Friday, August 31, 2012

Arches National Park

Happy blue moon! (And if you don’t catch this one, don’t worry, the next is July 31, 2015!)


A friend’s wedding brought me out west to Utah, and a little extra planning got me to Arches National Park. Luckily I had been able to borrow a tent, backpack and some other miscellaneous camping supplies from my brother, and having driven the rental from Salt Lake City I now had about 30 hours to explore the 76,000 acre National Park. Located just outside of Moab, it ranges in elevation from 4,085 feet at the visitor center to 5,653 feet at Elephant Butte and has over 2,000 natural arches within its borders.

A colorful Devils Garden
300 million years ago there was a sea covering the region, which slowly evaporated leaving behind a salt bed. Over the years more sandstone and shale were deposited, and together these conditions cause the formation of the arches, spires, fins and monoliths in the Park. Evidence of humans dates back 10,000 years: the Fremont People and Ancient Pueblo People lived in the area until 700 years ago, followed by the Ute and Paiute tribes until 1855 when the first European-Americans settled, the Mormon Elk Mountain Mission and later ranchers, farmers and prospectors. Declared a National Monument in 1929 it was redesignated a National Park in 1971.

After a stop at the visitor center for some additional information I headed back out to the closest BLM campground on the Colorado River. I had neglected to reserve a campsite within the Park when I initially started planning, and so when I went to book one of the 50 sites in the Devils Garden Campground I found I was too late. Being the only campground in the park it fills up quickly, but I can vouch that the other options seem just as good. I saved $19 by staying at the Goose Island Campground, which was only $10 and about 10 minutes from the visitor center. I arrived late in the day, and about half of the 20 sites were still available, and there are 10-15 other campgrounds in the immediate vicinity. As I took a spot in the first one I visited I can’t vouch for the others, but the Goose Island site was clean, scenic (right on the Colorado River) and easily accessible.

A distant view of Fiery Furnace and a sea of low clouds
Back in the Park I headed north. There are several dirt roads leading in and out of the Park, but the paved road takes you in as far as the Devils Garden with side roads to the Windows arches and Delicate arch. According to the rangers,  without stops driving the entire paved section will take two hours, but I found that two days was ideal for quick stops at the scenic viewpoints and all the major hikes. Of course, that is if you are willing to hike 10 miles a day.

The 3 Gossips on the left and Courthouse on the right
I stopped at Park Avenue but did not take the trail, next I checked out the Courthouse area (which is at the other end of the Park Avenue trail but accessible from the road). The Three Gossips look like penguins if you ask me, but the Courthouse is appropriately named, as is the Organ. Past the Petrified Dunes and the Balanced Rock I ended up in the Windows Section for the last hours of daylight. There is a cluster of arches in this area, the Double Arch, Turret Arch and Windows being the largest, although I found the views of the Parade of Elephants to be just as interesting. As the sun disappeared behind the clouds I made one last stop, then hightailed it out of the Park in order to attempt to put up the tent with the very last light.

Double Arch had an elephant or two hiding in the rocks as well
Luckily for me, the tent my brother loaned me was not too different from the tent that’s currently making its way across the Atlantic and so it was up without too great of difficulty, however this was when it started to rain. Only receiving 10 inches of rain a year on average, 0.4 of them fell that first night. Another half inch or so must have fallen the next evening, and this leads me to wonder about my luck at being in the desert for 1/10th of the total annual rainfall! It was a long night. I don’t remember when the last time I camped in a tent was (I believe it may have been on a trip to Isle Royale over four years ago), and I will admit I was jumpy. All those little critters scampering around looking for snacks woke me up about three times more than Mikus ever wakes me up!

These potholes in the Fiery Furnace area are home to Fairy Shrimp
The next morning I was up before first dawn and packed and ready when the sun rose. About 40 minutes later I was already at the very far end of the park, at the Devils Garden Trailhead where only about five other vehicles had arrived before me. Pack on my shoulders I headed along the improved trail to the first three arches, Tunnel, Pine and Landscape, which form a 1.6 mile round trip.

Pine Arch, possibly named due to the bark-like texture of the walls
The Landscape arch is the longest of those in the park and possibly in the world, at 290 feet long. Because slabs just keep falling from the thinnest section, the Park Service has closed the area immediately surrounding the arch, which I think wise as erosion due to humans and the elements has caused over 40 arches to collapse in the last 40 years.

Looks far more impressive in person!
From this point it is possible to continue along a primitive trail loop, to see five more large arches. For a combined distance of 7.2 miles this is the longest of maintained trails in the park, and takes hikers over slickrock and along narrow ledges to the famous Double O Arch with several other arches along the way. I hiked a modified version of this trail (and so missed the Dark Angel) but had the Fin Canyon to myself other than a few hares.

I interrupted a breakfast of prickly pear cactus
After a stop for Skyline Arch I skipped the Broken Arch 2 mile loop in exchange for a hike in the Wolfe Ranch area. Named after the Wolfe family that farmsteaded there, it is where the Salt Wash and famous Delicate Arch of the Utah license plate are located. As midday was approaching and I didn’t fancy the strenuous 3 mile hike, I opted for the shorter trail which took me up a ridge to a viewpoint separated from the arch by a steep canyon. A beautiful view, but in hindsight I should have hiked the other trail that takes one right to the base of the arch. The Arches website and other travel sites recommend saving the Delicate Arch trail for a sunset hike, and I believe this would be a fantastic experience, although one I will have to save for a later date.

Delicate Arch is on the left, for reference as to size look closely to see people all around the base
I took a short break in Moab for lunch and a stop at the post office, but then headed back into the park for the Fiery Furnace hike. Reservations must be made ahead and a fee of $10 paid for this guided tour, but it turned out to be the favorite part of my visit. Partly due to the blue skies which gave me a much better background to take photos than the overcast skies of the previous day, partly to the afternoon sun setting the red rocks ablaze, but mostly because of the unbelievable rock formations that provide a maze of towering pillars, arches, potholes and narrow passageways for our enjoyment. Ranger Mike was a perfect guide, teaching us about this unique place while simultaneously challenging us physically with a route filled with obstacles, all the while ensuring every last member of the group (from the seven year old girls to the not-so-outdoorsy adult to the experienced hiker) had a memorable and enjoyable experience. 

The moon rose while we were in the Firey Furnace
We emerged from the labyrinth with perfect timing as a storm was fast approaching across the desert, and the first drops of rain fell as I was still in the Park. The main deluge hit just north, but I was rewarded for my diligent driving with a spectacular double rainbow and fantastic cloud formations. Worth every penny of the $10 entrance fee into the Park and the six hours I spent driving, this is one of my favorite National Parks yet. I'm interested to also visit Canyonlands National Park, which is just next door, as well as Dead Horse Point State Park, although Utah also has the famous Bryce Canyon NP, Zion NP and Glen Canyon...


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