Victoria Hynes discovers movie-making magic in Moab, Utah.
Outlaws welcome; in-laws, call first,” declared a dusty sign nailed to the gate of the corral at our ranch in the American Southwest. My family and I were staying outside the rustic town of Moab, Utah, keen to experience first-hand the Wild West of our imagination. Childhood fantasies built up over years of watching creaky old Western movies were finally being realised. My husband and I are self-confessed film tragics as are our two tween children, aged nine and 13, whose passion for action flicks is insatiable.
Just a few hours’ drive from Salt Lake City, Moab has been an important film location since the 1940s, when director John Ford discovered the rugged beauty of its canyonlands and began making movies here. Many of the great American Westerns were filmed here – Ford Apache, Rio Grande and Stage Coach – inevitably starring a young John Wayne. In recent decades it’s thrived as a location for countless adventure movies, from the Indiana Jones franchise to Thelma & Louise, yet Moab remains relatively unknown to many Australian travellers.
You can see why the landscape attracts so many cinematographers. Driving to Moab in the late afternoon, we snake our way through towering red cliffs. The town is hidden from view until we reach its outskirts, making it feel like a long forgotten outpost, rather than a tourist destination.
Indeed, the scenery around us is astonishing. A slow drive through the nearby Arches National Park offers an array of natural wonders. We are surrounded by craggy pinnacles of rock as tall as skyscrapers and giant terracotta arches. Islands of rock appear like medieval castles. We are forced to constantly stop the car to gaze at this otherworldly landscape. It’s not surprising to learn Star Trek was filmed here in 2009.
Unencumbered by trees and domed by an endless aqua sky, we could be on another planet or have travelled back in time to an prehistoric Earth. Dinosaurs once roamed this region, evidence of which can be found at the Museum of Moab, with its displays of fossils and skeletons from the Jurassic era. The museum is a hit, as is the Moab Giants Museum, with its life-size replicas of a T-Rex, brontosauruses and stegosauruses, and its Paleo-safari park.
Image © Victoria Hynes
Moab today is a quirky bustling town crowded with cafes, adventure tour companies and Native American souvenir shops. It’s also the set-off point for a wide range of activities in the nearby national parks. For kids (and parents) who are adrenaline junkies, there is an endless array of adventures to choose; from rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking and dune buggy rides to whitewater rafting and kayaking along the Colorado River, the list is endless.
Not thrill-seekers at heart, we choose a gentle horse ride through the Canyonlands National Park. The horses and guide are provided by the Red Cliffs Lodge, a working horse and cattle ranch which is also home to Western-style log cabins and a restaurant.
Another reason for coming to Red Cliffs Ranch is its pedigree movie history. In the 1930s, the owner George White saw making movies as a way of earning extra money and headed over to Hollywood to try to drum up some business. The rest, as they say, is showbiz history. The ranch was the set for many classic Westerns of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Nestled down by the Colorado River, the lodge has breathtaking views of the river and its surrounding canyons, and I am tempted to hang up my boots and spurs and just relax on the verandah. But our horses and guide, a stoic yet kindly rancher named Heather, awaits our arrival. “Happy trails,” my husband calls out as I get kitted up for my ride. Now I really know I am in cowboy country.
For families with a hankering for culture, Moab also plays host to a number of art and music festivals. Our visit in September coincides with the Moab Music Festival, a two-week classical music event, described as “music in concert with the landscape”.
We choose a pricey but memorable day trip that takes our group in a boat along the Colorado River to a secret grotto, where we are treated to an outdoor concert. Sitting against a sun-drenched rock and listening to a Bach cantata played live, with the sound reverberating against the sandstone walls, I watch as the colours slowly change from burnt orange to deep terracotta over the course of the afternoon. This proves to be an unforgettable experience, even for our two iPad-obsessed children.
Still, the highlight for us is that horse ride at Red Cliffs. Saddled up on my gentle steed, flanked on either side by my partner and two daughters, we saunter through the vast red canyons, and I think I can just spot John Wayne galloping over the horizon.
This article appeared in volume 54 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.
Image © Victoria Hynes
Moab is a 3.5-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital. Australians can fly to Salt Lake City via Los Angeles, San Francisco or Houston.