon.
One doesn’t necessarily need a reason to take the 30-minute desert drive through the Moab Desert. One doesn’t even need a reason to visit the scenic vistas of Dead Horse State Park; however, its breathtaking views and ease of access are two great reasons to do so.
As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road