To the east of Moab rises a plateau of otherworldly terrain. Rock fins, domes, bowls, and crannies stretch for miles, fragmented by washes, canyons, and arches. The terrain is flanked by towering mountains on one side and gives way to abyssal gorges on the other. When it comes to slickrock recreation, Sand Flats has it all. Despite its unassuming name, this sandstone wonderland deals some of the biggest thrills to be had in Moab, and it is quite literally world famous. Most people come for mountain biking and OHV driving, but these public lands are a mecca for far more than that. Hiking, canyoneering, camping, sunsets, and stargazing are not to be missed. This guide is an overview of camping and non-motorized recreation within Sand Flats.
The Slickrock Bike Trail attracts mountain and motor bikers from everywhere. This is a 10.5-mile main loop with a few spur routes that traverse wild slickrock terrain and hug precipitous canyon rims. Advanced riding skills are recommended, but beginners can complete the circuit by walking bikes when prudent and watching out for faster traffic, which can include motorbikes. This trail begins from the large parking lot less than one mile beyond the Sand Flats entrance station. The route is marked with white hashes painted on the rock.
Nearby is the equally adventurous Porcupine Rim Bike Trail, which rides the line over Castle Valley and the Colorado River Gorge. Views from here are truly spectacular, and the riding is quality. Porcupine Rim is considered more difficult than the Slickrock Trail, and some of the drops are truly dangerous, so use caution. This trail begins from Sand Flats road 7 miles beyond the entrance station, and shares a route with the four-wheel drive trail of the same name before veering off on its own single track. It climbs high onto the slickrock domes, then takes a long plunge to the Colorado River. It is marked with posts, cairns, and paint along the way. This 14.4-mile trail is not a loop, but it ends at Highway 128. Most people shuttle bikes from here, but you can either ride back up or make a 31-mile-total loop back through Moab on roads.
Another popular biking option is to take on the Whole Enchilada, a linkup with Porcupine Rim that starts on La Sal Loop Road at high elevation and descends 7,000 feet in 26.5 miles, traversing nearly all the stunning scenery that Moab has to offer.
Seasons: Though spring and fall are really the best times to ride, most people visit in summer, despite the soaring daytime temperatures. If summer is your only chance, be sure to pack lots of nutrition and water, as there is none available in Sand Flats. An early start can beat the heat if will be riding a relatively short route.
Wheeled recreation often outshines simpler opportunities for exploring Sand Flats, but hiking offers a more leisurely and intimate experience with the land and its many features. Any of the bike or four-wheel drive trails can also be walked, leading to the same thrilling terrain and expansive panoramas, albeit more slowly. Beware of riders and drivers, however, who may not be watching out for people on foot.
There is one dedicated hiking trail within the recreation area, which is accessed by a small parking area 3 miles from the entrance. It is an easy, 1-mile loop marked by cairns that overlooks some impressive rock formations.
Other trails start outside Sand Flats and lead to destinations near the recreation area boundary. One of these is Negro Bill Canyon Trail, which ends at a spectacular natural arch. Another is Mill Creek Trail, which follows along a cool perennial stream with inviting swimming holes.
Cross-country hiking is also an option in Sand Flats, though only for experienced desert hikers. Slickrock is notoriously difficult to navigate, as the rolling terrain makes it hard to hold a straight line and the solid surface yields no tracks to retrace. Also, take care not to damage delicate desert life, cryptobiotic soils in particular, which are micro-oganisms growing very slowly into thin crusts on top of the sand, preventing rampant erosion from wind and water. Only hike on durable surfaces, which include established trails, rock, and bare sand.
Seasons: Hiking is good year round, but be sure to plan for weather. Summer days are brutally hot, and no drinking water is available within Sand Flats. Winters can bring ice and snow. Recommended times are spring, fall, and either early or late in the day during summer.
Though water is not plentiful on the landscape, its occasional presence leaves profound effects. The particulate sandstone is gradually weathered away by rushing water, carving out deep, narrow canyons in fantastic formations. These can be explored on foot if you know where to go, and many require specialized equipment. Numerous tour companies in Moab offer half- and full-day excursions into the canyons, no prior experience required. Or, if you have the skills and gear, you can embark on your own. To complete any of the slot canyons requires setting a car shuttle or making an arduous route-finding journey to hike back. One advantage of commercial trips is that shuttle is taken care of.
What is perhaps the most popular canyon descent in the Moab area is within Sand Flats. This is Ephedra's Grotto, also known as Medieval Chamber. It contains two long, free-hanging rappels, the last of which is a true crowd-pleaser as it drops dramatically through Morning Glory Arch to the floor of Negro Bill Canyon.
Another option that requires less technical prowess is Fins N Things Canyon, though you will need ropes and physical ability for some short rappels and downclimbs. This one starts on the popular four-wheel drive track of the same name, then disappears into an ever-narrowing and deepening slot, eventually spitting out into the red-walled Mill Creek Canyon.
Season: Even during the hottest weather, sheltered slot canyons remain cool, and some pools retain water year round. The best time for canyoneering is when it is hot--late spring, all summer, and early fall. Summer can bring thunderstorms, however, which present flash flood danger. Be sure to always check the weather forecast, and err on the side of caution.
With so much to do and its proximity to Moab, Sand Flats is a great place to camp. There are numerous areas that are organized into campgrounds called loops (Loop A, Loop B, etc.). Each loop has pit toilets and several tent/RV sites with a picnic table and fire ring at each. There is no water anywhere in Sand Flats, so fill up and shower in town.
In total, there are more than 120 campsites, but don't be surprised to find the more conveniently-located loops full during the spring and fall. Camping is $10.00 per vehicle per night, maximum of two vehicles and 10 people per site. Reservations cannot be made. There are however, two group sites located along the Colorado River that accommodate 16 to 20 people each and can be reserved by calling 435.299.2444 or online here.
Season: Spring and fall are the best for camping, when temperatures are mild during the day and not too cold at night. Although summer nights are very comfortable, campsites are nearly deserted as most people opt for hotels in town during that time of year.