Matt Moore, the owner of Desert Highlights, shows off one of his packrafts that are used to exit into river canyons. The small inflatable boats weigh five pounds and compress down to the size of a small tent. [Photo by Travis Holtby / Moab Sun News]

Before he came to Utah, Matt Moore was not into the outdoors.

But when he moved to Salt Lake City to study engineering at University of Utah, everything changed.

“I thought that I would ski a lot, but these guys I met in the dorm right off the bat convinced me that I should take an ice climbing class,” Moore said. “The concept of taking a fun course and actually getting credit, I was like, ‘come on, this must be a joke.’”

But he did it. And after that, he was hooked.

He changed his major to recreation management.

Moore made his first trip to Moab not long after the ice climbing class. He was blown away by the area and decided to return for an internship at Navtec Expeditions in 1994.

“I really dug working for Navtec. When I graduated I moved down here and kept working with them for a couple years,” he said.

In 1997 Moore decided to strike out on his own.

Over the years he spent working at Navtec and hanging out with the other guides in town, Moore developed a good understanding of the activities available in Moab and a solid network of connections with different outfitters. He decided to put that knowledge to use and start a tourism booking service; a one-stop-shop for tourists to find what activity and outfitter best suited their needs and book the tickets.

“When I started Desert Highlights I had this very full, encompassing view of who had the best trips,” Moore said.

He realized very quickly that, as a 26-year-old man, sitting in an office all day booking tickets was not what he wanted to do.

During his years at Navtec Expeditions, Moore did quite a bit of canyoneering on his own. It was something he loved, and since no one else in Moab offered guided canyoneering trips.

He decided to give it a shot.

“No one really knew much about canyoneering. It was kind of the golden age,” he said. “We were like kids in a candy store.”

Business was good. Moore was continually exploring and finding new canyons to incorporate into the tours he offered, many of which were within Arches National Park.

“We would go do a really cool canyon then talk to someone at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), then they would add it to the roster. Then a month later you find another canyon,” he said.

Dave Wirt, a long-time friend of Moore’s who has done dozens of trips with Desert Highlights, said one of the main reasons for the company’s early success was Moore’s expertise.

“What I like about him is, from a professional point of view, he is incredibly skilled,” Wirt said. “The rope work he does and his climbing ability, he is extremely skilled especially at technical rope work.”

After a BASE jumping injury, Moore was forced to hire more guides. Since business was doing so well, he kept them on staff after he recovered.

Desert Highlights expanded between 2006 and 2008. They started offering canyoneering trips in the La Sal Mountains, Oregon, and in the backcountry around Las Vegas.

“It was the pinnacle for us in terms of lots of cool stuff in the parks, lots of canyoneering guiding in Oregon, and we also started trips down in Vegas,” Moore said. “I really just kind of built up and built up, and then the bottom kind of dropped out.”

That bottom was Arches National Park.

In 2007 information was published online that gave the locations of most of the canyoneering routes within the national park. The number of private canyoneers exploded and so did their impact on the canyons’ ecosystems.

“With the private groups there was just such a huge increase that the park service was getting worried about it,” Moore said.

With only two months notice, Arches National Park informed Desert Highlights that they would not be renewing their permit.

“At this point we had been guiding in Arches for eleven years. About two-thirds of our revenue was generated from canyoneering trips in the park,” Moore said. “Then, just like that, the rug was pulled out from underneath us, no warning.”

It was a huge blow, especially since it was now much more difficult to gets permits on BLM and U.S. Forest Service land.

But Desert Highlights adapted and started offering more canyoneering and bike trips that included using packrafts to exit into river canyons. The small inflatable boats weigh five pounds and compress down to the size of a small tent.

Moore has also started to move into an area that he sees as the future for his business; fly-in canyoneering trips.

“I’d like to do more combination flying trips with canyoneering,” he said. “A lot of these trips are just perfect for fly-in, combination canyoneering and packrafting, and flying back out. I can see this being the next frontier for us.”

Moore said Desert Highlights’ innovation and evolution will continue in the future.

“We do this because it’s our hobby. This is what we love to do. It’s what we do on our days off,” he said. “We are innovative. We like to do things that nobody else is doing, we like to explore.”