From around the globe mountain bikers and 4-wheelers flock to the renowned Sand Flats Recreation Area. Famous for the Slickrock and Porcupine Rim bike routes as well as almost 40 miles of jeep trails, this unique tract of land is a mere ten minute drive from downtown Moab. But don’t let that biker-jeeper perception mislead you. The hiking opportunities, especially in the quietude of winter shouldn’t be overlooked – Sand Flats promises an outstanding, wide-screen – stunning full circle panorama that stretches horizontally from Arches National Park to Behind The Rocks, Porcupine Rim and the La Sal Mountains.
Bordered by two wilderness study areas – Negro Bill to the north, Mill Creek to the south – this popular playground receives almost 100,000 visitors a year. Responding to the recreational overload, in 1995 the community, AmeriCorps, Grand County and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) collaborated to protect this precious resource. Consequently an unusual partnership was formed between the county and the BLM so they could maintain, manage and rehabilitate its 7,320 acres.
To get to Sand Flats, turn east off of Main Street at the Moab Information Center on to Center Street. At the stop sign on 400 East, go right. Then drive five blocks and turn left at Dave’s Corner Market on to Mill Creek Drive. At the three-way stop, go straight and drive 1.7 miles on the Sand Flats Road to the entrance booth.
On this bone-chilling, straight-from-the-freezer day it blows my mind that approximately 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period the Colorado Plateau was situated near the equator! At that time huge sand dunes dominated a hot desert-like land. Eventually they petrified into Navajo sandstone, leaving behind the rounded slickrock that is so characteristic of what we see here today.
The entirety of the Fins & Things jeep trail is 9.4 miles long, but since it parallels the Sand Flats Road you can enter and exit at various intervals for a much shorter hike. The aptly named Diving Board Rock, a regularly used access, is 3.8 miles beyond the entrance station, and this is where my round trip hike of 1.7 miles begins.
Stamping my feet in an effort to stay warm, I am very ready to start moving so I can ward off the chill, but wait - something different has suddenly appeared on top of the Diving Board. I grab my binoculars and my suspicions are confirmed; a prairie falcon – with the appearance of royalty – has just flown in and landed. Wow! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of these incredibly fast-moving avian speedsters, and despite the cold I’m taking my time for an in-depth examination of this majestic bird. First I zoom in on the pale brown back – then the whitish chest marked with brown spots and bars – the gray mustache – finally the feathers that flutter in the breeze. As he twists his head back and forth I suppose that this hunter of medium-sized birds and mammals must be on the prowl for his next meal. Then -suddenly - he’s hastily taking off in a “I’m-out-of-here flight,” leaving me with just a fleeting glimpse of the distinctive dark patches deep in the “armpits” of his wings as he takes flight.
With that exhilarating observation under my belt, I am ready to step out and head down the trail, through the scattered greenery of pinyon pines and junipers. It’s been over a month since our last snow and with our sustained low temperatures I shouldn’t be surprised at how much remains - freeze-dried and crystallized to the point that it looks like fluffy feathers on a swan’s back. Looking around I notice that the southern exposures on the domes are bare while the north facing sides are creamy white and frosted like a tiered wedding cake.
Soon I pass a fork on the left, which swings back to the main road. Then, I walk through an open green gate where the tumbled down barbed wire fence brings forth the nostalgic feel of the old west.
At the next fork a right turn takes me to the Porcupine 4 X 4 Trail - a less snowy pathway, at least for a little while! By-passing the alternate route, I continue along the main course, which gradually crosses a mesa before starting a moderate climb up to the next bench. Eventually I go left turn for the last leg, which turns out to be a short dead-end spur to an overlook of Negro Bill Canyon.
No one has driven this section of the jeep road, and I discover to my chagrin that mud, not snow, is now the issue. It is a sloppy slog to the end of the line! Then anxious for a better view, I gingerly step down on the north facing slope, where an abundance of slivered snow tingles and shatters with my every step. At last my efforts pay off with an over-the-edge, haunting scene of snowy canyons here, there and everywhere. The main event, of course, is Negro Bill - a huge gash running so deep that from this long distance and angle its canyon floor is secretively hidden away. Over my shoulder the dazzling brilliance of the snow-capped La Sals projects its mystical spell, while in the other direction, the rugged outline of Behind The Rocks sketches out a powerful profile on the western horizon.
Ideally, this alluring vista deserves more time; I would like to linger much longer. Despite the cold and snow, winter is when Sand Flats puts on its best face. It is then that the short winding road from Moab quickly transports me to a haven of blissful solitude - a geologic wonderland filled with intriguing, odd-shaped sandstone formations and a sweeping charismatic landscape that extends for miles in all directions.
But on this chalky-gray sky day a nippy breeze nudges me back down the trail. I, however, am grateful that I can so easily return to indulge once again in this tranquil scenery while this off-season treasure lasts.